Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

In recent posts I have been arguing that if only we interpret the word “good” to mean “effective” we can ground our discussions of values (moral and otherwise) in facts about effectivness. I argue that in that context we can have greater and lesser degrees of goodness, measurable in terms of greater or lesser degrees of effectiveness. I also argue that some things can be done effectively and be good in terms of themselves but be considered overall “bad” if their effectiveness at what they are destroys (rather than aids) the flourishing of a greater possible effectiveness of a more complex and good-producing function.

In reply to my latest post on my thesis that “goodness equals effectiveness”, usagichan asks a couple of important questions, only one the first of which I have room here to address.  I hope to address the other questions in turn:

Reading this and the “Goodness is a factual matter” post, the problem that I am having is that I don’t see how effectiveness, as used in your posts, is a measurable quality – in other words it seems to me that it is simply substituting one immeasurable quality for another. For example, imagine I were to examine how ‘good’ a teacher is – I substitute ‘effective’ for good – how do I determine how effective they are? Well, I could look at their students examination results, which are measurable, but only indicate how effective they are at preparing students for examinations. In this way a teacher that initiated a lifelong love of the subject, but performed poorly at drilling their students for the mechanics of examination would be measured as less ‘good’ than a duller but more efficient teacher, whose words were forgotten the moment their students left the exam hall.

Do you propose some sort of metric for ‘effectiveness’? Is it even possible to have an objective measure that encompasses all aspects of human life? Otherwise we come back to the point that you are mixing a concrete action (maximisation) with an abstract subject ‘effectiveness’.

The other thing that strikes me is that the concept of ‘effectiveness’ assumes that there is an ideal state which actions can either lead towards (i.e. are more effective) or away from (i.e. are less effective (anti-effective? deleterious?). Do you see this as a Universal ideal state, or is it dependent on your perspective/ culture/ potential?

In my response, I will focus on the teacher example for this post to address part (though not all) of the concern about metrics. I hope to address the other questions and challenges usagican raises in another post (or more).

First, let me specify that there can be factual matters which are measurable but not with scientific precision. I consider it an obvious fact that my parents’ love has contributed to my psychological well being. But there is neither a metric for determining precisely how much love they gave me nor precisely how much it benefited me. But it is still a true, factual matter that I have benefited from their love. Even if I am wrong and I have not, it is still a factual issue.

We are capable of separating good from bad judgments about many such factaul matters, even though they admit of no hard, decisive metrics or statistics for proving their truth in a quantitative way that finally settles them against all conceivable skeptics. Some questions of effectiveness can be quantified to either a lesser or greater extent. Others require philosophical clarity about concepts and good habits of non-scientific (but still empirically sensitive and scientifically informed) inference.

So, how would we go about objectively determining what a good teacher is?

Since I am arguing that everything, including teaching, is good insofar as it is effective (i.e. powerful) the measure for the best teaching would be that its overall effectiveness (power).  There are two primary scales to judge effectiveness.

(1) Teaching is the function of imparting skills, information, and/or values to students. Whenever one being conveys information, skills, or priorities to another, teaching is happening and the conveyer is functionally the teacher and the information-receiver or skill-developer or values-developer is the student. This does not have to be a formal educational relationship necessarily. In fact, oftentimes teaching and learning may happen not only informally but unintentionally. Teaching happens even among non-human animals and some inanimate objects (for example, I can teach my computer and it can teach me). Teaching is effective to the degree that a student (i.e., anyone who learns) increases in knowledge or skill or attitude as the result of words or actions of a teacher (i.e., anyone who guides another in knoweldge, abilities, or values).

(2) The effectiveness of a teacher ideally goes well beyond the specifical instances of increasing knowledge, ability, or specific attitude in a student. All further instances of the student successfully incorporating the learned knowledge, abilities or attitudes are the lingering effectiveness of the teacher in the student. Further, to the extent that the student positively or negatively affects other things in the world by using what she has learned from her teacher to either increase or decrease other things’ effectiveness, her teacher is also effective, through the agency of the student, in those other good things’ increases or decreases of effectiveness. The teacher’s power as an effective teacher is maximized to the extent that greater net sums of total positive effectiveness results both in her students and through her students (and then even through the further effects of those good things her students have positively impacted).

This means that the best teaching is the kind that has the greatest positive influence on the students’ entire lives. The best teaching is the kind that most increases the powers of the student such that every time the student exercises their powers in the way that was taught to them, the teacher is once again powerful both in the life of the student and through the life of the student.

So, while an effective act of conveying information is good and effective at the moment at which learning happens, clearly if the information is immediately forgotten and if the student develops no long term, effective skills (even unnoticed, unconscious, unmeasurable ones) then this is a lesser instance of teaching than an act of teaching that functions powerfully through the rest of a student’s life. So, if we measure learning by short term tests that do not measure long term increases in knowledge and skills then we are not adequately assessing the relative success of teaching.

In one case, a  teacher whose greatest strength is being a charismatic and enthusiastic role model might infect a student with a greater zeal but less specific technical knowledge or discipline for a subject than would be ideal. Another, less magnetic but more technically rigorous, teacher might instill discipline and cultivate the virtues of carefulness and proficiency in a student. Another teacher may neither inspire much love nor discipline in students, but pack their heads with a knowledge.  Which of these three teachers will overall impact their students for the best will vary student by student. Some students only need the inspiration and can rely on discipline they have learned elsewhere to carry them the rest of the way. Some students have plenty of excitement but need discipline or a better grounding in facts, etc.

But it seems clear to me that a teacher who could inspire zeal, train in discipline, and help with mastery of facts would be a superior teacher to those who could do only one of the three.  And speaking roughly we might say that a teacher who was good with two out of the three was probably roughly as valuable to students as another teacher who could do a different two out of the three and the both of them are clearly more valuable than the teacher who can do only one out of the three (or none!).

And a beloved teacher who wildly entertains and befriends a class but does not really cultivate an effective love of the subject or an effective discipline in it or a solid grasp of its particular details would be, actually a bad teacher, even as he is a fine entertainer or friend.

Yet, an enthusiastic, discipline-and-detail-oriented teacher may enhance total teaching effectiveness by incorporating the non-teaching specific traits of friendliness and showmanship if these complement the teaching specific virtues such that they make them more effective.

I do not see hopeless ambiguity in thinking about how to rank priorities in teaching. Ideally each teacher would have all the necessary strengths and maximally as possible develop in her students all the necessary abilities, skill-sets, and knowledge-bases germane to the subject being taught, and would have students who use all this personal development to make the greatest positive impacts in the world that they themselves can.

Measuring is imprecise but there should be little question about what the ultimate ideals are. How to compare what is worse between two approaches to teaching which are deficient in different ways may require the devisement of ingenious metrics. Sometimes it may just vary with the nature of the subject being taught—whether it is one that is information heavy or skill heavy. A baseball coach who can impart plenty of information but does not know how to train students in skill activity is most likely going to be a worse teacher of hitters or pitchers (but maybe not of other coaches) than another coach with less feel for information and more of a knack for getting the mind and body to accept a technique. Differences in temperament may also be more or less relevant in different stages of student development. Younger students may require more training in basic behavioral discipline and more inspiration to love learning. Graduate students may need much more cultivation of necessary scholarly discipline but little inspiration to love to learn and little behavioral correction.

But I do not know why, despite all these situational judgments, we could not take it as granted, as a factual matter, that certain value priorities, skill-sets, and knowledge-sets are necessary for the intrinsic flourishing of some specific thing being taught (be it mathematics, cooking, or a martial art, etc.), and then devise empirical investigations which find out what kinds of methods and virtues of different teachers correlate especially highly with success in achieving those goods (those effective activities) in the students and which do not.

Educational research is already doing this, I am sure. In looking for what the traits and techniques that lead to greater learning are, they are not looking for something that they merely like or feel good about or prefer or desire but they are looking for what factually good, factually effective teaching factually consists in so that, as a matter of fact, there will result factually better mathematicians, chefs, martial artists, etc.

There are more interesting facets to usagican’s question (including more questions about metrics that I did not get to with this discussion of them) and there are more excellent comments I have gotten from others as well, so I hope to write more soon on these topics. In the meantime, Your Thoughts?

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”


Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

The Collar That Choked Open Hearts
Talk to Me For Free About Philosophy of Love, Philosophy and Suicide, or Nietzsche
A Moral Philosopher on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson
Before I Deconverted: I Saw My First “Secular Humanist” On TV
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • scenario

    As a teacher in training, I’m more interested in the nuts and bolts of how to decide what is a good teacher.

    In my experience in the business world, a good employee is someone who blindly follows the guidelines like they were rules handed down from a supreme being, whether or not they made any sense in that particular circumstance. An real example from a call center job. I was marked down because I didn’t ask a customer his name 10 seconds after he said his name.

    I’ve seen it from teachers who were friends. They have won awards for their innovative teaching techniques but received bad evaluations because she didn’t teach like everyone else did.

    From my experience, if the evaluation is objective, it ends up being inflexible. If it is subjective, the bosses friends get the good reviews. Really demanding teachers tend to evaluate poorly because they get a lot of parent complaints against them.

    Bad teachers are actually easier to evaluate. It’s easier to tell a terrible teacher from an ok teacher, than an ok teacher from a great one.

  • unbound

    Interesting overall, but I’m not sure the answer to measuring effectiveness was laid out very well. It may help (at least for myself) if you pick one of the analogies and drill a bit deeper into it.

    For example, you mentioned martial arts very briefly. I actually have taught Taekwondo for a few years, and helped coach a couple of kids to participate in national competitions. And I can already see a lot of problems trying to objectively measure success…especially if it needed to be computed in comparison to a larger group. It is very similar to the problems we have in large corporations trying to determine merit increases for employees…it is much more difficult than most can imagine.

    In martial arts, there are a number of basic techniques that we teach. How to stand, how to punch, and how to kick are among those basics. In the case of a roundhouse kick, many people kick differently from each other. Whereas you might want to define an effective kick as having a certain amount of power, hitting at a specific angle, or hitting at a specific speed, that doesn’t determine the success in sparring (my own roundhouse kick being a bit odd, but I actually won a gold medal in sparring at a national competition). However, those might be good metrics for someone competing in forms competition. But still not a good metric for actual self-defense…in which case using success in competitions is irrelevant. And have no doubt, techniques used in competition are usually horrible techniques for self-defense.

    And even if a decision is made to determine which method is considered effective (or some of them, or all of them), who gets to make that determination? Some instructors will absolutely insist on some over others and will deride you if you support what he/she thinks are inferior measures. And this is just in a small point of how to kick which would probably be one of the easiest things to critique. Many concepts deeper in martial arts get much harder to evaluate.

    This is not to say that I don’t think some objective measure of effective teaching can be defined. I’m just not seeing it at this point of the discussion. I would like some ideas on how to improve such concepts as it would also apply to the aforementioned employee evaluations where employees are performing very different tasks, but we have to compare and rank them.

  • Pen

    Maybe trying to tell whether a teacher is good or bad by measuring their student performance is just too vague and general. It is possible to measure the effectiveness of many of the things teachers do, and far less judgmental. For example, it’s possible to examine the research on the effectiveness of phonetic versus whole word reading techniques in teaching kids to read. Or the effectiveness of abstinence only sex education in preventing unwanted pregnancies to name but two. Sometimes, you just need to break things down more. As you said, you just can’t really measure “the greatest positive influence on the students’ entire lives” all in one go, but you can certainly measure a lot of the parts, at least in principle.

  • rutty

    First, let me specify that there can be factual matters which are measurable but not with scientific precision. I consider it an obvious fact that my parents’ love has contributed to my psychological well being. But there is neither a metric for determining precisely how much love they gave me nor precisely how much it benefited me. But it is still a true, factual matter that I have benefited from their love. Even if I am wrong and I have not, it is still a factual issue.

    The benefit of your parents’ love is almost certainly true, but is it fact? How do you know that you wouldn’t have benefited in some way from a lack of love?

    Lots of homeopathic remedy users are convinced that they’ve benefited greatly from their sugar pills. Is this fact? It’s a fact that they think it’s true, but not that it is true. It’s true from their perspective of reality, but not necessarily from reality itself (other than the placebo effect).

  • usagichan

    Thanks for a very interesting reply to the first of my questions. So if I understand your position correctly, while you are acknowledging there are challenges in measuring the effectiveness of a teacher, there is no intrinsic reason not to be able to do so. The good (effectiveness) of a teacher is a question of tangible effect, and while that effect is difficult to quantify in a meaningful way there is nothing intrinsic to the effect that is immeasurable – given a sufficiently powerful means of measurement and a meaningful metric, effectiveness is a concrete attribute, not an abstract one.

    Again as I understand it the concrete good (effectiveness) is in terms of empowerment of the individual (in this case the pupil) to achieve greater complexity (and although it is not explicit in the articles I read, I assume that you mean mental complexity in this case, and in all cases ordered complexity – chaotic systems can be increasingly complex but seem to me to be rarely a reasonable target for development). So a further question here – is all increase in complexity a desirable (and therefore a good) target? Increasing complexity seems such an arbitrary measure of progress – and complexity is also a difficult property to measure, and so we come back to the problem that you claim that something is a matter of “truth” yet what is the truth and what is being measured seems to vague for me to accept the argument as put so far (that is not to say I reject it – it is an interesting concept, I am just not convinced that the “truth” of good/ effectiveness is adequately supported by your model).

    For example, it could be argued that the quality that life possesses and develops towards is not increasing complexity per se, but increasing fitness to its environment (to borrow the language of evolutionary science). Generally it may be the case that increasing fitness is positively correlated to increasing complexity, but it is not guaranteed. So to go back to our teaching example, if surpressing complex development increased fitness to the pupils environment, what would be more “effective”, a teacher that promoted complex behaviour that made the pupil less fit for their environment, or a teacher that inhibited the emergence of complex development that increased the pupils fitness to their environment.

    Once again this is not to say that either “complexity” or “fitness” are immeasurable therefore good is a qualitative abstract term. It may well be that “good” is a matter of “fact” – your approach certainly provides for meaningful discussion about the actuality of the concept of “good” rather than the “we know it when we see it” approach to examining it.

  • noel

    Another wrinkle: Effectiveness with advanced students vs. effectiveness with minimal standards students may differ. My school district is forcing us (I teach high school chem) to focus on the latter to get all students to pass very basic competency tests, which seems very unfair to the others who are deprived of a more advanced education. The focus of the district will determine what kind of metric is used to judge the teachers, i.e., some of the best teachers may be deemed poor because they teach what they are supposed to teach rather than basic skills.

  • Alan Cooper

    To amplify on noel’s point, if teacher A can bring 20% of students to a level of inspiration that enables advancement at the frontier of the subject but fails with most of the rest, and teacher B can bring 80% of the class to the level of understanding required for general career applications and making political judgments based on the subject but fails to inspire the top 20% to go beyond that, then which is more “effective”? Certainly a teacher C who can do both is “better” than both A and B, but perhaps there is no such C because the engagement with basics that is needed by the 60% bores the 20%, and the exploration of boundaries which is needed to inspire the 20% just confuses the rest. If there is no teacher C then some kind of streaming might be appropriate, but perhaps streaming conflicts with other values and perhaps there just is not sufficient time and energy available to support both kinds of teaching effectively.

    Whether it is about comparing individual teachers or for determining how best to distribute resources between different types of instruction (either in the case of an individual teacher’s time management or via different teachers in a streamed system) the situation does seem to call for “the devisement of ingenious metrics”. But how can that be done without assigning relative values to the different goals (and/or costs per unit for failure to meet them)? Yes, you can reduce the measure of “effectiveness” of (a teacher or) an educational system to its contribution to the “effectiveness” of the society it serves – but only IF there is an unambiguous criterion of effectiveness for the total society.