"Teaching is measurable."

"Teaching is measurable" was originally published as a guest post on Mike Griffin's blog ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections.

The other day somebody said to me that "teaching is measurable". It's not really important who said it and why; X simply needed some argument to support his viewpoint and thus paraphrased what somebody else believed. Anyway, this post is not an attempt at an academic piece of writing - I'm just one of those inquisitive teachers - so I hope the reader will excuse the impudent lack of references. In short, the main aim of this post is to share some of the reasoning that went on in my head after X cited Y's assertion that we can measure whether a teacher's instruction is good or bad.

The very first thing which occurred to me was that one way of measuring the quality of our teaching is doing it vicariously, i.e. through the lens of our students' learning. In other words, if there are satisfactory learning outcomes, we can assume that our teaching is/was good. Here pops up a problem that worries me though; how do we reliably measure someone's learning outcomes? Obviously, what immediately springs to mind is testing, quizzing, exams and the like. We can, for example, count the number of words Student A remembers on a Monday morning. We can say with certainty that Student B can produce such and such number of language structures correctly. We can contentedly conclude that Student C can write a decent formal letter. So far so good. However, even if I accept the idea that we can measure somebody's learning via tangible results, I can't come to terms with the idea that learning is just about that. There are kids who always mess up tests, write clumsily and speak terribly, yet I'm convinced that some learning happens to them. And the other way around, there are learners who excel in taking tests, yet this may only prove they are good test takers.

Allow me to elaborate. Did a student with an excellent score learn more than just a few correct answers to more or less challenging problems? Is it demonstrable that this particular student learned more than the one with a low score? Only time will tell. The point is that there are some very important 'side effects' related to learning, or rather, to what one expects to be the only, ultimate learning outcome, e. g. the correct answer in a multiple-choice test or a well-written essay on global warming. What about all sorts of useful learning strategies acquired throughout the learning process, what about internal motivation stemming from participation in engaging lessons, critical thinking skills a student learns while working with thought-provoking material, what about the valuable learning experience itself? These are equally important outcomes which, I suspect, we are prone to overlook when judging the quality of our students' overall performance. The irony is that they could provide clear evidence of the effectiveness of our teaching.

At the beginning I said that I believed that one way of measuring the quality of our teaching is by observing what our students can do. Now I should add that I think it's quite possible that we can be wonderful teachers even if our students are hopeless. Poor performance and lows scores of weak students are not hard pieces of evidence proving that our teaching is bad. And conversely, if we are lucky enough and teach exceptionally talented and motivated students, whose results are equally exceptional, does that say that we are exceptional teachers? How can we measure the quality of our teaching if we end up in an environment where the real nature of our teaching can't manifest itself to the full; where nobody really cares about our great teaching abilities or, by contrast, where we can easily get away with very poor teaching skills?

What's left then? What are some other measurable criteria which define the quality of our teaching? I've been observed several times by the administrators and their conclusions were generally very positive: "you are a born teacher, you can make a great lesson out of nothing, your classroom management skills are amazing", etc. Does that make my teaching good? Does what somebody else thinks about my lessons turn me into a good teacher? What if that person is not exactly demanding? What if she knows nothing about the recent SLA research? What if her goals are different from mine?

Finally, what is it that makes us attempt to measure the immeasurable? Is it fear or a lack of confidence? Is it the need to label things and thus make them acceptable/unacceptable? My guess is that it's the natural human desire to feel safe. The trouble is that teaching is fluid; at one point we're doing great and in a matter of seconds the lesson goes south. As teaching is a multi-layered venture and there's so much we can't grasp and control, we tend to stick to anything that looks like concrete evidence, and we reject the intangible and seemingly insecure, perhaps in order to keep our balance as teachers and human beings.