In my last post – widely viewed and commented on in various places – I proposed that it was a bit egocentric to think of education in terms of the teacher and the teaching since the teacher is only one element in the design. Many commenters protested that while this may be true overall, they were personally inspired and launched into a career in education by virtue of a ‘passionate’ and ‘wonderful’ teacher. Surely that’s the most important part of the equation, they argued.

I responded that to me this was a form of confirmation bias. Sure, many of us who went into teaching were moved to do so by having had inspiring teachers. But that’s a pretty small and unrepresentative sample, prone to such a bias. What about non-teachers? What about  the average student’s school experience, the people who don’t go into teaching?

Fortunately, I altered our student survey two years ago to get at this very issue. Our data are clear: in a survey of over 1300 middle and high school students, the teacher is the least important factor in their liking and disliking of a subject:

Why Any Favorite

I think the graphic is pretty compelling as to the validity of my claim: the quality of  one’s experience with the subject matters far more than one’s liking of the teacher. Note the answer “I’m good at it” as the 2nd choice. This turns out to be a key variable in both likes and dislikes – especially in math (see below).

The reasons for a least-liked subject offer a pretty similar pattern:

Why Least Favorite

A few of the commenters described how their history teacher or Professor was the one who inspired them and made the subject interesting; so, let’s look at those students who said that history was their most favorite subject:

Why History Favorite

A slight difference in favor of the teacher, but the same pattern holds here.

Now, arguably, a few people had amazingly good teachers who made a ‘boring’ subject interesting. But, again, that seems to be a rarity in the data, as well as in the constructed responses as to why they picked a favorite subject. Citing a teacher as the reason for ‘most favorite subject’ occurs in only about 1 in 50 of the answers. Most answers are like these samples:

  • I just like the class in general. I’m in Honors Chem and its just a class that I find interesting.
  • Because i am good at math.
  • To me, science is extremely interesting. I love going to science class. I especially love chemistry
  • Arts & Music is my favorite subject because that is what I like to do, and the courses they offer here in those areas are really good and interesting.
  • Anatomy. My mother is a doctor so I am frequently exposed to anatomy.
  • It’s easy.
  • I am an organist, and like music in general.
  • I love to read and write papers
  • I enjoy problem solving
  • It is the easiest.
  • Because I’m athletic.
  • It’s fun.
  • English is my favorite subject because i am interested in the curriculum, i love to write and read, and i enjoy my class very much.
  • I really love it, and the rest of the world dissipates when I’m on at the ceramics studio

By far the most common adjective used to describe favorite courses is ‘fun’. This is not a frivolous answer. They describe ‘fun’ classes as ones where there is variety, chances to solve problems, and do work together.

When science is the most favorite, we see a slight variation in the ratio, but interest in the subject far outweighs the influence of the teacher:

Why Science Favorite

Only in English do we see the role of the teacher in creating interest pronounced:

Why English Favorite

However, this response is skewed by gender. Look at the %s for “Most favorite” in English/ELA:

English Favorite Gender

However, if we look at all female favorites, the pattern reverts back to the general one:

Female Favorite Why

Finally, the math picture presents an important cautionary note to math teachers: if I feel stupid, I am highly unlikely to like your course (and math is the least-liked course in the survey):

Why Math Least

This pattern in math as to why the subject is least favorite is double the overall pattern for all courses. Math is the only subject, therefore, in which feeling stupid is the number one reason to dislike the subject. What is the main reason to like math the most? Have a look:

Math Why Favorite

In short, it’s time to be a bit less egocentric, folks, and focus on making the subject more interesting and the work more well designed; and in math, working harder to make learners feel more competent via the way the work unfolds and how feedback is used.

PS: Some great back and forths in the comments; check them out. I also thought it potentially useful to attach a pdf of the AE Student Survey FALL 2013.


PPS: The new Atlantic has a fabulous article on the challenge of educating boys, a subject I have written about before (and gotten in huge trouble for my tart comments about school as female-centric).

In the article the following excerpt occurs. See how it connects nicely with my point over the past two posts:

The authors asked teachers and students to “narrate clearly and objectively an instructional activity that is especially, perhaps unusually, effective in heightening boys’ learning.” The responses–2,500 in all–revealed eight categories of instruction that succeeded in teaching boys. The most effective lessons included more than one of these elements:

  • Lessons that result in an end product–a booklet, a catapult, a poem, or a comic strip, for example.
  • Lessons that are structured as competitive games.
  • Lessons requiring motor activity.
  • Lessons requiring boys to assume responsibility for the learning of others.
  • Lessons that require boys to address open questions or unsolved problems.
  • Lessons that require a combination of competition and teamwork.
  • Lessons that focus on independent, personal discovery and realization.
  • Lessons that introduce drama in the form of novelty or surprise.

The irony, of course, is that this list (except perhaps the competition and motor activity) simply highlights good design for engaged and productive learning for anyone.

I’ll have more to say on the boy issue soon.

For those who disagree, however, some humor in closing: