Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pulling It All Together

Over the past two months, I've attempted to lay out my thoughts on teaching and learning. Today, I am going to try to pull it all together.

The Need for a New Normal

I believe that we need a new normal. A new normal is reached when things that are accepted today becomes unthinkable tomorrow and when things that are unthinkable today become normal and expected tomorrow. New normals are not reached through incremental progress. They are disruptive and occur suddenly and without warning.

Here are some things that I'd like to see in a new normal:

  • All students making sense of the curriculum.
  • All students taking ownership of their own learning.
  • All students reasoning through complex and meaningful problems.
  • All students and teachers engaging in learning communities.
  • All teachers seeking out, receiving, and applying constructive feedback from peers, supervisors, and coaches.
  • All teachers engaging in inquiry, collaborating, and sharing practices.
  • All school leaders acting as instructional leaders.
  • All schools focusing on continuous improvement.
  • Everyone engaging in an open and honest dialogue on teaching and learning.

This list is far from comprehensive. It is impossible to know what a new normal is going to be like until you get there. But it does remind me of how far we have to go. Today, most principals are prevented from acting as instructional leaders because that isn't how their jobs are structured; most students are prevented from making sense of the curriculum and solving meaningful, complex problems because that isn't how the curriculum is written; and most teachers toil in isolation because we believe good teachers are born and we only need them to teach from a script. If your child does get an inspired teacher or a piece of curriculum that makes sense, you count yourself lucky. This is all backwards. We won't get better until we expect better.

Making Sense of the Curriculum

I believe that, in any new normal, all students must be able to make sense of the curriculum. Imagine that you are a third-grader sitting in math class, and nothing makes sense to you. You study as hard as you can and your parents get you a tutor, but it all seems random to you. Meanwhile, some of your classmates get everything right away. Now imagine that you experience this 50 minutes a day/180 days a year for the next ten years. How corrosive is that?

Some schools attempt to insulate you from the corrosiveness. Not making sense of things is easier to cope with when you are surrounded by adults who know and care about you and when you are striving toward a personal goal, such as college. But you can't take ownership of your learning and learn independently if the stuff you are learning doesn't make sense. You are still relying on an authority to tell you what to know instead of knowing for yourself, even if that authority is a journal article and not a classroom teacher. Without an expert mental model, you won't be able to integrate what you know and solve complex problems.

Schools should be in the business of helping students make sense of stuff so that those students can make sense of more stuff on their own. Protecting students from the corrosive effect of a nonsense-making curriculum isn't enough.

The Need for a Sense-Making Curriculum

I believe that, to help students make sense of the curriculum, we need a sense-making curriculum. Learning is a two-step process: you experience something (external) and then you try to make sense of it (internal). If you can't make sense of something using your existing mental models (cognitive dissonance), then you revise your mental models and learning occurs. Most curricula focus on the learning experience, leaving students to make sense of the experience on their own outside of the classroom.

It is possible to make sense of a curriculum that doesn't make much sense. I did it. I hated not understanding the stuff I was learning in school, so I kept turning things over in my mind until they did make sense. Making sense of stuff takes time and effort, but it also requires certain skills. Those skills can be learned.

Right now, most educators are focused on amping up student engagement in order to get students to make sense of the curriculum. The theory is that if students are more engaged, they will put more time and effort into making sense of learning experiences. However, this theory presupposes that all students already have the required sense-making skills, which, based on my observations, is not the case.

In my opinion, we need to increase student engagement and lower the barriers to sense-making that are built into the existing curriculum at the same time. Relying on instruction alone is like trying to do a job with one arm tied behind your back. The curriculum itself should also support sense-making and encourage students to develop those skills. Student engagement is strongest when the curriculum makes sense and students feel capable and powerful.

Current Reform Efforts Are Not Working

Most current reform efforts rely on making incremental improvements. This is reasonable since most progress is incremental. Incremental progress is like climbing a hill. To make incremental progress, all you need to do is study the terrain in front of you and keep going up.

I believe that current reform efforts aren't working because we need a new normal and incremental progress won't take us to a new normal. To reach a new normal, we need to widen our perspective. The terrain tells us to move in one direction, but we need to ignore it and head for a point on the horizon instead. This means going downhill at times and trusting in our heading if we go downhill and lose sight of the horizon.

I find it interesting that it is now 2014 and no one is talking about how 2014 is when all public school students in the U.S. are suppose to be proficient or higher on state tests. On the 2013 MCAS (Massachusetts' state test), 55% of our eighth-graders were proficient or higher in math. I don't think that we are going to make it. (In tenth-grade, 80% of our students were proficient or higher in math, but standards were lowered on the tenth-grade tests when they became graduation requirements; it would have been political suicide to deny half of our high school students diplomas.)

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) imposed severe sanctions on schools that were not making adequate progress toward the 2014 goal. If a school did not make adequate progress five years in a row, then the state could take them over and fire the entire staff and administration. These sanctions were designed to motivate school districts to take drastic action. In the early days of the Act, Massachusetts did take over a number of failing schools, but the state could not turn them around even with massive infusions of resources. State officials now know that they can't turn failing schools around, yet they are still expecting school districts to do it themselves. Unfortunately, since almost all of the middle schools in the state are now failing, no one is that worried about being sanctioned and the stigma from being a failing school is gone.

Is anyone doing any soul searching over this massive failure? One high profile proponent of NCLB, Diane Ravitch, has publicly admitted that accountability and competition from charter schools aren't working and aren't going to work, but everyone else seems to be doubling down. Instead of relying on each state to design their own curriculum standards and state tests, this will now happen on a national level with the Common Core and PARCC. But wait a second, which state is one of the primary models for this national effort? Oh, that's right, Massachusetts. D'oh!

One other thing that the federal government is doing is tying teacher evaluations to state test results, which means that teachers will get fired if their students perform poorly on the PARCC. This is the graduation requirement thing all over again. Policymakers are trying to raise the stakes for accountability hoping that schools will respond. They are doing this even though they have no idea how to do what they are asking the schools to accomplish. They are basically playing a giant game of chicken with the schools for the third time, without realizing that the car the schools are in does not have a steering wheel in it. No one genuinely believes we are going to get anywhere close to 100% of our students to proficient or higher on state tests, but we keep our heads down and keep trudging up the slightest incline instead of recognizing what we don't know and looking around for a new direction.

I wish I could say the progressive movement was in better shape, but their incremental approach isn't working either. The state of the art in progressive education hasn't advanced much, if at all, since the early 1900s, and the progressive movement has never been able to expand its base by writing educational philosophy, publishing research, and opening demonstration schools. Progressive educators will flock to a progressive school, creating a temporary beacon of student-centered instruction, but it is a zero-sum game. The progressive movement had more momentum, influence, and flagship schools in the mid-1900s than it does today, but that still wasn't enough to convince traditional educators to cross battle lines. Because of community backlash during the math wars, I would say that there are fewer self-identified constructivist math teachers today than when I first started teaching in 1995. If your goal is to create a few oases in the desert, that's fine, but it isn't going to help you reach a new normal.

The Need for Cognitive Dissonance

To reach a new normal, I believe that we need to create cognitive dissonance first. Cognitive dissonance is what causes us to re-consider and then revise our mental models. Without cognitive dissonance, we tend to repeat existing patterns without reflecting on or evaluating them.

But cognitive dissonance isn't easy to create. When we experience something that doesn't fit our mental models, our first reaction is to make it fit, even if we have to distort and ignore evidence to do it. The threshold to create cognitive dissonance varies, but it tends to be very high when you get anywhere close to the instructional core. I usually start with the impossible: getting a group of students to learn something that no one thought they could learn. That is the threshold I need to cross in order to get a staff to even consider making a change and moving in a new direction. If you are asking someone to take on the impossible, it helps if you can show them that it might just be possible.

When states first started taking over schools that weren't making adequate progress, they had an opportunity to do the impossible. All they had to do was demonstrate that they could take a failing school and get 100% of the students to proficient or higher. They couldn't do it, which only confirmed everyone's belief that no one could do it.

The result is a climate where all schools buy the same curriculum, hire the same consultants, and launch the same initiatives. This herd mentality is the opposite of what NCLB was intended to accomplish. Accountability was suppose to generate urgency, which was suppose to generate innovation. But who is going to take a risk when there is no upside because there is no chance of success? When the goal is an impossible one, the best thing to do is to not stick your neck out. And without variation and experimentation, there's no chance for a new normal.

The Need for a Single Metric for Performance

Okay, the staff has agreed to set off in a new direction in the hopes of reaching a new normal, but how do we get there? No one has been to or even seen this new normal before, and the path we'll be blazing descends into a fog-enshrouded valley and will include numerous switchbacks and detours to get through the rugged terrain. How do we orient ourselves and keep everyone together?

To reach a new normal, I believe that you need a compass. The compass is a single metric of performance that functions as a proxy for all of the metrics you care about. We want all students to make sense of the curriculum. We want all students to take ownership of their own learning. We want all students to reason through complex and meaningful problems. We want all students to engage in learning communities. But if we try to pursue all of those goals at the same time, the party will split as people head off in different directions. Someone will shout, "The path is this way! This increases ownership." And someone else will shout, "No, the path is this way! These problems are more meaningful." People will get lost and end up walking in circles as they switch between different metrics.

Choosing a single metric gives you a consistent heading, but which one? The one I've settled on for the moment is sense-making. I feel that sense-making is a good proxy because it is so tightly coupled with the other metrics, either as an input, output, or both.

  • I believe that students will take ownership of their own learning once they have made sense of the curriculum.
  • I believe that students will have to be able to reason through complex and meaningful problems in order to make sense of the curriculum, and that students will be able to reason through complex and meaningful problems once they have made sense of the curriculum.
  • I believe that students and teachers will have to engage in learning communities in order for all students to make sense of the curriculum, and that students and teachers will choose to engage in learning communities once students are making sense of the curriculum.
  • I believe that teachers will have to receive and apply constructive feedback in order to help all students make sense of the curriculum, and that teachers will seek out constructive feedback once they see that some, but not all, students are making sense of the curriculum.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. In my opinion, it would be impossible to reach the goal of all students making sense of the curriculum and not reach all of the other goals at the same time.

I've also settled on sense-making as my compass because it has a strong and compelling signal. Feedback in educational systems tends to be extremely noisy, so you want a metric where you can see clear and significant improvements. In my experience, small increases in sense-making yield large performance gains on student outcomes. Another factor is the level of confidence a staff has in the compass. If you try to use the development of collaboration skills as your compass, some teachers won't get on board with that because they don't think that collaboration skills are important enough to risk such a long and perilous journey through the unknown. Remember, there is going to be some point where it is dark and pouring rain, you can't see more than two feet in front of you, everyone is convinced the party is lost, everyone is hurt and close to collapse, and people are crying to turn around to go home. That is when everyone is going to have to suck it up and trust in the compass.

Finally, a compass enables everyone to take shared ownership in the journey. Instead of relying on a single navigator, everyone will have a compass on them. Small scouting parties can go out to explore potential routes and forage for food without getting lost or getting separated from the main party. To reach a new normal, you need shared ownership and you need everyone working in the same direction. Innovation always occurs from the bottom up, never from the top down.

Following a Line of Mountains

Relying on a single metric for performance has some obvious risks. If it is a poor proxy for your other metrics, it can easily lead you astray. You don't really want to cut the entire arts program just to squeeze out a few more points on the math MCAS, do you?

The compass helps you orient yourself when you are in the middle of your daily grind, but you still need to make time to reflect and think about where you are and where you are going. Whether it happens once a month or once a year, the staff should come together periodically to review the entire journey and make course adjustments if necessary. This is when you can, and should, recalibrate your compass. Using a proxy is a bit like using magnetic north to find the north pole. The closer you get to your destination, the bigger the adjustment you'll have to make. However, it's really handy when you are first starting out.

Cognitive dissonance is used to get people to widen their perspective. Unfortunately, a new normal is too far away to be seen by even the most eagle-eyed observer from the current normal. So how do we pick a heading for our compass and recalibrate the compass along the way? The key is finding a line of mountains that will guide you in the direction of the new normal. The first mountain is close enough to be seen from the current normal. The second mountain, which is a little taller, can be seen from the first mountain.

For the first mountain, you may try to get a few more students to understand a concept. When you reach that mountain, you may try to get enough students to mastery so that next year's teacher doesn't have to do as much re-teaching (the second mountain). As you were scaling that second mountain, you may have noticed that students got into the flow. Can we get them solving more problems independently (the third mountain)? Now that they are so good at problem solving, can we teach the entire curriculum through problem solving (the fourth mountain)? Eventually, the new normal looms into view.

While the compass gives you a clear heading, it doesn't give you a sense of accomplishment as you follow that heading. Scaling a series of higher and higher mountains does. You'll also find that, each time you scale a new and higher mountain, your party gets a little larger as stragglers and colleagues who didn't want to leave the base camp rush to catch up.

However, once you've scaled that first mountain, some teachers will want to rush straight toward the second mountain, forgetting about the compass. That is something to guard against. Someone will say, "Hey, we accomplished this impossible task of getting more students to understand this concept, let's build on that and try to reduce how much re-teaching we are doing." And then someone else will say, "Okay. How about everyone focuses on drilling students until they memorize their math facts. That would be a huge help." You need to remind them that sense-making is the compass that got us to the first mountain and that sense-making will be the compass that gets us to the second mountain. Over time, teachers will internalize the use of the compass for themselves once they see how effective it is.

The Need for Hands-On and Shared Leadership

I don't believe that you can, or should, identify a line of mountains to follow in advance. Those goals need to be established collaboratively based on the situation on the ground. This illustrates the need for hands-on and shared leadership.

To reach a new normal, school leaders need to take an active role in the journey. When the party gathers around a map hastily drawn in the dirt, trying to figure out which route to take crossing a river, school leaders need to be there providing leadership and guidance. It takes time for teachers to internalize the compass and take ownership of the journey. It takes time for a group to learn how to create spaces so that all voices can be heard and to make decisions collaboratively. School leaders also need to internalize the compass themselves and learn how to share leadership, otherwise they will end up making decisions that sidetrack the journey and damage the very culture they are trying to nurture.

Finally, the journey takes time. You won't get there in a year. You won't get there using consultants that drop in for professional days. You won't train "trainers" at a four-day institute over the summer. This journey means rolling up your sleeves and sleeping in tents with the rest of us. Are you ready?

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