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Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, talks about the snap decisions human beings make and their accuracy. The book is a fascinating read that touches on a wide range of subject matter. One chapter of the book, interestingly enough, talks about an experiment on evaluating teachers done by Tufts psychologist Nalini Ambady.

In her series of experiments, random people were shown short video clips of teachers in class. They were then asked to evaluate the effectiveness of the teachers. Although these subjects had never met the teachers they watched, their evaluations showed an amazingly high correlation with the real conclusions drawn by the students who actually took the course.

What gets even more interesting is what the subjects actually saw in later runs of the experiment: random six-second silent video clips. The conclusion, from page thirteen of the book: A person watching a silent two-second video clip of a teacher he or she has never met will reach conclusions about how good that teacher is that are very similar to those of a student who has sat in the class for an entire semester.

To be fair, the book seems a bit inaccurate. The abstract for the study mentions six-second clips, but not two-second clips. But in either case, the point is made.

Now, Ambady realized that one could argue that a student’s impression of teacher effectiveness may not represent an accurate assessment of actual teacher effectiveness, so she performed a subsequent experiment (not covered in the book Blink). In this experiment, she measured the evaluations of teacher effectiveness against an actual measure of their effectiveness. Her conclusion: “Students learned more from teachers who were seen in the thin (video) slices as having the qualities of a better teacher.” In other words, subjects were able to accurately measure teacher effectiveness after watching only six silent seconds of that teacher teaching. (More details on both her experiments can be found here, about two-thirds of the way down the page.)

Now this perhaps gets somewhat humorous if you think about all the time, money, and effort that goes into evaluating teachers—whether that be for hiring purposes or for the current discussions regarding Q-Comp and teacher performance pay—but I’ll leave that discussion for others. I’m more interested in this question: What did they see?

What could the subjects have seen in six seconds that could possibly lead them to so successfully measure teacher effectiveness? What do effective teachers consistently do that ineffective teachers consistently don’t do, and how can it be so telling? The article mentions that the video clips included “molar nonverbal behavior”, which refers to movements such as walking, writing, and gesturing. Interesting.

In any case, if you accept the conclusions of these studies, here’s something for us teachers to ponder next September as we start school: In the first six seconds of class on the first day of school your students can accurately judge your effectiveness as a teacher, even if they can’t hear a word you say.

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3 Responses to “Reflections on Teaching Quality”

  1. on 29 Feb 2008 at 7:57 pmDan Meyer

    They’re looking for any indication that the person in front of the class (who will spend a lot of time in front of the class over the semester) has retained, in spite of her years immersed in the same preps, her curiosity, her empathy for those who don’t know what she knows, and her intolerance of boredom. You can tell from body language, posture, and facial expression alone that a teacher still loves her stuff and knows how to sell it to you.

  2. on 01 Mar 2008 at 12:09 amMr. K

    >>In the first six seconds of class on the first day of school your students can accurately judge your effectiveness as a teacherbadass teacher? I’d say you have less than a second to set the hook - the following five seconds are how long you have to land them…

  3. on 23 Dec 2008 at 5:11 pmdy/dan » Blog Archive » Six Seconds

    [...] TOY, Mike Smart, links a few psyche experiments through Gladwell’s Blink and on the other end concludes: In the first six seconds of class on the first day of school your students can [...]

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