Why Bill Gates (and Christopher Pyne) are Wrong

Bill Gates in his Washington Post article, http://tinyurl.com/47mxu7e  How Teacher Development Could Revolutionize Our Schools suggests that one approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise. (In a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, 83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.) The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great.

With respect, Mr Gates, you’re wrong. This is why. The maths are simple enough for most people to understand, and I’ve shown this to every group of administrators I’ve provided professional development to over the past 30 years.

It’s a relationship issue. If you have a pair of students working together, there is only one relationship that occurs between the two of them. As human beings are not necessarily predictable, this is as much as many young children can cope with.

If you join two pairs together to form a group of four, the number of relationships which needs to be managed by each student in the group jumps from one to six. For those readers who don’t understand this, please ask a maths teacher to explain! This helps explain the exponential increase in the degree of difficulty for a student (and for many adults) in working in groups of four, when they have previously worked well in a pair. This is also why I have recommended for more than 35 years, that students work more effectively in pairs, and why Cooperative Learning is so important to understand.

If you have ever wondered why it is difficult for a group of ten to reach a consensus, it is because working in a group this size requires facilitation of 45 inter-relationships. This is true regardless of whether you are four years old, or 40.

For those who claim there is not a huge difference between 20 and 30 students in a class, check out the figures below. To provide a small challenge, there is a deliberate mistake built in for you to identify!

Number of PEOPLE in a group RELATIONSHIPS within the group
2 1
4 6
10 45
20 190
30 435
100 4950
1000 499,500

Then spare a thought for the Principal of a school, or in some schools, a Coordinator of a year level with an enrolment of 1000 trying to manage half a million relationships.

Now, of course the further the numbers increase, the more theoretical some of these relationships may be, i.e. not everyone in a class of 1000 will know each other, or even have an opportunity to directly interact.

Then of course we have to overlay the complexities brought on by the cyclic nature of human relationships where team building theory (and practice) shows clearly that each time a change occurs in a group/team, including a new person being added/subtracted from the mix, the team has to, albeit sometimes just for a brief period of time, revert back to beginning again.

But that’s the point Mr Gates. Teaching is a human profession, where fallible humans do their best to help other malleable humans to become good people, who can make positive and productive contributions to society.

Teaching is not just about academics. It is about helping children to become healthy, fully rounded, responsible  human beings, able to make a positive contribution to their communities and country, and able to raise (if they choose) the next generation well.

Asking good teachers to do more by taking on ‘another couple of students’ is simply the equivalent of that old adage ‘ if you want something done well, ask a busy person.’ It does nothing to address issues of teacher quality, retention or any of the multitude of issues currently facing the teaching profession.

Changing education is not just about changing class sizes. It is about changing the purpose of schooling – which means we need to understand what that actually is; it means changing the roles of teachers from generation to facilitation of learning, and it means comprehending the balance between technology and the relationship building role of teaching.

While is it terrific to see you, and your friends, taking an interest in education, and putting massive amounts of money into influencing individuals and systems, the answer to this conundrum is extremely complex. There are great people, who have been involved in education all over the world who have been involved in futuristic yet pragmatic educational practice over decades. If you really want to find the answers to effective public education then my suggestion is that you convene a think tank of those people from across the world not simply look to business based solutions, or advice from moneyed mates. I, for one, would be delighted to help!