Inertia or caution?

Apologies for taking so long to write a second post!

One of the first suggestions I received on a topic to write about on here came from Nik Peachey:

How do we educate or encourage our managers / administrators to become better educated about what the web can do and the real issues and potential surrounding its use?

Nik’s question was mirrored a little in Karenne’s post here.  I’m going to rewrite Nik’s question slightly (as we trainers are always told not to do, of course), and ask how we can encourage managers to become better educated about technology in general.  And also to think about what considerations managers might have in thinking about technological solutions.

The first problem of course, is the dizzying pace at which the technological revolution is moving – each week seems to bring an innovation in classroom technology, online learning or some other area that managers (and teachers) need to be aware of and make decisions over.  As in many areas of life, inertia is easier (though rarely the best policy in the long run).

Then of course there is the financial aspect.  To equip a school with interactive whiteboards (IWBs) and train everyone to use them involves no small capital outlay.  Similarly running online courses, while not necessarily involving a great amount of up-front expenditure, often seems to have a very low margin (and frequently such courses are run at a loss, based on the vague assumption that this is the way of the future and even if it costs in the short term it will pay off in the long term).

And, then there’s the much talked about digital native/digital immigrant divide.  Most managers are almost certainly digital immigrants (I could write small programmes in BASIC when I was 15, but I don’t really think that puts me in the digital native category – my kids, on the other hand, seem to be fluent).  Give it ten years or so and there will be a different story here, but for now, it’s what we have to work with.

The ADKAR model of change management suggests that managers of people in an organisation which is engaged in change need to take care of 5 things – Awareness (are people aware of the need for the change?); Desire (do people actually want to make the change?); Knowledge (do people have the necessary training to perform the new tasks that are necessary under the change?); Ability (are people able to implement the change?); and Reinforcement (are they continually supported?).  But let’s turn this model on its head a little and look at it from the perspective of changing the  manager’s approach in the case of technological innovation in language teaching and learning.

Are managers aware of the need for this change?  Increasingly, I believe, they are.   Or at least they know that things are changing in the way teaching and learning are supported by technology, and that at some point there is a nettle that needs to be grasped. (It certainly comes up very often when I talk to managers of language teaching organisations).  They might feel that being at the cutting edge in their specific market would give them a competitive advantage even if they were still to be entirely convinced of the benefits of the innovation from a pedagogical standpoint.  After all, it’s pretty rare these days to find a language school that doesn’t have its own website, so it’s not a fear of technology per se.

Do they want it?  Less so, I suspect. Or at least the uncertainty and faddishness of technological solutions can and will cause doubts.  With so many options, so many possibilities and a limited amount of resources to devote to whatever decision is taken (and with IT as a sector in itself being so seemingly hit and miss – for every silicon valley success story there seem to be ten failures), it’s understandable if managers tend to adopt a wait-and-see policy.  While large well resourced organisations like the British Council can devote time and money on trying out all the possibilities and learning from their mistakes and successes, this is simply not an option for smaller language schools.  Waiting to see which approaches are going to be the necessary and long-standing ones (both pedagogically and for the marketplace) is on some levels a sensible and thoughtful approach.  And there’s no shame in being part of the early or late majority rather than an innovator – especially when it’s not just a personal decision, but one which impacts the organisation, and, by association, all the people in it.  [Plus, of course, I am writing this at a time when language schools are suffering financially from the current global downturn.  Just, possibly, as the current wave of pedagogical/technological tools is starting to break over us.  And one of the big ironies about all this of course, is that it’s better to change things when things are going well, and not as a reaction to a crisis, but much more difficult to convince people of the need when everything’s seemingly going well]

Without the awareness and desire, then, there is unlikely to be any sudden shift in the way things are done.

Michael Fullan has identified a number of reasons why educational innovations fail, and I think this can be tied into the same process as we have looked at above.  Among others he cites:

  • Believing that complex problems can be solved quickly
  • Adopting innovations which have only symbolic benefit
  • Responding too quickly to fads
  • Misunderstanding resistance as an attempt to block, rather than as indicating a need for help and support
  • Allowing pockets of success to fail through lack of support

By way of conclusion, I’d like to focus on that fourth one, though I think all 5 have a relevance to this debate (and a couple of them I have already touched upon here).   There is, I think, a tendency to assume that managers are seemingly attempting to block innovation, or are just against change.  And while this may be true in a few cases, in many cases I believe it is in fact a need for help and support and advice.  What, I submit, is less helpful is ridiculing cautious managers as luddites and stick-in-the-muds.

And where will this help and support and advice come from?  Good managers will be reading and studying the literature on educational innovations, which will be part of the driving force, and on top of this I believe much of the impetus will come from teachers.  Teachers are increasingly realising that to engage with their learners they need to do so with and through new technology.  This needs to be transmitted to managers, who, sadly but inevitably, often have little direct contact with the learners as learners.  And reading a few customer satisfaction surveys does not have the impact of conversations with enthusiastic teachers.

I hope this does not come across as passing the buck.  The good manager will be very aware of the issues and research and potential of the web and of other technologies.  But taking that step into the unknown and making a policy decision which is going to have far-reaching consequences can be a daunting thing to do.  Perhaps this is where managers become leaders.

Finally, a story which I was told while training on the International Diploma in Language Teaching Management.  Some years ago, a large language teaching organisation made a decision, in consultation with its teachers and students, to replace the video cassette recorders and tape players in all the classrooms with DVD players which could also be used to play CDs.  Money was set aside for this task, which was a fairly expensive undertaking, and during the summer break, all the classrooms were changed over to the new, very flash and beautiful machines.  The teachers were delighted and they knew the students would be impressed. It wasn’t until the first day of the new term, that everyone suddenly realised that there was a slight problem.  The staffroom resources, of course, were unchanged.  Teachers had access to lots of cassettes and videos from various different coursebooks and supplementary materials, but nothing to play them on.  And, of course, no CDs or DVDs.

The Role of Teacher Observations

One of the big issues in the annual work cycle of many a DoS or other manager of teachers is the teacher observation. This is usually part of the annual performance review/appraisal system, and probably also involves a meeting where the DoS/Academic Manager gets together with the teacher to discuss their performance and possibly set goals for the year ahead. Most people have probably been through this process from at least one end – as teacher or other employee and/or as manager.

The teacher observation as a part of this process, usually involves teacher and manager agreeing a class to be observed, the teacher providing a lesson plan, and, after the class, a discussion (which may involve some form of documentary process, whereby the manager writes down her comments and the teachers signs off on his agreement/understanding of those comments).

But how useful is this? How effective is it as a way of managing performance? Obviously teacher observations which are specifically developmental can be an extremely useful tool for professional development – anyone who has ever been a teacher will have gained a great deal by being observed by a teacher trainer or a peer or even a manager – and I definitely believe in the teacher observation in this regard. But as part of “performance management”? I’m much much less convinced (well to be honest, I think it’s a bad idea altogether).

Some reasons why I think it’s a bad idea:

  1. However much you make it clear that the object of the observation is developmental and not judgmental, by making it part of the annual (or semi-annual, or whatever regular interval) performance review cycle, it will inevitably take on at least some judgmental aspects (both from the teacher’s and the manager’s perspective)
  2. How useful is it to review a teacher’s performance based on one (almost inevitably unrepresentative) hour out of their annual workload of possibly 1000 hours?
  3. It’s time consuming.  For the teacher – who has to produce more formalised lesson plans, and has to go through the pre and post lesson meeting; and for the manager – who will be looking at least 2 hours time (for a one hour lesson) for each teacher under her management – even before the actual performance review process which will  require another couple of hours per teacher (the latter is time well spent, the former less so).  Even with as few as ten teachers under a DoS’s supervision, the time commitment is pretty high.
  4. In some cases the manager has not come to her role through teaching – in this case it clearly makes very little sense to observe teachers and be able to make any meaningful suggestions or analysis.
  5. Very often the teacher observation as part of the performance management process just exists because it always has been done this way, and nobody has thought to question it.  And it’s always worth challenging those mental models!

So, if I’m proposing that we drop the teacher observation from the performance review, I guess I should propose a replacement.  As the manager of a very large project to help a major Brazilian language school “reculture” itself, this was something we looked at, and what came out of the process was, I think, an excellent alternative solution to the standard review.  A working committee of teachers from all of the school’s branches was formed, and they worked together to propose something which they felt would be a better performance management system – and one that would be acceptable to both teachers and managers.  What they eventually settled on (and which became the new system) was something akin to the portfolio system of student assessment.  Teachers, over the year, were required to keep a portfolio.  This was designed to reflect their successes, problems, development, reflections – crucially whatever they wanted to take from the year.  Lessons that had been a great success, workshops attended, activities that had worked, activities that had not worked (and reflections as to why not), student work that had touched them in some way, whatever they wanted to remember and take from the year.  As part of the performance review meeting with their line manager, teachers presented these portfolios, sharing things that they wanted to share with their boss that came out of the year.  As it was an ongoing process and not just an annual thing, the portfolio further encouraged teachers to think and reflecting on their work constantly.  And the manager got to hear stories and anecdotes from the classroom that she would otherwise not have heard.  Both teachers and managers felt that the new system made a lot more sense and was of much greater value.

That’s not to say that this is all the meeting should involve – the idea of setting professional development goals for the year and reflecting on last year’s goals in a formalised way, is I think also very important, as are many other areas of performance management systems.  But as a replacement for the teacher observation section of that process, I think it is worth considering.

Just to be absolutely clear, I think well structured teacher observations as part of teacher development are fantastically useful  (both for observer and teacher), and there’s another blog post in the question of how to set up a successful peer observation system (for another time).

So, what do you think?  Teacher observations as a management tool – useful or not?  If you think they are important, why, and how should they best be set up?  Any and all comments gratefully received!