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Research That Gets Under Your Skin

There’s been much buzz over the past few days about a grant awarded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to Clemson University under its College-Ready Education initiative. One of the components of this funding program is Measures of Effective Teaching (MET), the Gates Foundation’s effort to concentrate resources on developing an understanding of how to measure effective teaching. It’s a polarizing initiative, because the line between effective teaching and effective teachers can be blurry, and existing measures of teacher effectiveness, such as value-added modeling, though quite imprecise, are often used for high-stakes decisions about teacher retention and rewards.

There’s not a great deal of public information about the Clemson project. The narrative on the Gates Foundation’s website states that the grant, a 14-month award for just under $500,000 awarded last November, is “to work with members of the Measuring Effective Teachers (MET) team to measure engagement physiologically with Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) bracelets which will determine the feasibility and utility of using such devices regularly in schools with students and teachers.”

I find this quite alarming—but for reasons other than most who have commented on it. What troubles me most is that the narrative description of the project references the “Measuring Effective Teachers (MET) team.” That’s not what the initiative is supposed to be about. Effective teaching is not the same thing as effective teachers! Improving teaching practice is central to improving schooling; identifying an “effective” teacher doesn’t tell us anything about what she or he might be doing that leads to academic success. If the Gates Foundation can’t even get this straight in its grants management, what are they actually up to?

But I’m willing to allow for the possibility that this is just some sloppiness on the part of either the researchers or the foundation; the true test of the project is what it actually will do. And here I think there’s more potential than some critics have acknowledged. One can certainly imagine the worst, envisioning a new world in which teachers will be judged based on their ability to evoke a change in the level at which students’ skin conducts electricity, which is regarded as an indicator of physiological arousal. Since arousal can occur due to fear, disgust, love, sexual attraction, surprise and a host of other reasons, many of which have no discernible connection to the nature of student learning, substituting a galvanic skin response measure for more direct measures of student learning and its precursors could be wrong-headed and counterproductive.

On the other hand, one thing that measuring galvanic skin response in the classroom might do is help reintroduce the importance of emotion, one of the sources of physiological arousal, into the study of teaching and learning. Narrative accounts of how people learn, in classrooms and on the job, often point to the importance of emotion as both a precursor and a consequence of learning. I’m especially attuned to this because my spouse, Anna Neumann, has written a book and a number of articles about the roles of emotion and passion in the learning of university professors across their careers. I think it’s quite limiting to conceive of teaching and learning solely as technical and neutral activities—for learning is intensely personal. Teachers at all levels know that students are more interested and engaged in the learning process when they care about the subject matter, and when the learning process sparks an emotional response (such as, “Aha!”). A major challenge for many teachers is preparing curricula and lesson plans that can make subject matter come alive for diverse student populations.

Relatedly, most theories of learning assume that student engagement is a necessary but not sufficient condition for student learning. And yet we do not have an extensive vocabulary or toolkit to talk about and improve engagement. One of the most interesting and promising directions over the past few decades was developed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues, including education researcher Barbara Schneider. Csikszentmihalyi, best-known for his work on “flow,” an optimal state of concentration and engagement, pioneered the Experience Sampling Method (ESM), often relying on wristband beepers or handheld PDAs that would beep at random times during the day. When used to study student engagement in high-school classrooms, students complete a brief questionnaire about what they were thinking and feeling when the beeper went off, including whether the classroom activity was difficult, interesting and important.

Results from such studies make clear that students spend large portions of their time in school disconnected from the activities in which they are supposed to be engaged; most students are engaged some of the time and disengaged some of the time; and there are modest differences across classrooms in the average extent of engagement. But the ESM is a blunt measuring instrument—a beeper can only go off so often, and it’s hard to imagine how the technique could be useful in studying student engagement with a particular classroom activity or lesson unfolding over time. Scholars studying the use of the method in natural settings suggest that ESM may be most useful in conjunction with other data-collection methods.

What’s true for ESM may also be true for measuring the galvanic skin response of students in classrooms. It is quite problematic to do this in isolation from a broader consideration of the nature of classroom teaching and learning. But I’m cautiously optimistic that, coupled with other ways of looking at teaching and learning in classroom settings, a Galvanic Skin Response study isn’t as outlandish as it might appear at first glance.

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Aaron Pallas

Aaron Pallas is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.  He has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State Uni...