One in Five Teachers Experience Social Media Abuse

A press release issued this morning by the NASUWT teachers union reveals how 21% of teachers surveyed reported having had adverse comments posted about them on social media websites.

When I look at that, I think of the operant conditioning that Bjork (1994) says teachers become the subject of. Bjork (1994) explains that teachers become conditioned by reinforcers such as the happiness of trainees or performance indicators. Psychologically speaking, neither of these are valid measures of quality teaching, so such would be a flawed system.

I looked on ratemyteacher.com to see what was being said about the teachers in my old high school and I was mortified.

First of all, let’s take a look at what a good teacher gets:

good_teacherThis would appear to be a classic case of the student rating the teacher according to what they value: fun and entertainment.

Now let us look at a badly rated teacher:

poor_rating

Again, I would say this is a narrow minded comment coming from an immature student. I remember being taught by the teacher in question, and I remember being told off a few times. But I also remember the reason why: because I was disrupting the class. This was a good teacher, from whom I learned a lot. I enjoyed attending her lessons.

Last of all, I have some words to say about the sub scales by which teachers have been rated. Easiness is just a joke. If we reward our teachers for making it easy, we really are on a race to the bottom. And helpfulness and clarity are definitely not evidence based scales if we are looking to cognitive psychology for a robust measure of teacher quality. Going back to Bjork (1994), we learn that making it harder is a much more effective way of fostering durable learning. Techniques such as reducing feedback or varying the conditions in which students practise what they learn (Bjork & Bjork 2011) are much more effective teaching strategies.

Now I do not dispute for one minute that there are some rubbish teachers out there. But I also have a lot of sympathy for what I believe to be a majority of teachers who are trying their best to teach in ever toughening conditions. There is a scholarship of teaching and learning, against which teachers ought to be judged and encouraged. It is wrong to measure teachers against shallow performance indicators and the angry mob of rebellious students and misinformed outspoken parents. The whole logic of sites like ‘Rate my Teacher’ or any abuse through social media is more likely an example of ‘stupidity of the mob’ (Wheeler, 2012). Abuse of any type is wrong anyway.

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The Power of Reinforcement

A few months ago I wrote a blog article in which I discussed something that may be a behavioural phenomenon. I argued that the reason why autonomy- supportive learning goes largely unused in higher education, is that educators become operant conditioned into using more traditional teaching methods, because that is what league tables and authorities reinforce.

The argument comes from Bjork (1994), who suggested that indicators such as the happiness of trainees, or externally set targets become reinforcers. Instead, desirable difficulties such as reduced feedback or frequent informal testing are key to lasting learning (Bjork, 1994).

I always wanted to find just a bit more evidence on just how powerful this conditioning might be. However I have struggled to find literature that demonstrates the strength that reinforcement could have.

While studying Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy in a counseling lecture, we were reminded of a study in which the prejudices of early American eating establishments were measured in terms of whether a restaurant owner would refuse entry to a non-white guest in person compared with a written booking request.

Bear in mind here the time period when this investigation took place. The study (Kutner, Wilkins & Yarrow, 1925) demonstrated that when a white woman entered the restaurant, accompanied by a black woman, they were treated without discrimination. Yet written request to book a table for the same clientele were either ignored or rejected upon follow up.

In relation to pedagogical practise, this study demonstrates the disparity between attitudes and behaviour. The presence of the black customer was a strong enough reinforcer for the restaurant owner to admit the guests, but without that presence, their attitude (cognitions) prevailed. Likewise, I would ask: how many educators are aware of better ways, but when it comes to action, choose the more reinforced method.

The progress indicator and league table culture that abounds in today’s world disconnects policy makers from teachers and learners. There are better ways to motivate students, and more meaningful goals they could be working to achieve. But all of this research is useless until it is applied, and the top-down driven ‘performance indicator culture’ will override peoples’ best intentions as long as it exists.