Recent development in technology has resulted in a tidal wave of new information about how the human brain works. As the research is published, those who can profit from the information have rushed to understand it – and use it to better persuade, manipulate, or change the behaviors of their targeted audience. Most obvious in this camp are advertising companies and political institutions. A CNN article yesterday covered one more example of this focused on the writers of film – Neurocinema. These insitutions are driven by a desire to make a profit – they certainly do not have "the common good" centered in their sites. This begs a question… Why don't those of us who are targeting "the common good" seek out this information with the same tenacity? What does current research tell us about how schools should do business? How should this change the approach of doing ministry? Non-profit work? Programming for community children? Just yesterday, Josh Lehrer blogged about fasting and the effects of low glucose levels on the performance of the pre-frontal cortex in his post called fasting. It certainly isn't earth shattering… but the research tells us something about how we work with students who suffer from poor nutrition. It may also tell us something about school procedures regarding food, drinks, and class schedules.
One of the joys of being a principal is walking the halls and listening in on classrooms each day. During one of my recent strolls I was intrigued by the fact that nearly every classroom I walked by had a teacher in it talking at students. Some may not think twice about this piece of trivia, however this simple mind can't reconcile the misalignment of our school goals and these actions…
Our main school goal is focused squarely on increasing student achievement. It indicates that the ACT Explore test is the tool for measuring achievement, however we clearly pay attention to the MN MCA tests, the NWEA MAP tests, common local assessments and student grades also. The vast majority of these assessments test the ability of students to think, write, apply, make decisions, and solve problems. Not one of the assessments tests our students' ability to sit and listen or to take notes. Does the contradiction between what we ask students to do each day and what they must do on these assessments raise a red flag for anyone else?
Certainly some who are reading this post are already crying "over simplification" or "yeah, but students need content with which to do those activities." No doubt – but the goal here is to honestly reflect on what we do with students each day during the 7 hours that we have them – and to figure out how to get better results at game time. I have often reflected on how working as a soccer coach helped me enormously as a classroom teacher. As a coach it was easy to connect game time (the assessment) to what I taught and had students do in practice. It felt so natural to reflect on the last game with the students, to watch film, to discuss mistakes and missed opportunities, and then to translate that into "curriculum" to teach and drills to practice before the next game. As a teacher, I taught and taught and taught and wondered why they didn't get it. There was no film, no dialogue with them about what needed to be learned or practiced, no structured reflection on how to learn the material, and certainly no dialogue about the upcoming game… or assessment. That would be like giving away the answers!
So… what do those tests actually assess? How much do we practice what we expect at game time? What percentage of a student's day should be spent practicing – actually doing the cognitive activities we require on those assessments? In education circles we like to gripe about "teaching to the test" and how bad that is. Interestingly, it seems we do just that in most other areas of life. We practice for the assessment, the game, the performance, the challenge. To this soccer coach it seems crazy NOT to teach to and practice for the test. In fact, we coaches even scout the upcoming team on our schedule hoping to fine tune our strategies and increase our chances of a strong performance!! What if we did the same in the classroom? Maybe we should scout the MCA game, the NWEA game, and the ACT game! What if, like good coaches, we spent more time practicing in classrooms and less time giving direct instruction? Coaches know that players in line for a drill is a waste of precious practice time. Players must all be doing all of the time (well executed drills don't require waiting in line). What if we eliminated "waiting in line" in the classroom? What if we used film, writing, blogs, pictures, and other strategies to facilitate more reflection on the process with students? What if we invited students into the conversation about what good performance looks like, how to handle mistakes, and how to take advantage of opportunities? What if we were coaches in the classroom, using formative assessments to drive our curriculum and practices ultimately shooting for a strong performance in the playoffs (summative assessment)?
I'm hopeful that my strolls later in the year will be full of students reading, debating, thinking, writing, speaking, discussing, and problem solving. If I remember right, those were on the last scouting report I looked at…
Are reading and writing skills indeed different in the 21st century? I ran across an interesting blog post today called "New Relationships with Content" on Leader Talk that pushes this discussion into the internet world. The title, however, eludes to some questions not presented. Does this framework apply to all disciplines? How do the changes in technology impact reading and writing in your discipline?
Do we allow i-pods in school? Phones? Texting? Emailing? Facebook? Twitter? What about safety issues? What time, exactly, do we jump on the students who still have headphones on? How can we allow students to use their electronics if we can't control what they are doing? If they text another student while in study hall, the student in class receiving the text might be distracted!
This is a call to end the "how do we control student technology use" debate. What if we walk around to the other side of the issue and ask questions from another point of view?
- How can pod-casting be used to increase student interest in science?
- Could a class blog create more family participation in answering big, conceptual questions and facilitate student thinking?
- Maybe a class Twitter site would actually produce a new "note-taking strategy…" I wonder how we could set this up and encourage positive, academic dialog among JH students??
- How can we use handheld technology (which nearly all students have now) to overcome the lack of computer labs and student computer stations?
- What if my class had a facebook account? Would students become more engaged in the literature I am trying to get them to read?
- How would students respond to short podcasts on my website and an expectation that they respond to an on-line threaded discussion?
- If my test requires students to write narrative responses, and a student texts a question on the test to another student while taking the test, do I really need to care? In the end, did they learn it and did the assessment demonstrate student understanding?
- If capturing student thinking requires writing, how can I use technology to help me? Maybe Twitter can be the 21st century "Post-it Note!!"
- Could social media technology actually create class community? Maybe students could come to consensus on a few issues tied to my essential questions??
- Wouldn't it be an awful breach of school rules if a student texted an answer to another student? Sure both students know the answer then, but… oh, wait… Well, it'd be like looking up the answer on Wikipedia… oh, wait… yeah, I know it's more accurate than Encyclopedia Brittanica… Is the skill of research actually different than it was 10 years ago? How can social media technologies be used to do research? How do we teach students to use these resources efficiently, honestly, and accurately?
Next year, instead of this debate, I propose calling in 20 students for an inservice. First, we'll explain to them all of our ideas about how to control their use of technology. We'll then have them show us how to circumvent each of our efforts. Then, if we have enough self-confidence, we will challenge them to show us their ideas for using technology to learn, engage in dialog, and discover. After all is said and done, a few confident teachers just might post the essential question to tackle and hand their classrooms over to the students… Who knows what they might come up with to learn and demonstrate mastery… Maybe it'll be better than what we come up with… Can we handle that?
Here are a few related, interesting stories:
I can't pass up the opportunity to address Scott McLeod's post today that refers to Jim Collins' new book How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In. Scott presents a quote from the book, "Whether you prevail or fail, endure or die, depends more on what you do to yourself than on what the world does to you" and then asks whether or not educators believe this. Scott, this educator believes that most of us in education believe in the statement, but we don't know how to live out this belief in instructional practice. The result over time, which includes negative media attention, distracting situations, and people turnover, is an institution that has made a normal practice of blaming external variables for our performance.
I stated to our faculty just this morning,
"Rather than get caught up in trying to explain away our student achievement with demographic statistics, this principal is focusing on a simple piece of data that doesn't sit right with me. For 5 years we have equipped teachers with incredible amounts of data on each student in their classes on the first day of school – and nothing has changed in the area of instructional practice. We still give all 30 students in all 5 sections of your classes the same assignment, using the same textbook, with the same background information, with the same expectations. This practice is akin to asking all 30 students to put on the same pair of pants… We know this is not good practice yet we keep doing it. Frankly, we don't accept this kind of performance from our auto mechanics, from our doctors, from local vendors – yet those of us who work with our most precious gift, children, accept this as normal and point fingers at everything else."
"Confronting the brutal facts" (to use a Collins phrase from Good to Great) is difficult, scary, and close to insanity when your job is as public and "on stage" as being a teacher is. The faculty at Shakopee Junior High, however, is doing just that. Using the framework that Collins gives us in Good to Great, our staff is embracing the principles of "disciplined people practicing disciplined thought and disciplined action." Over a two year journey they have committed to making decisions based upon research, doing what is right, and doing so with integrity and transparency. The momentum is palatable…
I stood in front of the teachers today and also said,
"I understand why you haven't changed anything. I have been exactly where you are and I am learning this stuff right with you. You are wondering what you will do with the other 22 students while you work with the 8 who need specific instruction – and what to do with the 8 while you're working with the other 22! I get it. I've been there. You're worried about how to manage behaviors and how to deal with a class in 4 different places in the curriculum. We're in this together. Here's the bottom line – It's ok to take risks and make mistakes while, in good faith, working on improvement if your efforts are supported by research and doing what is right. It is NOT ok to know what you are doing is wrong and to make no effort to change your practice. That is unethical. That is a sin."
I am proud to tell you that the faculty at Shakopee Junior High has embraced confronting the brutal facts, engaging in rigorous debate, and seeking out help to improve our practice. They have committed to owning what we can control and to focus on getting better. This commitment includes worrying less about using external statistics to explain our lack of performance and instead, using real, meaningful data to drive how and what we teach. This commitment has happened because we have avoided beating them up and instead focused on helping them figure out what to do about the brutal facts. I have never met a teacher who wants to be a bad teacher! They simply don't know what they don't know… nor do I. It's the job of leadership to help teachers find answers to their questions. Our staff leadership is delivering on that expectation.
Indeed, the institution of public education has far to go in the arena of controlling what we can indeed control. We need to stop sticking our heads in the sand and confront the brutal facts about what is happening in classrooms everyday. You don't have to be brilliant to understand that a student who reads at the 3rd grade level can't read the 9th grade physical science text… Confronting these facts in a meaningful way happens only when a safe environment has been created by school leaders and local communities. The focus of leaders must shift from beating up on teachers and making excuses to confronting the brutal facts honestly, cultivating rigorous debate, and doing what is right. Shakopee Junior High is well underway. Will you join us?