Toward an Ecology of Training, Teaching and Learning

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
Winsights No. 115 (July/August 2011)

A thriving ecology is so arranged that the interests of its component species are somehow aligned with each other. Either immediately, as in symbiosis, or overall and eventually, as with plants and animals.

CPS and creativity-based methods can bring a thriving ecology to several wastelands in training and education. CPS and learning-with-understanding almost wholly overlap—both are sets of ways for figuring things out. Several simple, easy-to-implement methods exist already, and many more can be created. One method already has the student body at one school gaining more than 4 years per year in academic proficiency—and loving every minute of it. With that method:

  • You give teachers not only strategic respites but simpler and better tools to work with. (This is in the immediate and long-term best interests of the teachers—so much so that this reform in teaching method has already won teachers’ union endorsement!)
    • This enables them to do a better job teaching. (That in turn being in the best interests of the students, the public, and relieving harried administrators.)
    • This same CPS-derived method also —
      • involves the students and makes contents meaningful to them, thus providing immediate felt reward. And,
      • those multiple years per year of gain in (academic or scholastic) proficiency of course provides long-term benefit to students and parents.
  • Whether in corporate or agency staff training, or in schools at all levels, you thus can have a thriving educational ecology like that now prospering at St. Andrews Country Day School in Buffalo, NY, a very good alliance of the interests involved. A good place to start:   the CoreBook, 3 Easy Tactics To Use In Your Classroom, which in minutes enables you immediately to more than double the progress of your students
  • A second route to building a thriving ecology of learning and teaching is through use of incentives, especially teacher incentives. Until recently, unfortunately, these were handled poorly and off target. We should, above all, seek to align the interests of teachers with those of students—once that is done, much of the rest follows.

Some of the incentives can be done via bonuses to teachers based upon cohort student “value added” scores on much the same principles as those designed in the TerraNova tests published by McGraw-Hill and used in the St. Andrews school cited above. Standardized tests, however, are too narrow by themselves to use alone in determining teacher bonuses. In advance, whenever a teacher remarks or complains about some important value left out of that student assessment, if that value is at all plausible find—or have the teacher find or create—an instrument with which to measure it and then put that teacher on contract for part of his or her bonus to be based upon how well students perform in that value. The best of these values and instruments can, in turn, be carried over into future years as part of the bases for incentive bonuses for which all teachers can compete.

It is very important also to have teachers in such an incentive system competing not with each other but against pre-defined standards. We should want an incentive for teachers to be reaching for better methods instead of defending against them; reaching to teach as well as possible, oriented squarely on what is most beneficial to their students instead of on sidetrack issues; and sharing with each other in a mutual adventure of flowing enthusiasms, information, insights, methods and observed effects.

Competition between teachers provides incentive instead for secrecy, defensiveness, pettiness, lack of support, and in extreme cases even mutual sabotage. Be sure that your “incentive” is an incentive, and be sure of what actions it is actually incentivizing!

In all the time since Adam Smith published his The Wealth of Nations in 1776, introducing the world to the economic incentives and effects which derive from free marketplace forces, and Locke and Jefferson began with electoral representative democracy to attempt a similar understanding as regards political incentives, no one apparently has made a comprehensive study of the nature, uses and effects of incentives.

Particular incentives have been proposed from time to time, but nothing systematic and/or all-encompassing. A very preliminary beginning has been made with the free book online, Incentives as a Preferred Instrument of Corporate and Public Policy, with updated summaries on Incentivism, but much, much more is needed, especially as regards cultivating the art and science of the minimum intervention that gets the job done.

By far the best teaching, training and learning methods have yet to be discovered. Our institutions have been most successful in preventing improved methods from coming along. The only reforms accepted, by and large, have been mere windowdressing and trivial style changes, continuing for more than a century.

Over that same interval of time, researchers have been authoritatively exclaiming over our accelerating rate of progress in knowledge about learning and about the human brain. For more than a century, we have been told at the end of each decade that during that decade more has been discovered about these things than in all previous time put together. That’s a lot of compound interest. Yet how much of anything (except IT and the media) has shown up in our classrooms over the past century?

It may behoove us to give some attention to the incentives at work in our institutions, and to what adjustments might minimally be made to realign the interests of all those who are involved in the faltering ecology of our classrooms and training centers.