Our Future Experts of Waiting in Line
The factory model of public education has to die – the sooner the better. On a recent tour of our district's ELL program, I had the golden opportunity to walk through multiple buildings over two days looking through the same lens. This is golden for a few reasons – it disciplines me to be in buildings, it allows for a better understanding of how a district program is being implemented across the district, and it allows me to see many teachers delivering instruction in a short period of time. While I was there to observe the ELL classrooms in action, I couldn't resist the urge to step into every classroom that had an open door. At the end of the tour I had briefly observed no less than 70 classrooms in action. My conclusion was the same as it has been in every school I have worked…
Years ago I served as the head coach of a high school varsity soccer team. The position included building feeder programs, and I quickly found myself running summer camps for kids of all ages. The first 10 minutes of a soccer camp for elementary aged kids taught me a key lesson that I have never forgotten: little kids need to be engaged in productive doing – or their doing will be counter-productive! Because I'm not the quickest learner, it took me a while to translate this to the varsity level, but eventually I did figure it out. The outcome results of my practices (how well our team played at game time) depended on clarity of focus on the objectives, viewing every minute as gold, and on how many touches each player had on the ball. I figured out that drills in small groups resulted in more touches than one or two lines. I figured out that pre-teaching some group leaders before practice (or after practice the day before) resulted in a crisper drill that wasted fewer precious minutes. I figured out that players could easily translate concepts from small group games into the full field so I really didn't need to do full field practice much at all – resulting in more touches. I figured out that routine drills focused on core concepts and skills made for efficient warm ups, cool downs, and transitions since they didn't require any explanation once they were routine. I am proud to share that the feeder programs grew and players learned spiralled core skills and concepts through each level resulting in state championships after I had left (yes I prefer to think that it was due to my work with the younger kids – not the arrival of the much more brilliant coach…).
So I said I'm not the quickest learner. Indeed, it took me a few years of teaching and coaching to have the sudden realization that… drum role… all of the strategies I had used to be a better soccer coach applied directly to being a classroom teacher. Small and strategic groups, core
routines for core learning, utilize student leaders, make sure every student has a ball and more touches, eliminate waiting in line, use protocols, keep score in practice, blow the whistle – freeze – now reflect, etc… I realized that every time I asked the class a question expecting one student to raise a hand the other 29 were "waiting in line." My classroom was almost entirely absent of productive doing. Of course I taught high school, so the students were well trained to be compliant by that time and making them wait in line was normal. No doubt the system had weeded the rest out by the time they got to me…
As has been true for a century, my tour of our schools confirms that we continue to produce experts of line waiting. Our students today graduate experts of raising their hand, portraying a fascade of engagement, and well rehearsed - factory like - repetitive behaviors such as filling in blanks, circling T or F, coloring maps, and answering recall questions at the end of textbook sections. The percentage of precious minutes in a school day (about 400) actually
spent touching the ball or "productively doing" is fair at best. The vast majority of those 400 minutes is spent in transition, lunch, classroom start up, review, or practicing one of the factory skills mentioned already. I observed very few engaging in meaningful small group debate, doing academic writing, practicing articulated meta-cognitive strategies to improve reading skills, or synthesizing meaningful strands of content. The students were demonstrating excellent line waiting skills and superb compliance to factory like routines.
If we want line waiting experts, we are delivering on that expectation beautifully. If we want students who research, collaborate, think strategically, and create knowledge, we must reorganize the classroom to practice those skills. Every minute is gold, we need far more touches on the ball, and we need laser sharp focus on objectives – both in process and in content. If we can do this out on the field, isn't it reasonable to think we can do this in the classroom?