Working Together 68

Monday, January 9, 2017

New Year’s Resolution: Do Not Be a Curmudgeon

Lately I’ve begun to feel like one of those dreadful curmudgeons, crossed arms, curled lip, jaded eye, slouched in the back of required meetings. I’m trying to be positive. I love teaching. I love the students. I love the challenge that each day brings. I love puzzling at the end of the day over the children, thinking about how I can engage Janie in the story we are reading or support Andrew in fractions or work with Sandra and Linda to solve the burbling dispute between them. I love designing next step lessons, building on what captured students’ imaginations, adding more steps where they were confused, creating multiple pathways when needed to meet diverse needs and places where we’ll converge again as a community. It’s challenging. It’s stimulating. It’s joyful. It’s exhausting.

I can’t help wishing, though, that someone finally would say, good heavens, let us help teachers. They spend the whole day in one small room with thirty children! They try so hard to teach each of those children beautifully every day! How can we help? What do they need?

Instead, we are always bombarded by more that we need to do. This year, we have a new curriculum, modernized, we’re told, to respond to the new world of constant change. There are new core competencies – communication, thinking, and personal and social competencies – as well as new curricular competencies, big ideas and learning standards for each of the content areas. I am supposed to make sure that what I do matches these new ideas. Connected to this is an experimentation in new reporting procedures. The ultimate goal,” the Minister of Education tells us, “is to develop a student reporting process that gives families a deeper understanding of their child’s progress at school through timely and comprehensive information.” In my district, this means that I need to share with parents “authentic evidence of learning” with “explicit reference to learning standards,” including “descriptive feedback” of how students are doing and “student voice” – their reflection or their description of “where they are in the learning process” – a minimum of 8 times this year as part of “ongoing communication.” In addition, I must write two report cards with comments and, rather than letter grades, include a sliding scale on levels of competency from “beginning” to “extending.”

None of these changes are bad, particularly. Somewhere out there people have worked very hard in meeting rooms around long tables with chart paper and coloured pens, coffee and muffins on the side table to sustain them and assorted sandwiches at lunch. They’ve consulted experts, reviewed the research, and created comprehensive documents complete with coloured charts and appendices.

Yet as I scramble to figure out these new changes, attend meetings, try new programs (we have, as well, a new attendance program, a new online portfolio program, an upcoming requirement to add coding lessons), my attention to the children is necessarily fractured. My time is not infinite. I try not to be angry. I try not to think about the millions of dollars spent on these changes.

Still, I can’t help but imagine, sometimes, what it would be like if even a fraction of that funding were spent on what teachers need, if instead of creating documents to tell us what they need us to do differently (whoever they are, these people who sit comfortably somewhere and have ideas), they came to us to find out what we need instead. Imagine, oh, imagine, a team coming to our school, setting up a space with coffee and muffins, offering us assorted sandwiches at lunch (oh, the luxury!) and time (time!) to sit and ponder with them about the challenges and progress, the obstacles and advantages, the small things that would make a big difference, the resources that would help us move forward. Imagine how it would feel to go back into the classroom (as much as I love teaching, it is hard, hard work and there are days when it all seems impossible). Imagine, then, the bounce in our step, the feeling that we are not alone, that we are appreciated (muffins!) and listened to as though our opinion counted, and supported as though our work mattered.

Instead, the changes roll on. From somewhere. I try to stay positive.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

When It Makes More Sense to Eat the Marshmallow

Almost everyone has heard of the marshmallow test. Researchers left small children in a room with a marshmallow. They told them – if you wait to eat the marshmallow, I’ll give you two when I get back. Then they watched what happened. Some children ate the marshmallow as soon as the door clicked behind the researcher. Others resisted the urge with a variety of (adorable) strategies. A follow up study of the children showed that the marshmallow resisters – the ones who could delay gratification for a better reward through self-control – were more successful in the future. Schools have begun to spend a lot of time parsing how best to develop this capacity in children.

Then Celeste Kidd thought differently. She was volunteering at a homeless shelter and began to wonder – what if one of these children were given a treat and told to wait before they ate it? Could their likely quick gobbling be explained by a theory of self-control?  She thought that expectations would play a bigger role. These children might expect to have their treat stolen – a big risk in a homeless shelter – and they might not expect adults to follow through on their promises – a big risk when adults are suffering. For these children, then, the most rational choice would be to eat the marshmallow right away. That is, it isn’t that they lack self-control, but rather that they are making the most sensible choice given the situation.

She decided to test her hypothesis by adding another element to the marshmallow test. She began with an art project. The children were given an old used crayon package and told they could use those to draw a picture or wait until the researcher returned with a brand-new set of exciting art supplies. All the children waited. After a brief delay, the researcher returned either with the promised set or without it, apologizing and saying, ‘‘I’m sorry, but I made a mistake. We don’t have any other art supplies after all. But why don’t you just use these used ones instead?’’ Then the marshmallow test was done. As usual, the children were given a marshmallow and told that they would get two if they could wait. Children who experienced the unreliable researcher who did not bring art supplies waited on average only 3 minutes. Children with the reliable researcher waited an average of 12 minutes. In other words, the children quickly learned to adapt their expectations from their experiences and acted accordingly.

It makes me wonder how many of the conclusions we draw about children are misguided. We keep trying to look inside for their motivations, aptitudes, and abilities, when we need merely look more often outside and ask what prompts their actions. Perhaps then, we might begin to break the cycle of expectations that closes around the children who can expect little (why wait? why ask for help? why try?); teachers, seeing their “lack of self-control” expect less of them. And so it goes - unless we see things differently.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

What is the cost of "best practice"?

In his book The End of Average, Todd Rose begins with a story of mysterious crashes of United States Air Force planes in the late 1940s. After multiple inquiries led nowhere, researchers wondered if the pilots had gotten bigger since the cockpit, based on average sizes, was designed in 1926. Using ten dimensions of size most relevant to flying, one of the researchers made a startling discovery – out of the 4063 pilots measured, not one airman fit within the average range on all ten dimensions. Even more surprising, he found that using only three dimensions, less than 3.5 percent of pilots were average sized on all three. In other words, there is no such thing as an average pilot. As Rose puts it, “If you’ve designed a cockpit to fit the average pilot, you’ve actually designed it to fit no one.” In an environment where split second reaction times are demanded, a lever just out of reach can have deadly consequences. Adjustable seating was designed. Not only did it prevent deaths, but it opened the possibility for people who aren’t even close to “average” – like women – to become pilots.

The dimensions of a learner are even more multi-faceted, complex and diverge, we know, as widely. Yet we continue to measure our children according to averages that don’t fit anyone, to apply solutions based on averages, to focus on “best practice” gleaned, of course, through averages. Consider John Hattie’s widely touted list, a synthesis of now more than 1200 meta-analyses about influences on learning and ranked according to effects on student achievement. How is the effect size calculated? Through the observed change in average scores divided by the standard deviation of the scores. Hattie chooses 0.4 as the point when the effect size is significant enough to make a difference to students. How did he choose that number? The average effect size of thousands of interventions studied is 0.4.

Our focus on “best practice” is like lavishing all our time to refine the fixed pilot seat, making it more precisely fitted to average. The trouble is, no matter how effective our strategies are “on average,” they don’t necessarily (or even likely) fit the children in front of us in our classrooms. Perhaps it’s time to spend our time thinking in a different direction entirely. Who knows what possibilities might open.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Stopping to be Still

Heartbreakingly, it was almost a year before I understood Percy. He is a quiet boy. Very. In writing, he seldom managed more than a sentence, neatly printed, most often trite, but every once in a while, so poetic and rich that it rocked me back on my heels. Those few sentences should have been an obvious clue for me, but I continued blithely to give him strategies for generating ideas in answer to his terse – “I can’t think of anything.” One day his mother said to me, Percy wants you to know he has too many ideas. That’s what makes writing hard for him.

I don’t think I did anything very much to help him with this difficulty that all writers face. I simply saw him differently – as a writer, rather than a non-writer – and then he saw himself differently. Suddenly, he was writing.

I’m thinking of Percy now, as I stare blankly at the blinking cursor. I have promised myself to pause each year and write about my brother on the anniversary of his death. It’s been twelve years. My mind is a jumble of too much, of all the changes this year, the death of our step-sister, the birth of the babies, his youngest son’s travels around the world, his oldest son’s new girlfriend, the Syrian refugee crisis, Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump, Pokemon Go. Life has relentlessly gone on. And yet a part of me stands still always, locked into a time when the tragedies and joys, the silliness and seriousness of life were shared with Marc.

I wonder, often, if we need more stillness, more pauses. I wonder if, as a wife, mother, grandmother, sister, daughter, aunt, friend, teacher, I would be better for stopping more often, for listening, not so much to what is said, but for the silences, for the story behind the blank page, for the avalanche of words waiting beyond the brief phrase. I wonder if it’s always what we can’t find words for that’s most important, and if what matters most is stopping long enough to feel our way forward with our heart to hear what can’t be said.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Can Data Tell Us Who We Are? And Does It Matter?

Christian Rudder’s book Dataclysm explores who we are when we think no one is looking – our lives told through every Google search, tweet, Facebook like. He is one of the founders of OKCupid, an online dating site; data, he says, unlike surveys or small scale experiments doesn’t merely tell you what people say they prefer, but shows how they actually act and interact in private. This information, he argues, is not only useful for selling and surveillance, two of the most common practices at present, but it also tells “the human story.” Rudder’s idea “is to move our understanding of ourselves away from narratives and toward numbers, or rather, to think in such a way that the numbers are the narrative.” He promises to “put hard numbers to some timeless mysteries” that had previously been considered “unquantifiable.” His title captures this grand vision for data use: data is not only an “unprecedented deluge” but “the hope of a world transformed – of both yesterday’s stunted understanding and today’s limited vision gone with the flood.” 

So what are the “timeless mysteries” that are uncovered? Using millions of pieces of data, he reveals the “nexus of beauty, sex and age.” As she ages, women find older men attractive. For men, no matter his age, a women’s at her best when she’s in her very early twenties.  Although people say they aren’t racist, they make choices and draw conclusions according to race. Woman are overwhelming judged by appearance. We pick on the weak. These are the “facts that need facing,” Rudder says, proved by the data that will “ends arguments that anecdotes could never win.”

It seems na├»ve to hope, however, that more proof of racism, sexism, meanness as an act to inflate importance, even with incontrovertible facts, will change actions. In education, we know the Big Data stories well. They, too, aren’t new stories. Here are a few: if you live with poverty or with a learning exceptionality, if you belong to one of the involuntary minorities, then your likelihood of success in our current system is limited. The data, however, even when gathered in the millions, while noisy with never-ending streams of information about “what’s wrong” and “what works” is silent about how to change actions in the future.

Still, more data has become the new answer to every question. Gathering data, of course, feels like action – parsing, graphing, creating colour graphs, pointing fingers. I’m not sure there are any fresh insights to be gleaned at scale, though. We simply get confirmation of what we already know. All the surprises exist on the edges, after all, the outliers and anomalies, the information outside of our data entirely. Big Data, Rudder argues, lets us tell the story of Everyman. Perhaps. But how can Everyman’s story help us? In schools, we become mired in inevitability (what can you and I do about poverty and its grip on the future of our children?); we see the deluge of “facts that need facing” instead of the child who surprises us, if we pay attention, by being entirely unique, unexpectedly extraordinary (I haven’t met a child, yet, who isn’t). 

What we need in the midst of this deluge of data that tells us that we bully the weak, our children aren’t learning and our prejudices continue are heroic stories to remind us of how we can act differently anyway. We need to see the one child, never data sets, who looks at us in hope, her big brown eye flooded with despair, and know this: we must move mountains today so she can learn unobstructed by prejudice tomorrow. No other data is necessary.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Why Some Slow and Boring in Schools is Good for Kids

I recently listened to Will Richardson’s TedX Talk. He is an advocate for revolutionizing schools. Like many, he believes that our current system makes no sense of the world we live in today where extraordinary learning is now in our pockets. Based on his conversations with about 50,000 people, he constructed the lists below: what we want for schools (the items on the left) and what we don’t want (the right).  Yet what we don’t want, he says, still describes schools today. (I won’t quibble now about his description of schools except to say that it doesn’t describe the schools I’ve been in; they are a blend, rather, of the two lists.)


He argues that the disconnect between the way we all intuitively know we learn best and the way we are taught in schools points him to this surprising truth: “Schools aren’t built for learning.” He notes that his own children learn deeply on their own as they follow their passions, thanks to the abundance available through technology.  He shows his son’s chemistry vocabulary quiz (pity his children’s teachers who are routinely held up as examples of what not to do). His son, he says, got 100% on the quiz, but no doubt will forget the words, because it isn’t something he wanted to learn more about. This shows, he says, another example of why schools are unproductive. Why not make the work relevant? Meaningful? Connected to his passions? Engaging? Our challenge, he says, is to make schools amazing places of learning for kids. We know what to do, he argues. All we need is the commitment and courage to shift the description of schools to the items on the left.

It sounds so right, doesn’t it? But I keep wondering if it is important for each moment of our children’s lives to be exciting, creative, thought-provoking, personalized to their particular interests. Are there things kids ought to learn even if they don’t want to learn them? (“Gimme never gets” springs to mind.) Are there things that can’t be – or shouldn’t be – wrapped up in student’s “passions” or particular interests? (The history of residential schools, for example.) Certainly, as many argue, why learn anything, when everything can be looked up (is it sufficient to simply look up respect for others or calculus?) but that only works if you know what you don’t know. Or are interested. Or can learn independently. Giving students a set of base concepts and vocabulary opens possibilities for all students that they might never know existed. Passions, after all, always fall within our knowns. But what if our goal in schools is to spark new passions? Then we need to present what kids don’t know yet - which is never as comfortable or as easy.

What’s more, forgetting isn’t just what happens when you learn in a straight row in age-related groups with no real world application. When I was 18 I learned to speak Dutch by being deeply immersed in the language. It was powerful, relevant, real world, challenging and self-directed learning. But I’ve forgotten the language now. Remembering demands that we use what we learn, not merely that we are taught in a particular way.  It’s hardly surprising that many students forget many things they learn in school. Not all of us will be mathematicians or chemists or study literature. We won’t continue to practice many of the concepts we learned in school. But some of us will. And all of us will have had an introduction and opportunity to understand the basic literacies in key learning disciplines that will allow us to learn further when/if we choose to in the future.

And there’s something else. I couldn’t fully articulate my unease with personalized learning and this fashion for following passion (although I’ve tried) until I read, recently, this excerpt from Bertrand Russell’s Conquest of Happiness.
The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness… A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.
I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony… A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.
Yes. That’s it exactly. No harm will come to children from the slow processes of memorization, of copying notes, of listening, of reading long texts, of learning “boring” things, of waiting. Not all the time, of course, but in balance with exploration, discovery, passion.  And perhaps they will grow stronger, drawing on inner resources, building the capacity to accept that the pace of life varies and we must often adjust our own to others. I worry, instead, about this “cut flower” generation we are cultivating with personalized learning. How will they resist the lure of instant, fast, fun, intriguing that has always beckoned but now sits in their pocket? How will they step outside of their personal desires to meet the slow, hard, effortful and other-focused demands of healthy relationships, peace on earth, environmental stewardship? Their future, our future, depends on it.

Friday, July 1, 2016

A Short Love Letter to Teachers

School’s out!  I just wanted to be sure that after the mad month of June with stuffy classrooms, report cards, endless end-of-year events and summer-crazed children added to your usual litany of things to do someone took the time to tell you how much you are appreciated. I wish there was a parade in your honour, a brass band playing, and a rousing round of “For s/he’s a jolly good fellow!” I wish confetti came pouring down from the ceiling as the last bell rang and a huge cheer went up as each child you taught shook your hand and thanked you. I wish a TV crew was outside of the school and ran up to you as you left asking for an interview, begging for just a few words about how you managed to get Jimmy to read, Suzy to sit long enough to hear a story, Janice to stop hitting the other children when she’s frustrated, Calvin to stop crying long enough to engage in activities. But even if that didn’t happen, even if you didn’t get a single card or mug, not one thank you as children ran out of the room cheering (not for you), I hope you know that you are amazing. Your work is a gift beyond measure to our children and to our community. Thank you.