Friday, April 12, 2013

5 Truths about Teaching

  1. Truth #1 - Kids don't acquire confidence to try new things and succeed in life by being told that they are failures on a daily basis.

    Truth #2 - People learn at different rates.  Doesn't matter how many times it takes you to learn something, as long as you really LEARN it.  You DO get multiple attempts to pass the bar exam, take the Praxis assessment, demonstrate mastery to get your driver's license.

    Truth #3 - Even in business in the "real world," if you don't master something on your first attempt in training, they're generally not going to fire you.

    Truth #4 - It is more rigorous to expect students to LEARN, no matter how many attempts it takes, rather than assigning them a D and moving on.

    Truth #5 -It's NOT OK to allow children NOT to learn.  Expect mastery, even if it takes longer.

    As part of my job, I get to go around and do fun things like presentations on formative instructional practices or differentiated instruction or best practices in math.  Sometimes, I get a little pushback from participants who are quite comfortable doing things the way they've always done them.  

    I find some of the reluctance to engage in new practices is tied to a basic philosophical difference in what the role of a teacher should be and what a grade is.  The traditional approach has teachers as dispensers of knowledge, responsible for preparing students for college, or, better yet, "the REAL world."   (as in "What's this nonsense about formative assessment and retaking tests?  They can't do that in the REAL world.")  

    I'm not sure what world you live in, but in the one I inhabit, it is IMPORTANT to make sure people are learning when they're being trained.  I'm not putting a pilot in the air with a plane alone until he has demonstrated many times that he can land.  I may allow him to use a flight simulator.  I have a veteran pilot with him as he is learning.  I allow him to take his test to be a licensed pilot repeatedly because he MUST master the material.  AFTER he is licensed, a mistake may be fatal and so I can't give him multiple attempts to land the plane on the job, but during his learning phase, I make sure he gets the skill.  When students are in school, it is IMPERATIVE that they master the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in life. (what that set of skills and knowledge might be is a different topic for another time)  Giving a summative assessment before students are ready and then moving on is not good practice, nor is it more rigorous than expecting mastery, no matter how many times it takes.   

    A bigger conversation needs to occur around what a grade is...what is the purpose of grading students?  What does a grade mean?  The prevailing view of grades in the 50's was a mechanism whereby students were ranked, and indeed, today, we still use grades to rank students.  Valedictorian  Salutatorian.  Honor student.   5th in the class.  Those titles are important to many people, and they want quantifiable evidence of where they stand.

    Of course today, we know that ALL children can learn and the standardization movement has forced us to consider that all children need to learn at higher levels.  Our global economy has pressured us to push students towards "College and Career Readiness" (as if those mean the same thing for every child!).  Today, a grade needs to provide us with information.  Instead of ranking children with respect to others in their classes, we look to grades to tell us where students are with respect to a given standard of education.  In other words, grades should reflect actual learning.  If a student takes 3 attempts to demonstrate mastery, he/she has learned the same material and should receive the same grade.

    If I were the goddess of education, I would not have letter grades at all, which would end the debate entirely. Until then, let's simply concentrate on good education and concern ourselves with making sure we are teaching ALL students well.


  1. I read your comment on "School Finance 101." Thank you.

    "I wonder…failed by our school systems? Or failed by our society? If we see that the correlation is NOT to skin color but to poverty, then it becomes not an academic issue, but an economic one. Perhaps we need to stop blaming schools because numbers on paper and pencil tests are low, but start blaming politicians because the unemployment rate is so high. Or let’s collect data on those students who are scoring low and see what is REALLY causing the problem – how many of them haven’t seen their mom for a week because she’s in jail? Or don’t know who their dad is? Or are living with grandma because both parents walked out on them? Or who walked through gang territory on the way to school and are lucky to have made it into the building unscathed? Or who didn’t have breakfast? The fact is, look at the data we DO have – the students that our “schools” are failing are ALL urban ,inner-city schools with high poverty rates. The rest of our schools are doing quite well, and it’s NOT because all of the bad teachers go to the inner city. The issue is POVERTY and the problems that inner city poverty create. Take care of that, and I’m willing to bet that the scores go up and we will conclude that the schools are not failing our children."

    You hit the nail on the head. I'm a teacher in a "failing" school due to the special education subgroup scores. I have asked myself these past ten years, since the high stakes tests, how can we have forgotten the basic developmental aspect of human growth? What about the late bloomers? This current climate of testing, rigor, and content pacing is sending a message to our struggling kids that they are failures at the ripe age of 9 and 10. How sad. You're right. Society has failed our kids and poverty is the number one reason. Who says that everyone must be at the same level? Why can't we give our struggling students more time? On the bright side... I am blessed to have been in my school for 17 years and get the pleasure of seeing students whom I previously had come back to visit, or work in the school! They grew up and found their way, even though the road was harder for them.

    1. Check out the drama in Chicago right now. Hundreds of students and community members stepping up to defend their schools. We can't reduce the sum total of what a school does down to a score in math and reading. Teachers change lives. No number can encompass that fact.