Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The duck test

The Duck Test 

Everyone knows the well-known humorous saying, "If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck". There are many times this type of inductive reasoning can be accurate and even worthwhile.  Police officers should look more carefully at individuals who acted suspiciously, and have previous records, as suspects to crimes. Similarly, businessmen and women shouldn't enter into a potential deal with someone they don't trust.

However, I feel that this type of reasoning often translates itself incorrectly into our schools.  With our students, if it looked like a duck and quacked like a duck last school year.... it may not be a duck next school year. All too often we ask previous teachers about which students to watch out for and what to expect. There is no doubt this is done with good intentions. Teachers will wonder how can they best reach these difficult students and proactively try to think of avenues towards success. But it simply isn't fair.

Our students may not get as much credit as they deserve. A typical Jewish middle schooler needs to adapt themselves to 4-8 different teachers with completely different learning styles, classroom management, and grading systems every day, and possibly every year. It is not uncommon for a student to thrive with one teacher and struggle with another with little to no fault to the teacher or the student!

The teacher-student relationship can be so diverse and different from class to class and student to student. A positive relationship between the student and the teacher takes time and doesn't always develop easily. Sometimes, for certain kids, a few negative experiences can literally affect their entire year, even if they occurred accidentally. Other times, in schools with large teacher/student ratios, certain kids may not receive the attention they require and act out instead. The list of potential reasons why a certain student wasn't successful in a particular class could go on and on, and each case needs to be looked at separately and carefully.

I think that despite all of our good intentions, it's simply not fair to inquire with another teacher about our upcoming students. In fact, for all you know, last years "duck" may actually turn into next years "swan"!


  1. Seeking to understand students based on past performance may turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy as well. A teacher who thinks that he or she "knows" a student based on reputation may end up treating that student - even subtly - in a way that conveys those expectations to the student. Teachers' (and parents') expectations have a way of showing the students who they are and students conform to those expectations - positive and negative.
    However, I think the experience of previous teachers can be a valuable resource to helping a student, if used correctly. Previous teachers often have found ways to help a student succeed and that knowledge can assist a current teacher to help his or her students find success.
    It can be a difficult balance between using previous teachers as a resource and avoiding adopting harmful preconceived notions of a child.

  2. Great point. I agree.

    I would say the opposite is true as well. When a student goes through year by year feeling as though the entire school views him a certain way, it is very unlikely he will try to change that image. When he finally comes into a class where the teacher views him with a clean slate, it is relieving, and gives them a chance to truly shine.

    True, there is always value from hearing positive feedback from past teachers. However, if it comes at the expense of hearing their impressions of why those tactics have worked based on their subjective feelings on the student, it could still be harmful.

    Well said, though, Simcha!