Saturday, January 31, 2015

How the Culture of Achievement is Hurting Our Schools

Achievement sounds great doesn't it? What parent doesn't want their child to achieve? What teacher doesn't hope their students achieve at a high level? Of course achievement in general is a good thing but the Culture of Achievement created by high stakes accountability measures is having a dangerous effect on education.

A culture of achievement places it's focus on the most easily quantifiable and measurable results, test scores. As superintendents and building administrators work to keep their jobs and show they are successful it's somewhat understandable (if not short-sighted) that this would be a focus. Test scores are the currency in which the general public uses to judge schools. Want to know which schools are the best just ask Google and the top results show rankings like US News & World Report and who state very clearly that test scores are a major factor in their ratings system. For example, US News & World Report explain they begin their rating of schools by "...using performance on state proficiency tests as the benchmarks." The unfortunate truth is that these tests are not measuring things important to creating the type of graduates society needs and is longing for. Most standardized tests attempt to measure content knowledge and understanding and not skills or thinking you would find on the upper parts of Bloom's taxonomy. What this often creates then is an approach by administrators that demands a focus on identifying exactly what parts of the test students are not performing well (disaggregating the data) and pulling those students for intentional work on shoring up those specific shortcomings. Sometimes these are called RTI classes and other times teachers are just asked to analyze student data in their PLC's and reteach or somehow get these students to "achieve" so they can compete with other students and schools. 

This detachment from the purpose of school and learning creates a level of frustration, anxiety and burnout that I experienced first-hand as a teacher and from students who have little to no interest in playing school. The misplaced focus of a Culture of Achievement manifests itself in ways that include test prep, students working on and celebrating closing of achievement score gaps, emphasis on coverage of content and almost always an unacceptable level of anxiety & burnout. Perhaps the most saddening part of a Culture of Achievement is it's low ceiling. While it may be politically and strategically smart to pursue the quick hits of raising test scores it's a fool's bargain that limits the potential of our students in a myriad of ways.

What if we pursued a Culture of Teaching and Learning? One that placed an emphasis on things like deep, rich inquiry and craftsmanship? What if the learning had no ceiling and students were authentically assessed and did real-world work where they uncovered and discovered content? What if instead of disaggregating data our teachers engaged in quality professional discourse about their work in ways that excited them and their students? A Culture of Teaching and Learning often produces great (test scores) achievement but a Culture of Achievement rarely results in great teaching and learning. A Culture of Teaching and Learning rewards and professionalizes teaching and helps create students who are empowered by their possibilities and less than concerned with test performance.  

If your school is looking to create great thinkers and learners and not just students stuffed full of content take a look at your culture. If your school is wishing your students were excited to be there instead of feeling the tension of just trying to attend and endure take a look at your culture. Is your focus on test scores and "achievement" or do your teachers and students engage in ways that allow them to grow and make meaning out of their learning in ways that tests don't measure and quantify? Is the purpose of your school to produce great test scores or students capable of thinking creatively and critically about things that matter?

Are you interested in improving your Culture of Teaching and Learning? 

Visit the PEC web site.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Shifting Students and Standardization

Recently while reading the most recent Fast Company magazine I came across an article entitled THE STARTUP REVOLUTION IS ABOUT TO SURGE AGAIN and was intrigued by the applications to education. What instantly struck me was the dichotomy made between being a startup and scaling up to some sort of legitimacy. I especially like the bullet points they made below and it made me wonder about the role of standardization and creativity in education, a topic for a panel (Orbiting the Giant Hairball) on which I'll be participating in April at the International Conference of Creativity, Thinking & Education in Minneapolis.

Standardization is most frequently thrust on students and the stuff done to them. While the debate over Common Core rages on with the issue of standardization being a major focal point it's easy to see how requiring every student to learn the same things (and often in the same ways) could stifle creativity and innovation. What if we shifted the conversation and debate around standardization and taught kids like they were startups and their goal was to essentially find and standardize/scale what they were great at and passionate about? Learn how to do those things very well and "standardize" that or those things as a craft to be carried into adulthood. The 4th bullet point above notes, "Scaling is all about standardizing and executing your business model so that you can take advantage of network effects." Of course students are not a "business" and shouldn't be treated like one but don't we want our young to grow and prosper in much the same way? What better way than to refine a passionate idea and/or talent as an entrepreneur would? 
So what if instead of thinking of standardization with the focus being on the curriculum, content, or the teaching we viewed it through the lens of startups and scaling up and the transformation of a student, or even a school or district? What if we thought of our students as startups and our schools and classrooms as incubators that were focused on providing support to student growth? To be clear, I'm not talking about growth as "student achievement" here which often takes the form of test scores and gaps and things much more easily measured and quantified. No, what if our education system was built transformed to help students identify and scale what they're good at and could turn into "a repeatable business model" that could be a passion-driven and profitable career(s)?  When approached this way could standardization become empowering instead of emasculating?For more visit the PEC Web Site.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Building Your Way to In-Depth Inquiry

A Day at the Park
If you ask me, inquiry is the heart of great teaching and learning. As the excerpt from the lengthy but fantastic A Day at the Park to the left notes, questions in many cases are better than answers and this thinking was recently reinforced when I read A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger. But teachers often struggle with the concept of In-Depth Inquiry both conceptually and in practice because it's more than just asking questions.

Using the analogy of a house it can be helpful to think of in-depth inquiry using the starting point of asking an elementary age child to draw a house. Typically this would take the form of a fairly simple sketch. It might be more or less detailed and perhaps it might be an aerial view but more than likely it would be similar to our little red house here. As we start to take multiple passes at improving our house we might ask, "that's nice but how might we see the layout of the rooms?" With this question in mind we would likely see the perspective shift to an overhead view floor plan layout but still lacking detail and likely with some serious architectural and engineering challenges. At this point what if you asked questions like:
  • How many people will live in this house?
  • Is there enough room for everyone to relax and play?
  • What would your parents say about this layout?
This might bring revisions that include more kitchen, working or play space or perhaps additional bedrooms and/or bathrooms as well as some thinking about size and different rooms. But it's unlikely a child would be thinking about things like plumbing concerns so we might have a plumber or other outside expert ask questions about how and where the water would flow in and out of the house. You might imagine the child could take the guidance from an expert to better design their layout to increase efficiency. For example they may revise to put a bathroom and kitchen or laundry in close proximity. As these revision points, multiple passes and drafts occur rich opportunities for deeper inquiry by teacher and student would likely present themselves as the depth of complexity increases and other Need to Know questions arise. As each of the red arrows below drill down with questions you could see a widening swath of connective inquiry, tangentially related questions bubbling to the surface to the left and right generating increasingly complex cognitive processing.

While this may be a simplified example without a clear purpose I don't think it's difficult to imagine the potential for increased learning of content and skills if we were to replace the "house" with a challenging and engaging problem. In the example shown in the video below from Ace Leadership High School (which I had the pleasure of visiting a couple years ago) you can easily imagine the multiple passes and depth of inquiry necessary to complete those projects. When we ask students to produce thinking for an authentic purpose we set the stage to move beyond simple skim of the surface, lower levels of Bloom's Taxonomy questions that often show up on and in preparation for tests. In this setting teachers can support the improvement of student skills (like questioning) as they pursue craftsmanlike work and gain deeper conceptual learning around any content necessary.

For more on inquiry visit the PEC web site and the PEC YouTube channel.