“The traditional school often functions as a collection of independent contractors united by a common parking lot.” ~Robert Eaker~
After a move to a new school in September and, what could only be described as an interesting fall, I’m starting to feel a little more settled with my (not so) new surroundings. Over the past few months I’ve had the chance to focus on getting to know the school community, the students, families and staff and see, more or less, how the school ‘works’.
It is often noted that there is greater consistency in practice across schools than within a given school. During 24 years in public education, working at 10 schools in various capacities; teacher, mentor and administrator I’ve had the opportunity to observe this phenomenon first hand.
The key challenge many schools and school systems face is one of both complexity and diversity. With so many variables and influences to factor; people, context and resources, trying to enact a change initiative is akin to the iconic cat herding commercial from a few years back. Often, we are feel we need to respond to complex problems with complex solutions; but the more I think, read and reflect upon this, the more it occurs to me that these problems actually demand simple solutions and that require a focus on relationships and doing less, more effectively.
David Kirp, an American public policy researcher and author, wrote about this recently in his book Improbable Scholars. One of Kirp’s main assertions is that successful schools and districts avoid trendy, fancy or complex improvement strategies and instead focus on these three key areas:
- rich early learning opportunities for all children;
- a strong focus on language-rich instruction across the grades, and;
- professional learning for teachers using school-based collaborative structures.
Success, it turns out, is a matter investing more in the collaborative capacities of classroom teachers and less on the external factors and tools that we have come to rely upon in many of our schools.
For me the word that best describes a truly effective school is coherent. A coherent school is one where teachers direct their resources and focus towards the development of logical, well-organized, consistent and effective teaching practices across the school. As a school leader my task is to engage the professionals I’m working with to create this coherence. As an example, collaborative assessment of student learning is one area where digital tools can help immensely as we can use media tools to gather and analyse a wide range of authentic student work samples as our teachers make use of tools like Google Classroom and Dreambox to support both their classroom teaching and professional learning.
Though we may use new tools, technologies and strategies to accomplish this, it is not the intention to add ‘more’ to the work we do in schools but rather to reduce the use of ineffective or inefficient practices and establish the structures necessary for teachers to work together to create coherence and communicate in a meaningful manner with their students and families.
“The principal goal of education in schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.” ~Jean Piaget~
For the first time in almost 20 years, my school, along with the rest of Ontario’s public elementary schools are missing out on the annual ‘conversation’ about the results of the annual grade 3 and 6 provincial EQAO assessments. EQAO opted not administer the assessments after public elementary teachers refused to participate in the testing process as part of the work to rule sanctions imposed in the spring. Whatever one’s opinions are on standardized testing (not the focus of this post) it has made for an interesting fall.
Normally, at this time of the year school and system leaders are responding to the results on multiple fronts. Depending on the numbers, one could be dancing in the hallways and serving cake in the staff room, or sweating through an angry parent meeting trying to articulate the plan that will raise the scores and floating in stream of the annual media hand wringing about the decline of our system and our inability to ‘compete’.
Serendipity being what it is, our school board did engage in some broadly-based data collection last year- we conducted a system-wide student engagement survey. Near the end of the school year students in grades 5 to12 were invited to complete a questionnaire on a few key aspects of their life at school. Over 52,000 students completed the survey (mostly online) representing 72% of our student population- a pretty robust sample size.
One of the key areas the survey focused on was how our students perceived their schools as engaging, modern learning environments. A slice of data in this area of our student survey is represented below:
The percentage values on the left (light blue) represent responses from our gr.5-8 (middle school) students and those on the right (navy) are responses from our gr.9-12 (high school) students. What is noteworthy for me is the quantity of students who feel that their voices, values and interests are not evident in the school they attend and the decline in each category’s percentages from the middle school to high school results.
It reminds me of the results reported from the survey the Gallup organization conducted with a similar aged cohort of over 500 000 American students in 2012. An 80’s themed piece on this report can be found in The Atlantic .
Engagement and motivation are essential for deep learning. Whatever one’s stance or perspective is on what school should be; it’s pretty clear to me our students are telling us in no uncertain terms that school is not what it could be. Do we really wish to be part of a system that gradually erodes the enthusiasm and joy of learning of the majority of the children it is designed to serve?
This past week I had the opportunity to listen to an address by Will Richardson in which he challenged us to consider the beliefs we hold about our own learning and reflect upon whether these beliefs were evident in the actions we take in our schools and classrooms. I think (hope) most of us know that the things we do to children do not reflect what we know we ought to be doing- and yet we persist.
Regardless of your role, if you work in schools now, knowing what our students have told us, how will you respond?
“I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is that they must change if they are to get better.” ~Georg Christoph Litchenberg
The talk linked to this post is powerful, thought provoking and was, for me, disturbing. Bryan Stevenson is an American lawyer, legal scholar, social justice activist and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Hopefully you will grab a bag of popcorn, dig in and watch the talk before you read this post. That is, after all, why I often ink my posts with media content.
Schools are complex systems; the interactions of children, families and educators are complicated- with moments of joy, outbursts of conflict and a level of intensity that is powerful. So powerful that emotion can, at times, trump reason and a balanced perspective. This is no more true than those times when children harm one another, respond to perceived injustices by acting out or challenge rules that they feel are unfair.
There was a time when we used terms like ‘zero tolerance’ to describe school discipline practices and policies- with the belief that punishment would be enough to ensure that students wouldn’t hurt one another or challenge the existing authority structures of the school. I reject this belief for a simple reason- it doesn’t really work.
Bryan Stevenson explains how and why it doesn’t ‘work’ with much more eloquence, authority and urgency that I ever could-I won’t even try (so watch the video-please).
What I will add is this-only because it is based on my experience as a father and an educator. Punishment doesn’t work because when we punish we are not teaching. As Ross Greene reminds us, children behave the way they can; based upon their experiences, state of mind and well being. Teaching requires that we understand the child’s needs and create the conditions for them to connect, reflect, communicate and learn. Whether it is learning about our number system, the events of our past, the elements of effective narrative writing; or what to do when you have harmed another person.
This is why effective schools -and enlightened youth police outreach programs- focus on restorative justice approaches. When children learn to accept responsibility and repair the harm that they have done we work towards solving two problems- the harm that was caused and the issues and challenges that led to the harm in the first place.
In my experience, the students who are subject to the most disciplinary responses exist on the margins- they have language or learning difficulties, mental health concerns like ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder, or live in communities with limited resources, poverty or weak family support structures. Schools are supposed to serve to counter to these influences- not accelerate them- this is what it really means to be ‘fair’.
The eye only sees what the mind is prepared to comprehend. ~Robertson Davies~
We are products of a lifetime of experiences and the perceptions these experiences foster. Some may be familiar with the anecdote about the teacher who mistakenly mixed up the previous year’s class list test results and launched into the school year believing that the group with the high results was actually the one with low results – and vice versa. The subsequent confirmation bias, with a year of high performance from the low scoring class, may or may not be true (the web, after all, is a boundless source of these stories) but it sure makes a poignant tale.
The video above makes a great point about how we perceive the children and families we work with in our schools. Every one has a story-a set of experiences that they carry around in their hearts and minds. In schools we think a lot about the ‘stories’ our students carry and, when we are at our best we try to learn and understand these stories so we can better teach them.
Of course- we have our ‘stories’ as well.
I wonder if we are aware of the perceptual lenses we carry? Each of us has a lifetime of experiences that form the basis of our stories and these influence the opinions and decisions we make about our students and their families.
Something to think about…
Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement. ~Daniel H. Pink~
The school year has an ebb and flow to it. The early days of September; filled with the excitement of a new school year, the novelty of a new classmates and the opportunity for a fresh start, are often referred to as ‘honeymoon’ phase. By early November, this early enthusiasm and excitement has usually waned as staff and students have settled into the routines, structures and expectations of daily school life. Honeymoons, after all, don’t last forever and the stresses of academic learning, peer dynamics can lead the children we teach to a wide range of behaviors that would seem familiar to anyone who has any life experience in a classroom or school.
Behavior is communication; we know that actions are a much more reliable source of information about people than words. In schools, we often see children’s behavior as something we (the adults) can control. In the pursuit of this noble goal we often expend a great deal of time and energy designing the type of incentive, reward and punishment schemes that our friends in The Office satirized in the video excerpt above. I’ve moved around a lot in my career as a teacher, staff developer and school administrator and one common observation I can make from these experiences is how deeply embedded the use of this type practice is in classrooms and schools.
Another observation I can make is for most kids (and especially those kids who are marginalized in any way) these ‘systems’ just don’t work. People much smarter than me have written and spoken at length on this topic (follow the links) but for me the reasons these programs don’t work comes down to three flawed assumptions:
- Our default stance is selfishness
- Learning is something we try to avoid
- Hierarchy is our natural order
Our history as a species tells us that to be human is to create, seek connections, novelty and networks. These patterns are embedded deep in our DNA; the desire to learn, form communities, follow our curiosity and nurture life, often regardless of the risks and costs. Cognitive and social scientists support this thinking with research on motivation and how cultures and societies reflect these common themes across time and geography.
That is why I struggle when I encounter practices that are designed to coerce, manipulate or intimidate children to learn and behave in a pro-social manner. Points or token systems and other external rewards shift the learning away from the internal (the child’s needs) towards the external (the adult’s needs). It is also why working to change this status quo is one of the areas I’ve focused a great deal of my time and energy on in my role as a school leader.
An important part of being in school for children is it gives them the opportunity to develop as social beings, experience both success and failure and, through these experiences and behaviors, build the resilience that will serve them for life. The author and provocateur Alfie Kohn asks us to consider whether our children experience these successes and failures as information or as a rewards and punishments?
I think I know how we got to this place in education-what I wonder is how we can interrupt and begin to develop a set of structures in our classrooms and schools that will lead us away from this place?
She had fouled off the curve balls that life had thrown her. ~W.P. Kinsella~
Over my time as a school principal and vice principal I have been fortunate to work in schools where a culture of healthy physical activity is evident throughout the school. My current school, Clearmeadow P.S. is certainly no exception. Come to our school any time before, during or after the school day and you will see first hand what I mean. Whether it is organized activities like cross country or volleyball, or the wide array of informal playground sports that go on every morning and lunch hour- there is a lot of physical activity going on. On any given day one will see everything from games of soccer, touch football, foursquare, basketball and tag to intricate dance moves and cheer routines. Recently, as a result of the Toronto Blue Jays regular and post-season successes, we have started to see many more sandlot baseball games breaking out all over the school yard (if you are wondering how the grass stains are getting on those jackets, it’s likely that they are being used as bases or home plate).
A lot of important learning occurs during these times. Though our school yard is well supervised, students have a greater level of autonomy and these games and activities provide them with the experience of working together to organize games, negotiate rules and manage the conflicts, struggles and disagreements that are a natural outcome of the social process. John Dewey once said “education is not preparation for life , education is life itself.” In many ways, the old adage about the school yard as a microcosm of life in the real world holds true.
When things get too heated, or a student makes a decision that is hurtful, unsafe or inappropriate; we are able to step in, provide support and help the student(s) learn from their mistakes. However, for the most part, they manage these matters themselves, using these experiences to find their voices, learn about reciprocity and develop their resilience. Recess is the invisible (and often favorite) subject; one where no tests are assigned and no marks are given but one where the depth and quality of learning that occurs is known by all. If we want our children to learn how to manage and recover from disappointment they must experience it- recess is one place where this learning is real, sometimes too real, but real nonetheless.
…there are many committed, forward thinking teachers who will make (inquiry and authentic work) happen despite the barriers. But community members, parents, legislators and lobbyists will resist large-scale transformative change at every turn because they are tied so deeply to their nostalgia for school as they knew it or to the potential windfalls of making traditional schools better.” ~Will Richardson~
It’s been a while since I’ve written a post. After a quiet, blissful summer with family and friends I’ve launched into the start of the school year at a new location with the opportunity to get to know a new team of educators, students and families. September did bring lots of new stuff; but to quote the dearly (and recently) departed dugout linguist Yogi Berra, there is an element of that deja vu all over again in our schools this fall.
Current circumstances and events, along with the some of the reading I’ve been reflecting upon, has got me thinking about where we are in our profession, in our schools and our systems. Specifically, I’ve been reading Will Richardson’s latest book From Master Teacher to Master Learner and hope to weave a narrative over the next few posts to share my thinking, connect with some fellow travelers and, hopefully, provoke others to do likewise.
I’m a tinkerer; a restless soul with a willing disposition to challenge the status quo. As a school principal and prior to that, as a classroom teacher, I’ve tried to meet challenges and solve problems with creativity, imagination and a willingness to try new things, take risks and make mistakes. It helps that I welcome the ideas and perspectives of others; especially when these prompt me to refine and revise my thinking. This is how I learn and, above all, I see myself as a learner.
This is why, I’m sure, that I’ve found Will’s blog posts, talks and books to be so helpful. I can connect with his ideas and perspectives, both as a father and an educator. They give me pause to think, help me reflect upon my work and support me in my advocacy.
To lead public schools today requires degrees of creativity, optimism, resilience and the capacity for what Roger Martin has called, integrative thinking; the ability to incorporate two seemingly opposite ideas simultaneously to create change out of unpleasant or difficult situations.
Right now, and for the past 20 years, the stakeholders in our school system have engaged in fierce conversations and debates about the structures of our system; allocation of resources, organization of schools, reporting processes, class size, standardized testing and sequencing of curriculum standards. These policy points reflect a belief that the imposition incremental adjustments to the structure of schools and systems can effect a change in outcomes for students. This hierarchical stance no longer serves us in our networked, connected world but it remains the dominant mindset that we apply to our classrooms, schools and systems.
Nested within this conversation is an actual problem; at every level of our system (classroom, school, district and and legislative) our structures reflect a scarcity mindset that is based upon one-way transmission. The teacher who limits student learning to content-based worksheet lists and discreet facts that are doled out incrementally in advance of the test is no different than the school administrator who is required to appraise teachers based upon student test scores and classroom look-for checklists; or the policy maker who makes the decision to mandate investments in resources (like school technology) without accounting for the front-line implementation of these resources in schools.
All of these examples reflect the belief that when information, or performance, or resources are transmitted and measured; learning is an outcome. But this is no longer the case.
Learning, Will reminds us, is actually an outcome of learning. And learning is a process that is provoked by the questions of the learner, not the information that is being transmitted by the teacher.
So the questions I want to explore over the next few posts relate to the things we can do as educators to interrupt this ‘deja vu’ and change our conversations (and our systems) to be learning-focused for all; teachers, administrators, parents and most of all, students.