By Sara Schodt.
In this post, I want to share a summary of some preliminary – and therefore anecdotal – impressions from my experience leading an analysis of classroom videos. This is part of a more complex study on teacher quality currently in progress.
Since 2003, as part of a longitudinal study of poor Ecuadorian families, the IADB has been looking at the relationship between children growing up in poverty and their cognitive development. Simply put, one of the major findings from this study has been that, on average, poor children have much lower levels of cognitive development than even their even slightly-better-off peers. In terms of their educational opportunities, this means that they start school already at a disadvantage and, on average, they never make up the lost ground (Schady, 2011 and Paxson & Schady, 2007).
A growing body of evidence, however, suggests that this need not be the case, and that high-quality and stimulating early school environments can help to remediate these deficits (for example Schweinhart, 2003, Vandell & Wolfe 2000; Phillips, 1987; NICHD, 2000; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000; Burchinal et al., 1997; Campbell & Ramey, 1995). Building on these findings, we are currently working in Ecuador on a related project to better understand the quality of children’s day-to-day classroom experiences and to characterize what kinds of schools and teachers seem to be most successful at addressing poor children’s academic and socio-emotional needs, and giving them the skills they need to learn alongside their better-off peers.
As a part of the answer to this question, we’ve spent the last year filming teachers in a random sample of nearly 700 kindergarten classrooms across Ecuador, to later analyze the videos with an observational classroom quality instrument called the CLASS (Classroom Assessment Scoring System). Unlike other instruments that measure more structural elements of classrooms like curriculum, books, and toys, the CLASS looks solely at processes within the classroom that most strongly predict child development. Specifically, it looks at the quality of teacher-child and peer interactions taking place in the classrooms, and what teachers do with the materials available to them. In our study, a cameraperson unobtrusively films an entire school day from the back of the classroom, and later a team of Ecuadorian annalists scores 4 twenty-minute systematically selected video segments from each classroom, and assigns a numerical CLASS quality score across ten different dimensions that capture the classroom environment.
Preliminary observations from the video analysis suggest that teachers in Ecuador face many of the same challenges in achieving high quality experiences with their students, as do teachers in other countries. That said, a number of things stand out that specifically characterize the kindergarten experience in Ecuador. First and foremost, children are asked very, very few questions throughout the course of their day, and they are almost never asked questions that require more than a one-word rote answer, or further their thinking or understanding. They are never asked questions that begin with, How…? Or, Why…? Or, What do you think about…? Or, What else can you think of…? In general, children never ask questions to their teachers. In practical terms, this means that Ecuadorian children have very little opportunities to practice expressing complete and coherent thoughts, or to engage in learning that is centered on constructing knowledge rather than simply memorizing and repeating facts.
In addition, Ecuadorian children have very little opportunity for choice or creativity within the classroom; they are told what colors to use to draw a picture, what shapes to paint, what figures to cut, and what size paper balls should have to tear and roll. They do not have free time within the classroom to pursue activities that interest them, but rather spend all their time following specific orders and engaging in activities that are orchestrated for them step-by-step. While following instructions may be important in some moments, in general the literature suggests that rote activities do little to develop the important critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making skills that children need to be successful in school and in life.
Finally, actual instructional time appears to occupy a very little part of the school day; a phenomenon observed with the CLASS instrument in classrooms in the United States and in Chile as well. Kindergarten children in Ecuador spend long periods of time seated at their tables waiting for their teacher to organize activities, approve work, hand out materials, and finally for all of their classmates to all finish an activity.
These findings, while troubling, are not meant to damn the enormous efforts that many teachers in the country put into their work every day. Rather, they are cause for real optimism, because for the first time they give us specific information about what exactly is going on inside the “black box” of the classroom, and are a starting point to develop ways to improve the kinds of supports available to teachers to in turn provide a more enriching learning experience for their students.
Sara Schodt is a consultant with experience in education and development who is based in IADB’s office in Quito, Ecuador.