Smoking out education reform

April 12, 2016 | 08:42 pm PT
Sir Walter Raleigh, the much celebrated English adventurer, poet and navigator, "discovered" both tobacco and potatoes in Americas in the late 1580s and brought them back to England. Raleigh helped to make smoking popular. It is even said that he persuaded Queen Elizabeth I to take her first puff, although it’s not clear whether she inhaled. 

By the 1940s, more than 80% of the adult male population in Britain smoked (and probably also a good proportion of the children). The World Health Organisation data showed this pattern of high cigarette consumption was a global phenomenon. But in 1956, the longitudinal British Doctors’ Study provided convincing statistical proof that smoking increased the risk of lung cancer.

But then something strange happened: in spite of the growing and convincing evidence that smoking kills – smokers just didn’t give up. It was not until the 1980s, a full twenty-five years after the British Doctors’ Study had concluded smoking was dangerous, that smokers across the globe begun to quit the habit in serious numbers.

Smoking is an extreme case of habit change, or rather the difficultly of habit change. Evidence tells whilst the physiological addiction to nicotine can be broken within days, the psychological desire to smoke is much harder to re-programme and can take many months to overcome. Those who are unsuccessful seem to end up smoking even more.

There are many parallels to this smoking paradox in the field of global education reform.

Since the launch of the OECD’s Performance in International Student Assessment (PISA), which ranks countries education systems on the basis of standardised tests in maths, science and literacy that are administered to 15-year-olds in participating countries – nations have become increasingly obsessed with the international standing of their education systems. Although the OECD itself has some reservations about the validity of the PISA rankings and acknowledges that they are testing only the most easily comparable subjects - the exercise has prompted a great deal of national soul searching, in an attempt divine the right path for education transformation.

In the British Council’s experience, countries have pursued three main pathways to education reform. The first way is System and Process-Centred. This involves improving the quality of infrastructure; overhauling the curriculum; tightening the assessment systems and making schools accountable through government inspections. The challenge with this type of reform is that it largely ends outside the classroom door. Everything gets reformed except the micro-relationships between teachers and learners inside the classroom. Ergo nothing really changes.

The second way is Teacher-Centred. This is arguably a direct response to the challenges with System and Process Centred approach. It recognises that teacher transformation is key and attempts to achieve this by reducing student-teacher ratios; improving the quality of initial teacher training and by investing more funds for teachers to attend training courses. Depressingly, the evidence-base supporting the effectiveness of these types of interventions has also been wafer thin. The global data now tells us that reducing class sizes only pays off when there are less than 15 students to one teacher but the additional cost of achieving this (i.e extra teachers) is incredibly high.

When comparisons are made between beginner teachers who have received formal pre-service training and those that didn’t, no significant difference has been detected between the two. And whilst in-service training for teachers is clearly important, the education doyen Michael Fullan has lamented that: "Nothing has promised so much and has been so frustratingly wasteful as the thousands of workshops and conferences that led to no significant change in practice when teachers returned to their classrooms". All this additional training just doesn’t seem to be paying off.

This has prompted the rise of the third way: Habit Change-Centred. The key advocate of this approach is Professor Dylan Wiliam of the University College London Institute of Education (IOE). The third way is actually a refinement of the Teacher-Centred approach and it shares the same, correct assumption that the best way to transform education is to develop the teachers. But, more subtly, its emphasis is on the psychology of change and it recognises that teachers learn most of their craft during the first two or three years they spend in the classroom. During this phase they engage in what the psychologist Daniel Kahnemen calls Slow Thinking: they undertake deliberate practise, reflection and refinement – slowly mastering the tricks of their trade.

By the third year on the job, teachers have generally learnt enough to ‘get by’ and the process of refinement gradually dissipates. At this stage, their repertoire of teaching strategies has, for better or for worse, become a set of engrained habits and their performance generally plateaus: they have now moved to what Kahneman calls Fast Thinking. And even when teachers are presented with evidence that there are more effective ways of teaching– they often continue to use the same old ways that they learned during their first few years on the job.

The parallels with smoking are quite startling. A smoker continues to smoke in spite of the global body of scientific evidence telling them that it will seriously damage their health: the habit has become engrained. But the risks associated with maintaining the existing habits are clearly much lower for a teacher than a smoker. Bad teaching cannot give students cancer; it ‘just’ makes them learn less. But by attempting to change, teachers have to revert back to Slow Thinking - trying new things that might not work and that might disrupt their existing relationships with their students and with other teachers. For the teacher, this can be a whole world of unnecessary pain.

So what’s the solution? Actually, for the British Council, it’s back to teacher training but of the kind that factors in this challenge of habit change. Telling teachers what to do usually does not work. Improving their practice involves changing their habits, in a context where teachers are often held publicly accountable for student exam results and are understandably anxious about making changes that might result in a nose dive

It is not so hard to get new ideas into teachers’ heads about effective approaches to teaching and learning. The problem is that old habits are hard to break and it takes time for new ideas to crowd out the existing repertoire. For the British Council an effective cycle involves teachers undertaking training in a new evidence-based pedagogical approach, making the commitment to try it in their class the 20-25 times necessary to make a new habit stick and being observed doing so by a coach, who provides feedback. Aligned to this, the establishment of school-based teacher learning communities (a sort of smokers’ self-help group) allows educators to share their experiences in implementing these new habits and their strategies for overcoming challenges.

Education reform is never easy but at the British Council we can help smoke it out.

Dr Arran Hamilton is Education Development Director (East Asia) at the British Council (, the United Kingdom’s organisation for education cooperation and cultural relations.

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