Is the teacher as most important change maker in education a myth?

Last week somebody shared a talk by F.J.G. Janssens (in Dutch) discussing 4 myths in education. Although the myths all deserve attention (homework, repeating a grade, ability grouping), one myth made me wonder if it’s truly a myth: teacher make the biggest difference in education.

It’s something I’ve been saying myself in talks, but maybe I was wrong. Well, it depends.

If you look e.g. at this earlier research on what is the influence of e.g. heritability on test scores with an influence of over 50 procent, one could say the biggest influence on education is the child itself. This is also in line with this summary of  John Hattie on who has an influence on learning:

Hattie cirkel

Daniel Muijs in his recent talk at ResearchED Amsterdam also put the pupil first as the biggest influence on differences in learning. But he also added that teachers are responsible for 75% of the variation in school results. The difference between a pupil in math class being taught by the most effective teacher versus being taught by the least effective teacher is 25%  (Muijs & Reynolds, 2001). And… the effect of teachers is bigger for children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The question is also: how much can be changed to the characteristics of the children? And by who? And will this be ethical?

So, I do think that teachers can make the difference, although Timothy Shanahan does have a point when he says it’s more about the verb (effective teaching) than the noun (effective teachers). This something I want to follow up, it might even end up in the follow up on Urban Myths we’re working on! All comments are – as always – welcome.



Filed under Education, Myths, Research, Review

10 responses to “Is the teacher as most important change maker in education a myth?

  1. Guido

    /Hallo Pedro,

    Following your posts for a couple of years now, I feel a strong inclination to checkin in this debate on teaching influences (indeed the verb: please be verbal, action learning preference). The deep trigger is your latest post on Birmingham research that one of Vygotskii’s axioma’s is prooven to be false. Science has a proper falsification bias, we know. But I would argue that social science are different, in some aspects, especially in re-countability/repeatability, apart from important moral issues considering reasearch with reference groups.

    One thing that immediatly popped up in my thoughts is the question how define social learning when it comes to contextual (cultural) dispositions genetically part of a individuals make-up. Like languagelearningability or more basic toolinvention/use fine and medium scale motor skills? To say only humans hold that skill reserve is rather proposterous. Language may in litterary sense be our prerogative, gestures are language too. Animals especially apes, encestral or from another line, are naturally born with limbs and brain bias to use their interactive capacities: ie learning by doing a.s.o.

    Hope to hear from you, Best Wishes,

    Guido Keizer. Amsterdam

    Verstuurd vanaf mijn iPhone > Op 29 feb. 2016 om 09:24 heeft From experience to meaning… het volgende geschreven: > > >

    • Thx for your reply! I do think that social sciences shouldn’t be that different actually when it comes to replicating research.
      The debate what makes humans human is a big one :).

  2. When we pick apart what constitutes the context of the learner, it becomes complex.

    Determining what the characteristics are that we can influence, and those that are resistant to influence, and those that are more r less impervious…

    It’s hard, complex, and perhaps not possible to resolve with certainty. And some are going to be enaailable to influence from a teachers position.

    I’m thinking of two conversations I’ve been reading and thinking about. One is the argument that you don’t solve poverty by solving education. You solve education by solving poverty. Some of the contexts that have profound determining effects of children’s abilities, or opportunities to learn come from contexts that generally lie outside of the remit of education to solve. Education can contribute, but most of the weight has to be lofted elsewhere. Things like poor housing, lack of financial or housing security, neighbourhoods with high crime rates, lack of access to cultural, social and financial capital, increased likelihoods of parental mental health issues due to poverty.

    The learner is the most significant element of learning, but solving the above, all of which have measureable, meaningful detrimental effects on learning, is probably outside the remit of education. Education may help ameliorate some aspects, or provode an avenue of escape for some learners, but the root causes and the general effects can only be resolved by focusing on poverty itself.

    The second conversation is more pessimistic. It argues that children from wealthier backgrounds are more likely to have access to advantages that are cultural is form, and are difficult to alter or dilute. The fact that children from middle class backgrounds are more likely to have well designed educational toys, that are expensive. Are more likely to inherit a culture fro their parents that values knowledge, Are more likely to have a parent to help with homework. Are more likely to be able to take advantage of knowledge and social capital in ways that have meaningful impacts on their learning. Are more likely to have a parent who talsk to them with richer more complex language.

    None of this is that accessible to teachers in terms of alteration. We can;t legislate for these types of advantages, and it’s not easy to change these cultural advantages. They are not entirely deterministic. And we can do things to help. But parents with good knowledge and social capital will pass those advantages naturally to their children. They will fill houses with books, infill gaps in general knolwedge, leverage their networks to provide access to opportunities, advose their children about how to maximise the benefit of their college education…

    In case some readers might think my assertions are patronising, condescending, or prejudiced, I;d say three things. I;m often wrong about things and am open to correction. Therels lots of evodence to indicate the effects I mention. And I;m from one of the poorest parts of my country. I;m the first person in my family to attend third level, and the first generation not to have lived their entire lives in rented tenement accomodation in actual slums.

    Anyway…that;s a pessimistic take on an aspect of the learner, and the role and rtelationship of education with regard to it,

    • I do think you’re correct in describing different aspects of the debate – even if it’s a quite pessimistic take. I’m on the other hand more optimistic that besides the circumstances education does play a vital role, as examples have shown. Question remains: how to get the biggest impact.

      • I’m of course only describing a limited aspect of the debate. I;m pessimistic about the aspects I describe, but not in general.

        I’m not saying education doesn’t have a vital role. It does. And it requires careful thought to leverage that role effectively.

        But the systemic issues that underpin so much educational inequality. Well. Those that we can challenge educationally, and there are many, we have a duty to do so. But if we want to ensure that those most in need of educational opportunity are given access, and are capable of taking advanage of that access, we must also have that more general conversation, which is one about politivcs, culkture and society.

        Adreessing education will help many. For those it can;t help, addressing poverty, healthcare, lack of financial, personal or housing security, poor housing, and that raft of problems which do have major determining factors is key.

        A more optimistic take would be that addressing education is a necassary path to a partial solution. But to address education and equality and opportunity comprehensively, the educator has to address and have an impact on politics. Where we spend our money and resources in the classroom is part of the problem, and solution. But as educators we probably have a duty to address those things outside the classroom which have effects on our learners.

    • 1. Whitman’s plea is also to be found in Robert Putnams’ Our Kids. I have no summary of it but it’s very readable book. A must in this debate.

      2. Whitmans’ plea is also supported by Christopher Tienke ‘s Pisa Problems in which he states that it is unfair tot attribute low performance on PISA dimensions solely to bad schools en teachers

      3. We should not just focus on the contribution of the teacher but take in account all the people and factors that have impact on youth’ development and learning. For policy-reasons it is important to find out to which extent these factors can be influenced for the good. Good babycare is perhaps the most important factor, which can be strengthened by parent support or courses: see for instance the Babycollege in the Harlem Childrens zone Poverty isn’t static either, and can -to a certain extent- be reduced. Good nights of sleep also matter. As the Dutch cyclist Joop Zoetemelk once stated: ‘you win the Tour (the France) in bed’.

      4. The Fins do not just have good education. Pasi Sahlberg states in his Finnish Lessons that ‘the successful performance of Finnish students seems to be attributable to a web of interrelated factors having to do with comprehensive pedagogy, students’ own interests and leisure activities, the structure of the education system, teacher education, school practices and, in the end, Finnish culture’. Tienke would undoubtedly add that Finland’s wealth matters too.

      5. So therefore policy should aim for a ‘strong village to raise a child’ in which all the people, factors and dimensions determining youth’ learning and development are dealt with. Which is also Putnam’s remedy.

      6. It’s the community, stupid!

  3. Matt Silver

    Have you read Ryan and Deci’s (2000) sled determination theory? May support the role of the pupil leading their learning.

    • Yes, I did, but the need for autonomy needs to be in balance with the feelings of competence and connection, so it doesn’t seem to solve the age old pedagogical paradox.

  4. Explained variance is of course only part of the story. Absolute levels count also. Without teachers, there would scarcely be ANY education. Teachers, threfore, make all te difference.

  5. Also, do forget this one: The relation of teacher effects to heritability is a complex one. The better the teaching (health services, hygiene, public safety, welfare), the HIGHER the heritability coefficients will become. The components in achievement variance are not independent of one another.

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