Where’s the squeak?

A colleague of mine shared a story from her past life as a product manager for a large personal care product company. The company has a very core belief in what makes a high-quality skin cleansing product (yep…people actually think about that stuff). However when they took their product to certain Asian countries, their market research found a significant issue: Their product didn’t ‘squeak’ when rubbed on the skin. The company that had, until that time, had a veritable corner on the Asian skin cleanser market had trained consumers that the sound of ‘squeaky’ skin meant the skin was clean. In fact, it really meant that the skin was very dry – something that was completely opposite to the core product values of my colleague’s company.

So what did they do?

They added ‘squeak’. They changed their product so that it squeaked when rubbed, while not compromising their product (it still didn’t dry out your skin).

This made me think. What’s the ‘squeak’ that traditional educational models and systems have trained students and families to look for to prove their getting a ‘quality education’? What are those things that parents and students expect that – while it may make them feel good about their school – really has no positive impact on the effectiveness of their education?

I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts on where we have – explicitly or implicitly – added squeak where it was not necessary.

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What is the Perfect Student:Teacher Ratio?

It’s the one that is perfect for the specific situation. In my work in online education for a school management company, we’re constantly asked about our student:teacher ratios. There’s an instant knee jerk reaction. “Education researchers” from prestigious universities will look at those ratios and declare that they don’t “make sense”. Note: I am purposely not linking to the original article which quoted this guy since his basic math was wrong…no need to embarrass him like that. Not to mention the fact that those calculations didn’t take into account the total number of teachers serving each student.

The one thing he did get right was that it doesn’t make sense…when you try to view online education through the lens of traditional school settings. Let’s think about this.

When I taught in a North Philadelphia face-to-face middle school, I had 5 classes of about 28 students. Now a 1:28 ratio in a middle school program wouldn’t raise any eyebrows, right? But guess what? It was way too high…for THAT environment. The level of behavioral issues I needed to deal with completely prevented me from doing much teaching at all. Maybe, you’d argue it was my poor classroom management skills or boring curriculum. And maybe you’d be right. But the point is that the ratio was too high for those students in that classroom with that teacher instructing those courses. Change the teacher? Change the students? Change the courses? Maybe the ratio would be okay.

But the belief that there is a ‘Golden Ratio’ that is just right for every course simply demonstrates a small-minded and limited approach to the topic. What if you had a self-guided curriculum developed out of research on how best to instruct on each topic and which allows for self-paced learning? And what if there is literally no classroom management required: no writing out bathroom passes, no stopping notes from being passed around, and no breaking up fights in the hallway? And what if every students’ progress through these self-paced lessons could be monitored daily by the teacher, including clear reports as to what students were, and were not, understanding? What if your main job was to provide additional help and instruction – as needed – to small groups of students?

No daily lesson planning. No classroom management. Direct and almost immediate feedback on student learning and remediation needs. The ability to work with individual and small groups of students.

Think you could teach more than 28 students in each of 5 sections? Probably, right? In fact if you didn’t, you might find yourself without a lot to do…and taxpayers just love paying those who serve the public to sit around bored all day.

Now, think of a course that relies almost exclusively on students performing research and taking part in very active classroom discussions. Could you run 5 classes at a 1:28 ratio? Probably not. In fact having conversations that involved 28 students at a time would be in itself untenable.

There is, in fact, no perfect teacher:student ratio. Instead, teacher:student ratios need to be calculated based on the many factors that impact a teacher’s ability to be effective and the students’ ability to learn, including things like:

  • The instructional methods employed in the course
  • The delivery mode (e.g. digital, print, in-person)
  • The learning environment (e.g. size of the room, speed of student internet connections)
  • Level of experience and expertise of the teacher
  • Level of students’ skills (e.g. if you have a lot of kids who are several years below grade level, you’re ratio might need to shrink)
  • The pace of the course (e.g. you might need a lower ratio for a faster-paced course)

So the next time you read about an “expert” making a broad claim as to the appropriateness of a student:teacher ratio, or your district flaunts a really low ratio as proof of a quality education, don’t take it at face value. Remember, there’s more behind teacher:student ratios than they’ll lead you to believe. Less isn’t always more.

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Seat time does not equal learning…except it kinda does.

I was watching a live webcast from the Brookings Institute about Data Analytics and Web Dashboards in the Classroom today. During the event, Jose Ferreira mentioned how Knewton has had conversation with Arizona State University (“a big Knewton customer“) about competency-based learning. He specifically cited instances when they could tell that – after 2 weeks in a course – a student could demonstrate mastery on the end of course exam, without completing the ‘seat time’ requirement of the course. He continued to explain how that required ASU to jump through lots of hoops with regards to accrediting bodies to allow them to fast-track students to credit acquisition based on demonstration of mastery.
His point was that seat time doesn’t equate with mastery of content. And I agree…sort of.
the unstated and assumed piece of information left out here is that there was seat time…it just wasn’t at ASU.
Learning takes time and effort. Depending on the subject, learner and instructional methods, the amount of time and effort required can vary greatly. That student that Mr. Ferreira mentioned today, did put in the time for the content Knewton said she had mastered. Those hoops that ASU had to jump through was due to organizations failing to understand that humans don’t only learn from courses…and when they do it doesn’t have to be your course in which they learned.

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