How Do We Help Kids Learn How to Be …?

When We Are Struggling To Find The Answer As Adults?

Note: This is “a thought essay”.  It began with my reflections on finding a thread between helping kids learn unschooling rules photo“how to be” and our apparent inability to determine who we want to be as a culture/society. The background to this can be found in Clark Aldrich’s book, Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education. Aldrich suggests that there are 3 types of learning that make up the purpose of school: Helping kids Learn How to Learn; Helping kids Learn How to Do; and, Helping kids Learn How to Be. In this reflection, I’m focusing on the “how to be” purpose.

Prior to the national election in 2016, I had shared with some friends that I thought that the election might be a struggle for the soul of the country.  In the years since, I’ve heard the phrase numerous times.  As we watch the news and listen to the pundits opine, we are watching the “battle” lines harden for what might be the true struggle for our soul.  Each issue becomes a battle ground for a belief system.  The lines between ideas seem to be growing more clear and more rigid as we struggle with who it is we want to be.  As adults it’s challenging to make sense of the information coming at us from TV, social media, competing news outlets, etc.

Last night, PBS New Hour devoted one of its segments to a case being heard by the US Supreme Court in which the justices will determine whether or not a school has the right to discipline a student for language used on social media.  The case involved the emotional response of a 14 year old girl who was unsuccessful in her bid to be a cheerleader.

Folks, this is the world we are leaving for our children… a world with a climate in crisis, with a pandemic which continues to kill thousands, with doubts about the behavior of law enforcement, with rising tensions among the world’s nuclear powers, with Congress struggling to manipulate voting systems to maximize party gains, etc. and the Supreme Court is hearing whether a teenage girl has the right to give the finger to school authorities on Snapchat. 

How do we begin to help kids navigate a course through this minefield of opinions and behaviors? We can’t afford not to.

A Beginning:A

Who is it that we want to be?

What matters to us?

 After 30+ years of failed “reform” programs we have pretty definitive proof that lawmakers and policy wonks cannot be the “definers”. 

I recently saw an article about the need to test the reading development of students in relation to the benchmark of third grade reading performance.  The article described a proposal under consideration in one state to make retention a mandatory practice for kids who fall below “the standard”.  Such thinking is brought to you by the same folks who created the “test and punish” culture that has characterized educating our children since the implementation of No Child Left Behind and who think that having our kids take large-scale assessments this year to quantify the amount of so-called pandemic learning loss is critical.

What if where we are is a result of our own unintentional laziness?  What if we have left the definition of who we want to be to the wrong people?  What would happen if we recaptured our ownership of what is important in the development of our children?  Try this on for size.

What would happen if we made a list of the ways we want our children to be?  What would be on your list.  Here’s a quick shot at mine:

Caring, empathetic, kind, compassionate, thoughtful, reflective, curious, independent, open-minded, involved

You might note that none of these require that kids be grouped by age, or that they learn to read by third grade, or that they learn a fixed curriculum (especially one that was developed in the 1890’s), or that learning be organized into separate silos, rarely connected to real-world situations.

 Would it surprise you to learn that in the majority of schools that I visited while consulting in districts throughout the country, the exposure to experiences designed to foster emphasis on these traits/dispositions was most frequently dependent on the mindset of the individual teacher? 

What does our current approach (largely accidental exposure) say about the value we place on helping generations develop the dispositions and direction that lead to emotionally healthy and contributing lives? What if we didn’t leave the focus on the “ways to be” to luck of the draw in the scheduling process?  It would certainly require a different approach.

Some time ago I read that the health of a society is revealed in how it treats its most vulnerable… the youngest and oldest.  We’re not healthy.  We rank at embarrassingly low levels among wealthy nations in the percentage of folks living in poverty, in the percentage of citizens incarcerated, in opportunities for early childhood learning, in affordable health care, in the number of long-term care patients who have died of COVID related complication without the comfort of loved ones who have been forbidden from visiting those who lay dying. 

Is this who we want to be?  Is this who we are training our children to become? Have we inadvertently trained our children to become the adults that continue to behave so poorly?  What would happen if we took your list (or mine) of desirable dispositions and examined the degree to which the policies, procedures, and practices of our school either support or inhibit their development? 

We love grades.  We must.  We continue to use them. We spend hours refining the systems we use – i.e., should weReport Card use letters or numbers? Should a 65 be a “D” or an “F” or maybe a “D – “, should we give “zeros”?  Why do we use a system that encourages kids to “game” it, to select courses more on GPA implications than by interest, to avoid the risks of exploration?

Here’s a less comfortable grading question. Suppose we were asked to assign a grade to the notion of helping kids learn “how to be”.  What grade should we give our “efforts” …or, wait, maybe we should use our “achievement” instead of effort? How do we do as individual educators? How do we do as a school or district? 

It’s not unlikely that your district or school’s mission statement makes reference to good citizenship or contributing/productive member of society.  How many PD sessions or faculty meetings have been devoted to test scores, increasing the rigor of our offerings or increasing school attendance?  How many have been devoted to how we can help kids develop empathy, curiosity, reflective thinking? 

Look around.  We’re not seeing ourselves at our best.  The response of teachers nationwide during the pandemic has demonstrated how committed so many are to the well-being of our kids.  All indications are that our kids need more than us finding better ways to teach what politicians think is important.  In our hearts we know that our lives, the lives of our kids, and of our communities can so much richer if we can acknowledge that helping our kids learn “how to be” cannot continue to be an accidental outcome of education.

Be well.

It’s Time To Make a Change -Part 1

It’s not time to make a change 

Just relax, take it slowly 

You’re still young, that’s your fault 

There’s so much you have to go through 

Find a girl, settle down 

If you want you can marry 

Look at me, I am old, but I’m happy

 

All the times that I’ve cried 

Keeping all the things I knew inside 

It’s hard, but it’s harder to ignore it 

If they were right I’d agree 

But it’s them they know, not me 

Now there’s a way 

And I know that I have to go away 

I know I have to go

 

Father and Son

YUSUF/ CAT STEVENS

Note:

This post is the first of two written in response to increasing frustration expressed by teachers, school leaders, students and parents that returning to pre-pandemic “schooling” is unacceptable while recognizing that whole school or whole district changes are unlikely even when things return to “normal”. The experiences of the learners and the adults are calling our for change but those most affected feel powerless to bring it about.  

I’ve always been a fan of Cat Stevens and the exchange between a father and son seemed to capture the tension that exists when two people see the world very differently or, in this case, when teachers and kids see the world very differently than those who might have the power to make change.

In recognition of the unlikelihood of large scale change and the implications of that, we are offering an approach for those whose hearts cry out for something better… an approach which doesn’t require that we physically “leave” but which might allow us to “find a way”.  

The purpose of this approach is to offer support for those educators who are finding significant dissonance between why they were drawn to teaching and the emptiness of/frustrations with the experiences they are having.

It is an action-oriented guide .. one that requires a personal and individualized commitment… one that speaks to the minds and hearts of teachers and school leaders who know that there is a better way for our kids to learn and that it can’t wait until all are ready.

As you read this post and the accompanying action guide you will note the use of both “I” and “we” in the text.  This is a reflection of a first for this blog… a collaboration co-authors/co-designers.

Several years ago, I joined Modern Learners, an on-line community focusing on the need to respond to the frustrating experiences that our kids and their teachers were having in many schools. 

As a result of my interactions with others within the Modern Learners community, I connected with several other educators who shared my interest in changing the focus of education from what we’ll term “schooling” to learning… the kind of learning that isn’t about credit for time spent in class or compliance with rules established more for adult convenience than for genuine learning.

The result of this connection was the formation of a group, called “the Four Friends”.… a team of like-minded educators from here in the US and Canada interested in an exploration of how we might help teachers, school leaders, parents,  and kids experience something more than “schooling”… something that had learning as its center.  

Dr. Katie Martin is the author of “Learner-Centered Innovation and VP of Leadership and Learning at Altitude Learning”. She teaches in the graduate school of Education at High Tech High.

In her recent post, Challenging the Status Quo to Rewrite New School Rules, she writes…

In 1999, the US Women’s Soccer team wanted to play in the NFL stadiums like the men’s teams.  FIFA, the governing futbol association said no. Women’s teams had not traditionally made enough money and the belief was that they would never sell enough tickets to make it profitable.  

Despite the lack of support from the top, the US Women’s National set out to accomplish what no one thought possible. The 1999 Women’s Team took it upon themselves to visit schools and talk to kids. They visited soccer fields and got fans excited about the World Cup. This group of committed women knew what they were capable of and believed in their vision and their team. They worked together to make their vision a reality and challenged the status quo. As a result of their determination, in 1999, the US Women’s team played at the Rosebowl Stadium in Pasadena which was attended by 90,000 people- the largest crowd ever to attend a women’s sporting event in history. It was also the most-watched soccer game in the US to date including any Men’s World Cup matches. 

In her new book, Wolfpack, Abby Wambach asserts, “There were suddenly new rules to the game– written by those women– but only because  a bunch of badass visionaries had the courage to break the old ones.” 

Dr. Martin notes that this was not a book about soccer… “It was about the courage of these women and those that followed them to challenge the status quo and redefine the rules.” She applauds those who have had the courage to challenge the status quo.  She notes that she feels the same way when she walks into schools and see educators who have had the courage to stand up and challenge the status quo in order to create what kids today not only need but deserve. 

We know that the status quo is strong and is alive in many aspects of our lives. Fighting for something new and different is not always easy. Not fighting for what we believe in is even harder. 

What If There Were New School Rules?

Dr. Martin suggests that “…when we challenge the status quo, it means we can find new ways to meet the needs of our students, families, and learning communities despite the norms and the ways things have always been done.”  She continues…The pandemic “has helped many of us reject the fact that students need to be sorted, ranked, and managed and challenging long-held assumptions about intelligence, curriculum, and ultimately learning.”  In such schools/classrooms, the focus is on learning and what people need… not rules, and compliance.  Martin notes that “The status quo makes it easy to sort and rank. The status quo maintains hierarchy. The status quo feels safe.” 

Martin reminds us that when the compliance-driven model is all you know… all you have experienced, it’s hard to imagine that kids can function outside of such an environment.

In “Leadership for Deeper Learning”, Richardson, Batheon, and McLeod share students’ perspectives of school and one student comment especially addressed this.

“I  think it’s a whole paradigm shift, like a whole new cultural norm. For many years kids were seen and not heard. It’s as if we don’t have a voice until we are part of the real world. But we are part of the real world. We are living in it with new technology and social media and things which give young people a place to voice their opinion. I think it’s a new generation and we deserve to be heard. We should be heard and I think that is hard for some people to understand.”

We should all reflect on this high school student’s perspective and realize that if our schools don’t value the students we serve and make them feel seen and welcome, we will never be able to grow them.

Design for Learners and Learning

Martin emphasizes the importance of knowing what you want and designing to get it.

In what is increasing referred to as the “deform” culture, we have defined around standards and assessments, not learners, not around learning beyond the preparation for the state assessments.  As mentioned at the beginning of this post, this is the introduction to a “how to” white paper.  It is designed around the the thoughts expressed by a number of participants in our discussions… “I’m ready to change. My school, my superintendent, my principal, my team isn’t.  What do I do to create the learning my heart know is possible?”  

We invite to to read and, more importantly, to take the opportunity to interact with the Action Guide paper we’ve provided.  We also invite you to interact with us using the email links.  

Dr. Susan Clayton,                        claytonsiusan64@gmail.com

Cameron Jones,                            cameron.jones@ocdsb.ca

Tom Welch,                                    twelchky@gmail.com

Rich TenEyck,                                rteneyck42@comcast.net

Education’s Next “Big Lie” 

“The development of the Common Core State Standards is a success story of meaningful, state-led change to help all students succeed.

Statement appearing on the site www.corestandards.org

 

For more than 20 years now, we have been told that a major component of the “standards movement” was the creation and use of large-scale assessments required by federal funding programs. These were sold as a critical source of information about how much our kids are learning.  While the reliability, validity and usefulness of the large scale assessments required by No Child Left Behind and its successor, Race To the Top, have been refuted almost unanimously by assessment specialists without challenge, the research has been clear.  These annual tests are far more reliable predictors of family wealth than as tools for helping teachers better respond to student needs.

Educators have known this and have frequently tried to alert us to the misunderstanding and the misuse of these tests. What has happened as a result?  These teachers and school leaders have been vilified.  They have been described as lazy, casual about the failure of their students, and opponents of accountability.  And who are the loudest critics of these educators?  No surprise there.  It’s the test companies, the publishers of test prep materials, and politicians for whom school bashing is low-hanging fruit and who have rarely set foot inside a school except for a photo op. 

This is a multi-billion dollar business folks… a multi-billion dollar business that sees the pandemic as a perfect opportunity to solidify their hold on the educational establishment.  And how are they seeking to do this.  Simple. Two words. Learning Loss!  We need to continue these tests.  We need to measure exactly how much our children have lost during the pandemic response to schooling.  BTW…It will surprise almost no one that students who take the same science test in September that they took in May, score significantly lower.  Summer learning loss?  

But what if the tests required by various pieces of federal legislation never really tested learning at all.  What if they tested recall of the many isolated and disconnected facts that were championed under the “Success Story” of the core curriculum standards? What if the tests provide almost no insight into the real learning needs of kids… not the recall of information easily found in mere minutes on Google, but the development of a set of contemporary skills which includes creativity, curiosity, critical thinking, entrepreneurship, collaboration, communication, growth mindset, global competence, and a host of skills with different names (Duckworth and Yeager, 2015; Zhao et al. 2019). 

And none of this even considers a new dimension of the big lie of learning loss…  The reality that our kids have suffered and are suffering through the worst disruption of “normal” most of them have ever experienced.  Their social worlds have been turned upside down, the contact with their friends disrupted, their schooling moving between remote, in-person, hybrid experiences… often with almost no notice.  But more than that… say that again… more than that, they have heard or watched the impact of COVID on their families and loved ones.  They may have lost friends, relatives, perhaps even parents. And our response… Let’s measure learning loss and, oh yeah, let’s use a test that no one believes in.  

That can’t be our response.  Couldn’t we at least contact our elected representative (both state and federal) and join the many organizations who have asked for the elimination of tests?  Thank you.  Be well.

 

Are students really falling behind?

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some porttion of the poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second or hundredth gale.

One of the most claming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul.

“You Were Made For This” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

 

As if parents and teachers haven’t had enough to deal with during the past year, they can now worry about how much their children and their students have fallen behind while juggling remote, hybrid and in-person instruction.  It’s as if the folks sharing this “critical” information have been living on a different planet for the past year.  While kids and the adults in their lives have been busy juggling internet connectivity, learning how to “Zoom”, learning and unlearning frequently changing school schedules,  and the stresses of trying to protect one another from the scary “positive” COVID result, some presumably well-intended policy wonks have been working to protect the profits of the testing industry by lobbying aggressively for a repeat of the annual ritual of state assessments.  How else, they argue, will we be able to know just how much our kids haven’t learned? Subjecting kids who have been worried about the their own safety, the safety of their families and their friends, their college applications, their loss, for many,  of virtually all extra-curricular activities and interactions to the stress of meaningless test prep lessons and hours of testing would in most professions be termed as malpractice.

As regular followers of this blog know, a major focus of a number of posts has been the opportunity presented by the year-long disruption in traditional schooling to resist the call to “return to normal schooling” and to use the opportunity presented by the disruption of the “normal” to address long-standing shortcomings of our system of education.  You may also recall that I have had the opportunity to collaborate with a small team of educators from both the US and Canada in the exploration of options.  

One of team members (Cam Jones) collaborated with his Canadian colleagues to address the specific issue of “Learning loss”.  Yes, even the Canadians can’t avoid the reach of the testing industry and its policy supporters. Rather than subject you to another version of that message, I’m taking the opportunity to share an article (below) written by this small team. Let me introduce the folks with whom you’ll be spending the next few minutes.

Laurence De Meayer is a retired Superintendent of Education and a Professional Learning Advisor for the Ontario Principals Council, Cameron Jones is a Leader of Experiential Learning for the Ottowa-Carleton School District, Hazel Mason is a retired Superintendent of Education and a Community Director for the Modern Learners Community.

Are Students Really Falling Behind

When claims are made about children falling behind in school, we need to ask what it is they are falling behind in? Young people are accomplishing incredible things during the pandemic – many of which are self-directed and required deep personal learning. Learning they did not do in school.

The Pandemic has given all of us an opportunity to pause and think about the world we want moving forward. It is clear that some things need to change. Working and learning from home will become part of the new normal. 

Underpinning the fear that students are falling behind is the belief that traditional teaching methods can be effectively transferred to online formats.  Students, parents and teachers are finding that is not the case. Instead, the people doing the most work in this situation are teachers, and families are getting a glimpse at how out of step the current curriculum truly is.  Online classrooms experiencing the most success are those which have included students in the planning of the learning experiences. Topics are connected to current world issues and students are given voice and choice on how to demonstrate their learning. The inquiry process is central to pursuing essential and relevant questions.

Students have long discovered facts and information are available on demand, anytime, anywhere, with the devices that they carry in their pockets. If they don’t know something they google it and learn what they need to know. The absurdity of continuing with traditional pedagogical strategies based on a set curriculum has only been further accentuated for students, teachers and parents. Our children need to become informed problem solvers. The exponential growth of information has made the use of a static curriculum irrelevant. Students will learn “the basics” under the guidance of a teacher as they work to answer their questions – teaching them how to learn. 

 It is becoming widely acknowledged that traditional schooling is not developing the skills and dispositions that will set students up for personal and professional success in the context of modern societal and economic complexities.  The World Economic Forum, the OECD, Microsoft, C21, and many other corporate and academic think tanks have identified the need for an educational transformation that focuses less on rote learning and more on critical thinking and adaptability – skills that are more important for success in the future.  This requires a wholesale shift in curriculum, pedagogy, learning environments and assessment practices. Online learning can effectively facilitate this shift if teachers are empowered to step outside of the norm and do things differently

Deeper learning requires a more inquiry-based model driven by students’ interests and passions. With this approach, the teacher does not need to know all of the answers connected to the learning.  Teachers and students co-create learning objectives  and  teachers help the students to develop learning strategies and strengthen their inquiry (and related) skills.  Students assume much more responsibility and agency in the learning process.  One  benefit of this shift is a decrease in the workload of the teacher.  In the traditional model the teacher does most of the work and learning.   

Rediscovering an Essential Truth

What we learn in school began with curiosity and wonder, and yet schooling removes these elements and replaces them with a series of disconnected facts.  With the focus on the challenges and constraints of schooling in the era of COVID-19 overwhelmingly concerned with learning loss and learning gaps related to what is known, we have lost sight of an essential truth: learning is a natural development of individual experience. When children explore what conditions support human life on earth in pursuit of creating those same conditions in Space, they are asking essential questions that focus their learning, and they know it.  Asked if building a long term colony on the Moon perpetuates the human race or starts a new one, one high school Biology student responded, “Isn’t this question basically our entire course?”  The question that arises is, do children have the capacity for such an undertaking? Or is there something they need to know first? 

Beyond the Walls of School

What are 10-year-olds capable of doing?  Focussed on their social enterprise, one grade 4 class is “working towards hope” by selling masks to raise money in support of local food banks. The students are determined that their business model should include a carbon neutral impact on the earth. They discuss decisions they’ll make, including the cost-benefit of adding to their carbon footprint. A recent conversation in the class determined that a print job was unnecessary due to the cost of purchasing a carbon offset. Not only are these children illustrating 21st Century dispositions, they are learning math in a context absent from rote memorization and worksheets. Subjects become a tool with a purpose rather than a collection of disconnected skills and knowledge.  Students are learning math in the very ways it is used beyond the walls of school. 

Authentic Learning 

Authentic learning spotlights links to the world beyond school, and reveals “a more integrated picture of society” (as Hackett, Mant, and Orfod called for in the G&M in November). Learning  must be integrated and interdependent, reaching beyond the classroom, school and community.  So, when students collaborate to write a newspaper, and determine an audience that includes communities and schools beyond their own, around the globe, the purpose and skills of writing to communicate take on a different emphasis. 

Our Kids Can Thrive

The “generational catastrophe” of “learning loss” is being reported as a foregone conclusion. From a different perspective, with a broader definition of learning, children are thriving. Many of the challenges students experience as a result of schooling have very little to do with learning. Instead, in an effort to standardize education, and rank order children, we have relied on tools that tell us very little about the individual. We are focussed on statistics that obscure the learner in favour of averages.  The average has no place in the development of a human being. The danger of the average is in its use of predetermining ability and conflating it with capacity, having never engaged in a conversation with the child. This is not learning.  We are failing to ask essential questions while being distracted by shallow understandings. Our children deserve better.  Before we focus on what has been lost, we owe it to children around the globe to see all the learning that has happened despite the pandemic.

A Time Of Critical Import

We have reached a time of critical importance for improving the learning experiences of students and the methods to enhance it. Rather than focussing on learning-loss or gaps we need to reimagine schools that focus on learning for our children. As Mitch Resnick writes in his  book Lifelong Kindergarten (The MIT Press) “We want kids to experience the challenges and joys of turning their own ideas into projects.”  Whether in the creation of colonies on the moon, social enterprises aimed at solving injustices, or publications that seek readers around the globe, we have hardly begun to challenge the capacity of our children; there is no better time than now to challenge our assumptions about what our students are capable of. 

We have begun to take some important steps forward. Insights from some of the above mentioned organizations and academics have started to take root in classrooms, curriculum and policy.  The Ontario kindergarten curriculum and the revised K-12 curriculum in British Columbia are shining examples. Concern about online learning could be the long-awaited catalyst to creating a new, more effective, more humane educational system.  As has been argued widely by the likes of thinkers such as Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle, Sugata Mitra, and Mitch Resnick, this quality of learning should be emphasized for children K – 12 and beyond. 

If the Words of our Canadian friends strike a responsive chord and you would like to learn more about the options being suggested by those not involved in profits associated with the “education industry”, I would highly recommend 

The changes we need: Education post COVID‐19, Yong Zhao, Journal of Educational Change 

https://doi.org/10.1007/s10833-021-09417-3 

I’m frightened. Are you?

I’m frightened for us as a society. I’m frightened for the world my grandkids will experience.  I’m frightened of who we’ve become… a nation of self-interested acquirers.  We’ve become what the Greeks called “idiots”.

In classical Greece, this was a term of the greatest derision.  They were “Private people…People consumed with self-interest.”  There was an understanding that democratic societies dominated by “idiots” could not survive.  Their argument went like this… a society whose people are only concerned with themselves can’t look out for any kind of common good or shared interest. Such a society would lapse into poverty and then, violence. 

Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Garrett (2020) in their book entitled The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How WE Can Do It Again, using evidence about economics, politics, society and culture, make a case that the U.S. has gone through periods of:

  • ‘I-ness’ (self-centeredness) – 1870s to 1890s
  • ‘We-ness’ (concern for others) – 1900 to 1970s and back to the present period of
  • Excessive ‘I-ness’ – late 1970s to the present.

America and “I-ness”

People only concerned with themselves can’t look out for any kind of common wealth or shared interest.  Want proof? While generally associated with more conservative economic thinking and policies, the development of  excessive ‘I-ness’, has spanned years of control by both major political parties. And, during this same span of years, we have seen an increasing reluctance to invest in social needs and/or institutions while experiencing a significant loss of jobs, increasing personal debt,  increasing costs for health care, prescription drugs, and a declining life expectancy.   There are numerous signs that our infrastructure is in trouble (roads, public lands, transportation system, etc.) and the pandemic has highlighted the ways in which issues of equity (or lack thereof) have affected our concerns for public safety, our institutions, and our faith in government.

A recent study showed that since 1970, the wages of 90% of our citizens have remained almost totally flat while the incomes of the top 1% have increased 700 times their former value.  This  development has, in many ways, strengthened the “I-ness” focus.  It has validated our fears that we actually live in a world dominated by scarcity.  In this culture, my needs are in competition with the needs of others… we’ve internalized that there’s not enough to go around.  Not enough jobs, not enough basic elements (food, shelter, clothing, etc.).  I have to get mine and your needs are in competition with mine.  In this situation “I-ness” is understandable, even predictable.

“I-ness” and education

Investment in education offers a particularly clear and troubling example. Our investment in our schools has yet to return to even the dramatically reduced levels associated with the Great Recession of 2008.  Let’s see… taxes vs. the education of our children.  Ah, lower taxes win! Self-interest wins! Idiocy wins.

I know, I’m sure this description would have been easier to read if the Greeks hadn’t chosen the word “idiot”; however, watching the collective performance of our elected leaders it’s hard not to wonder if perhaps the Greeks got it right.

Here’s a sobering reality.  Lapsing into poverty is no longer just a possibility for many of our citizens. It is a reality.  A Pew Research Center report shows that “as of 2015, middle-income households have become the minority.”  Other studies reveal that 75% of Americans can’t raise $500 for an emergency.  By 2014 80% of us lived paycheck to paycheck.  What does this shrinking share of the American Dream lead to?  It leads to selfishness.  It leads to “I-ness”.  

This is not the world I want for my grandkids or for the kids who we see each day in our schools (or in our Zoom calls).  How are we responding?  I’ve heard shouting matches, I’ve seen politization of kids’ and teachers’ lives, I seen/heard debates about who should get vaccines first.  And there is still the ever-present ranting about taxes and the cost of schooling. In the meantime, kids are moving into and back out of schools so frequently that the best investment might now be in the installation of revolving doors.

As I was reflecting on whether or not to write this negative a post, I was “gifted” a post  by Jan Resseger.  Regular followers will know that I admire Jan’s work and her commitment to equitable access to quality public education for each and every child in America. In her post, Jan cited the work of Steve Nelson, the former head of school of a private, progressive school, the Calhoun School in Manhattan. In a recent post , “Measuring the Wrong Things”,  Nelson warned of the problems in federally mandated standardized tests… a bigger issue now that President Biden has reneged on his campaign promise to halt their use.

In contrast to most critics of the nation’s standardized testing commitment, in his post, Nelson offers a different perspective…

Education reformers and so-called policy “experts” are constantly collecting and analyzing data. Many of these experts are, not surprisingly, economists. It’s not for nothing that economics is sometimes called “the dismal science.” The hostile takeover of education by non-educators is filled with intelligent sounding phrases: “evidence-based,” “data driven,” “metrics and accountability.” At every level of schooling, mountains of data are collected to inform “best practices” based on the alleged cause and effect implications of data-based instruction and the feedback gleaned from tests. 

…Throughout education, an increasingly rigid, closed loop of assessment is systematically making schools worse: Define things children should know or be able to do at a certain age; design a curriculum to instruct them in what you’ve decided they should know; set benchmarks; develop tests to see if they have learned what you initially defined; rinse and repeat.

…These behaviors (pressing academic work on young children) are a direct result of measuring the wrong thing (test scores). If we measured the right things (social development, curiosity, empathy, imagination and confidence), we would engage in a whole different set of education behaviors (play, socialization, arts programs, open-ended discovery). (Italics mine)

After more than 20 years of reading, observing, teaching and presiding over a school, I’m convinced that this simple statement — “Measure the wrong things and you’ll get the wrong behaviors” — is at the root of what ails education, from cradle to grave. Measuring the wrong thing (standardized scores of 4th graders) drives the wrong behaviors (lots of test prep and dull direct instruction). In later school years, measuring the wrong thing (SAT and other standardized test scores, grade point averages, class rank) continues to invite the wrong behaviors (gaming the system, too much unnecessary homework, suppression of curiosity, risk-aversion, high stress).

Measuring the right things is more complicated and less profitable. But if we measured the things that we should truly value (creativity, joy, physical and emotional health, self-confidence, humor, compassion, integrity, originality, skepticism, critical capacities), we would engage in a very different set of behaviors (reading for pleasure, boisterous discussions, group projects, painting, discovery, daydreaming, recess, music, cooperation rather than competition).

As Nelson wrote in his opening, he was tempted to write this in ALL CAPS.  The educational policies that have determined the learning experiences of our children have been created by “American Idiots”… in the truest sense of the Greek.  The entire standards and assessment business has been extremely profitable for a small number of companies.  At what cost to our children?  How about the disappearance of arts programming, the increase in test-related remediation and test preparation, the increase in technology infrastructure required to administer the large-scale assessments… assessments billed as critical to the identification and guidance of instruction for children (while results are frequently not available to teachers until the fall of the subsequent year)!

What our kids don’t need… more trauma

We are right to be frightened.  Our kids have been living with varying degrees of trauma since last March.  I use the “t” word advisedly.  Diane Ravitch shared a letter to the feds from a NY school board in New York State (Port Washington Union Free School District on Long Island) captures the situation more eloquently than I can…

The pandemic has caused our country’s children immense psychological harm and stress. Children are best served by face-to-face interactions and connections with teachers. staff. and know students, in a school building setting. Our school buildings are our children’s ecosystem, and for many, it’s their primary source of emotional and social support, (not to mention food and nutrition and sometimes even clothing). Last March. all of that was taken from them. literally overnight. Sadly. to this very day. many schoolchildren nationwide. including in New York State, have yet to return to in-person instruction, and even for those who have returned. in-person instruction is often not full time and is plagued by constant quarantines of both students and staff. 

This is a common tale. And how have we spent our time? As the school board letter demonstrates, we continue to argue whether or not large-scale assessments should be given this year… tests which cost millions and are better predictors of socio-economic status than learning.   We project the degree of “learning loss” being suffered by  our kids. We struggle with  what kind of grading policy should we be using.  Did you know…Prior to COVID our students were experiencing record high incidences of stress, anxiety, and depression?  And that was before the pandemic.  

The Implications…

We cannot hope to return to school the way it was before the pandemic and expect different results.  And we need different results.  We have ample proof that entrusting the direction, focus, and experiences of schooling, as the majority of our kids experience it, to the latest round of American Idiots and expecting different results is lunacy.  Whether we do this as individual parents, as educators, or as policy makers, we cannot continue our current path.  We cannot depend on those who created the way our kids experience school to offer different solutions. 

The Next Steps…Imagining our way to the future

 A look at the “seen” and the “unseen” realities of our experiences… a paraphrase from Untamed by Glennon Doyle 

I believe that there are two orders of things: There is the seen order unfolding in front of us every day in our schools, on our streets and in the news. In this visible order, there is contention about where our kids should be learning… remotely at home, in-person in school, a mix of both options (hybrid). There is contention about what to do with “learning loss”, etc.  We see our children experiencing and suffering from increased trauma.  We see kids failing and disengaged.  We see kids without the resources necessary to participate in remote schooling. We see increasing violence in our streets, We call this order of things reality. This is “the way things are.”

“It’s all we can see because it’s all some of us have ever seen. Yet something inside us rejects it. We know instinctively: This is not the intended order of things. This is not how things are meant to be. We know that there is a better, truer, wilder way. That better way is the unseen order inside us. It is the vision we carry in our imagination about a truer, more beautiful world—”

PLZ I DON’T LIKE THIS…

 Intro… This is the introduction to a series of posts.  These posts have been developed in response to a number of conversations that have occurred during the past year and will deal with where we are and where we are going – i.e., direction and our need to assess where we are going to go both now and in a post-COVID environment. 

As regular followers will have noticed, posts during the pandemic time have focused to some extent on how to manage the challenges of various forms of schooling that have emerged as temporary solutions to a situation beyond our experience.  The major focus continues to be the opportunity presented by this turning upside down of our schooling experiences to rethink learning and the role we can play in this process.

The story shared below describes the experiences of a child in our current iteration of schooling.  The choice of words here (“schooling”) is deliberate.  The vast majority of the experiences being provided to our children right now are still designed to resemble as closely as possible the experiences that our children have had in schools. Initially, this was understandable as, for many, the changes were made literally overnight.  As almost a year has now past, we are still struggling to reopen our school and to return the experiences of kids and educators to some semblance of “normal”.  Making changes during this time has been akin to trying to change a tire on a moving car.

Spoiler alert: Previously posted pieces as well as those in progress have as their foundation the recognition that prior to COVID disruptions our system of schooling was due for an update.  Designed to respond to the needs of the industrial revolution more than a hundred years ago, our educators and our children participate in a system that no longer meets the needs of our times, our children and our society.  This series continues an exploration of ways in which we might encourage and support efforts to move education beyond the misguided reform efforts of the past 30+ years.

PLZ I DON’T LIKE THIS…

“This message was typed by a nine-year-old child, over and over again. In capitals and with relentless economy. An unmistakable SOS.”

This is the opening line from an essay, “The Home School Curriculum”,  that appeared this week in Lockdown Sceptics, a British site where the focus seems to be captured by the site name.  Where was the child and what was happening to her? She was at home. In her Geography class. On Microsoft Teams.

Her plea was captured in another article that appeared in the socially conservative British blog, The Conservative Woman.   It it the author outlined what a day at school is now like for a nine-year-old boy called Simon.  I’ve reproduced a large portion of the article in this post.

Recently, we had the opportuity to host 3 of our granddaughters who were in a remote learning week with a loss of home internet service. They were with us for 4 days. They each had what I’ll call “Simon moments”… moments of disconnect, moments of quiet rebellion, moments of confusion and moments of deep involvement.

“The cruel reality of online ‘school’ in a 12th floor flat”

Simon begins his school day by sliding the couple of feet from his bed to his computer – so the Conservative Woman article begins. We are not told that he gets dressed. Nor even that he goes to the bathroom. He turns on the screen, watches a few YouTube videos, then logs on to Microsoft Teams and registers for his first class of the day by typing ‘Hi Miss’ into the chatbox.

Has Simon woken up yet? Has he looked out of his window? Has he spoken? Or has he moved seamlessly between a dream land and a virtual land without traversing any real land at all?

…Simon’s first lesson of the home-school day is Science. His teacher sends through a document, which the class is expected to download. It is a multiple-choice questionnaire, and they have 30 minutes to complete it. If the children need help, which most of them do, they must type a question into the chatbox. The teacher tries to answer as many questions as he can, but there is not much time and there are many technical difficulties. At the end of the 30 minutes, Simon has not received any answers to his chatbox queries and has guessed at four out of the 20 questions. Next week, he may be told whether his guesses were correct. Or not. Either way, it does not matter.

We make a mistake if we focus on what Simon has not learnt during his Science lesson. He has not learnt much about the make-up of plant cells – that is true, and inevitable. But he has learnt something, of far wider relevance. He has learnt that it does not matter. Whatever is being taught does not matter – how could it, plucked from an already abstract National Curriculum, suspended onto a slide that appears, out of nowhere and in no context, on a screen in your bedroom on the 12th floor. But Simon also learns that whether or not he understands what is being taught does not matter, and whether or not he completes the teacher’s task does not matter. None of it matters, which Simon learns quickly and well.

The lesson that things do not matter is not easily taught, especially not to a nine-year-old. Its demoralising effect goes against the native energy of youth. It must be carefully and doggedly instilled if it is to take. Simon’s Science lesson has been effective in instilling it.

Simon’s next class is Geography. There is a long time spent in waiting for everyone to log on. Some never do. Then there is more time spent in waiting for the teacher to solve problems with her technology. Finally, she manages to share a screen image of the Earth with its various layers – crust, mantle, core. The task is to name each layer. Simon waits for others to write their answers first, and copies them. Many of the children ask for help. The teacher mutes herself for everyone so that she can speak individually to one of them. The others wait in silence. Or type PLZ I DON’T LIKE THIS, over and over again. By the time the teacher returns, the class is at an end.

Simon’s Geography lesson is the cruellest one of all, the most painful for the children to sit through. In the context of their general remoteness, from the world, from each other, even from themselves, their teacher’s switching off their audio-link gives them the experience of an even greater remoteness. Of the outer reaches of remoteness. Of an isolation within what is an already aching isolation. Simon and the other children are not just left alone in their Geography lesson. They are switched off. Shut out.

Simon’s Geography lesson teaches him little or nothing about the Earth’s layers. Of course it doesn’t – confined to the 12th floor, what can the Earth’s layers really mean to Simon? What it does teach him is his radical aloneness, via a practical experiment in the sudden and total severance of his last thin thread of human contact.

Lunch, for Simon, is a sandwich in front of the screen, watching clips of Premier League highlights.

Then it is time for P.E. Simon is sent a video of someone doing star-jumps. He is expected to copy them in his room. But there is no room in Simon’s room. His efforts to recreate a star are hindered by the nearness of his bed to his desk and of his desk to the door.

Next to Simon’s efforts to make like a star in a bedroom too cramped for his arms and legs to extend, the sublime skills of his favourite Premier League stars shine brighter and more tantalisingly than ever before. Vicarious physicality effortlessly carries the day.

Simon quickly abandons his P.E. class, but not before he has learnt its valuable lesson: the literal and leaden limits of the physical. Simon’s P.E. class teaches him to despise his body, with its physical limits, its non-sublimity. A lump of meat in a meat space. Apt for nothing at all.

The final lesson of Simon’s home-school day is Drama. Simon used to love Drama, the article tells us. He used to enjoy doing acting exercises with his friends. Now, he is sent scenes from the National Theatre, which he does not understand at all. He watches funny videos of his own choosing instead.

Simon’s Drama class should be cancelled; you cannot do acting exercises with your friends on Microsoft Teams. But it is not cancelled. Instead, something is substituted for the collaborative inventiveness that Simon has so enjoyed about Drama: a heavy dose of the National Theatre, utterly uninteresting to Simon and his classmates, and inevitably leading them to turn on something more entertaining.

And the lesson of Simon’s home-school Drama class is thereby imparted: imaginative collaboration is exchangeable with personal entertainment; active creativity, replaceable by passive consumption. How long will Simon’s enthusiasm for acting exercises survive this lesson in lazy amusement?

And so ends Simon’s home-school day…

Dr Sinead Murphy is a Research Associate in Philosophy at Newcastle University.

Simon is frightened.  When you read his story you can almost feel his fright.  You don’t have to live “across the pond” to be a frightened child today.  Trauma surrounds us. We know that trauma greatly affects the learning of adults and children alike.  We know that our kids are being shuffled in and out of school. They’re hearing about parents of friends, their teachers, maybe their own parents being stricken with COVID. They’re reading or hearing about rising death tolls.  They wonder if they’re “spreaders”… If they might make their mom or dad sick. And we continue to measure their learning and describe it with traditional testing and grading practices.  We have the hubris to use terms like “learning loss”.

I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to have spent almost 30 years as a classroom teacher.  In that time I’ve seen countless examples of teachers who made great sacrifices in their work with children.  Too frequently, they were under-resourced, too frequently blamed for student performance scores far more influenced by our continued reluctance to deal with poverty than by the limitations or commitment of their teachers and, more recently, vilified for their concerns for their own health and safety.

Our kids are not problems to be solved!  They are young, vulnerable and learning how to make sense of the world… learning about their place in that world. It is our calling to help our children learn “how to be” in their world.  Now, perhaps more than any time  in our lifetimes, it is critical that we provide those most deeply involved in the process of learning, our teachers and our learners with the voice necessary to ensure that we carefully (as in “full of care”) evaluate the experiences of our children so that we can identify and act on the things that we should start doing immediately,  the things that we should continue doing and the things we must stop doing immediately.  Do you wonder what the kids would put on such a list?

Coming themes:

  • Measure the Wrong Things and you’ll get the Wrong Behaviors – the unintended consequences of grades and assessments
  • What if opportunities were not limited by Zip Code – What does Jeff Bezos have to teach us about learning
  • The Development of the American Idiot – when self-interest trumps social investment
  • Learning Loss – Let’s create a bogus problem and then sell “fixes”

They never ask the right question…

The Little Prince, Antoine De Saint-Exupery

IMG_3580-3As regular readers may recall I’ve recently been able to experience what the internet has long promised to be… a means of bringing people together in ways that inspire deep, caring, and nurturing relationships.  Through an odd combination of networking experiences, the “4 Friends” has become such a mini-community.  One unanticipated outcome of this coming together is the recent opportunity to move our weekly “how to save the world and one another” chats to a live radio format.  Oh, did I forget to mention that 2 of the 4 Friends reside on Canada (one in BC and one in Ottawa)? Or that the remaining two live in NJ and Chicago? 

In preparing for our initial radio broadcast, one of the Friends (Tom/Chicago) suggested that we build our chats around the wisdom around The Little Prince, his favorite book.  And so it begins.  It begins with the title of this piece and the relationship between the quality of questions and the usefulness of answers.  

In thinking about the idea of asking “the right question”, I was reminded of a letter I shared in a recent post.  I posted it on Facebook as well and have lost track of the number of times that it has been shared.  The author is Theresa Thayer Snyder, a former superintendent of schools from New York State.  Her letter is entitled, “What Shall We Do About the Children?”

I am writing today about the children of this pandemic. After a lifetime of working among the young, I feel compelled to address the concerns that are being expressed by so many of my peers about the deficits the children will demonstrate when they finally return to school. My goodness, what a disconcerting thing to be concerned about in the face of a pandemic which is affecting millions of people around the country and the world. It speaks to one of my biggest fears for the children when they return. In our determination to “catch them up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. We must not forget that those arbitrary measures were established by people, not ordained by God. We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone! They simply do not apply. 

When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times. There is no assessment that applies to who they are or what they have learned. Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death. Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history…

“What Shall We Do About the Children?”… The Little Prince would be proud.

Moving from The Little Prince to the hallowed halls of Harvard and thinking of the importance of questions, I was reminded of the beautiful  commencement address  by Dr. James Ryan in 2016. At that time, he was the Dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard. I’ve included the short version of this and hope you’ll find the time to look at it.  It’s one of the best written and best delivered commencement addresses I’ve heard (and in more than 40 years of working in schools I’ve heard a bunch).

In his address, Dr. Ryan speaks of the need to learn how to ask good questions and shares his sense of such questions.  As he concludes his talk, Dr. Ryan adds what he called “the bonus question”. It is taken from a poem by Raymond Carver titled “late Fragments”… His question… “Did you get what you wanted out of life…even so…?”

Ryan follows the revelation of this question with the following summary thoughts…

Did you get what what you wanted out of life… even so? 

The “even so” part this to me captures perfectly the recognition of the pain and disappointment that inevitably make up a full life but also the hope that life, even so, offers the possibility of joy and contentment. My claim is that if you regularly ask: wait, what, I wonder, couldn’t we at least, how can I help, and what really matters, when it comes time to ask yourself “And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so,” your answer will be “I did.”

… And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel beloved on this earth

…When I read these lines it’s hard for me not to think about students. We spend a lot of time here and elsewhere thinking about we might improve student performance…yet I can’t help but think that schools and, indeed, the world would be better places if student didn’t just simply perform well but also felt beloved, beloved by their teachers and by their classmates.  

I can add little to the eloquence of the words of Theresa Thayer-Snyder or James Ryan.  What I can do is ask us to look at Ryan’s questions and to blend them with Theresa’s tenderness and ask the questions that Ryan suggests.

  • Wait! What …Wait! What do we mean by “What shall we do with the children?
  • I wonder…I wonder what would happen if we didn’t expect to finish the curriculum and prepare kids for state tests?  What would happen if we didn’t even use the curriculum?  What would happen if the experience of the pandemic became the curriculum?
  • Couldn’t we at least …Couldn’t we at least think about the things that we really don’t need to do? Couldn’t we at least abandon grades for this semester? this year?  Couldn’t we find time to talk about what matters?
  • How can I/we help …How can we help those families who are struggling? Those kids who have lost family members? Those kids who want to draw instead of doing math?
  • What really matters …What really matters?  The strength and resilience of our kids? The state test score? The completion of all assignments? That all kids feel wanted and beloved?

As I conclude this reflection, I’m reminded of an encounter I had some time ago with Tom Sergiovanni.  For those of you approaching my age, you might recall that name.  If you’re approaching my age and have been a part of an administrative preparation program, you’re almost certain to recall it. Sergiovanni wrote the text books on supervision and evaluation that most of us had to buy.  

Several friends and I had organized a professional conference for school leaders. We engaged Dr. Sergiovanni as one of the keynote speakers and took advantage of the opportunity to pick his brain by hosting him for dinner on the night before the conference.  Before we could even begin the obligatory display of gratitude for his presence, he held up his hand and said, “Before we begin I’d like to share something. If I could get all of my earlier books out of libraries throughout the country, I’d burn them. I believe now that everything I’ve written about supervision and evaluation was wrong!”

Wait!What?

“My focus in those works was on the process and mechanics of supervision/evaluation.  It is not about that. It was never about that. It’s about community and relationships.” Dinner was interesting.

In the face of the pandemic and all that we are learning about remote learning, about caring for our learners, about caring for ourselves, etc., what should happen if much of what we’ve been doing for the past 30+ years in the name of school reform and school improvement is wrong? I maintain that it is and so I’ll add three more questions from yesterday’s blog to those of Dr. Ryan and invite you to spend a bit of time with them.

  • What should we stop doing in our schools and in our classrooms,
  • What should we keep doing? and
  • What should we start doing? 

Be well.

Resources: Cover Image: The Little Prince, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

More Students Than Ever got F’s First Term…

We’re staring at an opportunity. Will we take it?

Last week I read a post shared by Diane Ravitch on her blog.  In her post, Ravitch reprinted a letter written in response to growing media coverage of calls for increased testing to assess the reported growing “learning gap” resulting from the reliance on remote learning during the pandemic.  You can read the entire post here .

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

I am writing today about the children of this pandemic. After a lifetime of working among the young, I feel compelled to address the concerns that are being expressed by so many of my peers about the deficits the children will demonstrate when they finally return to school. My goodness, what a disconcerting thing to be concerned about in the face of a pandemic which is affecting millions of people around the country and the world. It speaks to one of my biggest fears for the children when they return. In our determination to “catch them up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. We must not forget that those arbitrary measures were established by people, not ordained by God. We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone! They simply do not apply. 

When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times. There is no assessment that applies to who they are or what they have learned. Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death. Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history…

Teresa Thayer Snyder, former superintendent  Voorheesville district in upstate New York.

This letter went viral in no time.  It was posted on Facebook, shared and reposted countless times.  Contrast it with a  headline that appeared recently in EdWeek, “Should Schools Be Giving So Many Failing Grades This year?”

This Year?  This year? What about ANY year? 

As Teresa points out about kids trying to cope with the pandemic… “Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death.”

Is this the only year that many kids wonder where their next meal is coming from?  Is this the first/only year they’ve had to care for a younger sibling?  Is this the only year that they’ve had to deal with a missing grandma or losing a beloved pet?  If grades aren’t appropriate in the year of the pandemic, why are they any more appropriate in other years?  

What do we know about the origins of grading in the U.S.?

The first record of grading reaches back to 1785 when the President of Yale University implemented a four level system of labeling the learning of Yale students.  Grades didn’t make their way into the public school system until much later.  When they did, they also relied on a system of ratings that mirrored that of Yale.  I was surprised to learn that the practice of grading and using letters to denote the level of learning became popular as the enrollment of public schools grew dramatically in the 1930’s and 40’s.  The use was primarily one of adult convenience – i.e., the efficiency of recording letter/number grades instead of individual narratives for each child that emphasized the kind of standardization that served the growing need for equally trained workers.

What grading wasn’t and still isn’t…

At no time during the last two centuries has grading been used to measure actual student learning, unless one considers the recall of largely unrelated information to be learning. While we have moved from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy to a tech based economy, the practice and the form of grading have remained largely unchanged and continue to serve adult needs – i.e., facilitation of grouping decisions, standardized transcripts, easier admissions screening, etc.  The irony of this history is that, as we have become increasingly aware of the intensely personal nature of learning, we have continued to use (and frequently lament) the continued use of a system first introduced in 1785 while, at the same time, we are becoming increasingly distrustful of the integrity and usefulness of the system.

Why is grading still used?

moat-img_1356-1Why do we have a continued commitment to a practice that seems to have little to recommend it beyond the maintenance of something that we’ve experienced as students and that we inherited with little apparent option as we entered teaching.  

The answer is simple and the remedy complex.  Change is hard.  There are significant forces which we have developed to protect us from the uncertainty of change.  We gravitate to and seek to maintain the familiar.

Change is hard for us when it conflicts with our beliefs.  But how are our beliefs formed, maintained or even strengthened? 

Recent studies have revealed that our beliefs are formed, maintained and strengthened by bias.  Brian McLaren, Jacqui Lewis and Richard Rohr explore this in their  podcast  “Why Can’t We See”.  It’s a discussion of the role of bias in the way we both see the world and react to it. It turns out that change is hard for all of us to the extent that such change bangs head on into a belief that we hold… and many of our beliefs are, in fact, a bias or are a result of bias.  Bias, is a non-reflective belief – i.e., non-reflective in the sense that it is a belief held or formed prior to examination. 

Here are a few of the biases that are formative in our beliefs about our response to grading.  This list offers a look at several of the 13 biases that the podcast hosts cite as formative in our  observations and actions. This is NOT about grading per se but about the way we respond to ideas that challenge our beliefs about grading and the role grading plays in our professional lives.  

Confirmation bias: The human brain welcomes information that confirms what it already thinks and resists information that disturbs or contradicts what it already thinks and resists information that disturbs or contradicts what it already thinks.

Complexity bias: The human brain prefers a simple lie to a complex truth. 

Community bias: The human brain finds it very hard for you to see something your group doesn’t want you to see. In other words, we put tribe over truth. 

Competency bias: Our brains prefer to think of ourselves as above average. As a result, we are incompetent at knowing how incompetent or competent we really are.

Conspiracy bias: When we feel shame, we are especially vulnerable to stories that cast us as victims of an evil conspiracy by some enemy or other. In other words, our brains like stories in which we’re either the hero or the victim but never the villain. 

Comfort, or complacency, or convenience bias: Our brains welcome data that allows us to relax and be happy, and our brains reject data that requires us to adjust, work, or inconvenience ourselves.

As you reflect on these biases, I’d encourage you to recall your introduction to grading.  For most of us this began sometime around age 5 or so and was directly related to how our parents reacted to the first report of our performance as students.  

“Richie is doing really well.  He’s actually a bit ahead of most of his classmates”… parent swells with pride, Richie gets praise (maybe even a quarter). Richie and his parents begin their love affair with competency bias.  Fast forward to entering the teaching profession.  Richie get a grade book.  He may or may not have gotten much instruction in its use unless you were in my school where I was told…  “Fill up the little boxes with numbers. Parents can’t/won’t argue with averages calculated with lots of numbers.”  By now the other biases are kicking in big time.  For most of us who continued we developed (or we hoped we did) a reputation of competency.  Whatever we were doing, there was only risk involved in doing something different.  Why risk my reputation as a competent teacher by challenging the practices of the community? 

Why, in the face of the most emotional and disruptive times we have experienced in our lives, do we persist in needing to give students grades?  In her letter, Teresa Thayer Snyder offers…

In our determination to “catch them (the students) up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. We must not forget that those arbitrary measures were established by people, not ordained by God (Italics mine).We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone!

When we are in a comfortable place it’s not hard to see how our biases work to keep us there.  There is little to be comfortable about as we struggle with helping our kids, our families, our friends navigate a path through the COVID world.  

Homework!

As we explore what we have learned in this terrible pandemic, we might ask the following questions.  What policies, practices, procedures have proven counterproductive during the pandemic? Are they also problematic in the pre-and post-pandemic time?

For our purposes in this essay, consider the following…

Consider the possibility of eliminating grades in your classes, in your department or in your buildings.  Which of the biases listed above have you awoken? What would you need in order to move beyond limitations imposed by that bias?

Cartoon courtesy of Gary Larson, FarSide Gallery

What Matters

The following piece appeared on Diane Ravitch’s blog this morning.

Teresa Thayer Snyder was superintendent of the Voorheesville district in upstate New York. She wrote this wise and insightful essay on her Facebook page. A friend sent it to me.

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

I am writing today about the children of this pandemic. After a lifetime of working among the young, I feel compelled to address the concerns that are being expressed by so many of my peers about the deficits the children will demonstrate when they finally return to school. My goodness, what a disconcerting thing to be concerned about in the face of a pandemic which is affecting millions of people around the country and the world. It speaks to one of my biggest fears for the children when they return. In our determination to “catch them up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. We must not forget that those arbitrary measures were established by people, not ordained by God. We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone! They simply do not apply.

When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times. There is no assessment that applies to who they are or what they have learned. Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death. Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history.

I sincerely plead with my colleagues, to surrender the artificial constructs that measure achievement and greet the children where they are, not where we think they “should be.” Greet them with art supplies and writing materials, and music and dance and so many other avenues to help them express what has happened to them in their lives during this horrific year. Greet them with stories and books that will help them make sense of an upside-down world. They missed you. They did not miss the test prep. They did not miss the worksheets. They did not miss the reading groups. They did not miss the homework. They missed you.

Resist the pressure from whatever ‘powers that be’ who are in a hurry to “fix” kids and make up for the “lost” time. The time was not lost, it was invested in surviving an historic period of time in their lives—in our lives. The children do not need to be fixed. They are not broken. They need to be heard. They need be given as many tools as we can provide to nurture resilience and help them adjust to a post pandemic world.

Being a teacher is an essential connection between what is and what can be. Please, let what can be demonstrate that our children have so much to share about the world they live in and in helping them make sense of what, for all of us has been unimaginable. This will help them– and us– achieve a lot more than can be measured by any assessment tool ever devised. Peace to all who work with the children!

What Really Matters? …What Would Happen If?

What if we used this terrible time to explore and to rethink ideas which have now outlived their usefulnes? What if we harnessed the drive of our own best thinkers to do this?

Note #1: This is a guide, not a detailed step-by-step cookbook.  As we prepared this “how to” part of our series, we quickly realized that it could easily evolve into a book… a book no one had the time (or perhaps even the inclination) to read.  So, for whom is this guide intended?  Based on the readership history of this blog, it is likely that readers will include school/district leaders, formal and informal school leaders, as well as teachers seeking something more than a return to “normal”.  We assume a recognition that (a) the current response to schooling is unsustainable and (b) there is a readiness, or at least openness, to  do more than return to a system that was not serving far too many learners.

Note #2: I can think of no better introduction to a piece about changing the way we educate and prepare ourselves and our students for our time and its unique demands than the commencement address offered by Dr. James Ryan to the 2016 graduates of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.   I urge you to take a few minutes to enjoy Dr. Ryan’s remarks.  As you think about how to approach reimagining the way we support learning for both our adults and our students we hope you’ll be guided by Dr. Ryan’s thoughts.

Note #3: While I am the lead writer – i.e., blame all editing on me — a number of folks have contributed countless hours of reflection, discussion and on-the-ground work in schools to the process described here.  Tom Welch, Dr. Susan Clayton, Cameron Jones make up 3/4 of the 4 Amigos… an on-line collaboration that has brought together educators from Canada (Susan and Cam) and long time consulting colleagues  (Tom and I).  No acknowledgement would be complete, however, without our thanks to the work of Modern Learners, The Big Question Institute, and Will Richardson.

Context

Just as learning rarely occurs at desired levels when learning experiences are organized on a “one size fits all” approach, this is not a “one size fits all” formula for change.  It is an approach that will look a bit different in each place.  It is, however, based on several key ideas. 

We also recognize that not every school/district is ready for the comprehensive “best of all worlds” approach explored here. What we have learned in our work with schools throughout the country is that most “whole school reforms” and/or school transformations fail.  They fail, most frequently  because the leaders have forgotten that not everyone is at the same level of readiness at the same time.  

The reality is that some folks are almost always ready and willing to leap into the unknown.  Others will move, but only after they’ve seen the the first group land safely.  Some will claw the ground to remain where they are and where they are comfortable.  Our intent here is to (1) encourage people to think comprehensively and (2) focus guidance on those who driven to moving beyond the status quo.

Our thinking is based on an acceptance of the opportunity presented by the pandemic.  Clearly, and in spite of the promotion by tech companies of the wonders of personalized, remote learning opportunities, the experience of all participants…teachers, parents and kids… has played to mixed reviews at best. Reports from districts and schools throughout the country have revealed a series of concerns based on shifting conditions including concerns for the heath of children, concerns for child care, concerns for the health of adults, learning losses by kids (especially those with limited access to technology), and concerns of parents ranging from frustration with technology and juggling multiple children and hardware to the impact on their employment and family income. No one has come forward to speak to the benefits of continuing the current approaches.  Finding what’s next represents a daunting challenge for educators, made infinitely more complex by the almost daily crises that must addressed just to remain open.  

Our focus here is on those who are ready and is based on the presence of safe spaces…spaces where ideas can be explored and risks can be taken. The outline for action that follows rests on the foundation of relationships and common beliefs.  Moving to steps beyond these two critical foundations prematurely will both speed up the process  and most likely insure its failure.

Our approach is to acknowledge that the time remaining in the school year is NOT the time to ask for volunteers to add another task, opportunity, or responsibility to a life which, even without significant addition, is not sustainable.

This process is not about providing answers. If the answers were readily available, they would have been adopted by now.   It is about asking questions — asking bigger and better questions.  This is definitely NOT a whole school or whole district change initiative.  This is a process the offers the freedom to explore options which may then be tried by the “explorers” in the school/district.

The questions we use draw heavily on the work of Dr. James Ryan (see above). Our core question is… What if we used this terrible time to explore …to rethink ideas which have now outlived their usefulness?  What if we harnessed the drive of our best thinkers to do this?  Your work will involve an exploration of these and other BIG questions.

Preliminary work –  Not a task for the faint of heart

While it is tempting to believe that the work described in this  guide can begin immediately, the reality is that the conditions for success – i.e., quality of professional  relationships and safe spaces for exploration – are developed over time and are an intentional consequences of the patterns of communication and interaction that have been nurtured within your organization.  They are based on cultures of mutual trust and respect.

Recruit an “Explorers” Team…

Our goal is to recruit a team whose sole purpose will be to design a framework in which learning, not schooling, is the primary focus and to consider what might be possible if we did not make the return to normal our goal for post-pandemic schooling?  The work will involve reconciling the conflicts present in the following charts.  Bothslides come from a TED Talk presented by Will Richardson.  He explores the conditions which educators identify as the those present when powerful learning occurs with the conditions which are absent from their lists, but most fequently present in schooling.   What would happen if your “Explorers Team” began their work exploring the implications of these findings for your school?

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So who are we inviting? What are our expectations?

Just as we can’t assume that all readers of this blog are at a place in which this process is a “good fit”, not all members of an organization will find this guide comfortable or practical.  Rest assured, however, that in every organization we have ever visited, there is a cadre of change-ready folks.  An invitation may be their first exposure to the notion of organizational possibilities. We strongly recommend the use of an open, inclusive invitation process.  

Note: For those in collective bargaining states the following may be useful. (others may skip this section).

 In states and/or districts in which employee unions or recognized culture influencers exist, we recommend that the very first step in the invitation process is a preliminary opportunity for such folks to be involved as early in the process as possible.  

One of the most useful tools I have encountered in the development of productive conversations and practices is the process known as “interest-based” or “integrative” bargaining.  For those facing predictable opposition  we would strongly recommend the exploration of these approaches.  You can explore an introduction to the concepts  here.  

https://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/interest-based_bargaining

Timing –

The first step in the process is to provide the space for people to focus without distraction. Translated into action, this means that the work of imagining the successor to the COVID experience cannot be an additional task added to the overburdened lives of those already overwhelmed by the demands of the COVID response.  Meaningful exploration of what learning and education can be/should be must take place not only in a safe space but with the time and commitment such a task requires. 

Given the limitations of staff availability and the work conditions imposed by the pandemic, we are suggesting a process that take places once the school current school year has concluded. 

The invitation – a critical step, a relationship enhancing process 

Invitation – talking points
  • I/we need your help.  
  • It’s clear that we will not be able to continue our current responses for educating our students in the post-COVID time and trying to recapture what school was prior to COVID ignores too many pieces that weren’t working.  
  • We are being handed a once-in-a-lifetime offer.  It’s an offer that shouldn’t wasted.  
  • We’re creating a team to explore the future of learning in our school/district. 
  • We’re setting aside 2 weeks for you and this small team of colleagues to focus nothing but that work.
  • This is an invitation to dream, to explore, to imagine – i.e.,  design the learning for the future.
  • We hope you’ll be interested in helping us explore and begin a move from our COVID responses to something entirely different… to something that places the learner at the center of everything we do, to something that expands learning to both inside the school and beyond.

What is the starting point?

Our starting point is the exposure of the “exploring” team to a scope of possible futures.  We begin with questions – BIG questions that quickly establish that the possibilities are virtually limitless.  

What if we didn’t make the return to normal our goal for post-pandemic schooling?  

What do we know about how we learn? How kids learn? Do the experiences we offer our students reflect this? What could we try?

Goal – to expose the explorers team to a scope of possible futures… to begin with questions.  It is not our intent that all of the following questions will have to be addressed.  Nor is it our intent that the group will recommend whole school change.  The purpose is to help the team focus on (1) what a post-COVID learning culture might enable (2) what learning for both adults and students could look like, and (3) encourage a few brave souls to explore these ideas themselves and with their students.

The questions that follow provide the opportunity for rich discussion as well as the exploration of possible futures.  In reviewing them we noted that, while important, they seem somewhat disconnected.  What connections do you see when you look at them?  How might you use them to begin or enhance team conversations about next steps?

One of my approaches is to use them as prompts for Dr. Ryan’s 5 questions (Wait- What?; I wonder (why/if); Couldn’t we at least?; How Can I help?: What Matters?).  They are an especially powerful tool to avoid the charm of leaping to quick fix xolutions. 

  • What if we crafted spaces and approaches to incorporate what we now know about the ways in which the brain works? Do we know how the brain works… what new neuroscience has revealed about learning?  
    • Wait…what? You mean that we might change our approach if we better understand the ways in which the brain and learning are connected?
    • I wonder why we continue to build/use a classroom structure with age-based cohorts.
    • Couldn’t we try to use some other organzing structure that’s better suited to how kids learn?
    • I wonder how we could help teachers better understand the brain-learning connection?
    • Is learning what matters or is it the preservation of structure that ae familiar?
  • What if we crafted a “new” normal for our teachers and for our learners?
  • What does it mean to be educated in a world in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell fact from fiction? 
  • Is education the successful acquisition of facts?
  • What place should the acquisition of dispositions have in the experiences of learners?  Dispositions such as courage, compassion, curiosity, kindness, generosity?
  • Does being/becoming educated include an understanding of the context in which we find ourselves? — i.e., what is our current understanding of history?… how does understanding the context for our existence help us make better choices?
  • Is science best learned not as concrete, fixed, factual knowledge but as what we currently understand about the world around us?
  • What constitutes literacy? – Is it a functional skill… the ability to understand and express?
  • What if we did not make the return to normal our goal for post-pandemic schooling?  
  • What if we used this terrible time to explore, to rethink ideas which have now outlived their usefulness?  
  • What if we crafted spaces to incorporate what we now know about the ways the brain works? 
  • How do we honor the all-consuming challenge of trying to create safe meaningful opportunities for learning that address the needs of all involved in the process of educating our children… education leaders, teachers, parents, learners and all those involved  supporting this work?

Conclusion – 

The complexity of re-imagining schooling cannot be exaggerated.  Those of us working in education have been trained both by professional teacher preparation programs and our experiences as students and teachers.  We understand how schools work.  We take comfort in the familiarity and pride in our ability to be acknowledged for doing school so well.  Successful – i.e., durable – systems develop wonderful mechanisms of self-defense.  While often a strength, in times of rapid change, the durability of the system is often a liability.   

There is a growing body of evidence that reveals that the durability of our system has become a liability.  Even prior to the COVID, there was a growing sense that schooling as we knew and know it was no longer serving the needs of our young people.  Our experiences at the end of the last school year and at the beginning of this new one have highlighted the flaws in our system.  

This is not about achievement scores, COVID slides, or teacher accountability.  This is about hanging on to outdated ideas about how and where learning takes place, about how we (both children and adults) learn, about the very purpose of education or seizing the opportunity of this moment to better help our kids learn how to learn, learn how to do, and learn how to be.  Our national response to COVID has been mixed at best.  Let’s not allow the same conclusion to be drawn about the education of our children.

Thank you.  Be well.