Wednesday, July 30, 2014

How to get an education: grit or slack?

The most difficult thing about teaching is finding a way to serve the children who give up before they've even started. They shrug. They put their heads on the desk. They shut down and shut you out.

Perhaps that’s why I was so interested in the research about grit. Researcher Angela Duckworth defines grit as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals” and her findings suggest that grit is the key component of success. It isn't surprising. Certainly grit is required to get an education, which is always a long-term goal. The hard part is to see past this difficult section of math or that essay to understand each as an adventure on the journey that is education. A journey is not only marked by the photos that we post on Facebook, the beautiful sunsets, the view of the city from a tower, the charming lanes, the majestic mountains, but is also the frustrating delays, the tedious flight, the cramped hotel room with musty sheets. But how do we ensure the children do not turn back at the first difficulty? How do we entice them to embark at all? Because one thing is certain: we cannot learn without sustained effort. And we cannot sustain effort without some vision of a life worth working for.

The irony is that the children with the least grit in school seem to be, as Ira Socol puts it, “the grittiest kids on earth.” They support parents whose suffering make them dependent on their children; at a very young age, they raise younger brothers and sisters, scavenge food for them, organize them for school, make them safe; they move from home to home to the streets and into the houses of strangers. They survive in the midst of chaos and even violence. They have nothing left for school.

But if grit is, as Angela Duckworth phrases it, “sticking with your future,” then I’d have to disagree with Ira Socol. These children are so overwhelmed with the present that the future is the next meal. They are strong, courageous, extraordinary problem-solvers (often we mistake their solutions for the problems – like their refusal to put energy into something they don’t believe will make a difference to them), but they seldom have the luxury for grit.   How do we teach grit to children whose everyday lives already demand constant effort?

Paul Thomas argues, though, that it isn't grit they need: “Children from affluent homes and attending affluent schools aren't succeeding because of grit, but because of the slack created by their relative privilege. And children from impoverished homes, attending high-poverty schools, are not struggling because they lack grit, but because they embody the consequences of scarcity.” Both Socol and Thomas agree that the debate about grit is another way to pass off the problems of poverty onto the individual (they should just get grit) rather than seek solutions; Thomas writes, "we must shift our accusing gaze away from the people trapped in scarcity and toward social and educational inequity—the conditions of living and learning that drive the outcomes.”

But how do we teach children in poverty while we wait for the world to change? Surely, educating children is changing the world. For me, the importance of grit is that it rests on two key beliefs: the belief that you can do what you dream of doing (otherwise why try?) and the belief, even more important, that once you've done it, it matters in some way, that things will get better because of your sustained effort, that these efforts, in fact, will lead to your goals for the future. Without grit, children from poverty will continue to drop out (and dropping out takes many forms; many children stay in school, but they solve the problem of hopelessness by refusing to learn). Without asking for sustained effort, deliberate practice, engagement in difficult tasks and hard thinking, even from children whose lives are difficult, we may encourage them to stay in school, but we will not educate them. We collude in the cycle of poverty. For me, education ought to be the slack that allows for grit. Slack is provided through safe places with calm expectations and reasonable, consistent boundaries in which children can lean in to learning, where they can begin to believe in their own capacities and in a world that can be reshaped by their efforts.

Sometimes I worry that, because we can see how difficult the journey of education will be for some of our children, because we cannot imagine how to prepare them for it, we simply show them pictures of the highlights, get them to walk about the room and pretend to catch flights. We have no faith in their capacity to take flight on their own, to find unique ways to travel that we can’t even imagine, to forge new paths to destinations we dare not even dream of. But if we don’t believe in the children and their capacity – enhanced through a powerful and empowering education – to alter the landscape of the future, what is the purpose of our schools?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What difficulties are desirable in our classrooms today?

What I love best about summer is that I finally have time to think. As a teacher the rest of the year is a constant doing. You are always on, acting in the moment, or preparing to act. You reflect, of course, but it’s always about what you've done, not the kind of sideways meandering that thinking demands. When I spend too much time staring directly at the problem, I seem to lose sight of it entirely, so whenever I can I read off topic. My mind always comes back to education, but with new eyes, I think.

That’s why I’m reading philosophy, right now, John D. Caputo’s Truth: Philosophy in Transit. He’s touring me through history, sharing the ideas that led to a postmodern concept of truth. He pauses on Kierkegaard, of course: “The truth is a snare: you cannot have it, without being caught. You cannot have the truth in such a way that you catch it, but only in such a way that it catches you.” In other words, it’s difficult. But Kierkegaard is an advocate for difficulty. He writes:
…wherever you look in literature or in life…you see the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit humankind by making life easier and easier, some by railroads, others by omnibuses and steamships, others by telegraph, others by easily understood surveys and brief publications about everything worth knowing, and finally the true benefactors of the age who by virtue of thought systematically make spiritual existence easier and easier and yet more and more meaningful …when all join together to make everything easier in every way, there remains only one possible danger, namely the danger that the easiness would become so great that it would become all too easy.  So only one lack remains, even though not yet felt, the lack of difficulty.  Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1844). 
What would Kierkegaard, already concerned about the easiness of life in 1844, have thought of our lives today? How could he even imagine cars, planes, smart phones, instant messaging, and information streaming to us in 140 characters or less? How could he have foreseen our enormous capacity for making our lives easier? Our world is awash, now, in clicks and dials and buttons that turn on a machine to do our work or to entertain us; an endless supply of pills and an industry of self-help gurus ease us when we are sad, angry, depressed or spiritually lost.

And yet, we are not happier, if that’s important. We focus on eradicating difficulties as though we would then be satisfied, but perhaps Kierkegaard is right – perhaps what we feel now is the lack of difficulty. Perhaps it is only in living with and through difficulty that we understand our own strengths and gifts. What is a life without difficulty, but a kind of cardboard existence?

But there is, of course, no dearth of difficulties today. While the individual daily lives of many of us is easier, we have not yet eradicated the great social difficulties: war, poverty, hate and subjugation, violence against each other. I teach children whose lives are so wrought with difficulty that our impulse is simply to ease their lives – to provide food, clothing, comfort. It’s hard to focus on teaching fractions when students are hungry, when they have seen and heard and lived in the darkest of places. Yet an education is the best we can offer, so that the children can find ways to use the gifts that difficulty has forged in them to make different choices in the world and for the world.

But educating children whose lives are difficult is, well, difficult. Our tendency is to help. A lot. We yearn to erase the difficulties of learning, scaffolding each step, creating visuals, games and manipulatives to explain abstract concepts, connecting, supporting, aiding, so that the children are not burdened with yet another difficulty. But the truth is, learning is difficult. In our efforts to remove the difficulty from learning, are we, at the same time, reducing the opportunity for learning?
Consider the research by Christof van Nimwegen: two groups of volunteers work on a difficult logic puzzle on a computer - transferring coloured balls between two boxes according to a set of rules. One group had software that was designed to be as helpful as possible, providing clues and hints. The other group had a bare-bones software. Who learns best? If our assumptions about what is best in a classroom hold true, the answer should be the helpful software.

And the group with the helpful software did learn more quickly, but the proficiency of the other group increased more rapidly. (How often do we stop thinking and wondering about what’s best after the quick gains?) In the end, the group with the unhelpful software did better. Those using the unhelpful software were able to plan ahead and plot strategy, while those using the helpful software tended to rely on simple trial and error. That is to say, the group without help developed their own strategies that made sense to them and improved their ability to perform. And more important, eight months later the unhelpful software group were able to solve the puzzles twice as quickly.

This idea of what researcher Robert Bjork calls "desirable difficulties" is counter-intuitive. I’m sure Kierkegaard would like the phrase. We continue to think that easier is better. But it turns out, at least in learning (and perhaps in life), that we are wrong. Bjork posed this question to a group of students. Before the lecture you are given either a lecture framework (Ia,b,c; IIa,b,c and so on) or a different article on the same topic. Which would you prefer? Students both preferred the framework and thought that it was more helpful. (How often do we stop here, after everyone agrees on what is best?) But then the researcher tested it. Half the students got the lecture framework; half got an article that dealt with the same material. He lectured and then gave them the same test. In the recall questions, both groups performed the same, but in the inference questions that tested their understanding of the information, students who read the article did better. Why? Bjork argues that it injects the "desirable difficulty" necessary to learn (think) rather than merely perform (memorize).

I keep wondering why we still have suffering in our world today, why in BC, a land of such abundance, in a time of such ease, one in five children suffer in poverty. I keep thinking that education is our best path, that our children, given the tools they need, will find the way that we have not yet. But lately I've been wondering if I have spent too much time thinking about how to make learning easy. In doing so, will I therefore aid in perpetuating the cycle of difficulty that we most wish to prevent for our children?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

In Another Universe the Premier Tweets About Teachers

I noticed Christy Clark’s tweets of support and congratulations to Genie Bouchard, Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil. That was nice. Last weekend was exciting for sports. Like me, Ms. Clark was watching both the Wimbledon finals and the World Cup match between Netherlands and Costa Rica. In soccer, she cheered for the underdogs; like her son, I cheered for Netherlands.  

I was watching the big events between games at the Beach Volleyball Open at Kits beach. My son was playing. He and his partner lost a hard-fought battle in the quarter finals. I was cheering from the sidelines as I've done for many years for many sports for many kids as a mom and as a teacher. I’m a big fan of the power of competitive sports to inspire kids through passionate experiences. I add this so no one thinks I’m against sports or don’t understand their importance.

Certainly our premier thinks sports events are important enough to tweet about. She’s not alone of course:  hours and hours of TV and radio time and pages and pages of newsprint have been dedicated to sports, along with millions of social media mentions. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who didn't know what happened at Wimbledon or hasn't followed at least some of the highlights at the World Cup. And compensation is commensurate with the attention we pay. As a runner-up at Wimbledon, 20-year old Genie won $1,492,000. The World Cup winning team in Brazil will win $35,000,000. This is just the icing on the cake for someone like Netherlands winger Arjen Robben who makes $7,500,000 a year in his day job.
I would argue, however, that there are many much more important things that we don’t seem to be paying attention to at all. Buried in the tweets about sports and celebrities, for example, you might find some about the amazing work of the incredible teachers around the world. I didn't find one in Christy Clark’s feed. Maybe I missed it. But if we pay wages according to what’s important to us and what’s important is revealed through what we pay attention to, it isn't surprising that we are still quibbling over wages for teachers in BC. Indeed, our premier has castigated teachers for their greediness in desiring a wage increase. What she means, really, is that she thinks the work teachers do doesn't matter enough to the people of BC to deserve more. Choices need to be made.

When I imagine an alternate universe, I don’t really wish teachers made millions. Disproportionate wages are always at the cost of someone in the community.  But In my alternate universe the premier would tweet about teachers - and the many other extraordinary people who contribute to the health of our community - at least as often as she tweets about the White Caps or the Canucks. Perhaps under such leadership we might begin to rethink what's most important.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Beyond More and Less

At some point, more can’t be the answer. Here’s a simple problem: there is too much traffic. Answer: more roads and bridges. Problem solved. Sort of. For a while. As soon as you answer more, you lose the possibility of different. And we are desperately in need of different in our world today. More is no longer sustainable.

The answer, however, is not therefore less. You hear that a lot from corporations and governments now. They have reached the limit of more and relentlessly cry out for less. But less is simply the new more. Less waste (more profit), less staff to do the same work (more profit), less money for the same work (more profit). Nothing changes except the cost of more is more and more the burden of the workers who get less and less.

The current teachers’ strike is locked in a battle between more and less. I am yearning for the conversation about different.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

If I were in charge: another way to resolve the teachers' dispute

The way is not in the sky.  The way is in the heart.  

After reading my last blog post about why I am opposed to the teachers’ strike, my daughter Katie said it was good – with that particular inflection that lets you know there is a ‘but’ coming – but when you disagree with people about their action, it’s just annoying unless you at least outline a concrete alternative. What would you do right now, she said, if you were in charge?  
If I were in charge, Katie, I’d start by seeing this as an opportunity instead of a problem. There is no doubt that teachers are dissatisfied. They are repeatedly saying that they cannot do the job they love adequately anymore. They are demanding change. This dovetails perfectly with the Ministry of Education’s expressed desire for change. The current system, the introduction to the new BC Education Plan argues, is good (you can almost hear that inflection), but built on skills, practices and models of a previous century. To become great, “we need a more nimble and flexible one that can adapt more quickly to better meet the needs of 21st century learners.”

If were in charge, I would begin by seeking nimble, flexible and innovative ways to approach the current dispute, rather than inflexibly repeating refrains about affordability zones and fiscal plans. I’d begin by finding a way to orchestrate an agreement with teachers that not only fits a plan for the future, but lifts it from words to action. 

In the BC Education Plan, five key elements are identified to move our education system from good to great. One is quality teaching and learning: “A great teacher has always been the key to creating outstanding educational experiences.” Yet teachers today are saying that, given the working and learning conditions they face, they can no longer do great work. It's hardly surprising since, for years, teachers have met 21st century expectations in a 20th century model. If the government really plans to change the education system, then now is a perfect opportunity to take a real step forward.  Indeed, it may be the only opportunity: if the strife and acrimony continues, meaningful change will be thwarted by broken trust. How can we work together toward change in the future, when we can’t work together at this important crossroad today?

So if I were in charge, I’d begin by setting aside the endless back-and-forth about numbers, scarcity, limits, deadlines and deficiencies. I’d say, let’s think about possibility instead, about what needs to change in changing times so that together we can transform education, the stated purpose of the Education Plan, and embed those changes into a new agreement for working together. 

How? I’d start with dialogue. Yes, we have already been “talking” at the “table” but a dialogue is something else. Indeed, dialogue is distinguished from debate in one of the Education Plan documents: “a debate assumes there is one right answer (and you have it) and attempts to prove the other side wrong” while in a dialogue “you assume that others have pieces of the answer and you attempt to find common ground.” A dialogue is surely exactly what we need right now. Our debates have gotten us nowhere.

Who will engage in this dialogue? Anyone who wants to participate. That might seem unwieldy but so far a handful of men and women at the bargaining table have not been the answer. We live in an age where mass participation is possible; if teachers are dissatisfied, even anxious, about teaching and learning conditions, there is nothing more important than hearing them and using that information to revise the system. Who knows better than they, after all, what is necessary to move us from good to great?

The process for dialogue the Ministry used recently to engage people to review the Plan – World Café – would work for our purposes. Café conversations, as the co-originator Juanita Brown says, “are designed on the assumption that people already have within them the wisdom and creativity to confront even the most difficult challenges.” Can you ask for a more magnificent assumption? In the café process, a facilitator gathers a group of people for conversations around questions. The ideas are recorded.  That’s it. It’s that simple. 

Cafés could be held in every local, co-hosted by representatives for the government and BCTF members. In addition, people unable to participate in face-to-face sessions could join a digital session. The information could then be organized for a final “harvest” of all the ideas from across the province. To what end?  Margaret Wheatley writes, “We need many eyes and ears and hearts engaged in sharing perspectives. How can we create an accurate picture of the whole if we don’t honour the fact that we each see something different because of who we are and where we sit in the system? Only when we have many different perspectives do we have enough information to make good decisions.” I’m convinced that from the harvest key trends and alternate ideas would emerge to illuminate the path to an agreement that is a win for both sides, for the many other sides who have been losing in this strike, and for the future that is always created by our actions today.

The only thing left to do is to consider which questions to ask. Peter Block says, “Getting the question right may be the most important thing we can do. We define the dialogue and, in a sense, our future through the questions we choose to ask.”

We could start, I think, with ones already designed by Ministry staff to help them think about how to effectively implement the Education Plan.
  • What do teachers need to feel supported and valued?
  • What support and opportunities might be provided to teachers to improve their practice and ultimately the learning experiences of their students?
  • How do our schools and school districts need to change to support more flexibility and choice in student learning?
We could consider others:
  • What’s possible now that we've agreed to try this together?
  • What issues do people keep returning to? 
  • What can we do to reduce suffering? 
  • What are we doing right?
  • What’s my contribution to the difficulty I’m experiencing?
  • How else can we create the resilient, nimble and flexible organization that we require? 
If I were in charge, Katie, I would get us off the treadmill of winning and losing and begin again with dialogue. Certainly it would be difficult. Certainly the media mud-slinging, the broken agreements, the bad-faith bargaining and many years of strife stand between us. But what other options do we have that allow us to move from continued hostility to a hopeful future? If I were in charge, I would begin by listening to the passionate educators who are yearning to be heard. I have enormous faith in my colleagues; I know that, as they talk and listen, as they share their convictions, and hear those of others, they will seek a peaceful conclusion to the teachers’ strike that will, more importantly, stand as the beginning of a new way, which is, after all, already here in our hearts, of working together beautifully for our children.