Wednesday, March 20, 2013

I think we’re fighting a losing game

“He’s not the messiah,” Darren Evans writes, “but for many policy makers he comes close.  John Hattie, possibly the world’s most influential education academic, has the ear of governments everywhere.”  Including BC’s.  It’s hard to argue with Hattie’s findings.  His extensive meta-research concludes that the quality of the teacher is the number one factor in the improvement of an education system and that collaboration is the key factor in improving the quality of that teacher.  That’s like saying fresh fruit and vegetables and plenty of exercise will improve your health.  Of course!  He also has a long list of strategies that have the most effect (the blueberries and kale of education) that are interesting to review, but not, I think, the Holy Grail. It’s not that I disagree with his list or dismiss the usefulness of it; I simply think we too often get distracted by possible short-cuts: we chase after some single strategy or program – or “super-food” - as “the” way. Hattie’s key message, however, is “healthy” - that thoughtful teaching can improve learning, even in the most difficult cases, and that reflecting on our practice together can ensure positive momentum.  This is hardly a revolutionary or even new idea; it’s a sensible one.

However, he and I do disagree on what’s necessary for teaching to improve.  He says, “Too many teachers are constantly thinking that if they had more time, resources and space they could make a difference. For some teachers that could be true, but for most the last thing they need is more. They need different, and that’s what they struggle with. It’s simple: if your teaching practice is not having an effect on your students’ performance, you must change.”  The pathway to “different,” he argues, is for teachers to work more collaboratively and talk about the things that matter.

I'm curious to know how, without more time, resources – and even space – teachers are expected to work together and change practice.  Currently, I teach four blocks of students – with 40 minutes at lunch.  After school I review student work, plan for the next day, gather resources, organize the classroom – and sleep.  Once a week for six weeks, our school has organized one hour collaboration sessions.  We are trying to develop some essential learning outcomes.  In addition, we have department meetings, staff meetings, professional development days, ad hoc meetings after school to confer, co-plan, debrief, reflect. We are continually learning new strategies, trying to gather fresh and relevant materials, and adding to our understanding of new technologies.

But to do something different, really different, demands time, support, guided practice; you can’t simply change in significant ways, in ways that matter, in ways that can be sustained by attending a workshop or two or in six collaboration sessions – or even in school-wide or district initiatives.  The locus of change needs to be the classroom if change is going to go beyond a superficial “pretend” implementation where the posters go up and the new vocabulary is used and a handful of people are excited and put on workshops and everyone else listens politely knowing that this too will pass.  It certainly doesn't matter how much time those outside of classrooms spend on reports, meetings, documents, research and visions; meaningful change will only occur if time is given to the people who are required to change.

And change often demands resources.  I am continually amazed to hear the scorn heaped upon teachers who “depend on a textbook and lectures” for their teaching.  But how else do they ensure that students understand, for example, complex scientific or historical information?  The schools in our district don’t have daily access to technology or bins of “just-right” texts or kits of hands-on materials to support concepts.  How can individuals find the time to create different and differentiated resources?  And even if we work together as a school team, who would manage the resources?  Who will have time?

And space matters.  We do continually ponder teaching differently.  What about co-teaching, we think.  What if two of us taught grade 8 and what if the wall between our rooms was removed.  Imagine if there was a small windowed quiet space to one side for conferences and small group teaching.  But we are limited to the space we have – each in our own classroom – and who teaches what and when is at the whim of scheduling, rather than educational considerations.

I'm convinced there are creative ways to transform education and I agree with John Hattie that the possibility is in the hands of teachers.  But to do that, teachers need to be massively supported.  They can’t be told to just "do different" with the same time, resources and space – and, in fact, in our district, at least, with diminishing resources and an increasingly complex work load.  We continue to provide teachers with support for an industrial model of teaching and ask them to reinvent everything – and to teach each child beautifully.  To quote Lucille Ball, “I think we’re fighting a losing game.”

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