TED Talks: Bill Gates – Teachers need real feedback

Bill and Melinda Gates are the champions of many causes, one of which is education reform.  In the video below, Bill Gates shares his thoughts on ways to improve K-12 education.  The main idea is that public school teachers receive little to no usable feedback on their performance in the classroom.  Metrics such as standardized tests can have little value in helping a teacher understand how well a particular lesson or project went for the students.  From friends who are teachers, I hear about many new forms to fill out or data to gather that are changed each year.  What this mass of confusing data can actually tell us about schools or individual classrooms remains to be seen.

Bill Gates proposes a feedback system where teachers video themselves teaching, and later watch parts of the video as a self-evaluation and reflection tool.  While I believe some teachers would find this idea useful, I wonder how many would actually utilize the technology.  My impression is that public school teachers who are already stressed and overworked would not be likely to add this to their to-do lists.

A better method may be to have another teacher, a curriculum specialist, and/or an administrator sit through an entire lesson.  Either the observed teacher could choose the lesson (new activity, difficult material, poor test performance, or other reason) or the school could choose a day at random to visit.  The experience should be low risk and high reward:  teachers should not feel like the observers’ comments and impressions will directly affect raises, employment, etc., but they should see the value in hearing an outsider’s ideas and perspective of what appears to work well and what does not.

Over multiple visits, the classroom observers would grow to know each class’ and teacher’s idiosyncrasies, much in the same way you learn about your co-worker’s family life through casual conversation over the course of many months.  In that way, the observers become more invested in other classrooms and you can develop a support team for each teacher.

This same process should be employed at the college level.  From what I’ve seen, most teaching in a university setting is done in a vacuum.  The instructor/professor can receive feedback from students at the end of the semester, but there is no feedback mechanism from his or her peers that can influence teaching and classroom dynamics.

During graduate school, I just missed the opportunity to participate in what were called “teaching triangles.”  Graduate student teaching assistants were grouped into trios, and two of each trio would observe the third teach at some point during a semester.  Then the trio would discuss their observations and recommendations.  In this way, the Graduate School was building a learning community where, to paraphrase John Donne, no teacher is an island.

At the K-12 and undergraduate levels, we need feedback systems that can help instructors improve.  I currently work as part of a teaching team, and I find it highly valuable to hear my colleagues’ ideas for how I can better present to and work with the students.

Please share this video with anyone involved with teaching to hopefully start a dialogue of how we can work together to benefit students.

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