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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 04/12/2010

Willingham: Obama should stop coercing teachers and start persuading

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a professor at the University of Virginia and author of the book "Why Don't Students Like School?"

By Daniel Willingham
Suppose you are a supervisor, and one of your employees carries out one of his tasks in a way that you think is inefficient. You point this out to the employee, and suggest a different method. A week later, you notice that the employee has not made the requested change. Do you:

*Tell the employee that he must use your method, and let him know that you’ll be checking to be sure that he’s doing so.

*Show the employee that you understand why he’s been doing it a different way, and, taking his perspective into account, try to persuade him that your way is better.

In my view the second choice is much the wiser. Persuasion usually beats coercion.

Experiments in psychology going back to the 1940s lead to a general conclusion: “Punishment usually works only so long as the enforcer is in view.”

Coercion gets compliance. Persuasion breeds enthusiasm and innovation. Yet President Obama's education policy vis-a-vis teachers looks rather like coercion.

In comparing the likely effectiveness of coercion and persuasion, we must remember that the final outcomes of education reside in the mind of the child--the child learns or does not learn. The child’s learning is affected by what the teacher does, and what the child’s peers and parents do. The actions of the teacher are influenced by the actions of the principal and superintendent, which are, in turn, influenced by state policies. The federal government seeks to influence state policies.

Hence, the federal government seeks to change children’s learning through a multi-link chain. Needless to say, each link represents an opportunity for the outcomes intended by federal policymakers to become twisted or diluted, and that penultimate link—the teacher’s classroom—is the spot where distortion can most easily go undetected. If the teacher thinks a policy is foolish, he will probably resist.

Historians tell us that education reform movements over the last 100 years have frequently touched classroom practice very little. Once classroom doors are closed, teachers can do as they like, and, infrequently consulted or persuaded, they most often have carried on in the way they thought best.

This resistance is sometimes characterized as laziness or stubbornness, but I see it as similar to the supervisor-employee relationship described above. Maybe the employee’s method is inefficient, but as a supervisor you’re a fool if you don’t allow that the person actually doing the job has some insight into the task that you might lack, and seek to partner with the employee rather than to coerce solutions you have devised.

What surprises me is the president’s failure to use his formidable charisma and persuasive powers to speak directly to teachers. Persuading teachers that he understands their problems and their perspectives on education, and that the changes he proposes align with their goals, would go a long way toward ensuring that these changes will have the consequences he intends.

The president does not seem to perceive that teachers are his natural allies. Most of them share his goals and most of them voted for him. But instead of reaching out to teachers, sharing a vision and inspiring them, the president has spoken mostly about unions and their obstructionism. That’s a political move which will not result in changes in the classroom.

The president should try a little persuasion with the people who will eventually be implementing his desired policies. If that fails, he can always coerce.

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By Valerie Strauss  | April 12, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Teachers  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham, Obama and teachers, Obama education policy, President Obama and teachers, guest bloggers  
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Comments

This argument seems to assume that Obama's rat path is worth following. Charisma and persuasive powers fail on this field.

Sure, if a teacher is ineffective and an intelligent and enlightened and effective supervisor takes note of areas of weakness and proposes alternative methods of delivery, activities, etc., yes, some teachers, upon failing to alter methods and continuing to produce poor results, will be more apt to change with some properly applied yet gentle coersion after more amicable attempts fail.

However, don't forget that Obama's man Duncan, has zero teaching credentials; his credibility is shot. Sure, Obama and Duncan can spring forth some education talk, but oh, the lack of substance and reason.... The music Duncan/Obama are piping isn't pretty.

Posted by: shadwell1 | April 12, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

This argument seems to assume that Obama's rat path is worth following. Charisma and persuasive powers fail on this field.

Sure, if a teacher is ineffective and an intelligent and enlightened and effective supervisor takes note of areas of weakness and proposes alternative methods of delivery, activities, etc., yes, some teachers, upon failing to alter methods and continuing to produce poor results, will be more apt to change with some properly applied yet gentle coersion after more amicable attempts fail.

However, don't forget that Obama's man Duncan, has zero teaching credentials; his credibility is shot. Sure, Obama and Duncan can spring forth some education talk, but oh, the lack of substance and reason.... The music Duncan/Obama are piping isn't pretty.

Posted by: shadwell1 | April 12, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

I think many teachers voted for Obama in spite of his position on education reform. I know I did.

And when he appointed Duncan, most of the teachers I know were very, very disappointed.

Posted by: tfteacher | April 12, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

"The president does not seem to perceive that teachers are his natural allies. Most of them share his goals and most of them voted for him. But instead of reaching out to teachers, sharing a vision and inspiring them, the president has spoken mostly about unions and their obstructionism. That’s a political move which will not result in changes in the classroom."

This is what I find odd, as well. In fact, he often reminds me of a teacher when he is explaining things. But, in terms of policy, it is as if the teachers are perceived to be the enemies of education. So disappointing, and so much at stake.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 12, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

We expect firemen to be firemen and medical doctors to be medical doctors.

Time to understand that Chicago politicians are politicians and not leaders.

The problems with the President is that most Americans thought they were getting a leader when actually all they were getting was a Chicago politician.

Posted by: bsallamack | April 12, 2010 7:14 PM | Report abuse

First, lets be clear about the difference between teachers and teacher unions. Most teachers - good; most teacher unions (especially the NEA) - not good. While the AFT has made some concessions and compromised on certain issues for the good of public education and STUDENTS, the NEA has balked at almost anything that could threaten their strangle hold on their public school monopoly. Their interests in students is only passing; in that's who provides their members employment.

In Obama's defense his main hurdle in his education policy(s) was not teachers, but teacher unions. He and Duncan have apparently chosen coercion/competition to get educators to do what they want. I don't believe they care one iota what teacher unions want and I don't blame them a bit. Teacher unions have been notorious for looking out for two things; their members (they're supposed to do this) and their coffers. Students are no where on their radar. Obama and Duncan were intelligent enough to recognize this and have set their policies accordingly.

Posted by: phoss1 | April 12, 2010 7:31 PM | Report abuse

@phoss1

I don't think teacher unions are inherently bad for schools. In Montgomery County, for example, the union works with the district. I think they do have a strong interest in the students.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 12, 2010 8:36 PM | Report abuse

Willingham - please take this straight to the president

Posted by: efavorite | April 13, 2010 12:45 AM | Report abuse

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