On Co-teaching, Classroom Observation and Mark Fisher’s ‘Market Stalinism’


Co-teaching, for me, has been a continual source of curiosity, possibility and most of all, frustration. For most of my teaching career in Korea, I have not had to co-teach, but now that I am back in the public school system here, I am once again teaching with a partner. The contrast in the teaching experience has brought back to my mind many of the potentials that I believe co-teaching has for English education, along with the frustrations.

I have, at the same time, just finished Mark Fisher’s book Capitalist Realism. While this book is not largely relevant to education, Fisher has one concept that I found extremely related, what he calls, “Market Stalinism” (MS). A loaded term, for sure. MS for Fisher is the “reversal of priorities” that often happens in a quantified market. Ideally, markets operate to provide the goods and services that consumers desire. The “Stalinism” that Fisher notes is the replacement of this ideal with the abstracted, usually numerical, “goals” instead. Instead of providing services to meet needs, MS quantifies the targets through abstraction and over time, these abstracted, quantified, targets become the goals themselves.

“Yet the drive to assess the performance of workers and to measure forms of labor which, by their nature, are resistant to quantification, has inevitably required additional layers of management and bureaucracy. What we have is not a direct comparison of workers’ performance or output, but a comparison between the audited representation of that performance and output. Inevitably, a short-circuiting occurs, and work becomes geared towards the generation and massaging of representations rather than to the official goals of the work itself. Indeed, an anthropological study of local government in Britain argues that ‘more effort goes into ensuring that a local authority’s services are represented correctly than goes into actually improving those services'” (bolded italics mine).

Market Stalinism in Schools

To the experienced teacher, the relationship to schools is obvious. MS operates at multiple levels because of, in part, who the “producers” are, what the “product” is and who the “consumers” are in education is vague at best. Are teachers the “producers” and/or “products”? Are students the products or consumers? What is the role of administration?

Because of this, schools at every level have been drawn to hard, quantifiable numbers that can “prove” performance. Systems like No Child Left Behind or Race To The Top reinforce MS in the United States because they have abstractly quantified “learning” into a series of standardized tests. These tests, being the goal of education now, re-arrange pedagogy towards the tests, and away from the original target– competency in a specific field. This leads to the sad state where teachers spend the majority of the time cramming their students to perform on tests instead of developing and employing pedagogy aimed the development of skills related to actual fields of use. For example, the physics teacher spends time training students how to answer questions on a test, rather than giving them experience in the exploration, examination and production of the skills that physicists do.

“…in a process that repeats itself with iron predictability everywhere that they are installed, targets quickly cease to be a way of measuring performance and become ends in themselves. Anxiety about falling standards in school examinations is now a regular feature of the summertime in Britain. Yet is students are less skilled and knowledgeable than their predecessors, this is due not to a decline in the quality of examinations per se, but to the fact that all of the teaching is geared towards passing the exams. Narrowly focused ‘exam drill’ replaces a wider engagement with subjects. “

Additionally, because students are also consumers, the producers are regularly evaluated in a similar system of MS. The organization of these systems themselves reorients the practice of teaching towards the perceived goals of the system. For example, student evaluations have become central to a teacher’s performance evaluations. Therefore, the standards that the student evaluation emphasize become the targets of the teachers planning and execution.


The Practice of Abstracting “Targets”

Sometimes, this is good. In my own practice, one target of the student evaluations is “teacher preparedness”. This target has explanations like “the teacher was prepared for every lesson”. As a teacher, this is important. But, also as a teacher who knows this will be evaluated, I emphasized my own preparation in the classroom. I did this primarily through:

1) writing and explaining the plan for every class on the board.
2) trying as hard as possible to do everything on that plan.
3) actually check-marking each item on the plan after we finished it.

Through this practice, I emphasized to the students that I was prepared for class and that I could execute a plan. However, another part of the student evaluation, related to teacher preparation was “The teacher prepares additional worksheets and sources of information to explain the textbook.”

In this case, ideally, being able to explain and expound and maybe show a video should be enough to get a good evaluation. However, students may not remember every time you successfully explained something. So, instead, I made sure that every class had a worksheet component that I designed, even if it wasn’t exactly needed, in addition to their textbook work. The materiality, along with the cumulative effect of keeping and storing the worksheets is a reminder to students, that I was able to expound and explain in the classroom.

Models of Co-teaching and Foucault

An important gap here however, is that while I undertook these specific practices, and my student evaluations were always good, there is no clear indication that A lead to B. It was the shadow of evaluation itself that drove the practices that I undertook, not a clear connection between my practices and the student evaluations. Fisher, referencing Michel Foucault, also recognized this phenomena:

“New bureaucracy takes the form not of a specific, delimited function performed by particular workers but invades all areas of work, with the result that – as Kafka prophesied – workers become their own auditors, forced to assess their own performance. … [inspection] has far more to do with the extra bureaucratic window-dressing one has to do in anticipation of a possible observation than it has to do with any actual observation itself. The inspection, that is to say, corresponds precisely Foucault’s account of the virtual nature surveillance in Discipline And Punish. Foucault famously observes there that there is no need for the place of surveillance to actually be occupied. The effect of not knowing whether you will be observed or not produces an introjection of the surveillance apparatus. You constantly act as if you are always about to be observed. Yet, in the case of school and university inspections, what you will be graded on is not primarily your abilities as a teacher so much as your diligence as a bureaucrat.” (bold mine).

The Foucaultian observer leads me, now, to Co-Teaching. Because for me, that’s exactly what it feels like.

Co-teaching as a practice has a lot of different variations, some of which are much more valuable and worthwhile than others. See this meta-analysis of various studies examining co-teaching in South Korea. In summary, the authors note that there are several problems with co-teaching in Korea, in large part due to 1) ambiguous roles for the NT and KT 2) NTs are largely inexperienced and uneducated in pedagogy 3) conflicting KT and NT beliefs about teaching.

Ideally, co-teaching creates an opportunity for the students to get more beneficial learning than if they had just a single teacher. Some examples might be:

  • Having one teacher teach a large group, while another teacher takes a small group for more focused work. (The Workshop model)
  • Having one teacher pre-teach vocabulary and grammar that the other teacher will use in a more in-depth communication task. (The Sheltered Model)
  • Having one teacher act as class observer, making detailed and systematic notations about student interactions, teacher-talk, student/teacher talk percentage, target-language use (and so on and so on), while the other teacher leads and directs the class. (The Scientific Observer model)

The main feature a quality co-teaching method will have however, is a clear and directed approach that both teachers know about and can contribute to. Besides the possibilities above, there are many other ways that co-teaching could be successful.

There is one way in particular though, that is damaging. I’ll outline that way now.

  • One teacher is in control of planning and executing a lesson plan. The other teacher is in charge of quality control of that lesson plan. (The Foucaultian Observer Model).

This method is based on, I think, a common feeling that teachers don’t want to be too involved in each others teaching directly. Instead, one teacher acts as “manager” and the other as worker. For schools that use this model in Korea, usually, the managing teacher is the Korean Teacher (KT) and the worker is the Foreign Teacher (FT).

In this environment, the FT has “freedom” to design, plan and conduct their classroom. They must submit their lessons to their KT, who checks them for “quality” and then observes the classroom, after which they give feedback to the FT. You’ll notice right away that this type of co-teaching is much more private, distinct and separated than the other models, which rely much more on collaboration, co-implementation and co-action. As a result the cooperative models are also co-evaluative. The FO Model, however, is directionally evaluative. The KT evaluates the FT.

An Example of Foucaultian Observer Co-Teaching

This evaluation however, is not all the time. In my experience, the KT rarely gives evaluation, but that’s not the point from the Foucaultian perspective. It is the looming shadow of evaluation that will persist after an evaluation that does the real damage.

In my own experience at my new school, after my first lesson, my co-teachers sat me down and gave me a huge list of comments. Most of which were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the pedagogy and approach I used. In that conversation, I was defensive and argued my case and for my pedagogy, perhaps even more than I should have. I did so because I didn’t feel my co-teachers understood me to begin with, and they were still evaluating me.

While I did take some of the comments to heart, their major issue (my game design-enhanced pedagogy) was rejected. I flatly stated that I would continue with my curriculum, since in fact, the school provided absolutely zero standards or curriculum.

Since that conversation, my co-teachers have not directly evaluated me. However, I know that they are evaluating me or better, that they could be evaluating me at all times. This has strained my teaching. In part because while I am designing lessons, I am always keeping in my mind how my co-teacher will perceive the lesson, not just how the students will orient and react to the lesson. This is similar to what Fisher says, quoting the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, as being the “Big Other”.

“Here, Zizek’s elaboration of Lacan’s concept of the ‘big Other’ is crucial. The big Other is the collective fiction, the symbolic structure, presupposed by any social field. The big Other can never be encountered in itself; instead, we only ever confront its stand-ins. These representatives are by no means always leaders. … One important dimension of the big Other is that it does not know everything. It is this constitutive ignorance of the big Other that allows public relations to function.”

“Auditing can perhaps best be conceived of as fusion of PR and bureaucracy, because the bureaucratic data is usually intended to fulfill a promotional role: in the case of education, for example, exam results or research ratings augment (or diminish) the prestige of particular institutions. The frustration for the teacher is that it seems as if their work is increasingly aimed at impressing the big Other which is collating and consuming this ‘data’. ‘Data’ has been put in inverted commas here, because much of the so-called information has little meaning or application outside the parameters of the audit: as Eeva Berglund puts it, ‘the information that audit creates does have consequences even though it is so shorn of local detail, so abstract, as to be misleading or meaningless – except, that is, by the aesthetic criteria of audit itself” (bolded italics mine).

A conclusion

The “Big Other” in my situation is actually my co-teachers themselves. It is the title that they wield (manager) and the structure of our co-teaching institution (Foucaultian observer model) that is the Big Other. My co-teachers seem like nice people and I can talk to them, and yet still, they also occupy a position within the institution that creates extra bureaucracy that doesn’t directly improve teaching and learning at this school. This is also not directly their faults, but instead a systemic problem. I imagine if the school integrated a better model of co-teaching, both teacher satisfaction and student learning would improve.

But instead, I spend a lot of my down time, between classes, grading, and planning– talking to myself about how I will defend my classes to my Big Other, to the evaluators that observe me and to the “targets” that I must reach, no matter how disconnected they are from actual learning and teaching.

For me, I would like to implement the Scientific Observer model of Co-teaching. I think it requires the least amount of direct planning and collaboration between teachers and I think my co-teachers want that (they are extremely busy doing other things). I want that kind of information anyway, and having a data collector and observer in my class, helping me notice patterns in activity would be immensely helpful. For now though, that kind of collaboration is yet to be attained.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.