Applying Milgram’s Findings to Teaching and Learning

Milgram’s classical experiment into obedience led to some surprising revelations, putting the ethical and bias issues to one side.  Milgram developed the Agency Theory (1974) which indicates that people will obey and take responsibility for their own actions (agentic state).  For example, those students who show concern, guilt and/ or remorse for their actions within school.  Whereas others will indicate that they were told to carry out their actions by another (autonomous state).  This is often been referred to as been deputised and thereby taking on authority. For example, “it’s not my fault, you put me in charge” or “John told me to hit him.”

Another way of interpreting this is when a teacher asks a student to act on their behalf, by acting as a teaching assistant (peer support) or collecting the bank of computers from the classroom next door.  This is all rooted in the concept of legitimacy (legitimate power), that is the person carrying out the activity (student) believes that the person who is making the request (teacher) as the authority to direct them, thus any consequence is levelled against the legitimacy of the teacher, not the student. However, there are other factors which influence the students’ obedience and conformity.

During the experiment, it was discovered that if the experimenter (person giving the instructions) was not wearing a lab coat (uniform) obedience drop by 20%. This indicates that legitimacy within the classroom is linked to the way a teacher dresses.  For example, physical education (PE) teachers wear sportswear whilst other teachers wear professional clothing such as a suit and tie. Some teachers refer to this as their professional armour.  What is interesting is that when the teacher (experimenter) was not present obedience dropped and the subject/ respondent cheated or attempted to circumvent the experiment to avoid giving the electric shock.  This is reflected in the classroom when the teacher leaves the room.  Students typically relax and start chatting, what Milgram discovered was that the proximity of the legitimate power (teacher) influenced obedience. For example, in the classroom, simply moving closer to a student who is talking will result in that student refocusing due to the perception of consequence (verbal reprimand) of their action (talking), behaviour management by proximity.  Other factors such as the number of students who are showing inappropriate behaviour can result in reduced conformity, leading to a poor learning experience for the whole class.  However, Milgram’s experiment suggests that if you can reduce the negative behaviour in one student, it is likely to reduce the negative behaviour in other students too (social modelling).

Finally, Milgram’s findings suggest that the location (classroom) has an impact on obedience and conformity. Indicating that the classroom and school is a teacher’s power based, linked to the students perceived value and prestige (high regard) of the school. Thus, if a school and/ or a teacher can build prestige within the classroom, students are more likely to follow and achieve the learning expectations. Along with other factors like a sense of identity and belongingness, this is one of the reasons of a student uniform.

A recent review of the Agency Theory (1989)

Visualising Learning: Differentiation and Scaffolding

Part of the Visualising Education Blog Series

Differentiation is another one of those terms which teachers interpret in many different ways.  For example, differentiation by outcome, differentiation by input, differentiation by learning level to differentiation by activity/ task.  Thus a simple definition of differentiation could be what will you do differently for each student/ group.  When I teach differentiation I use the RAGTOP acronym (Resource, Assessment, Group, Task, Outcome and Pace) as this gives the trainee teacher a framework to reflect and develop their personalised approach to differentiation within their specialised teaching domain. However, there are many items missing from this, such as questioning, modelling, and personalisation. Other acronyms have been presented such as PROMPT (Pace, Resource, Outcome, Modelling, Personalisation and Task). What is clear, is that these acronyms are starting points which aid the teacher in developing their own unique approach to differentiation for their students, classes and specific learning domains.

Each student brings their own needs and expectations to the classroom and the teacher needs to recognise and address these needs and expectations within the planning and delivery of lessons. The process of planning for differentiation is just a subroutine within the lesson planning process.  For example, based on student data the teacher could differentiate by assessment, where students produce different levels of work.  This is like the BTEC courses where the student(s) aim for either Pass, Merit or Distinction. (Ignoring the debate about how this type of provision results in reduced motivation and aspirations.) Similarly, differentiation by outcome, for example, can group one explain which muscles are used during the squat thrust, whereas, group two may be looking at the internal mechanism of the quadriceps during the squat thrust.  Semantically, it could be argued that the real difference between these two types of differentiation is that one has assessment criteria (BTEC) and the other is about establishing or consolidating knowledge.  However, at some point, the students will have to undertake an assessment to prove that learning has taken place and thus achieving the requirements of the qualification. I have provided a simplistic top-level view of this process in figure one. It is at this point where the confusion between differentiation and scaffolding starts to develop.

Simplistic Top-Level View of Differentiation

Figure One: Visualisation of differentiation within a lesson

Scaffolding (Wood, Bruner, and Ross’s (1976)) is about dripping information to allow the students to progress, which leads to attainment. For example, use capital letters and full stops, then moving on to capital letters, full stops and compound sentences and so on. Thus, Scaffolding is linked to the concept, ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) which is attributed to Vygotsky and his theories of learning.  I will purposefully avoid the debate about who coined the phrase ZPD. However, in simple terms we can visualise ZPD as a journey to becoming a Master, with many hurdles along the way, I will refer to these hurdles as ‘points of frustration.’ When a student becomes frustrated it is because they ‘do not know what to do,’ they have hit a point of frustration and require additional input from the master (teacher, knowledgeable peer or video) to move to the next stage. This input may need to be differentiated based on the student’s needs, skills and knowledge. However, as the student begins to develop mastery of the subject they hit fewer points of frustration as they have more knowledge and skills to draw against, see figure two.

ZPD as Learning Journey

Figure Two: Visualisation of the ZPD as a learning journey

The key message is that differentiation supports the scaffolding process, although there is an argument that they are not mutually exclusive, thus, are dependent upon each other. Another way of looking at this is, how will you differentiate learning to avoid points of frustration, whilst move learning forward.

To visualise differentiation within lesson planning I have provided a simplistic lesson plan below, in figure 3 (for a discussion about lesson planning click here). Remember that progression is about identifying any improvement or the creation of skills and/ or knowledge (what does the student know now which they did not know before?). From the simplistic lesson plan example, figure 3, differentiation is based on the students learning level (Pass, Merit and Distinction) and their outputted work (Assessment). The objective is the students learning target and the visualise progression, is how the student will see that they have progressed. Scaffolding is achieved at two levels a) by completing each learning episode, which in this case is separated by the teacher’s input and b) within the learning episode where students can progress through the levels. Similarly, a group of students could spend the full lesson just completing the first learning episode, on the assumption that this is the core learning for the assessment and you need the pass students to achieve all the requirements for all levels (Pass, Merit and Distinction).

Notice that in the lesson plan, learning episode one leads into learning episode two. If during the first teacher input, the teacher’s assessment (Assessment for Learning) shows that some or all of the students achieve that requirement the teacher can skip the first learning activity. Making students who already have this knowledge and skillset, complete the first learning episode, is not progressing their knowledge, understanding or skillset and therefore no progression is taking place.



Figure Three: A simplistic lesson plan showing differentiation and scaffolding.

Visualising Planning By Learning Events

Part of the Visualising Education Blog Series

In 2011 I reviewed all my lecture presentations and teaching materials for reoccurring patterns and discovered that over a six month period. I went from having presentations which were inconsistent, illogical and all but ineffectual to developing a consistent repeatable cycle. This cycle can be summarised and is displayed in table one, below.

Table one:  Traversable Learning Cycle

1VisualiseVideo, image, real-life, narrative
2ConceptualiseCreate own definition and a list of indicators
3Transfer new knowledgeContent, theory, principles etc…
4Challenge new knowledgeQuestioning (verbal, paper etc…)
5Apply new knowledgeCase study, scenario, poster etc…
6Affirm learningChallenge and confirm new insight

If we assume that the hierarchy is traversable, a teacher could be in stage four (challenging new knowledge) and realise that some students have missed key points of the concept.  The teacher could jump to stage one and ask ‘do you remember the video at the start of the lesson, why did I show you that?’ or stage two, ‘what was your definition at the start of the lesson? …. (stage three) how does that link to this theory?’ This ability to traverse across the planned lesson and its content, allows the teacher to quickly locate, where within the scaffolding process, the miss-concept took place and therefore, address it at the correct location.  Critically, it is the process of helping the student(s) to make links between the information at the different learning stages and thereby restructure their understanding. What I have outlined is linked to concepts within the instructional design domain.

I realised, I was planning lessons based on learning activities.  The process was based around the following key questions.

  • What do I want the students to learn?
  • Which activity is best to transfer this knowledge?
  • What activity will promote maximum student engagement?

Based on the answer to these questions, a best-fit sequence of pedagogical or andragogical activities is identified. These activities are integrated to generate a planned lesson.  Figure one, below, provides a very simple illustration of the stages of the Traversable Learning Cycle highlighted in table one, above.

Student VoiceStudent VoiceStudent VoiceStudent VoiceStudent VoiceStudent Voice

Figure One: Lesson segment by activity

It is worth highlighting that for this approach to lesson planning to be successful, the teacher needs to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each activity in terms of learning.  Of course, there are practical considerations as well.

Now read: Visualising Learning: Lesson Planning

The Deployment Of Teaching Assistants Within The Classroom, A Teachers Perception

For all stakeholders the deployment of the teaching assistant within the classroom is critical but even more so to the success of the teacher’s performance management in relation to the the ‘lesson observation’ against the Ofsted performance grade as outlined in the Ofsted: School Inspection Handbook (2013).

Quality of teaching grade descriptor – good

Teachers and other adults create a positive climate for learning in their lessons and pupils are interested and engaged.

Quality of teaching grade descriptor – outstanding

Teachers and other adults authoritatively impart knowledge to ensure students are engaged in learning, and generate high levels of commitment to learning across the school.

Statistically speaking a teacher is 80% likely to have a teaching assistant within the classroom during an Ofsted lesson observation (ATL survey of teaching assistants (2013)).  This means that it is the teacher’s responsibility to ensure that the teaching assistants are using their knowledge and skills to creating, developing and maintain a positive learning climate where pupils are engaged within the learn experience.

The knowledge and skills which the teaching assistant brings to the classroom was highlighted by teachers as a major concern (Neill (2002)) arguing that the teaching assistant lack of subject specific knowledge creates more issues than they solve.  I would argue that it is not the responsibility of the class teacher to train the teaching assistant within the subject rather it is the school’s responsibility to ensure that the teaching assistant has these skills, knowledge and drive for the subject.

Bourke (2009) suggested that training should reflect a collaborative process which focuses on “reflection on learning” and “sharing meanings and understandings about effective support of all students.”  However, it is assumed that the teaching assistant has the subject specific knowledge and that the teaching assistant is given time to participate within shared planning.

Interestingly, Farrell et al. (2010)) found that the deployment of teaching assistants needs to be carried out with specific focus to the individual learning needs of each student rather than a small group of children scattered across the classroom.  This suggests that the deployment of the teaching assistant should be focused on sitting with an individual student or a small group sitting together within the classroom.  Where the teaching assistant would be responsible for the creation and maintenance a positive learning climate where the student is engaged and interested.  However, if the teacher assistant does not give the students time to work independently during the lesson then the student will become reliant on this support creating a situation of learned helplessness.

To support this Blatchford et al. (2011) concluded that teaching assistants need to undertake training which focuses on the pedagogical skills as these are the critical skills which teachers rely on when deploying the teaching assistant within the classroom.  The teachers assistant application of their pedagogical knowledge and skills are vital in establishing the engaging and interesting learning experience which teachers are required to deliver to achieve a ‘good’ during an Ofsted lesson observation.

Therefore, the deployment of the teaching assistant within the classroom is influenced by the subject specific knowledge and (pedagogical) skills which the teaching assistant brings.  Once in the classroom the teaching assistant needs to be placed in a location where they can target intervention without moving around the classroom whilst offering an opportunities to foster independent learning skills within the students. In doing so, allowing the teaching assistant to apply their pedagogical knowledge and skills to maintaining an engaging and interesting learning experience.

Teachers and Teaching Assistants – Entrenched Confusion

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) report (edited by Neill 2002) explored the teachers perception of the teaching assistant and showed that teacher felt that teaching assistants provide pastoral support to targeted pupils. However, there has been a move over the past ten years to assessing the teaching assistants impact based on their contribution to the academic gains of the students they support.  This has led to controversial headlines, none more so than the findings of Blatchford et al. (2011) who indicated that the more support a student receives the less academic progression they will make.

When we consider that 80% of high school teachers felt that they had no training to work with teaching assistants and 50% of these teacher believed that they required additional training to support the teaching assistant within the classroom, Neill (2002). We begin to see the emerging issue, confusion.  Teaching assistants themselves (59%) have highlighted that teachers do not have the required training to use them effectively within the learning experience, ATL survey of teaching assistants (2013).

What is clear, regardless of the pending changes outlined in the white paper, is that teachers have a responsibility to ensure that the teaching assistant(s) within the classroom are directed and actively contributing to learning, Ofsted: School Inspection Handbook (2013).

Quality of teaching grade descriptor – Good

Teachers and other adults create a positive climate for learning in their lessons and pupils are interested and engaged.

Quality of teaching grade descriptor – Outstanding

Teachers and other adults authoritatively impart knowledge to ensure students are engaged in  learning, and generate high levels of commitment to learning across the school.

On one hand, teachers saying that teaching assistants are in the classroom to support the pastoral and emotional development of the student(s).  Whereas teaching assistants are saying that they can and want to directly and actively contribute to the students learning.  Ofsted, are saying at teaching assistants have to ensure that students are engaged and learning.  However, there are barrier which are preventing this ideal fusion of the teaching assistant and teacher, such as:

Teachers felt that they need (Neill (2002)):

  • Training relating to the deployment of teaching assistants
  • Joint planning time
  • Training relating to recording and assessment

The biggest issue which teachers from primary and secondary school highlighted as a barrier is:

The teaching assistants lack of skills and subject knowledge

Research has shown that professional and specific training for teaching assistants has resulted in an increased performance of the teaching assistant and development of the supported student (Bourke (2009)Farrell et al. (2010)Rose & Forlin (2010)).  Making opportunities like joint planning absolutely critical as they allow the teacher to impart subject specific knowledge and teaching assistant to provide specialised differentiation knowledge specific for targeted student(s) within the class. 

Implications for all schools is that if you want to achieve an Ofsted rating of good or outstanding you need to establish a robust and specifically targeted training program for both the teacher and the teaching assistant.  Personally and based on experience, I would recommend that this specialised training is implemented separately from ‘whole school staff development.’

This blog could go on for another ten pages discussing issues and their implications within the classroom and the school but I will stop here. The next time you are working with another adult in the classroom (teacher or teaching assistant) take a step back and remember that we are all as confused as each other but we all want the best for our students.