Thursday, September 25, 2014

Learning Is A Journey

The other day as my wife and I returned home, our neighbors walked across the street to chat.
"Hey, can you on your principal hat for a second?"  This is of course my favorite introductory question when I'm actually not on the clock.

She went on to explain that at her daughters school they're now 'doing this thing' where if you take a test and get a poor grade, you can re-take it and get a new score.  She didn't think this was a fair practice and was curious as to what I thought.  If you haven't guessed yet, her daughter is highly accelerated and easily scores well on tests and assignments without much remediation.

I explained to our neighbor that not only did I agree with this procedure, but that I held the same expectation in regards to testing/grading at my own building.  If you've had one of these debates, you can probably predict the sequence of the conversation.  "This isn't fair to kids who work hard the first time... not every kid deserves a trophy... this isn't how the 'real world' works... this isn't  teaching responsibility..." and then after dismissing all of these claims with logic, "Well,  I STILL don't like it!"

I wasn't upset by this exchange.  I'm used it as an advocate for practices which embrace learning as the target v. ranking/sorting children.  This was just another reminder of how much effort is necessary to properly educate parents on best practice.

This was an random conversation that took place in my driveway.  I've presented this same sort of thinking to passionate educated teachers in an organized pre-thought out manner and still had (many) people leave upset with what they were hearing.  Changing long held mindsets doesn't happen in a single outing.  People need time to reflect on what they've learned, privately explore their own biases, ask questions/clarification, see examples, and experiment on their own.  Immediately rejecting new thinking does NOT necessarily make the listeners dumb, ignorant, or stubborn (stubborn thinkers are valuable to have around...).

It's frustrating to give a strong, impassioned presentation to a group and watch the audience leave pissed off rather than cheering for you like the President at the State of the Union address.  That's just not how strong leadership usually works.  Changing outdated thinking is a constant obligation of school leadership.  The messages need to be heard regularly over time, and we should be realistic in our pace of change.  Some people will never change their thinking, and many who do will never acknowledge your guidance in the journey.  If you're waiting for that moment of "okay, YOU were right" you're missing the point.      

I'm confident my neighbor will understand eventually.  She's intelligent and just needs to see that other children learning and feeling good about themselves doesn't take anything away from her daughter or make her any less special in her giftnedness.  She'll eventually see how much less anxiety comes with that moment when her daughter scores poorly on a test, and can re-take it (this will of course happen eventually...).  Or maybe she won't.  But there would no chance of changing thinking if the leadership of the school district made decisions based off the initial reactions to new information.  The same is true when we work with our staffs or students.  Learning is a journey- not a moment.    

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Screw Data.

I'm really hoping that we're close to another pendulum swing in education.

The obsessive reliance on data in regards to decision making in schools and classrooms has exceeded it's value.  Just as teachers and principals have cried out that test scores aren't a measure of their effectiveness as educators- the same rule applies to learners as well.

What we're currently doing is the equivalent of looking at only a batters home run statistics to determine who the best baseball players are.  Learning is not, no matter how much we try, like money.  It can't be easily quantified, nor can it provide fast evidence of effectiveness or lack thereof.

I don't care what measure you're using.  None of them can account for the kid who walked away from drugs because of something a teacher said.  None of them can determine if a kid has stayed in school only because he feels safe with this teacher. None of them measure the blossoming of creativity, kindness, courage or collaboration (all 21st C. skills...) which teachers routinely foster.  And none of them can predict entirely if a child will or will not be successful in life.  However, most of the time, what they DO tell us, after loads of cost, time, and anxiety, is what any decent teacher already knew.  "He reads slowly?  Holy Shit!  I would have never known that despite teaching him for months!  I'm so glad we interupted several days of learning to lab test seven year olds!  Thank you AIMSweb!"

The data craze has numbed classrooms, and killed many spirits.  It's been great though for consultants and authors of educational books as we can now endlessly debate what 'rigor' or 'high standards' actually mean when determining cut scores and services for children.

Teachers should be encouraged to trust their instincts, embrace their passions while teaching.  I'm not in any way an advocate for drill & kill, endless memorization, or hours of homework.  Education has progressed and improved.  Data does have a place in our schools and classrooms.  However, 'data to inform decision making' should NOT effectively equate to "data to remove all use of the human brain.'