Around US $3.5 trillion is spent on education globally every year. And rightly so.

Most of this funding is for fixed and recurring costs that cannot be adjusted without great care and without expending high levels of political capital. But an estimated four per cent of global education budgets is available for procuring education products and resources for use in the classroom and for in-service teacher professional learning.

If this is spent wisely and if over time there is also greater clarity of thought about how the other 96 per cent is spent, then locally and globally, we would expect to see remarkable things happening in education.

The trouble is, we’re not seeing enough of those remarkable things.

Global inequality in education outcomes is very far from being solved. Even in highly developed countries, large numbers of students are not graduating from secondary education with appropriate certification. According to UNESCO, at least 250 million of the world’s 650 million primary school children are unable to read, write or do basic mathematics.

While the problem is societal, it can be solved through education—if we invest in unlocking and effectively implementing the right stuff.

We advocate an approach to education that is built on reason, rather than intuition alone. This involves systematic collection of data on students’ learning experiences in the classroom and the ways in which teachers and product developers can accelerate this learning.

 

WHY OUR BRAINS TRIP US UP

Research suggests that biases afflict all of us, unless we have been trained to ward against them. Inherent biases, if left unchecked, can result in unrestrained intuition over reason that drives us all to pursue products and practices with insufficient scrutiny. Examples include:

  • Authority bias: the tendency to attribute greater weight and accuracy to the opinions of an authority – irrespective of whether this is deserved; and
  • Confirmation bias: the tendency to collect and interpret information in a way that conforms with, rather than opposes, our existing beliefs.

These biases and others like them are significant hurdles to educators reviewing and testing their assumptions about the impact that they are having in the classroom and in selecting the right things in which to invest the precious four per cent.

 

THE LIMITS OF LESSON OBSERVATION

In many education systems, it is a mandatory that every teacher undergoes at least an annual observation by their school leader.

These observations are often used to identify who are the ‘good’ and ‘less good’ teachers, and by national inspectorates to make more holistic judgments about whether a school is outstanding, good or poor.

The challenge with observation is that often we end up seeing what we want to see and we can be guided by our cognitive biases. One of the strongest research datasets into observation comes from the Measuring of Effective Teaching (MET) project.

The project concluded that a single lesson observed by one individual, where the purpose was to rate teacher performance, has a 50 per cent chance of being graded differently by a different observer. When a teacher underwent six separate observations by five separate observers, there was ‘only’ a 72 per cent chance of agreement.

Now that’s a whole lot of observation for still almost a one in three chance of error.

 

THE LIMITS OF STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT DATA

The outcomes of high-stakes assessments are also often used to make inferences about the quality of schools, school systems, individual teachers and about whether certain education products and programs are more effective than others.

We can infer something about which schools are the higher or lower performers. But we need to carefully tease out background variables like the starting points and circumstances of the learners, so that we can measure distance travelled, rather than the absolute end point in one set of competencies.

In the context of individual teachers (provided there is a direct link between the teacher and the particular content assessed), the outcomes of high-stakes assessments can tell us quite a lot about which teachers are more or less effective.

However care is needed to interpret these assessments, as it isn’t only the outcomes of the assessments, but the growth from the beginning to end of the course that should be considered. Teachers who start with students already knowing much, but growing little, look great; those who start with students who know less at the beginning, but grow remarkably, look poor, but it should be the other way around.

 

SPENDING WITH GREATER CARE

Policymakers and educators must be more discerning in how they collectively spend the US$140 billion that we estimate is expended on educational resources, technology and teacher professional learning each year.

To make the right kinds of investments, policymakers and educators need to be aware of their cognitive biases and the ways in which these can drive us all to covet and privilege the wrong things.

This is an edited extract from an article published on Pursuit, to read the full article click here.

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