Tucker’s Lens: Dylan Wiliam on Feedback and Improving the Practice of Teachers

By Marc Tucker

DylanWiliamIn this interview, Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Education, University of London, focuses on the improvement of the practice of experienced teachers.   We see how feedback from mentors who have faced the same challenges as the teacher being mentored can help and how school leaders can create environments in which teachers are not only motivated to improve their practice, but have the kind of support they need to do so.  And we see how the Shanghai model of school organization and management can provide just such an environment.  To read the paper that led to this interview, look here.  

Marc Tucker: You have said that more experience does not by itself make a better teacher.  Your earlier work on expertise showed that one gets better only by engaging in a disciplined effort to get better, an effort that never ends.  People won’t do that, you have said, unless they are motivated to do so.

Dylan Wiliam: Some teachers are never satisfied and they are always trying to do better.  But after two to three years, many teachers have established routines that allow them to survive.  We see this in the data.  Many teachers stop improving after two to three years.

MT: Presumably, if we knew what formal qualifications a teacher needed to be a better teachers, we could just tell them to get more of those qualifications.

DW: Yes, that’s true, but teacher quality has little relationship to what we have incentivized teaches to do: teacher preparation programs, more courses, and master’s degrees.

MT: So you looked at the literature on improving professional performance by providing feedback and concluded that this might be a promising strategy.  Providing feedback is a form of formative evaluation.  Based on your reading of the literature, you’ve proposed five strategies for the formative evaluation of teachers’ performance.  What are they and why are they important?

DW: The first is clarifying and sharing learning intentions.  Teachers have to own what they need to improve.  For a small proportion of teachers, improvement should be directed from the outside, but for the majority, it should be directed by the teachers themselves.  Once they get beyond two to three years of practice, they should be responsible for improving their practice.  The Ford Motor Company found that the best way to improve the practice of an organization was to ask people to do their best, rather than trying to tie people down to measurable objectives.

Once you are clear about the goals, you need to elicit relevant information or evidence.  But nothing can get started until the goals are set.  We have to understand the theory-dependent nature of studying teaching.  It’s important to decide what evidence is right for each improvement task.

TeacherTALISThe third part is feedback but it must be situated in the right place.  Feedback can’t work unless you have clear goals.  Feedback is in the back-end of the practice.  It is driven by goals and evidence.  It’s the coaching element.

We also need to encourage teachers’ colleagues to be resources for one another.  It is the exercise of being observed that moves teachers to own their improvement.

And ultimately, teachers need to own their own learning.  But this is a tough model for wide-scale change.  We have tried these five strategies with community health workers in Scotland and integrated them in their professional development.  They tell us that these strategies are equally appropriate across a whole range of social and educational work.

MT: Many people looking for ways to improve the practice of teachers rely on frameworks for teaching, like the one developed by Charlotte Danielson.  You’ve said that, in the United States now, there is an obsession with rubrics of teacher performance, that they underrepresent the construct of teacher quality and are therefore unhelpful.  Moving practice forward cannot be represented by a four-point rubric. I gather you think that rubrics are fine for looking backwards, but don’t help much to improve performance.  What do you mean?

DW: They often don’t hit the nail on the head.  People may get better at things that don’t make a difference for students.  More significantly, too often, these rubrics are treated as if they are instructions for improved quality.  If you do this you will be a better teacher.  But these words don’t mean the same thing to novices as they do to experts.  For example, one of the things expert teachers do is have smooth transitions between episodes in their lessons.  Telling an ineffective teacher to have smoother transitions doesn’t actually tell them what to do.  There is no evidence that the path of development as defined by the rubric is the way you get to excellence.

MT: The authorities in Shanghai have focused hard on developing the content knowledge of their teachers, including their primary school teachers, rather than their craft knowledge, while they are in college.  But they more than make up for this when the teacher enters the workforce, by creating an environment in the school that motivates teachers to get better and better at the craft of teaching, and provides a lot of support for them as they do this. They’ve shifted the way time is used in their schools to give teachers much more time than American teachers have to work with each other.  They work in groups to make lessons engaging.  They work together to develop what can be asked of the students during a lesson so that they know in detail where those students are on the lesson being taught, minute-by-minute, throughout a lesson, so they can constantly course-correct.  When we visited a K-8 school in Shanghai, they had rearranged the school physically so that they had teachers from the same grade level sharing an office so that they could easily work together throughout the day and week.  Teachers were always observing others.  We were told that throughout the system, every teacher has a mentor except for the master teachers who were at the top of the career ladder.  This system was designed to send the message that not only is it possible for you to get better, it is your job to get better and it never ends.

DW: The Shanghai career ladder is the key to their system in which expertise is constantly improving, providing the motivation for that improvement and the means by which teachers can improve their own practice, through observation and feedback. In Shanghai you can’t get to the top of the career ladder until you spend time in hard-to-serve schools.  They have thought about what they want people to do and they have completely aligned the structure of incentives with their aims.

MT: Your analysis of teachers’ motivation to improve and of the feedback systems teachers need to get better at their work was not written with the Shanghai structure in mind, but that structure seems to be nicely lined up with your findings.

ShanghaiClassroomDW: Yes, that’s true.  The Shanghai system is the obvious response to how learning takes place and how hard teaching is.  If we know that what children actually learn is not easily mapped to instructional sessions, then the teacher needs to check regularly what is going on in students’ heads during a lesson.  The way to do this is not by asking and getting answers from one or two volunteers.  In teaching, asking the right questions is the starting point for effective feedback.  Teachers should spend a lot of time working on questions to determine where students stand.  The amount of time teachers spend with students in Shanghai is short compared to the amount of time teachers spend with students in the United States.  But the data on performance suggest that less time in front of bigger classes of students might produce more learning and the time released for teachers to work together results in better planned lessons.

I have heard that in some schools in Shanghai, the students are given feedback on the same day.  We should find out if this is true.  If students show immediate improvement in their performance as a result of quick feedback, we need to know that.

MT: How does Shanghai’s aggressive use of career ladders and mentors relate to your findings?

DW: The term mentor needs some unpacking.  It can simply be a wise person, but the crucial thing is that it be someone who has done the job of the person being mentored. It is very much an apprenticeship model.  What Shanghai has done is separate the formative and summative part of the evaluation.  The mentor has a coaching relationship, so the job of the mentor is to get you the best rating on the summative assessment.  They have been very smart in aligning incentives for mentors who are rated by the people they mentor.

MT: In Shanghai, the mastery of content in math is not new and neither is focusing on understanding the concepts, not just procedures.  The spirit of work organization is new.  In the school that I spent the most time in the last time I visited China, the principal was adored but she didn’t say much, she turned her meetings over to the teachers.

DW: When I’m working with school leaders and ask them to draw a picture of themselves in relationship to their school, I know I’m in trouble when they draw themselves at the center of the school.  In my view, a principal has two main jobs: to protect teachers so they can focus on the long-term learning of students and to create an environment where the teachers learn.

Many schools are now making time for teacher learning the first thing they schedule in the school calendar.  This is a logical consequence of embracing the idea that a school always needs to do better and everyone needs to up their game.