Blights of the round table: the damage of poor proxies for learning

(This blog post was originally posted on Staffrm)


Look at the image below and answer this question: how many empty spaces are there at the table?

Slide1Now look at this image and answer the same question: how many empty spaces are there at this table?Slide2Actually, the question I should ask is: which of the two people above appear to be less alone?

It seems a strange question. But not for a particular Seattle-based, world-dominating coffee peddler. According to author Karen Blumenthal, the belief that “people look less alone while seated at a round table” is the reason why you’ll rarely see a square table in Starbucks stores.

The company conducted research by interviewing hundreds of customers and studied the psychology behind what makes them tick. The idea behind the round table is that it doesn’t have any clear ’empty spaces’, unlike a square table. When you looked at the images above, according to Starbucks, the person at the round table should have looked less ‘alone’ than the person sat at the square table. Even if you didn’t register this consciously, you may very well have registered it subconsciously.

But the fact is that the two people in the different images are both as alone as each other. Even though one seems less alone, it isn’t true. They are both solo coffee drinkers.

The problem is that we are often easily fooled by what we glimpse, and we don’t often unpick the underlying truths to the meanings we’ve inferred. And no place is that more conspicuous than in lesson observation. We see things happening in lessons and automatically infer that learning has taken place. Often, we are very wrong.

According to Professor Robert Coe of CEM, we “readily accept poor proxies for learning, rather than seeking direct and valid evidence of true learning”. Whilst he concedes that it is “much harder” to do the latter, it doesn’t excuse the fact that we often judge, and are judged on these “poor proxies” – things that we assume show learning, but actually don’t:

Poor proxies fro learning

Much like with Starbucks’ round tables, we see these things and assume something that isn’t necessarily true. Just because students are busy or engaged or calm, it doesn’t mean that learning is taking place.

Whilst these things are logically desirable, they don’t really have anything to do with progress. And whilst it is certainly okay for schools to ask for these standards in lessons, the sad thing is that careers are often made or broken on the achievement of them, irregardless of progress. I have a friend (not in my school, I should add) who always gets excellent GCSE results. However, this teacher has been placed on capability measures due to failing lesson observations. Meanwhile a colleague of theirs has poor GCSE results yet revels in ‘Outstanding’ observations. I’m sure we all know stories like this.

These poor proxies were highlighted by Professor Coe a couple of years ago, yet still aren’t widely known in schools. I think academic work like this is too important to not be recognised by teachers and school leaders. Organisations such as NTENEEF and ResearchED are working well to reach schools and teachers that are engaged with research. But what about those that aren’t? How do this information reach them?

Maybe Starbucks have got something they can teach us about ubiquity or presence too?

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