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Bill Gates' TED Talk: Are Video Cameras the Missing Link?

I watched Bill Gates' TED Talk last night, to hear him explain why we should spend $5 billion to put video cameras in every classroom in the nation. But before I get to what he said, I want to share some of the wisdom that preceded him.

Rita Pierson starts us off with a bang, speaking of how human relationships are the prerequisite for learning.

Kids don't learn from people they don't like. Apologize... Tell the kids you're sorry - they're in shock... We listen to policy that doesn't make sense, and we teach anyway. Teaching and learning should bring joy. How powerful would our world be if we had kids who were not afraid to take risks, and who had a champion. Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, and insists that they become the best that they can be.

Watch TED Talks Education on PBS. See more from TED Talks Education.

Teacher Ramsey Musallam shows how he provokes students to ask questions, and allow curiosity to drive their inquiries.
If we, as educators, leave behind the simple role as disseminators of content, and embrace a new paradigm, as cultivators of curiosity and inquiry, we just might bring a little more meaning to their school day, and spark their imagination.

16 year old student Sharouz Gayemi says (and I apologize if I misspelled his name -- it was not shown in print):

An administrative culture that focuses on standardized testing does us no good at all, because there is a difference between knowledge and understanding... If you truly understand something, it's far more important to you, it's more likely to be retained, it's far more likely to have some sort of meaning to you."

Then we come to Bill Gates, and his $5 billion idea.

First, his rationale:

... there's one group of people that get almost no systematic feedback to help them do their jobs better. Until recently, 98% of teachers just got one word of feedback: "satisfactory." Today, districts are revamping the way they evaluate teachers. But we still give them almost no feedback that actually helps them improve their practice. Our teachers deserve better. The system we have today isn't fair to them. It's not fair to students, and it's putting America's global leadership at risk.

Do you notice something? He starts out talking about feedback, but then slides into describing a formal evaluation process. There are LOTS of ways to enhance feedback that could have nothing at all to do with our evaluation systems -- which, thanks to the determined and well-funded advocacy of the Gates Foundation and its projects, has already been redirected towards test scores and Value Added measures.

Next, he offers us the familiar international rankings, which find the US somewhere in the middle. Of the top performers, he ignores #3, Finland, in order to focus on Shanghai:

Let's look at the best academic performer, the province of Shanghai, China. Now, they rank #1 across the board, in reading, math and science. And one of the keys to Shanghai's success is the way they help teachers keep improving. They have weekly study groups, where teachers get together and talk about what's working. They even require each teacher to observe, and give feedback, to their colleagues. You might ask, "why is a system like this so important?" It's because there's so much variation in the teaching profession. Some teachers are far more effective than others. In fact there are teachers throughout the country who are helping their students make extraordinary gains. If today's average teacher could become as good as those teachers, our students would be blowing away the rest of the world. So we need a system that helps all our teachers be as good as the best.

This raises so many more questions than it answers. How are teachers in Shanghai reflecting on their teaching? What guides them? Their system is reputed to focus on test preparation. How do we know the students are better prepared for their adult lives - beyond test scores?

Yong Zhao has written:

...what brings great test scores may hamper entrepreneurial qualities. Standardized testing and a focus on rote memorization, for example, are perhaps the biggest enemies of entrepreneurial capability.

Gates goes on to suggest that his foundation's MET project has found the solution:

We had observers watch videos of teachers in the classroom, and rate how they did on a range of practices. For example, did they ask their students challenging questions? Did they find multiple ways to explain an idea? We also had students fill out surveys, with questions like "does your teacher know when the class understands a lesson?" "Do you learn to correct your mistakes?" And what we found is very exciting. First, the teachers who did well on these observations had far better student outcomes. So it tells us we're asking the right questions. And second, teachers in the program told us that these videos and these surveys from the students were very helpful diagnostic tools, because they pointed to specific places where they can improve.

Once again, as we know from our previous experience with the Gates Foundation's work, "student outcomes" is a euphemism for test scores.

I want to draw on the wisdom shared at the opening by educator Ruth Pierson, who spoke of the power of relationships in learning. Surely this is true for our growth as teachers as much as it is for our students. It is truly amazing to me that in proposing that we devise new ways for teachers to gain feedback, Bill Gates has focused his attention on investing in a device, rather than a learning process.

Video can be useful, and if any teacher in the US of A wants to record a lesson, I bet you they could find a smart phone or camcorder able to do the job. But why do we need video to observe one another? Even the teachers in Shanghai apparently are observing one another directly. The teachers in a given school are familiar with their context and students, and are well equipped to offer one another feedback, given time and support. This work builds on the trusting relationships between peers, who are devoted to bringing out the best in each other. We could call it Lesson Study - and learn from people who have been doing this work for the past two decades. We could engage in teacher inquiry, as we have seen groups like the Mills Teacher Scholars model for us.

Linda Darling Hammond recently pointed out that, in line with Bill Gates main point, teachers do not have opportunities to give one another feedback. But Darling-Hammond does not suggest that the lack of video cameras is the culprit. Rather, she writes:

...evidence suggests that time afforded to educators to collaborate and problem-solve is eroding quickly. As recently as 2009, a MetLife study indicated that 68% of educators had more than an hour per week to engage in structured collaboration with colleagues to improve student learning. By 2012, only 48% had an hour or more per week for this essential work. In what professional field can practice improve if most practitioners don't have even an hour a week to work together collaboratively?

Bill Gates has described himself as a technocrat, so perhaps it is natural that he would fixate on some piece of technology as the missing element. But the real things that are missing are the time that teachers need to work together, and the understanding that this time will be most fruitful when teachers are given the autonomy to tackle the challenges they face, rather than micromanaged and driven by test score data.

The show was closed out by Sir Ken Robinson, the most famous TED talker of all. He reminds us of some things that, if Bill Gates were listening, might serve as valuable feedback for him.

Education, under No Child Left Behind, is based on - not diversity, but conformity. What schools are encouraged to do is find out what kids can do across a very narrow spectrum of achievement. One of the effects of NCLB has been to narrow the curriculum to those areas that are tested, and what we've heard here... is that kids prosper best with a broad and diverse curriculum.
Right beneath the surface are these seeds of possibility, waiting for the right conditions to come about. You take an area, a school, a district, you change the conditions, give people a different sense of possibility, a different set of expectations, a broader range of opportunities, you cherish and value the relationships between teachers and learners, you offer people discretion to be creative and to innovate in what they do, and schools that were once bereft spring to life.
The real role of leadership in education, at the national level, the state level and the school level, is not and should not be "command and control." The real role of leadership is climate control. Creating a climate of possibility. And if you do that, people will rise to it, and achieve things that you did not anticipate and couldn't have expected.

For some reason, all this feedback has escaped Bill Gates. If only he had a video camera...

What do you think? Is a lack of video cameras preventing teachers from giving one another feedback? How would you suggest we strengthen professional collaboration?

Continue the dialogue with @anthonycody on Twitter.

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