Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Demand More than What

A long line of cars, headlights on, carries New Hampshire residents to vote in the primary. It is an image circulating social media this morning. Maybe it is a sign that more American people will vote in the upcoming election.

The image makes me wonder: what type of impulse moves people to make an effort to change?

And where do those impulses reside in education?

For the most part, the middle school experience today looks and sounds very much the same today as it did when I was twelve and thirteen years of age.

However, the anxiety and pressure to beat the world, beat the other states, beat the neighboring districts, beat my classmates, and beat our colleagues was not present in 1982. For all of the gains some believe we accomplish from that structure, I want to point out what has been lost--because we get what we emphasize.

Point blank, educators experience less conversation and consideration about what the research and evidence suggests than they do about what the test scores say. By evidence, I mean what educators see along with what students say. Not just scores and data. Yet our time is often parceled out to talk (almost) exclusively about a long line of numbers from a state or national test. As a matter of fact, it is not unusual to be encouraged to create formal plans for change based on what the scores tell us.

Numbers and scores and rankings. That is what we emphasize.

Many champion that this sort of data is indeed informative and helpful. I do not disagree. It can provide a holistic account of a grade level and a subject area. In other words, we can learn what our students scored weak in.

Yet, "what" can only inspire more what...or what else..."what" is content.

"What" is not why. "What" does not inspire self-reflection much deeper than facts and concepts. "What" can stall at "what"--as in what I must teach more of.

When teachers are encouraged to look at other classrooms, to look at students in a variety of situations, to look at observable behaviors, then we can open up conversation with colleagues about teaching. We can talk about why a decision was made...where did you find that did prepare...when would you return to that point...and yes, what would be included as well. We can't function or learn without what...but we need so much more than what.

Yet, yet, yet...I struck up conversations with several sets of teachers from different regions of the country (at NCTE in Minneapolis) who shared that talking about teaching with colleagues is often intimidating.


Have we become so focused on beating everyone and every test in our path that we have lost the art and value of talking with one another?  Talking with colleagues can be seen as a judgmental, threatening, and humiliating. One teacher told me he felt the conversations with his colleagues about curriculum felt like a "witch hunt."

This is the opposite of what our professional conversations should feel like!

This is the opposite of what the relationships between elementary schools and their district middle school should be like. This is the opposite of what the relationship between high school teachers and their district middle school teachers should be like.

When we focus solely on what, it becomes easy to blame. We talk so much about what (content) in education that we have lost the conversation--the beauty of the give and take--about teaching. We have lost collaboration. We have lost the value of what others bring to their classrooms and to our buildings.

The greatest growth as teachers that we can experience starts with listening. By listening, I mean deliberately framing time to talk and listen to what students and teachers have to say: what works for them, why it works for them, what decisions did they make, why did they make that decision, when did they realize x, how did they come to make that change, et al.

Those conversations are not presently valued. No one asks for that research or evidence. In the worst environments, the most teachers are ever asked for are their scores. In the worst environments, the lowest, most uninspired, outcomes are shared scores...without conversation.

Some of the greatest learning moments for me this year have come when I shared audio recordings of my conferences with students. I do not record all of them (impossible) but I record a lot of them on my iPhone and then save them. I have shared some of these recordings with other educators outside of my building and I have shared them with parents of the students.

I learn so much about my kids when I talk with them, and that makes me a better teacher beyond anything the scores tell me. But I learn so much more when I allow other educators to tell me what they hear in those recorded conversations. They can sift through everything in one conversation and mine the gold that sometimes lays buried beneath my concern with everything. In the moment with our kids, we often feel that everything carries an equal weight and significance. Sometimes we miss the best stuff and need others to help us find it.

Yet, we would never know that because we are not encouraged to do it. No one asks for that evidence.

Finally, sharing recorded student conferences with parents exposes history beyond the classroom walls. After all, parents know their child. In many cases, parents have listened to a recording and then enthusiastically isolated a moment in the conference that taught me something new about their child.

And when we learn more about the child, we move closer to being the teacher they deserve. We move beyond the what (content) and move into an inclusive conversations of whys, whens, hows, wheres in addition to the whats.

While tests_________ a. cannot measure everything, b. are imperfect, c. stack the deck, d. are  a fact of life (fill in the blank with anything you'd like),  it is the conversations that we do not share that fails us worse.

When will we expect (and demand) conversations built on more than just what?

From our national standard?

From our state standard?

From our local standard?

From ourselves?

1 comment:

  1. Brian --

    Thanks for this invigorating and much-needed post.

    The most heartening thing in the world is young teachers who engage in talking about teaching. These are the folks who have been hired and brought up in the data-driven atmosphere that searches for meaning in charts and check marks. This generation of teachers has been taught in their schools that empirical performance is the only thing that matters. Of course, many of them have now left the profession--a loss that will never be reclaimed--but those who have persevered and still find the courage to reflect and grow in authentic ways are my heroes.

    Grizzled veterans like some people I could name will talk about teaching all day and all night long, but some experienced teachers work in fear-based environments where, as you say, they feel constantly judged.

    What if we stopped investing resources in distrust, accepted that most teachers are good at what they do, and let them do their thing? Like prisoners stepping into the sunlight for the first time in years, they might not quite know what to do at first, but it won't take long for educators to find their way back to why they entered this profession in the first place. I've never talked to a teacher who signed up for this job out of a love for data.