Distortion – Chapter 6

Experiment: Explain an example of when the “worst case scenario” actually happens — the repercussions of distortion.

The most important chapter of this — the effect of distortion on teachers. Check out the less important, introductory chapters 1,2,34 and 5.

This entire series of posts could be perceived as overly critical of John Hattie. But, the source of all of this angst lies with him. In his research, he labels the teacher as the main effect for student achievement, but this is a problem of endogeny. We can’t take the teachers out of some schools to have a control group and compare the effects of feedback when there are teachers versus no teachers. It’s just impossible! Because he is conducting educational research, he is looking at teacher interactions with students. It doesn’t prove that teachers “make or break” students through only these measurable interventions. It proves that, in the studies about schools, teachers were always significant actors. By identifying teachers as the main effect and then choosing only the visible components of teacher influence, he is allowing a distortion of the actual findings of the research and setting into motion the “performative” model of school, where actions define the identity of an institution and its members.

This is the most important chapter, because it is about teachers. There are so many issues that could be wrapped up into this kind of discussion. Teachers want their practice to be research based, they really do want to do the best for students, but teachers are also human beings and must be treated that way for school to ever have a positive impact on students. Distorting research undermines the way teachers grow by forcing practices that are contrary to the instincts of seasoned professionals.

First of all, school is not simply a place for students, it is a place for students that is created by adults. Sandra Acker says it best:

“We are so obsessed with schools as places for children that we forget they are workplaces for adults. The conditions under which teachers work are full of contradictions. Teachers are charged with improving society through preparing the next generation, yet treated as if they are little more than children themselves and expected to spin gold from straw.  . . . For children to have opportunities to learn, teachers must have opportunities to teach. Rather than belittling, deriding, or deskilling our teachers, we must trust those to whom we entrust our children and create enabling conditions to encourage the best from them; otherwise primary teachers’ work risks being love’s labour lost” (Acker, 1999, p. 197).

My former colleague who was forced to fill out this terrible “reflective survey”  would probably not list student exam results as their main purpose for continuing to be a teacher and would not count exam review and practice papers as the key components of their classroom pedagogical practices. Not only do these practices reduce school down to a system of “inputs and outputs” but they steal the joy away from teaching. “Defining teaching as a set of skills leads to the disembodiment of the human capacities such as emotions which impart the passion so important to teaching” (Blackmore, 2013, p. 146). As “performative” acts, focusing on these few aspects of school changes the identity of the school. Even if this change is based in proven techniques to improve “academic achievement” it may overtake the true purpose of school and of teachers.

When we use reductionist research, distort it into assessable lists, and have teachers us it to judge their own worth, we deny teachers the ability to be professionals and to be adults. As important as the achievement of each student is, it is not worth trading the worth of an adult teacher. Structuring our schools in ways that focus narrowly on the performance of teachers and of students is demeaning. Taking a critical look at these practices “means daring to talk about the worsening conditions of teachers’ work not as performativity but as exploitation; and it means to talk about restructuring and the transformation of teachers’ work and workplaces” (Robertson, 2007, p. 15). In “performative” cultures, teaching is transforming into a very different field, perhaps that of exploitation. The trade of a future generation, formed in the image of “visible”, “measurable” and “best for me” at the cost of a current generation.

The biggest challenge in the face of these sort of distortions is the loss of professional and personal values which, for many teachers, means losing a part of their identity. In these distorted realities, who and what are valued is difficult to determine and “these struggles are currently highly individualized as teachers, as ethical subjects, find their values challenged or displaced by the terrors of performativity” (Ball, 2003, p. 216). Ball continues that teachers lose themselves within these structures. Teachers either relent to pressure and keep in line with expectations, even if it is against their own judgement or become subversive and resist against their own, usually beloved, profession. I would argue that the more a teacher is committed to the social welfare goals of education, the more acutely they will feel the personal turmoil of this shift in values at the school level. Maybe I’ll publish something about that. But that is for another day, perhaps around 2018. 🙂 

Acker, S. (1999). The Realities of Teachers’ Work: Never a Dull Moment. London and New York: Cassell.

Ball, S. J. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215-228. doi:10.1080/0268093022000043065

Blackmore, J. (2013). A feminist critical perspective on educational leadership. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 16(6), 139-154. doi:10.1080/13603124.2012.754057

Robertson, Susan L. (2007). ‘Remaking the World’: Neo-liberalism and the Transformation of Education and Teachers’ Labour. UK: Centre for Globalisation, Education and Societies. http://susanleerobertson.com/publications/.

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