The Question is Asked, the Conversation Begins


It started with this question: Why aren’t our students making more progress?

One day late last week a third of the staff stayed more than two hours after school to discuss the possibility of our becoming a magnet school of sorts. The sort isn’t important, but the conversations about it are. horseshoe magnet

No one had asked that question before. We’d been told that we had to have our students make progress and we’ve been given a host of different programs to cause that to happen, but none of it was working.

In small groups we had serious conversations to answer that question. Among other ideas, each group mentioned a lack of student motivation as a major part of the problem. In response my principal said words that I never expected to come from his mouth, words I’d been saying and writing for a number of years. “The reason our students are not motivated is because school is not working for them.”

It’s not the students’ fault, he said, and not the teachers’ either.

“Students are not motivated because the way we do school, the structure of the day, the changing of classes at 42 minute intervals, isolation of subject areas from each other, none of it is working.”

For a moment it was silent. Then the conversations started. We talked about our own positive and negative experiences in school and why they occurred. We talked about how we’d change the structure of the day, the physical plant of the school, the curriculum.

Some were defensive, feeling that what they do and how they do it was under attack. We agreed that some kids thrive in the current mode of operation. Others were for change. There were even a couple who, like me, were ready to trash the system and start over.

We won’t get the opportunity to do that. And we may not win the $3,000,000 grant that would allow us to make a lot of changes and train ourselves on how to make them work. It’s not that the grant doesn’t matter, but one of the most important parts of the change has already occurred.

It happened when our principal asked that question and created an anything-goes safe zone in which we could explore answers.

Now that the conversation has started, it is up to us to keep it going.

We are the change that needs to happen.

A Better Idea for Improving Teaching

1913 photograph Ford company, USA
Image via Wikipedia

One of the most common suggestions for making teaching better is patently absurd, counter-productive and dangerous. It is the one proposing studying, recording and analyzing excellent teaching so that it can be replicated.

Proposals to replicate excellent teaching are counter-productive and dangerous because they distract us from thinking about ways to improve teaching that will actually accomplish that goal.

That the replication proposal exists at all is testimony to the pervasiveness of industrial models of and ideas about education. Xeroxing excellent teaching is absurd because teachers are not assembly line robots that can be programmed to perform the same task the same way every time, precisely the way every other robot does it.

Teachers are not robots and educated students are not mass-produced uniform quality-controlled products. Teachers and students are human; whatever education occurs in a classroom is the result of human, not human-like, interactions. If you need proof of this, think of your favorite teacher.

Is your favorite teacher your favorite because of her teaching precision? Do you even remember particular lessons she taught? Or is what you remember fondly your interactions with her, or the way that teacher made you feel about yourself?

I could go on and on about my junior high school English teacher for two years,
Elizabeth Novad, who I credit for showing me my intelligence, helping me learn to think, to express myself clearly (despite the evidence before you) and to feel confident about having a different view of things than the current popular opinion.

Mrs. Novad was a very different teacher than any I had before or after her, but the way to better teaching is not by trying to get all teachers to do what she or any other great teacher does. In fact, I have absolutely no doubt that were Mrs,.Novad teaching today she would be vilified for half the stuff that she had the students in my class doing.

Lets ditch the industrial manufacturing model of schooling that assumes that while good things occasionally occur, for the most part teachers are incompetents who need to be scripted so they deliver identically excellent lessons.

Lets adopt the medical model instead.

The medical model assumes that doctors are competent people who are expected to capably assess patients and deliver specifically targeted treatments to improve the patients’ health.

Everyone agrees that doctors need the flexibility to make diagnoses, try treatments, and adjust or radically change the treatments if necessary to better ensure patient health.

Even though doctors are generally capable undesirable outcomes occur; the wrong medicine or dose might be prescribed, the wrong leg amputated or, in the worst case, someone dies.

When things go badly, instead of looking for the easiest person to blame for the failure there is an open-minded inquiry, in which all the patient’s doctors and others physicians participate, that examines all the factors that influence a patients outcome.

There is understanding that even with the administration of the best care available at the time, unexpected and undesirable outcomes occasionally occur. There is acknowledgment that each patient is unique person with their own quirks, physiologies and willingness to comply with medical advice, and that those patient individualities can sabotage even the most careful medical plan. There is also awareness that doctors are human, that humans are not perfect and sometimes make mistakes.

Because everyone involved realizes that identical symptoms might indicate a variety of medical needs, that not every condition can be treated with the same medicine or procedure, no one calls for analyzing good doctoring so that it can be replicated and every patient treated exactly the same way all the time.

No one makes rash or brash assumptions. Instead, there is a conscious reflective, inquiry-led effort to refine diagnostic techniques, to reconfigure error-prone procedures, to develop new medicines and methods and remove doctors who do not have the skills or knowledge to be effective.

In other words, the focus is not on finding good work and multiplying it, but on finding out what doesn’t work and eliminating it.

Isn’t that a better way to improve schools and help teachers become more effective.