I Have the Solution to Education’s Problems

Okay, MAYBE I have the solution to education’s problems.  More likely I’m just going to open up a big debate and more problems.  If you haven’t been to my blog before, please scroll to the bottom and read my disclaimer.  I think I may need it for this post.  (I saw a question on Twitter the other day questioning whether or not those disclaimers are still necessary:  I’m thinking they are.)

I spent about 2 hours this evening talking to my principal about education:  where we are headed as a school, a district, a system overall.  I appreciate my principal’s willingness and encouragement to have these conversations with me, and this one was quite accidental. (It took place in our school hallway after she came in because myself and a colleague each locked our keys in the room we were working in.)  Near the end of the conversation she commented, off-handedly, that we pretty much covered the entirety of education and had begun over again.  That was our informal cue for closing arguments, and when we finally wrapped up we noticed two hours had flown by.  It wasn’t until my short walk home from the school that I thought a bit more about that off-hand remark.  We really had talked our way around a lot of issues.  Yet, we kept coming back to just a couple main points.  I truly value these types of conversations, with her and with others, not because they are necessarily accurate representations of what we each truly believe (because speaking in off-the-cuff conversations often don’t allow for deeply considered remarks), but because of the thoughts they inspire afterwards.  So please, leave some comments and help me consider new perspectives.

This post is about one of those thoughts I had on my way home. I was playing back some of the comments I made to see where I truly stand.  I thought about some of the challenges to my perspectives.  I stood for a bit on my porch to considered the points I conceded to the other side.  One point I kept coming back to was the idea of differentiation.  At one point my principal commented something along the lines of “but that’s just my experience.”  Several times through the conversation I recall thinking that about my own experiences and trying to keep an open mind.  But that comment struck me as important.  That’s just me.  That’s just me.  That’s just me. 

THIS IS NOT A RESPONSE TO MY PRINCIPAL.  THIS IS A DEEPER REFLECTION THAT GOES BEYOND THE OPINIONS WE SHARED WITH EACH OTHER. THE STATEMENTS I SEEM TO VEHEMENTLY DISAGREE WITH DID NOT COME FROM HER.

What if the answer to all of education’s problems lies solely with students?  I don’t just mean students as an overall group of participants in the grand scheme of education.  And I don’t mean one set of students, at one point in time, in one place.  I mean, what if every single student provided the answer to education’s problems in a way that resonated with her and himself?  Of course, that means the answer may change even for that student from year to year (or more frequently) and by subject to subject and from teacher to teacher.  But what if every single aspect of a child’s education was focused on what was best for that child?  Not a group of children who happened to be born into the same age-cohort and reside in the same geographical location.  Not statistics who live in the same province or country.  Not peers who are part of generation x or y or whatever letter of the alphabet we may generalize them into next.  What would happen if we gave education back to those it actually affects?

Some benefits to giving education to the students: 

  • Students could learn in a style that best suits their needs:  tests, right/wrong answers, m/c, project-based learning, authentic learning tasks, etc.  
  • Students could receive the type of feedback they want:  grades, rubrics, written feedback, oral discussions, etc.
  • Students could seek motivation to learn in the manner they prefer:  grades, awards, rankings, scholarships, competition, proud moments of success, the satisfaction of perseverance despite no external rewards, teamwork, sheer thrill of learning.
  • Students could study the content areas they are interested in: math, science, English, social studies, physical education, drama, dance, art, computer programming, health, foods, music, hunting, race car driving, etc. (This list could go on forever.)
  • Students could learn at the rate they wanted/needed:  outcome by outcome learning, life-long learning, fully comprehending the content because there is no one to belittle them by telling them a “normal” student would have been done by now.

Some of the criticism to giving education to students:

Kids don’t know what’s best for themselves.

To some degree, I understand this argument.  I have my own kids.  Do I let them do whatever they want?  No, of course not.  Their desire for immediate gratification and lack of awareness of consequences comes without thought to their own safety or well-being.  But is all of this childhood innocence or am I partially to blame for not letting my children make their own mistakes and face the consequences?  Is our incessant need to caudal children stifling their true capabilities.  I’m not talking about asking children to grow up too fast and make wise decisions.  In fact, I might be saying the opposite; a child’s desire to play should not be frowned upon because they have homework to do.  I believe children are capable of so much more and of being so much wiser than we give them credit for.

Kids don’t know what they need for their future.

Again, I’d have to agree with this to some lengths.  What happens if a child attempts math at a “grade 3 level (when it starts to get hard), hates it, and wants to quit?  It’s a valid concern.  To what extent will children need this knowledge later in life?  My rebuttal is this:  A student will only get so far in the study of what they want before realizing they need other knowledge in other areas to progress further.  At that point, the child who may dislike a certain subject will realize they need it to be happy.  This need will provide the motivation to acquire the knowledge they need.  If that point never comes, then what harm is it really to the child/adult to have never learned that particular content?

Kids won’t receive a well-rounded education.

In the grand scheme of things, who truly is a jack of all trades, let alone a master of any?  There is so much I don’t know, about so many topics, that I can’t even begin to fathom what it is I don’t know.  Yet I am living the life I want to live.  It’s just plain wrong to tell someone that if they’ve never read “this classic” then they haven’t truly lived.  I’m not going to go on and on about all the different things we have the audacity to judge other people for not having done, or for not knowing.  People know what they need to know to have the life they want.  And if we fix our education system to provide ongoing learning opportunities no matter what age an individual is, then I don’t see why everyone needs the same shape of education.

Final thoughts

I know I’m sounding a little naive right now.  I do know there are many many more concerns with handing education over to the students, and none of the concerns, even the ones I addressed above are easy to solve.  But I also know there are far more benefits than those listed above.  And those benefits are also farther reaching than I’ve done justice to.  I don’t know exactly what the answer to education’s problems are, but I have a gut feeling that it must lay in the fact that we are all individuals.  Education has begun to emphasize differentiated learning and I think this is a step in the right direction, but this needs to apply to every student in our classrooms, not just those who excel and those who struggle.  It also needs to go that extra step to give students a voice in their own education.  Teachers can’t keep doing “things” because those things are easiest for them.  We can’t even keep doing things because the standardized tests say “these things” are working–who are they working for? (governments, universities, teachers, society’s expectations?)  We need to do the things that will allow success for every student in our classroom, as success is defined by each individual student in our classroom.  After all, isn’t that why we all got into education in the first place?

***I know the blurb at the bottom says I’d love to hear your feedback and opinions, but I wanted to personally challenge you to leave a comment.  If you’ve made it this far, you must have something to say.  A question, a challenge, a disagreement to voice, an Amen!  You’re thinking something right now, and I truly would love to know what it is.***

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The Dangers of Not Blogging Our Failures

Are all other teachers perfect?  Am I the only one making mistakes?  Should I really be allowed to teach kids (let alone teach other teachers)?  Some days, maybe a lot of days, I feel like everyone else has all their ducks in a row while mine are flapping about everywhere as though they were badly wounded.  And some days I feel like a badly wounded duck.  Some days my students act like they are badly wounded and I can’t get them back in a row.  And now that my simile is breaking down horribly, let’s move on.

I know the title of this post refers specifically to blogging, but that’s only because the people reading this are bloggers, or at least online learners.  In reality, most of what I have to say will relate to the dangers of not sharing our failures, no matter what form that sharing might take.  This post was inspired by a recent conversation I had with another learning coach in my my district.  I’m not sure how we got onto the topic at all because sharing failures isn’t something that happens too often, but I remember specifically stating, for some reason, that I felt I would be fired from this particular position next year.  To my surprise, my colleague admitted that she had been feeling the same way.   Now, we both knew that these feelings were unwarranted:  We were specifically chosen for our position because we are qualified to hold them, and our administrators often confirm the job we are doing.  But this is typically the case for most of us, isn’t it?  We know we are qualified, even if we don’t feel qualified; we know we make a difference, even if we rarely see it; we know we are on the right track, even if we sometimes fall down.  Yet we often feel alone in our failure.  The way I see it, we need to share our failures, and failing to do so is dangerous for a few reasons.

1.  Failing to share our failures leads to discouragement.

If individual teachers believe they are they only ones who struggle, it’s easy to become discouraged.  It’s hard to look around yourself and think that everyone else is perfect because their stories are full of success and advice.  This happens often on blogs, but also in our staff rooms and at conferences.  Of course, it makes sense because we like telling stories with happy endings, and we like inspiring others.  We feel insecure sharing mistakes, and I believe we think that sharing failures will lead to discouraging others.  However, it is more discouraging to believe that we are the only one who fails.  I wonder if this plays a big role in why stats are so high for teachers leaving the profession in their first five years teaching.  Do they look around and feel they fail more than anyone else?   My school, a K-12 with approximately 210 students, recently had 5 new teachers come to us.  All are in their first few years of teaching.  We only have 16 teachers in the school, including these 5, so they make up a significant percentage of our staff.  These teachers have made such a huge positive difference in our school climate and we are lucky to have them, but there are certain times through the year when it’s noticeable that being a new teacher takes it’s toll.  I’ve talked with these teachers and have heard the discouragement they feel from time to time, and it’s tough to hear them say that they can’t wait until they get more experienced and things get better.  I remember thinking this.  It hasn’t happened yet though.  Things haven’t gotten better for me.  I don’t think they do if we are continually pushing ourselves and if we refuse to become complacent.  I still have trouble keeping up with my marking and planning.  I still have lessons that go horribly wrong.  I still can’t believe how I’ve let my kids down after learning something eye opening from someone else.  But I rarely share these failures with others.  I rarely let others know I’m not as perfect as I try to appear.  And this failure to share is discouraging other teachers in my school.  Going back to my conversation with the other learning coach, after we shared with each other, we both expressed a sense of relief that we were not the only ones feeling inadequate.

2. Failing to share our failures leads to not learning from our own mistakes.

When I feel that I’m the only one failing I tend to have one of a few reactions.  If I can, I will quit.  A few years ago I was interested in kayaking.  I went out to the Grande Prairie kayaking club’s open night at the pool to get more involved.  Now, I’d been out a bit before with my brother who was also a beginner, but in that pool I was surrounded by people who knew what they were doing.  I’m pretty introverted, and it was a big risk for me to even show up there by myself.  I felt out of place.  I felt inadequate.  I felt like the only one failing, so I left and didn’t go back.  It was easier to quit than it was to face my mistakes and learn.  Other times when I feel that I’m the only one failing, I will ignore my mistakes and focus on something I’m doing well.  I don’t want to admit to myself that I’m not as good as others so it’s easier to forget my shortcomings.  This doesn’t help me learn and grow though.  Another common reaction when I feel like everyone else is perfect and I’m struggling is that I deflect fault.  When I make excuses or blame others, however, I am refusing to accept responsibility for my mistakes and to learn from them.  The opposite is true though when I realize that others struggle as well.  I take responsibility for my failures, confront them head on, and persevere until I’m successful.  Rather than feeling like I am inherently flawed, there’s a sense of challenge for me when I realize that things are difficult for others as well.

3.  Failing to share our failures leads to others not learning from our mistakes.

This one is pretty straightforward, yet it should be a compelling reason to share our failures.  A common question in education is “why reinvent the wheel?” One answer to this question is that often times we are left with no other choice.  It is not good enough for us to simply share our success with others while ignoring the process of failures it took us to arrive there.  IF I become a blogger who sticks with this practice and begin to share my success story with others and tell them they should be blogging as well, but I don’t mention the many failed attempts I made at blogging consistently and the reasons for those failures, then others who try to live up to my example will have to figure out solutions to these same problems.  Some of these problems have included:

  • not knowing what to blog about (failures would be a good suggestion, read what others write about and share your own opinion, successes, something you recently learned about . . .)
  • not having time to blog (I cut back on my tv watching, I construct piecemeal using the Notes app on my phone when I have the time then pull it all together)
  • not knowing how to get started (I talked to others to figure what blogging was, attended sessions about it, trial and LOTS OF ERROR, Googled answers to issues)

I’ve started and stopped blogging several times, due to the problems above.  Sharing my “success” with blogging without the struggles I ‘ve had won’t help others learn from my mistakes.  We need to share our failures, the steps to solve those failures, then the success we’ve had.

4.  Failing to share our failures leads to not utilizing the assistance of others.

Again, this seems obvious, but how much bother could we save ourselves if we were willing to share our failures with others?  I’ve told this to my students many times, “I can’t help you if I don’t know you have a problem.” (Let’s ignore my poor understanding of the fact that part of my job as a teacher is formative assessment and that I should know they have a problem.)  Others can’t offer their assistance if they don’t know we are struggling.  There is a wealth of knowledge out there and people who are willing to help us if they only knew we needed it.

5. Failing to share our failures leads to turning others off.

No one likes taking advice from a know-it-all.  When we fail to share our failures we set ourselves up as perfect in the eyes of others, and the consequence of this is that others begin to resent us.  We all know no one is perfect.  We all know there are no easy answers.  We all know.  Therefore, people become suspicious and wary of us when we set ourselves up to be experts.  Personally, I prefer to listen to speakers who humanize themselves rather than those who set themselves up as experts.  It turns me off to be sitting in a session with someone who feels they are better than me (I know you are already, so help me learn rather than preaching at me).  When people come to read our blogs, are they turned off by how we present our ideas, or do readers feel a sense of connection to other us as learners?

I believe we need to be more open to sharing all of our stories with each other, not just the successes.  We need to come together as educators and create a community of learners rather than an expert vs. learner hierarchy.  Failing to share our failures will lead to some dangerous consequences, but sharing our failures with one another will lead to all of us becoming better teachers for our students.

To Praise or Not to Praise? Is that the Question?

I have the immense pleasure of being the Senior High ELA Curriculum Coach for PWSD 76 in Alberta, and today that meant the opportunity once again to get together as a coaching cohort.  During our meeting we viewed a previously aired webinar by Jim Knight (@jimknight99).  I enjoyed tweeting what I was learning throughout.  One section of the webinar that caught my attention was regarding the need to praise students more than we correct them.  (Hopefully I’m not putting too many words into Jim’s mouth.)

These statements reminded me of some thoughts I’d heard a while ago that emphasized the idea that praising children may not be the best approach if we want to raise kids who are intrinsically motivated to do the right thing rather than doing it because of the attention they receive from doing so.  I didn’t have the sources of these quotes with me at the moment, but I tweeted a couple questions out based upon the impact of these statements.  The idea of not offering praise is one that I’ve actually tried to put into practice (when I remember to do so) with my students and my own kids.

When I got home today, I had a couple replies from Jim Knight about what I had tweeted. Jim had a question for me that I didn’t have a ready answer for.  He asked, “Re: praise. Do you think teachers should only give corrective feedback? I think both, but we often overlook positive.”  I went back to the webinar link and listened to this portion again.  Here’s one statement that made his tweet reply begin to make sense:  “The bottom line is, that you want to make sure that you’re giving more positive attention to the students than negative attention.  If all you do is correct students, pretty quickly the students know ‘If I want to get that teacher’s attention, the only way I can get it is by acting up.‘” I’m assuming correction is being viewed then as negative attention; we correct when a student has been “acting up” in some way.  This dichotomy of praise and correction is something that I didn’t see addressed in my reading about “the pitfalls of praise,” as Joe Bower (@Joe_Bower) puts it in his blog post If I Don’t Praise Children, What Can I do?

Joe’s post was the first I read on this matter.  At the time, I remember, it didn’t feel right to hear that I shouldn’t praise my own son or daughters when they do something great.  But the logic makes sense: “If I praise Amber by saying “good job”, it’s the equivalent of patting her on the head and throwing a mirror inches in front of her face – like the praise, the mirror would encourage Amber to focus on how her good-will benefited her.” I realized I didn’t want my children to be motivated to do good in order to feel good themselves; I want them to do good because it’s the right thing to do.  And I certainly didn’t want to manipulate my children or create praise junkies or steal their pleasure, make them lose interest, or reduce achievement as Alfie Kohn (@alfiekohn) writes about in Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good Job!’  These writings and others inspired me to look for alternatives to praise my children and my students (though I must admit I’ve been rather inconsistent and that’s probably worse than picking a side and sticking to it).  A couple suggestions that I really liked as alternatives also came from Joe and Alfie:  Say nothing, state what you saw, and talk less–ask more.  Joe’s question to Amber, “Did you see the smile on that ladies face?” seemed to be a great alternative to “Wow, that was such a nice thing that you just did!”  Though, it may be argued that this question still encourages Amber to do good because it will impress others, if not her teacher.  Perhaps a better question would be something along the lines of: “Can you tell me why you chose to help that lady.”  This would require Amber to think about her own motivation and the results of her actions, and it may lead to follow up questions.  I believe my response to Jim Knight lies buried somewhere in this last alternative.

As I mentioned, Jim’s perspective of praise comes from the relationship between praise and correction.  His webinar suggests a 5:1 ratio of praise to correction.  Thinking about my own practice, I think I’d be lucky to have a 1:5 ration in my classroom.  Jim notes that it’s not uncommon to find ratios of 1:10, 1:15 or even 0:28 in one Australian classroom.  What is the impact of this on students?  I can’t imagine that constant correction without praise will result in a positive self-image for a child.  And I believe this is Jim’s point.

I think I’m going to have to argue that if we are going to continue to provide students with correction, then we are going to have to also provide them with praise.  But is this the answer?  I’m going to step out on a limb here (hoping it doesn’t break away from under me) and suggest we stop doing both?  Through the course of researching and writing this blog, I continued to reflect on Jim’s question to me: “Do I think that teachers should only give corrective feedback?” My answer is this:  I believe praise is harmful to children, yet I also believe that constant correction without praise would also be harmful.  The only option I’m left with then is to abolish both.  Is this possible?  Can we teach without the use of correction?

A short time ago, I would have said no, of course we can’t!  However, my focus on critical thinking and collaboration is beginning to lead me to believe that students are capable of correcting themselves and each other.  I had an experience recently that reinforces this for me.  My ELA 10 class was working on getting commas and semicolons placed correctly within their sentence structures.  They were collaborating with a partner to write proper sentences based upon particular criteria I provided.  I was hovering, observing, refusing to answer questions (instead, helping them find the answers in the handouts they had in triplicate from a variety of sources showing the info in different ways).  Then I began to take pictures of the sentences they were creating.  I paused the activity and displayed their own examples on the board, using polleverywhere.com to ask the class whether the sentence used correct punctuation or not.  The results came in, and were not unanimous.  This let me know there were still some students struggling to figure things out, and it provided the opportunity for students to try to defend their answers.  The ones who were incorrect were unable to do so, but those who were correct provided justification from the notes and helped the others see why.  This is one example of how questioning students and providing the time for conversations and critical thinking could help us eliminate the need for correction in our classrooms and allow me to sleep soundly with the belief that praise should also defer to questioning and self-reflection.

 

***Amendment***

I couldn’t sleep last night and continued to reflect on this issue.  Here’s my problem:  My mind tells me that what I wrote is pretty solid; however, my heart wants to disagree.  I want to offer praise.  I want to offer correction.  Where does this desire come from?  Am I conditioned from growing up in a system that has told me this is what we do, or am I feeling a desire inherent in all humanity?  Where I ended up is admitting that perhaps I’m being too black and white about the issue.  I tend to do that (you’ll see it if you follow my blog and I’m hoping you’ll help keep me in line).  During my second year teacher’s evaluation, this was also the critique of of my acting principal.  I blame it on my strict religious upbringing where things were either right or they were wrong.  I’ve begun to mellow since then, wanting to be open to other perspectives and looking for common ground, but I tend to fall back on the “draw a line in the sand” approach when first confronted with a new issue.  In this case, I’m looking for common ground.  I see value in praise, which is why I’ve had a hard time not doing it.  I see value in correction, you can ask my own children about that.  As stated above, I see value in withholding praise and correction as well.  Perhaps that’s the answer I’m looking for.  Perhaps it’s a matter of analyzing the context and making a decision of what’s best for this child in this situation.  Does that sound like a cop-out?  I hope not.  I’m finally beginning to view education from this point of view, striving to individualize and see the gray areas where perhaps much of my time should be spent.