Monday, November 28, 2011

Suppose What I Teach Isn't What's Important

I just came across an exceptional TEDx talk from John Bennett:

What I like about this TED talk is that Mr. Bennett has the courage to answer the critical question, "When am I ever going to need this?" honestly. We should be willing to acknowledge that we've overloaded our curriculum with an expectation that every one of our students is going to need the same exposure to the same content in the same order, and that every person's education can be measured by mastery of the same arbitrary benchmarks.

The truth is that beyond certain clearly identifiable basics, not every child will need a deep content understanding of every subject we force upon them in order to live a productive, successful and happy life. In fact, students aren't learning this content unless they see its relevance personally, and they are losing their natural interest in learning as a result of our tendency to standardize learning, rather than personalize it.

I taught English/Language Arts in high school for 15 years, and while I love my subject, I cannot name a single piece of content that would be necessary for every one of my students to know. Not everyone needs to experience Shakespeare, correctly scan a line of poetry, cite using MLA, write a persuasive essay for publication, understand the difference between (or even spell) metonymy and synecdoche, be able to define Transcendentalism, or accurately diagram a sentence.

That is not to say that I didn't have worthwhile things to teach my students or nurture in them. Here is a short list of the things I'm proud I taught to kids:

  • Communication Skills
  • Collaboration
  • Cultural Appreciation
  • Research and Analysis
  • Creativity
  • Kindness and Empathy
  • Responsibility
  • Curiosity
  • Problem-solving
  • Critical Thinking
  • Professionalism
  • Self-Respect
  • Courage and Self-Confidence
  • Academic Fortitude
Any teacher could teach those things in any class. It doesn't matter if a student learns them via Biology, French, World Literature, or Physical Education. What matters is that our students learn these lessons, and they are most likely to do this if they find themselves in classes that are personally relevant.

I recently tweeted that I wish my kids would have class schedules that read: 1st Period- Creativity, 2nd Period- Leadership, 3rd Period- Collaboration, etc.

One response I got was that ideally students will gain these "Soft Skills" through all of their classes. I get that, but I'm not sure that students are, in truth,  gaining them because we have created a system that is so content-focused that we can't see beyond our individual content boxes. Sadly, many teachers use this as an excuse not to teach students essential skills because "there is just too much content to cover." 

I would also suggest that it is precisely the "Soft Skills" that are the point of education, and perhaps we should place them front and center instead of hiding them in the content like blended vegetables in the fruit smoothee.

I bet if we offered Problem-Solving Through Puzzles, Changing the World with Your Words, or Understanding History through Creative Expression as courses in school, we would reap greater academic growth, higher engagement, and more satisfied learners as a result. We just wouldn't be able to measure those gains via high-stakes, low-bar testing. And while the new PARCC assessment is a vast improvement over our current tests, I don't hold out a lot of hope that the way we use these assessments will translate into better pedagogy until we systematically divorce ourselves from the notion that learning has to be divided into subject-area content.

I want to be clear, though, that I am not saying we should get rid of Literature class (or Math, or Government, or any other class). I am saying that we should have the honesty to say that not every student needs every subject, that our purpose is to help kids develop as learners in areas that they care about, and that every teacher has a responsibility to develop student skills, and that the current subdivisions of content are not the only ways in which we can learn about the world.

Right now, we drag all students against their will through an exhaustive forest of content that could easily be mastered without us, instead of providing a largely self-directed playground in which students learn how to learn under the tutelage of passionate mentors and lead-learners. That is the mess that we have to own.

If you teach in a middle or high school content area, I encourage you to ask yourself some fundamental questions:
  1. Does every child need to know the same things?
  2. What parts of what I teach will truly make a difference in a child's future?
  3. How will I guarantee that all kids are learning in my class even if they didn't choose to be here?
  4. How can I advocate for and create a system in which all kids learn, rather than simply complying with a system in which all students meet a standard?
  5. How do I enrich my students personally, rather than educating them collectively?
  6. While my subject is clearly awesome beyond measure, isn't it okay if other people never seek to learn it to the depth that I have?
  7. Is my subject the only reason I am a teacher? If so, are there other things I can do with this passion?
I'd be interested to know what conclusions you come to.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Playground Rules

Thanks to a great and timely post from Richard Byrne, I ran across this video by Derek Sivers:

Don't punish everyone for one person's mistake from Derek Sivers on Vimeo.

This video helped me to frame my thoughts about how we make rules and set expectations for our learning environments. Are we proactive or reactive? Are we creating expectations for good behavior or for tolerable compliance? Are we working with our students, colleagues, and employees, or are we trying to control them?

Too much of the current educational climate is designed to regulate, standardize, limit and define what and how we learn and how we do our work. From educational legislation down to classroom rules, we seem committed to punishing the many for the sins of the few. Furthermore, the push to standardize learning and teaching through common assessments and curriculum mapping place our focus on preventing failure through efficiency instead of achieving greatness through excellence. We've lowered our expectations of our students, our teachers, our schools and our profession through threats and micro-mangement, rather than raising them through a focus on personal responsibility and passion.

I was fortunate to attend Wabash College for my undergraduate experience. While all of my friends who went to other universities received a thick "rule book" at Freshman orientation, I was introduced to the Gentleman's Rule, which was the only rule that governed the behavior of Wabash students. The rule read:

A Wabash student will conduct himself in a manner befitting a Gentleman at all times and in all places, both on and off campus.

The beauty of this approach to campus discipline was that it placed ownership of my behavior on me. I had to think about what it meant to be a Gentleman. I had to measure my choices against a standard that I owned collaboratively with my classmates, my professors and the administration.

It also meant that when gray areas of behavior came up, I tended to err on the side of caution. I didn't just ask whether I thought my behavior was gentlemanly; I asked myself whether others would perceive my behavior as gentlemanly. Could I reasonably defend my choices to my peers, teachers and school leaders?

When I began teaching, I quickly realized why trying to list every possible rule to control student behavior was a losing game. Creating long lists of classroom rules places the responsibility of the behavior on the enforcer of the rules. Imposed rules create an adversarial relationship in which the students become incentivized to seek out loopholes to the rules. Plus, every written rule must be enforced, which traps the teacher into awkward judgement calls and fairness battles.

As a result, I soon changed my syllabus to reflect a single classroom expectation that put the same pressure on my students as I felt at Wabash College. It read:

All of Mr. Wilhelmus' students will conduct themselves in a manner befitting a scholar at all times and in all places, both inside and outside of the classroom.

This approach was highly effective because even when my students weren't perfectly behaved, "The Rule" gave us a framework in which to discuss the behavior. It wasn't about being in trouble for being non-compliant, it was about being held accountable for poor character choices. It also invited students to justify choices with reason and care. Finally, it gave me a great deal of leeway in terms of how I addressed infractions. Students came to realize that fair isn't about having every instance of a behavior addressed with the same punishment. Fair is about having the same high expectation for every student and doing what is necessary to help all students meet that expectation.

The same approach could and should apply to how we address our profession. No good has come from setting a low bar with lots of rules and consequences for failures in our system. We need to set a high expectation for our profession, and help one another reach it:

All members of the education community will conduct themselves in the manner of learning leaders at all times and in all places for the good of our society and our humanity.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Conferences Matter

Okay. First off, I want to say that I have had an amazing two days at AuthorSpeak. I've learned with a wonderful group of colleagues, school leaders, and educational thinkers, researchers and authors. Conferences like this one definitely motivate me to keep learning, keep striving for a better way to learn with kids, and keep making a difference to my profession.

The conference began with Daniel Pink's keynote about what motivates people: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. I think that this is what makes conferences useful to me. I have the autonomy to guide my professional development, the opportunity to work toward mastering the complexities of education, and the sense of purpose culled from the collegial sharing that goes on.

One of the most exciting things that I have done is to meet and talk with some of the people I follow on Twitter. I already knew about their passion for learning and for kids, but to share a few moments of collegiality and to take those asynchronous, digital relationships and make them concrete added a new dimension to my experience of my PLN. As Bill Ferriter mentioned, social media isn't about the technology, it is about the people.

It was especially exciting to meet Angela Maiers. I first discovered her passion for learning though the following video:

The amazing thing is that immediately upon meeting her, I knew that she means what she says. We all matter, and we have the power to make a difference in the world. More importantly, that same power is what can drive our own lives. I can choose to embrace and create my own autonomy, mastery and purpose, and I can nurture that motivation in others.

Tom Whitby mentioned today that education is lacking the leaders who will change the conversation about learning from standardization and testing to authentic learning and discovery in the eyes of a public that doesn't see the complexity of the issue. To me, that is a challenge. Will I be herded, or will I drive my own career? Will I wait for a solution, or will I strive to make that solution? Will I accept that I matter and own the responsibility that comes with it, or will I fail to meet the challenge of making a difference in the world?

Sure, this could be the conference talking, but in this moment, I absolutely accept the challenge to matter. That is why conferences themselves matter. They are the intellectual playgrounds where I own the learning. They are the place where intellectual collisions lead to new ideas and projects. The task is to have the courage to bring those projects to life.

To all of the teachers I've had the joy of learning with over the last two days, thank you. You matter to me. I hope we can all keep pushing together to matter to our kids, our profession and our world.