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.

Change for Mere Mortals… An Action Guide

 

There are two orders of things: There is the seen order unfolding in front of us every day on our streets and in the news…We call this order of things reality. This is the way things are.” It’s all we can see because it’s all we’ve 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—”

 Glennon Doyle – Untamed

 Whether you’re a parent, a relatively new teacher (like my granddaughter in Houston) or are considered a teaching “veteran”, you have probably felt what Glennon Doyle describes at the beginning of her book, Untamed.  If you nodded your head to the phrase “This is not how things were meant to be”, this post is or you.  It is based on the beliefs that trying to do the wrong thing better is frustrating and that we’ve been spending too much time doing that.

Several years ago, I joined Modern Learners, an on-line community focusing on the need to transform the frustrating experiences that our kids and their teachers were having in many schools.  My decision to join the group was in response to my need to find a way,  after a number of failed attempts, to actually retire.  The funny part of this is that this decision actually worked.  I no longer worked… well, at least not for money.  Ironically, as a result of that decision, I’ve actually worked more and harder than in any of my previous retirement attempts. 

But, more importantly, 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… not the “learning” that is tested annually in most states, but the kind of learning that we experience when we’re exploring something that has engaged our minds and our hearts… 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 Amigos”.… 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.

Most often our conversations with folks interested in change quickly move to the issue of “how” to change my schools or my district.  This paper will be different.  It will focus on “how” but it will not be oriented towards whole school or whole district change.  Simply put, we no longer believe that whole school or whole district or large system change is likely… even with the turmoil that has accompanied the need imposed by the pandemic to drastically alter our approach to schooling.  With very few notable exceptions, the national response in both of the countries represented on our team has been to replicate, as closely as possible, schooling as we knew pre-pandemic. 

You will note that, as you explore our suggestions, we have focused on the importance of word choice.  Throughout the paper, you will see the word “learner” rather than the word “student”.  This is deliberate . It reflects our experience that connects the word student with attending school and being exposed to all of the practices, policies, and procedures which are designed primarily around adult convenience and efficiency… all of the which is contrary to our belief that much learning of value takes place/can take place beyond the walls of the school.  It is for this reason that we distinguish between learning and schooling.  For the very same reason we urge you to begin your exploration of the ways in which our children (as well as adults) learn with your own personal exploration/answer to the question, “What is learning?”

Take a look at a modified version of Glennon Doyle’s words (bold, italics mine)…

“There are two orders of things: There is the seen order unfolding in front of us every day in our schoolsWe call this order of things reality. This is the way things are.” It’s all we can see because it’s all we’ve 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—”

For some additional context, here are a few thoughts offered by Yong Zhao in his recent paper xxx  “The Changes We Need: Education Post COVID-19”, Journal of Educational Change (2021) 

“…the changes or innovations that occurred in the immediate days and weeks when COVID-19 struck are not necessarily the changes education needs to make in the face of massive societal changes in a post-COVID-19 world. By and large, the changes were more about addressing the immediate and urgent need of continuing schooling, teaching online, and    finding creative ways to reach learners at home rather than using this opportunity to rethink education. While understandable in the short term, these changes will very likely be considered insubstantial for the long term.

  Readiness Is Not a Moral Issue

Not everyone sees the world as Zhao does.  For some of us school worked as learners and continues to work for us as teachers.  As Doyle notes (above)…It’s all we can see because it’s all we’ve ever seen. Some nod their heads to Zhao’s  words, but are overwhelmed by the mere act of preparing each day for to teach in ways we never envisioned and for which we were never trained.  Yet others have imagined experiences that are very different and are waiting for opportunities or are ready to make opportunities.  This paper is for you.

We urge you to begin your exploration of the ways in which our children (as well as adults) learn with your own personal exploration/answer to the question, “What is learning?”

 Why an individual approach?  What we’ve learned…

 What we have learned in the years leading up to the pandemic and what has been reinforced by our pandemic experiences is that in education, like almost all institutions, change happens very slowly.  Seeking and/expecting large scale institutional change is a recipe for disappointment.  Our small team has collectively more than 40 years of experience working to improve schools, school districts, even state policy.  We have learned this…

  1. Barring forced large-scale change mandates from either a state or the federal government, schooling will remain for kids and teachers essentially as it has been since the Gang of Ten laid out the curriculum and the grade level structure for schools in 1893…
  2. Meaningful change for our learners will take place one teacher or small group of teachers at a time. It will take place because someone sees a possibility.  It will take place because some says, “Enough!”. Maybe that someone will be a teacher, maybe a school leader, maybe a parent.  What they see may look different from place to place… maybe even from class to class.  

This is a Guide

This paper is written as a guide for those who, individually or as a small group, can’t wait for change to catch up with their need to offer kids something different.  It’s written for those who feel that learning is not about rigid standards, or curriculum organized in rigid content classes with little real-world connection or large-scale standardized assessments.   Maybe it’s not even about age-determined grade levels or seat-time based credits. 

It’s written for those whose know somewhere deep in their hearts that the purpose of education is both simple and clear. 

It’s about helping our kids learn how to learn…not simply transferring information from our heads into their theirs; not simply getting them ready for the annual large-scale standardized assessment.

It’s about helping kids learn how to do… not simply repeat what they’ve read but to be able to produce, to make, to act.

It’s about helping kids learn how to be… not in the context of compliance to school rules but in the context of personal development, of emotional health, of growing into responsible, caring adults.

 

Moving on to “HOW” — Getting Started

compass

 

Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,said the Cat.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland (Carroll, 1960, p. 88)

 

The HOW process is begins with questions… BIG questions.  My questions are “borrowed” from a  commencement address offered by Dr. James Ryan to the 2016 graduates of the Harvard Grad School of Education.  They’re the best questions I’ve found and I urge you to spend a fascinating few minutes with Dr. Ryan.

So, where do you want to get to?  What matters to you? 

Asking these questions regularly is a means of keeping  focused… focused amid all the distractions that can muddy up our days and our intentions. If you have found that there is something about your life in school that seems “not the way things should be”, begin with Ryan’s 5th question… What matters to you?  It’s your way to get to the heart of your beliefs and convictions. It’s a way of recapturing why you chose teaching as a career?

A sub-question to “what Matters” is “What do I believe?”  What do I believe about kids? About learning? Surprisingly, when I’ve interviewed teachers in recent years, I learned that they had never been asked that question… not in the interview, not in any evaluation conferences.  Taking time to answer these questions is a beginning to comparing what you are doing with what you believe is the right thing.

It cycles back to Ryan’s first question, “Wait! What?” Wait! I say I believe that all kids can learn and that kids should be active participants in their learning. But what am I doing that supports that belief? That seems to ignore that belief? How do the kids in my classes feel. 

It is here that we can begin the next question, “I wonder if my kids would feel like active participants in their learning?” “I wonder what my classroom looks like and if it feels like I believe all kids can learn?”

A Sample exploration…

What would my class look like if I believe that…

  • Learning should be learner focused, not teacher centered. The learner does the work of learning, not the teachers;
  • Learning is personal because we learn through our unique, personal lens on the world. It relies on the individual’s prior knowledge and experiences;
  • Learning should be personal, not “personalized” as in the current tech centered delivery system, but based on and organized around the personal interests and needs of learners;
  • Learning always relies on the individual’s prior knowledge and experiences;
  • Learning will frequently occur beyond the walls of the school;
  • Learning is personalized when every voice in the room is heard and valued.

Whether you’re working on this alone or in a small group, don’t skimp on time here.  Take some time. Write down what matters, write down what you believe about learning, write down what you feel about learning in your class.  

For many, perhaps for the majority of those seeking change, these questions can be a great starting point. The common theme that runs through changes in the experiences of teachers and kids will be the clear and non-negotiable focus on learning…  not on state test scores or test prep classes, but on learning… not on student control or compliance, but on learning… not transferring information from the teacher’s brain to the student’s, but on learning from the inside out… learning driven by student interests and teachers support/guidance in the exploration of these interests.

So where do I begin?

 Since we’re looking at “Big Questions as our starting point, Yong Zhao offers 3 questions that are an excellent follow-up to the “what if/what would happen if” questions above.

 He suggests that the three “big questions” that teachers who wish to see change will have to address are…

  1. The curriculum or What to teach?a deep exploration of the current curriculum — 
  2. Pedagogy or How to teach?… how will we move away from our traditional roles as the dispenser of information?
  3. Organization – Where and When to teach?

 What does Zhao mean by each of these?   How closely do these thoughts reflect your own thinking? If you had to start with one, which one would you begin with?  Here’s some additional detail about each…

Curriculum – What To teach?

First, there’s a conflict between what we have been hearing and what have been teaching.  While the specifics vary, the general agreement is that repetition, pattern-prediction and recognition, memorization, or any skills connected to collecting, storing, and retrieving information are in decline.

On the rise is 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).

…While helping learners develop basic practical skills is still needed, education should also be about development of humanity in citizens of local, national, and global societiesA new curriculum that responds to these needs must do a number of things.

First, it needs to help learners develop the new competencies for the new age (Barber et al. 2012; Wagner 2008, 2012; Wagner and Dintersmith 2016).

…The curriculum needs to focus more on developing learners’ capabilities instead of focusing only on ‘template’ content and knowledge. It needs to be concerned with learners’ social and emotional wellbeing as well. Also important is the gradual disappearance of school subjects such as history and physics for all learners. The content is still important, but it should be incorporated into competency-based curriculum.

Second, the new curriculum should allow personalization by learners (Basham et al. 2016; Zhao 2012b, 2018c; Zhao and Tavangar 2016). Although personalized learning has been used quite elusively in the literature, the predominant model of personalized learning has been computer-based programs that aim to adapt to learners’  needs (Pane et al. 2015). This model has shown promising results but true personalization comes from learners’ ability to develop their unique learning path- ways (Zhao 2018c; Zhao and Tavangar 2016).

…Enabling learners to co-develop part of the curriculum is not only necessary for them to become unique but also gives them the opportunity to exercise their right to self-determination, which is inalienable to all humans (Wehmeyer and Zhao 2020).

Third, it is important to consider the curriculum as evolving. Although system- level curriculum frameworks have to be developed, they must accommodate changes with time and contexts.

What to do with this?… As you reflect on Zhao’s thinking on “What To Teach” – use the following questions to assess possible actions…

  • What are the things that I/we should keep “teaching”… e., what are the skills/dispositions that are leading to the learning I/we hope to see?  Example: The ways which language is used to communicate.
  • What are the things that I/we should stop “teaching” immediately…. i.e. what are the things/subjects that are keeping us from providing the kinds of experiences we want my/our kids (and ourselves) to have? Example: Disciplines disconnected from other areas of study.
  • What are the things that we should I/we start “teaching” doing immediately… e., What are the experiences that my/our kids need to have which are currently unavailable to them? Example: How to converse and use empathy in the process.

Pedagogy – How To Teach

First, learners are unique and have individual interests that may not align well with the content they are collectively supposed to learn in the classroom. Teachers have been encouraged to pursue classroom differentiation  (Tomlinson 2014) and learners have been encouraged to play a more active role in defining their learning and learning environments in collaboration with teachers (Zhao 2018c).

Second, the recent movement toward personalized learning (Kallick and Zmuda 2017; Kallio and Halverson 2020) needs learners to become more active in understanding and charting their learning pathways.

Learners should exercise self-determination as members of the school community (Zhao 2018c). The entire school is composed of adults and learners, but learners are the reason for existence of  schools. Thus, schools and everything in the school environment should incorporate and serve the learners.  Yet most schools do not have policies and processes that enable learners to participate in making decisions about the school—the environment, the rules and regulations, the curriculum, the assessment, and the adults in the school. Schools need to create these conditions through empowering learners to have a genuine voice in part of how they operate, if not in its entirety.

Direct instruction should be cast away for its “unproductive successes” or short-term successes but long term damages (Bona- witza et al. 2011; Buchsbauma et al. 2011; Kapur 2014, 2016; Zhao 2018d). In its place should be new models of teaching and learning. The new models can have different formats and names but they should be student-centered, inquiry-based, authentic, and purposeful. New forms of pedagogy should focus on student-initiated explorations of solutions to authentic and significant problems. They should help learners develop abilities to handle the unknown and uncertain instead of requiring memorization of known solutions to known problems.

What to do with this?… As you reflect on Zhao’s thinking on “How to Teach” – use the following questions to assess possible actions.

  •  What are the practices that I/we should keep?… Example: Learners working collaboratively
  • What are the practices that I/we should stop immediately? Example: Calling on first student to raise his/her hand.
  • What should I/we start doing immediately? Example: Engage learners determining what is to be explored.

 Organization – where and when to teach?

 Moving teaching online is significant. It ultimately changed one of the most important unwritten school rules: all learners must be in one location for education to take place. The typical place of learning has been the classroom in a school and the learning time has been typically confined to classes.

When learners are not limited to learning in classes inside a school, they are distributed in the community. They can interact with others through technologies. This can have significant impact on learning activities. If allowed or enabled by a teacher, learners could be learning from online resources and experts anywhere in the world. Thus, the where of learning changes from the classroom to the world.

Furthermore, the time of learning also changes.

Learners could join different learning communities that involve members from different locations, not necessarily from their own schools. Learners could also participate in learning opportunities provided by other providers in remote locations. Furthermore, learners could create their own learning opportunities by inviting peers and teachers from other locations.

When learners are no longer required to attend class at the same time in the same place, they can have much more autonomy over their own learning. Their learning time expands beyond school time and their learning places can be global.

 What to do with this?… As you reflect on Zhao’s thinking on “Where and When to Teach” – use the following questions to assess possible actions… 

  • What are the practices that I/we should keep? Example: Questioning learners to make connections between in-school and out of school experiences.
  • What are the practices that I/we should stop immediately? Example: Restrictions to internet searches
  • What should I/we start doing immediately? Example: Offering credit/recognition for out-of-school learning

 What’s Next?

What comes next will largely be determined by the responses and feedback toWhat  this guide.  Was it helpful?  What was most helpful? Least helpful? What would you like to see next?  We are looking at building a bit of a model for what we’re calling the “Three Learnings Classroom”… a guide for building experieences for learners that offer suggestions for Learning How to Learn, Learning How to Do, and Learning How to Be.  Given the growing body of research and experiences with the social and emotional health of our learners, we are especially interested in a focus on the Learning How to Be challenge.

Why Should We Become Involved?

 “If those who were not a part of building the reality only consult reality for possibilities, reality will never change.” 

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

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 

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 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.

Thinking beyond elections

Like many of us, we’ve spent the recent weeks trying to absorb what will happen on the day of, and those following, the election.  Will the election have a clear winner? Will the election results be contested? Will recent appointments to the Surpreme Court play a role? Is it possile that we are living in one of those rare moments that become chapters in tomorrow’s history books?  This morning I saw this quote from Winston Churchill in a post by Dane Ravitch. Isolated as we are from the familiar it’s easy to lose sight of what really matters. Churchill’s quote seems like a pretty stark reminder.

The foundation of all democracy is that the people have the right to vote. To deprive them of that right is to make a mockery of all the high-sounding phrases which are so often used. At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper — no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.

As I reflected on these words, I recalled a podcast we recently listened to.  In it, the participants, in seeking a response to the question, “Why Can’t We See”, explored the concept of bias and how our biases influence how we absorb (accept/reject) information.  In discussing this, one of the participants quoted a Latin phrase… “What is received is received in the manner of the receiver.” – i.e., our experiences shape our willingness/ability to receive new ideas.  

Since I am “tuned” to education and learning, here’s how I heard Churchill…

With apologies to Winston…

The foundation of all education  is that children have the right to learn. To deprive them of that right is to make a mockery of all the high-sounding phrases which are so often used. At the bottom of all the tributes paid to education is the little child, walking into the classroom, needing the tools for learning and making  sense of the world around them — no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.

In the midst of uncertainty surrounding learning in the pandemic world, what matters is not recreating the schools we remember. What matters is the creation of learning opportunities for each and every child, regardless of age, income, zip code…. “no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possible diminish the importance of that point.”

Be well.

A Letter from a Friend

Tom Welch and I became acquainted when we worked together as consultants for the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). Bill Daggett, the founder of ICLE, once shared with us an observation about a very famous hockey player, Wayne Gretzky. He said that what made Gretzky so successful was that, more than other players, he knew where the puck was going to be… in Bill’s thinking, “seeing the future” was key in helping us adjust learning to meet the needs of kids not just for that time but, more importantly for the future they would encounter.

Over and over, Tom has proven himself to be the Wayne Gretzky of exploring learning opportunities for kids. Tom recently shared a letter he had sent to his daughter. I asked if I could share it with you. While the purpose of the letter was to help his daughter with decisions about the involvement of her son, Hutch, with RTI (Response to Intervention), Tom offers us all some Gretzky-like thoughts about where the “educational puck” could/should be. Enjoy…

My dear daughter,

So when is the conference? Here’s my take on RTI — admirable concept — IF you think that all kids should be responding to instruction in the same way and at the same pace. I just no longer believe that. In fact, the downside is exactly what seems to be going on with Hutch. The worst thing is to send a message to kids (and parents) that the kid is “behind” and needs to “catch up”.

Here’s the way I have been illustrating that lately — Most schools and teachers operate as if kids are “widgets” or “pieces”. The teacher says in effect “This year our goal is to build every kid into a beautiful Lego bonsai tree. We have decided exactly what every child should look like at the end of the year and we even know what pieces are required to build those beautiful Lego trees that we envision. Not only that, but we know how those pieces should be put together and we have figured out a time schedule so that every kid’s tree can be complete and match our vision at the end of the year!” Hooray for us!

Blog Lego 1Image 10-9-20 at 2.02 PM

Well, as it turns out, the purpose of school IMHO should NOT be to turn out identical carefully constructed identical Lego bonzai trees, all built on a common timeline and with a common set of instructions. For one thing, this actually runs counter to what we know about learning and the way the brain organizes learning and information. Learning doesn’t happen from the outside, in. It happens from the inside, out. In other words, for true learning to occur it must start with the individual learner. For the brain to learn things long term, the new information must connect to things that are already within the learner(remember “Mr. Welch’s” motto — Go from what you know to what you don’t know?) If information is presented from “outside” then it will go into short term memory but won’t “stick” unless it finds path to things already there. Remember how Hutch made real progress with reading at the end of the summer? That’s because he was beginning to connect with internal motivations and experiences (the signs he was reading and wanting to understand from HIS world). There have been a number of studies done about this — one I read about last week was from a very exclusive prep school. AT the beginning of the school year (Sept), kids were given the same final exam in science that they had been given at the end of the previous year. Keep in mind, it was the SAME exam. The average at the end of the year had been an A- (these were smart kids, right?) but when they were give the SAME exam just 8 or 9 weeks later, not a single student even passed it! The bonsai tree had no roots to anything in the kids real lives, and as can be predicted, they had not retained the information. I don’t know if they were, but if the teacher/school were using RTI during the previous year, those kids would have been fine, right? All on track (probably, or if not, thanks to RTI,they were “caught up”) and I’m sure the teacher and school and parents were all quite happy with the performances at the end of the year. Mission accomplished. Too bad it wasn’t the right mission ;-(. The goal of learning is learning, not responding correctly and on time to instruction. I’m sure, Marty, that you remember passing plenty of classes just fine, but the material didn’t “stick”. Think of your math experience — passed AP Stats just fine, but when did you REALLY learn math? When you were learning to fly! That was no “bonzai tree” experience — it was rooted in your personal goals and experience. Unfortunately when kids don’t do well in a class they think it’s something wrong with them (Woe is me, I am bad at [math]”) when the real problem was the whole way someone thought you should learn. Thank goodness you had that experience of learning to fly that summer or you might have not understood the depth of your abilities to learn and apply your learning.

So if not bonzai trees made of Legos that can be mass produced and built according to plan and on a timeline, then what? You can probably guess what I might say —

Old growth forest

This is a much better metaphor for learning and individual learners — when you look at all the different plants, pick out the ones that are “behind” or “ahead” of where they should be. Ridiculous to even try, isn’t it? Each is where it should be. Some get more sunlight for a time and grow faster, another just a few yards away may be growing more slowly. Is that a problem? Is either of them behind or ahead? No, each one is growing as it should. And when are any of the trees “done” growing? Another ridiculous concept. That’s why it’s stupid to say “Oh you finished math — you’re done!” No, there’s always more to learn about math or anything else in a natural environment of learning. What a sad message we send to kids when we give them the false idea that they can consider themselves “done” with learning anything. Part of what keeps me going is I keep learning! I’m always curious about things and anxious to know more. I think that was one of the best gifts my folks gave me. I can see Granny scoffing now if I would have ever told her I was “done” learning history, or if I’d told her I had learned everything I needed to in science or French because I’d finished a course. She was much wiser than that. She knew a great deal about learning — not just from her education but from her experience raising 5 VERY different kids who each learned in very different ways and at very individual paces and with very different sets of interests.

So my advice — listen earnestly to what the teacher has to say and take those parts that seem helpful for you and Hutch. Those things that will nurture him and help you nurture him. But DON’T let her try to tell you that he is “behind” or “ahead” with ANYthing. He is where he is! And you know what? That’s exactly the point from which you will continue to work with him and encourage him. And the whole idea of any kid being behind or ahead is one that I hope you will talk to him about over the years. Whether it’s classmates or Hutch who is “struggling” and labeled as “behind” or “slow”or “excelling”. Please tell him about the Legos and the forest ecosystem and tell him never to judge himself or others based on some random set of instructions for constructing a Lego bonzai tree!

Much love and encouragement to you all!

Love,
Dad