So Many Questions

borowitz-img_0291You may recall that a week or so ago, I took my own advice and offered testimony at a public hearing organized and hosted by the state Department of Education. This event was a part of a requirement for the state’s submission of a plan for the recently passed ESSA legislation.

As Ken Robinson pointed out in one of his TED Talks, the naming of such of pieces of legislation is a clear indication that at least the nation’s legislators have a well-developed sense of irony. In the face of leaving lots of kids behind after 15 years or so in the world according to NCLB, the marketing folks pulled out all the stops in the naming of the successor legislation… Every Student Succeeds Act. Irony rules again. I guess an act entitled “Too Few Kids Succeed” while likely accurate, lacked the necessary inspirational quality.

In my testimony I described the failure of solutions based on trying to do things right – like designing and implementing better, more rigorous standards, like the design and implementation of the consortia developed large-scale assessments – and urged the Department to spend more time on identifying the “right thing” before leaping once again into solutions destined to do the wrong thing better.

Although the testimony was well received (at least by the educators and parents in attendance, if not the officials and staff from the department), I felt lucky that no one asked me, “So what is the right thing.”

So here I am, halfway through exploring the answers to the question that wasn’t asked and realizing that I’m committing myself to yet another testimony, this one more detailed and to be offered during the public testimony segment of the state board of education’s public meeting.

While working this process, I realize I needed to move beyond the “homily” approach and ask for your help. This piece offers neither advice nor specific answers. Instead I want to try something different and explore collaboratively what kind of commonality in thinking exists around the what is the “right thing” to do question as we try to match learning experiences with the needs of our students and our society. I’d like to ‘crowd source’ this and invite you to share your reactions, reflections, and/or experiences so that these can inform the development of my next testimony. Any time you can spare to jot down a few things would be extremely helpful.

Here’s what I believe I know about this.

First… Where are we?

  • We have confused ‘schooling’ with education/learning.
  • This has encouraged students (and many of their teachers) to learn how to “do school” as contrasted with learning how to “do learning”.
  • As educators we’ve grown up in this system and it is what we know.
  • The majority of us functioned well in this system and have felt comfortable returning to it as we acted on our vocational interest in helping children.
  • As such, we represent both the greatest strength of the system and the biggest obstacle to changing it.
  • While there have been encouraging examples of innovative, purpose-driven programs, the vast majority of “innovations” have succumbed to the temptation of simply doing school better. – i.e., if school as we have come to know and experience is the wrong thing, they have succumbed to trying to do the wrong thing “righter”.   Preliminary studies reveal that the majority of such “alternative” programs/schools rarely perform at levels beyond their traditional public school peers.

Second, what I believe is the “wrong thing”…

  • At a very deep level, an increasing number of educators are concluding that we are doing the wrong thing – that not only have the past 30+ years of standards, assessment, accountability-based solutions not had the desired impact on student achievement, but also the cost in student (and teacher) engagement, the lost opportunities for creative explorations, and the mindless standardization of experiences which ignores the differences in children in the quest for efficiency and ease of measurement cannot be allowed to continue. This is wrong!
  • We are focusing our attention on the wrong argument. This is not about standards vs. no standards nor can it be framed in terms of large-scale assessments vs. no assessments. Of course we should have high standards. As Ken Robinson asks, “who would actually argue for lower” And certainly we need to assess both ourselves and our students. What we don’t need is to narrow the focus of what should be learned to a couple of core content areas, using single measures to judge such learning, and punishing schools for the accident of being located in centers of poverty. This is wrong!
  • This about ignoring what we know about human differences, about learning, and about engagement in pursuit of ideologically driven, market-based “solutions” to problems that we have allowed others to define for us (and, in so doing, ceded the authority to them for the solutions). This is wrong!

Third, what is the “right thing”?

As a nation, we have grappled with the purpose and reach of education throughout our entire history. While many of the reforms introduced into our system of public education in the 1800’s and early 1900’s were the result of committees and commissions whose membership was drawn largely from academia, the direction of our recent reforms has been dominated by politicians and business leaders. The resulting direction focusing on market driven solutions, assembly line schooling and attacks on teacher unions should come as no surprise.

For me, Clark Aldrich, in his book Unschooling Rules:55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education, comes closest. He suggests that there are really three kinds of learning that should serve as the focus for education and as the basis for the learning experiences we design for our children. We need to be intentional about helping our children:

  • Move beyond the focus on what and focus on how to learn – learning doesn’t stop with the exit from school. Now, more than ever before in our history, both the access and the need determine that learning will be a life long activity.
  • Emerging focus on the importance of life/career dispositions and skills is in response to experiences which are demonstrating that such dispositions are at least as important to the success of students in higher education and employment as subject matter content knowledge. Aldrich suggests this is a form of learning how to be in relationship to others and the world around us.
  • George Couros in his blog suggests that it is not the knowing that matters. Rather it is what we can do with this knowledge that is critical. Learning is intimately connected to creating and doing. Without this connection, the facts that we learn are quickly converted to fleeting memories. Aldrich notes that this third type of learning is learning how to do.

Perhaps, Aldrich’s thinking is overly simplistic. Perhaps you believe that the purpose of education should be broader, more inclusive, more specific, Regardless, I believe there are questions that we should be considering – essential questions whose answers do not fit well inside of the continuation of focusing on the wrong thing. I‘ve included several as starting points for reflection and possible comment.

What should discussions of the “right thing” explore?

  • There is no other facet of our lives in 2016 where learning is so tightly defined, so restricted to geography – i.e., the location (and related level of poverty/affluence) of our district and our school – and so closely associated with the work completed inside a building. How can we broaden the options for Why do we continue to limit “what counts” as learning beyond the learning that takes place in the school?

How can we move beyond our outdated understandings about how we and young people learn? Take a look at Will Richarson’s graphic comparing how we organize learning in schools (right side) with what we know about learning (left side). This slide comes from Richardson’s TEDx presentation in Vancouver.

Richardson conditions

How can we modify the organizational patterns and structures of school to facilitate the incorporation of Richardson’s ‘truths” about learning?

  • Faced with growing evidence of the causal relationship between social-emotion skill/disposition development and success both in and beyond school, how can we move beyond the reliance on a single test score as the major factor in our judgments about students, schools, and teachers? How can we gather and report meaningful information about the state of development of these critical skills and dispositions in our students?

I hope you’ll join me as I continue to explore the ways in which we can work together to broaden the understanding of the importance of focusing learning experiences on the right thing and bring an end to the continuation of doing the wrong thing better.

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