Horizontal vs. Vertical: An International Comparison of Teaching Methods

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A new study released by NBER from authors Yann Algan, Pierre Cahuc and Andrei Shleifer takes a look at how teaching practices affect social capital. It’s long and detailed, so we’ll only give you the highlights: in a nutshell, there are major differences between societies that teach vertically (like a teacher lecturing) and societies that teach horizontally (with students working together in groups.)

And because everyone loves international comparisons, the difference between horizontal and vertical countries breaks down as follows:

Students work in groups more in Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden) and Anglo-Saxon countries (Australia, United States and to a lesser extent Great Britain). This teaching practice is less common in East European countries and the Mediterranean (Greece, Cyprus, Portugal and, to a lesser extent, Italy). In contrast, in East European and Mediterranean countries, teachers spend more timing lecturing.

Among the most interesting points from the study is the correlation between teaching method, trust level, and government effectiveness. Reminiscent of the cultural hierarchy studies from Hofstede, Schwartz and Trompenaars the authors write:

The correlation between [teaching] Gap and trust is strongly negative; almost one-third of the cross-country variation in trust is explained by the variation in teaching practices. Scandinavian countries (with the exception of Finland), and to a lesser extent Anglo-Saxon countries, combine both a fairly high level of trust and teaching practices tilted toward horizontal rather than vertical. In contrast, most Mediterranean (Turkey, France and Greece in the first place) and East European countries are characterized by teaching practices biased toward the vertical and low levels of trust. The big outliers are Japan and Ireland, which tilt toward vertical teaching practices but have high trust.

Horizontal teaching methods are more endemic to countries with high levels of cooperation, and higher student evaluations of a teacher’s fairness as measured by a ‘willingness to listen.’ Teacher trust levels in students are particularly correlated to future government trust levels in adults. Using data from the International Social Survey Program, the authors write, “It appears that subordination to teachers as a student leads to a feeling – and perhaps a reality — of subordination to bureaucrats as an adult.”

The study argues that countries with an emphasis on vertical teaching also tend to have more dysfunctional governments than countries with horizontal teaching.

…government effectiveness is lower in countries where vertical teaching predominates. The correlation patterns are statistically significant and economically sizeable. Vertical teaching alone can explain 18.3 percent of the cross-country variation in government effectiveness.

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  1. Chess Piece Face says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Richard says:

      Azure Gilman may have posted this, but he did not come up with the terms. The terms “horizontal” and “vertical” were used by the three economists who published this study.

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  2. Lunch Break says:

    As a horizontally-oriented teacher (at least I try to be), I find this totally interesting. The field of education (or at least the powers that be) seems to be pushing us more vertical every day- scripted curricula, “one right answer-ism”, etc. It’s nice to be able to evaluate teaching quality in terms other than bubble tests.

    And yes, I’m on my lunch break, before any of you call me a taxpayer-sucking union thug.

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    • Mathieu says:

      “And yes, I’m on my lunch break, before any of you call me a taxpayer-sucking union thug.”

      As a taxpayer, I wish all educators could take more time in their work day to learn. Learning is a key component for teaching, so keep your chin up, Lunch Break guy!

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  3. Let's hear it for John Dewey! says:

    How much of this is reflective of a country’s particular weltanschauung reflected in multiple ways through the society’s emphasis on centralized procedural oligarchic (or autocratic) control versus decentralized substantive democratic communication?

    Japan and Ireland have more liberal (freedom-oriented) democracies (albeit with continuing traditional Catholic, Confucian, and/or Prussian educational biases) as opposed to more conservative (equality-oriented, socialist oriented or communitarian) societies such as France, Greece, and Turkey.

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  4. diane says:

    Interesting correlation but it seems a stretch to deduce cause and effect. Why not conclude that dysfunctional government tends to cause vertical education?

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    • Jen says:

      Yes, there’s a real chicken and egg problem here along with a problem of lag times.

      How long do they describe, say, our country as being horizontal? Did the 20s or 40s or 60s or 80s all count as horizontal? Is an emphasis throughout that time on electives, sports, arts and the like in schools considered as making us more horizontal, or is it only teacher behavior in certain classes?

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      • Jen says:

        Clarifying my question about the various decades — how long after a change to a different style of education would one expect to see a difference in government? Working in groups more in the last ten years would be unlikely to affect our government for what? ten years? twenty? more?

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    • Kingsley says:

      Now thats an interesting point of view, a valid one, to voice my opinion!

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  5. Ben says:

    In Sweden, group and independent work, accompanied by less actual teaching and absolute grading scales (which has meant a huge rise in grade inflation), was introduced in the late 80′s or early 90′s, and is now viewed by many as a big failure (its a common topic in the newspapers). Our performance in rankings, and the absolute levels of knowledge of our children in subjects such as math and the natural sciences, have dropped during this period of time. Whatever effectiveness in government etc. we have is due to those brought up in the old system, where teachers actually had authority, taught instead of leaving everything up to the student, and grading was relative.

    /Someone brought up under the new system

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  6. Tom says:

    Talk about confusing correlation and causation! Using roughly the same studies, you could “show” that speaking a Romance language natively causes distrust in government.

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  7. Enter your name... says:

    I’d like to know how this relates to academic tracking systems. Group work is more functional if the group members are intellectual peers.

    As a bright student in anti-tracking US government schools, I absolutely loathed group work. With one single exception, six straight years of teacher-assigned groups (grades 5 to 10) meant that the teacher assigned one top-flight student and one nearly failing student in every single group, and distribute the mid-achieving students evenly across the groups.

    No matter how much the teacher admonishes the students to do otherwise, the result of the disparity is that the top student does at least two students’ work (the top student’s and the failing student’s). The teacher’s benefit, of course, is getting to claim that she provided a fun assignment, as well as quartering the number of papers she needs to grade.

    When I finally got into a school that put all its top-achieving students into a separate and highly rigorous program, group work became far less onerous. I got to do only slightly more than my fair share of the work, and I was finally not always the single best informed person in the group on every single point.

    I’ve worked with a lot of top-achieving students (95th percentile and above) since then, and I’ve asked all of them about their impressions of group work. All but one—a student who was gifted in math but basically confused by fiction—share my loathing for group work. (The one hated it in math and science, but was happy to let someone else do his creative writing work.)

    Being exploited like this has had long-term negative effects on these kids: they often deliberately choose isolated “loner” assignments rather than committee work that would increase their networking opportunities.

    (This effect isn’t seen in kids at, say, the 85th percentile. Those kids are usually happy to work in groups.)

    To the teachers reading this: Do you have the courage to assign all your top students to the same group, and all your bottom students to the same group? Even once? Or are you going to keep sticking your >95th percentile students with the job of babysitting the kids who can barely read because that’s easier for you?

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    • Andreas Habicher says:

      One could argue that that pooling the failing students into one group would mean getting them out of the way and giving up on them, while distributing them equally to the other groups would help them to benefit from the skill of the others.
      Did your teachers mix the groups differently from assignment to assignment? (which I would see as a good tactic) Or did the groups remain the same every time? (which I would see as laziness)

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