Sunday, March 24, 2013

Listening to the Wise Ones (or the Tortoise and the Hare Retold)

Carl HonorĂ©  realized he had a problem when he almost bought a book of one-minute bedtime stories to speed up his night-time reading with his son.  His book Slow came out of his subsequent research into our cult of speed and its antidotes: things like Slow Food and Slow Medicine and Unhurried Children.  His latest book is called The Slow Fix.  He argues that we have created a “just add water” culture to “fix” even our deepest and most complex issues: take a pill for everything, lose 10 pounds in three days, take steroids to bulk up, click “like” on the Facebook page to protest. In education, fill in the blank with the latest trend: just - use project-based learning, teach students to self-regulate, personalize their learning, flip your classroom – and you will have success for all.

HonorĂ© writes, “Even when lives and large sums of money are at stake, when everything from our health and relationships to our work and the environments is suffering, even when bombarded by evidence that the road to calamity is paved with Band-Aid solutions, we still gravitate toward the quick fix, like moths to a flame.”

I spoke with my mother yesterday.  “Shelley,” she said, “I am finally a wise woman.”  I was thrilled – after all, it means I now have my own personal wise woman to consult – wisdom on speed-dial.

“What makes you wise?” I asked.  

“I’ve reached an age,” she said, “when I’ve seen everything before.”

When I first started teaching I was filled with Ideas. I hurried and organized and implemented and preached (I really hate to admit that).  I remember now the teachers at the back of the room with their arms crossed, rolling their eyes at my enthusiasm.  Don’t worry about them, I was told.  They’re just resistant to change.  Now I realize they were the wise ones.  They’d seen it all before.

In our speed-addicted world, it’s little wonder that we have no time for wisdom.  It’s slow.  It’s….old. We want new, young, energized, fast, now, innovation, creation, disruption.  We can’t wait to listen to the old ones at the back of the room and their complaints.  We want enthusiasm!  And so we continue what HonorĂ© calls a kaleidoscope of quick fixes.

Here’s the wise truth that we would hear if we weren't swept up in our various enthusiasms:  teaching and learning (along with all the big issues of our day) is so complex that no single solution, no particular program, no set of strategies will every yield sustainable results.  We have to accept that Slow will get us there faster, that instead of spending ourselves chasing quick fixes and the next new thing (usually an old thing renamed), we must simply work together (that’s the tricky part) in sustainable, joyful ways to meet our common goals.

How, I wonder – and when – will we get started.

Photo by minds-eye via Compfight

Thursday, March 21, 2013

How to transform education by NOT transforming people

Business leadership guru Tom Peters, to use his own exclamation-point filled language, is BESOTTED!!  with the idea of “People First!” (the title of his new e-book) – and by people, he doesn't mean the customer; he means the employee.  As he says, “EXCELLENT customer experience depends entirely on EXCELLENT employee experience.”  He applauds the “upside down organization chart” from the department store, Nordstrom’s – their leaders said that front-line staff were at the top of the heap, and “the managers were there simply to prop front liners up and enable them to do the best work imaginable.”  

Imagine.  Imagine schools where the front liners – TEACHERS!!! – were the top of the heap.   

He identifies six steps for leaders-mentors-teachers to put people first instead of “transforming” people – a perfect list for teaching children (but so much easier to do when teacher time is not depleted by being “transformed”).

     Leaders [Teachers, Mentors] Do Not “Transform People”! 
     Instead leaders-mentors-teachers
  1. provide a context which is marked by
  2. access to a luxuriant portfolio of meaningful opportunities (projects) which
  3. allow people to fully (and safely, mostly) express their innate curiosity and
  4. engage in a vigorous discovery voyage (alone and in small teams, assisted by an extensive self-constructed network) by which those people
  5. go to create places they (and their mentors-teachers-leaders) had never dreamed existed—and then the leaders-mentors-teachers
  6. applaud like hell, stage photo-ops, and ring the church bells 100 times 
The bells in our schools should be constantly RINGING!!  And not just to signal the start and end of the day.

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.”

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Small Things that Make the Big Things Possible

It was close to 5:00, a lovely quiet time of day at school.  I was still there, promising myself that I would get everything done before I left and have a “no-work” night.  I had one thing left to photocopy and made my way down the long hall to the copy room.  Chris was there, doing something with the aging laminator in the corner.  Someone, he said, had jammed it and he was fixing it.  At 5:00. After a long day.  Why? I asked.  If I don’t, he replied, who will?

The answer to his question, of course, is no one.  There is no budget for aging laminators.  In times of fiscal challenges, the “small things” get cut.  We would have to send out laminating to a central location, I suppose, and wait three weeks to get something done.  But Chris managed to fix it (at 5:00 after a long day of teaching) and the next day, I saw one of our teachers busy laminating cards for a game her students had designed to teach each other the course vocabulary.  She didn’t even know about the small thing that made it possible.

Just half an hour before I met Chris in the copy room, I bumped into three of our department heads.  They had just come from a meeting where the “reorganization” of department heads was being discussed.  It’s not surprising: I’ve attended many district meetings that see department heads as “low hanging fruit.”  They just count books, someone always says, as if this is insignificant.  Like Chris fixing the laminator, however, department heads count and order and organize resources because no one else does.  If they don’t, the teachers in their department would not have enough books and materials - and now technology - to teach their courses without calling to borrow resources from other schools or scheduling numerous meetings with a variety of staff to try to find what they need.  Similarly, if department heads don’t organize assessments, develop and share key assignments, check in with and support new teachers, then each teacher must fend for themselves, starting each semester scrambling to reinvent the proverbial wheel.

How, I keep wondering, if teachers are increasingly asked to do all the small things that are necessary for their daily work, will they be able find the time to do the big things: meet the unique needs of the increasingly diverse – and disengaged – students so each one can learn beautifully?

I would argue that it’s only possible if someone takes care of the myriad of small things.  Teaching has always been complex; today, with very little argument from anyone, I can say it is even more complex.  It’s easy to say – especially for those no longer in a classroom, especially those who have not been in the classroom recently – this is a small thing to cut.  A bit of library support.  District Resources.  Courier time.  Career Services.  Resource teachers.  Clerical time.  EA support.  Learning assistance. Counseling time. Administrator time.  Department head time.   We go along with it.  After all, it’s hard to appreciate the power of small things until they are gone.  We don’t even think about how the reduced courier will affect us until we are driving somewhere – again – to pick up something or drop off something.  At some point, as all the small things land on a teacher’s desk, we begin to realize that none of the big things are possible anymore.  We’re not even sure why – it’s hard to pinpoint small things and, anyway, it seems unreasonable, even ridiculous, to complain about them – but we do wonder why we are tired, frustrated and discouraged.

Imagine how different our schools would be if someone thought that the business of teaching was so important that all the small things were taken care of for us.  Imagine if every budget decision was framed in this question – will this support our teachers?  Imagine if the time, energy and resources spent on initiatives to fix teachers, make teachers accountable, change teacher practice were used to support teachers instead.

Imagine the big things that would be possible.