Sunday, September 21, 2014

Don't We Need Standards?

A recent developer of professionalism says to my staff, "We all know we need to be teaching standards. If we're not, the kids just aren't going to learn."

Holy cow. What a comment! Without standards, children can't learn.

Woe to those miserable educators since time immemorial who tried teaching anyone anything without standards. Glory to contemporary American schooling.

In my fourth year of teaching, I worked at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus (CHEC) in Washington, DC. I had just moved to DC and was impressed with how organized the administration seemed to be around supporting instruction in the school. The administrator over the social studies department mentioned on a number of occasions that CHEC was was committed to "standards-based instruction." He talked at length about the perils of planning your instructional activities before thinking through your standards.

At the time, I remember wondering: So if we do 'standards-based instruction,' what's the alternative? Presumably, you would only have to voice your commitment to such a practice if some sort of other practice existed. I'm pretty sure I asked him what the alternative was once, and his response was something along the lines of "crappy teaching." And there I had it. Wondering over.

In January, I wrote a post on why I think standards are murdering school. In today's post, I'd like to further deconstruct the notion of standards as essential to teaching and learning.

For decades, plenty of educators have eloquently voiced their resistance to the notion of standardizing education. They tend to have more liberal/hippie attitudes toward teaching and learning, and have often been quickly dismissed by more conservative thinkers and administrators toward the top of the educational career ladder who like standards for what they can offer in terms of data and assessment.

In his extraordinarily popular TED talk, Sugata Mitra notes that the origin of our current school model dates back to the Age of Empire, approximately 200-300 years ago. (You can find a more detailed history of the primary school in Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Empire, which I talked about in this podcast.) Mitra says that the most incredible computer was actually not a computer as we think of computers. It was, in fact, the European bureaucratic machine. The output was society, and the inputs were civil servants - people who had been trained in school to read, write, and think the same way in order to participate in the creation and maintenance of society, or in the case of the British, empire.

Hobsbawm refers to the period between 1870-1914 as the Age of the Primary School. This was not coincidentally also a period of time when Europe's newly emerging nations were competing for citizen allegiance. You see, back then, the notion of countries and nations was still a relatively new idea. Convincing the average citizen to pledge their allegiance to some government and flag by the name Germany or Italy (both countries only came into existence as we know them today in the 1800s) was still a work in progress for the European political elite. The primary school turned out to be a pretty effective tool for unifying diverse peoples with different languages and dialects under national banners. This was largely done with language instruction (languages that had only recently been, or were in the process of being, standardized).

It turns out that when your goal is to create a society of people who think and act alike in service of some larger purpose, standards can be pretty useful.

BUT here's the rub: humans are incredible organisms. As a species, we've thrived for millennia without standards or classroom agendas. There will forever be an infinite vastness of skills and knowledge for humans to learn. Seen in this way, learning is really just an expression of our attempt to interact with our environment. We never really achieve total understanding or mastery of anything. We merely strive to exist and to adapt.

Now - I understand that, in that last paragraph, I've perhaps gone far to the left of any of the administrators who may work 'downtown,' or the education policy wonks in DC. But I have to defend this perspective on learning because I feel it is a far more humane way to view what should be happening in schools.

Our 21st-century world is an outrageously complex place and time. It would be naive to disregard the idea of standards-based instruction entirely. There are some very important uses for standards. However, the notion that students will not learn except from standards-based instruction seems to me a tremendously unhealthy way to understand the human brain.

Believing that students cannot learn without standards is extreme pedagogical arrogance. Students learn all the time, and mostly the learning that is meaningful to them is not in alignment with the teacher's goals. Learning is natural, and it comes easily given the right context.

As Dewey pointed out, the purpose of school in the modern world is primarily to help students develop literacy (see more on literacy here), which requires at least some formal instruction for most students to find success. Literacy and numeracy can be helped along tremendously by educators who have clear goals in mind for their students. But the most wonderful parts of learning are mostly accomplished by the individual and align with his or her unique strengths.

For these reasons, I will always see my job primarily as a facilitator of student development than as a deliverer of standards. 

I'm a Racist, and You Are Too. Accept It.

It’s the beginning of a new school year, a time when I find myself reflecting on the parts of myself that brought me into this work.



It was the fall of 2005 when I first stepped in front of a group of diverse students. I stayed up all night planning the perfect thirty-minute lesson. I must have tweaked it, reworked it, and totally re-planned it dozens of times before I went to bed late at night.

Then, I believed excellent teaching was about perfect planning, exact timing, and lots of energy. Now, I believe it’s more about appropriate perspectives on school, society, and human behavior.

In the years since that first lesson plan, I’ve learned hundreds of times over that I have led a tremendously privileged life. And while I believed that in 2005, teaching in urban schools has allowed me to experience its veracity many, many times firsthand.

Nine years later, I’m still discovering assumptions I make about people and behavior that need reexamining. This is a fundamental part of human nature buried deep in our amygdala. A predisposition toward prejudice is part of the package.

The question is not whether you will be biased toward a group of people for this reason or that. The question is which group of people it will be and how it manifests itself in your behavior. To believe otherwise is to put yourself on a pedestal – to raise yourself above the rest of us. Our society is not post-racial because we as individuals are not, and never will be, post-racial.

Unbeknownst to people who claim not to be racist, nobody lives 100% of their life in their pre-frontal cortex. Prejudice and the tendencies toward oppression that accompany it are deep-seated and often unconscious.

This is important for people who work in institutions that serve as cornerstones of democracy (like public schools) to understand. We endeavor to create a more equitable, less oppressive society that honors the individual while addressing the needs of the group. (It’s a noble goal, anyway.) To believe that you behave without bias often serves only to reinforce oppressive behavior by closing your mind to valuable opportunities for reflection.

The perfect instructional plans are years in the making. Anyone who teaches knows the importance of experience in crafting valuable learning environments. You’ll get there if you persist, but only if you understand humans (and yourself) for what they are and how they’re inclined to behave.

Prejudice does not make a person evil. And it shouldn’t be thought to exist in one person or another, but rather to be a inextricable piece of humanity. Combatting it in others can be both challenging and meaningful, but sometimes less so than doing that work within yourself.

I can think of no group of people who need to understand this more than educators.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

On Shutting Teachers Up

Nothing but net for Nancy Flanagan the other day in her post over at Teacher in a Strange Land entitled, "Shutting Teachers Up."

She writes, "When practitioners aren't allowed to openly share their critical perspectives, they lose the ability to speak their own truths and use first-hand experience as a lever for change."

And, "Any number of thoughtful, intelligent, provocative voices in education operate behind pseudonyms, to give them the cover they need. But there's something about writing under your own authentic identity, having to own what you write and defend your words from criticism, that's quintessentially democratic, and a mark of honest journalism."

And, "Technology has led us to the point where anyone can publish and anyone can opine. Money makes it possible for the profiteers to have the loudest voices at the same time as public employees are worried about losing their modest jobs. It's no way to pursue bona fide excellence in public education. If that was ever our genuine aim..."

You know, when I started in this profession I had this attribute I thought was ambition. I later named it idealism. Now think of as naivety.

I was going to step into a school, infect others with my powerfully positive attitude, and change some lives. I was going to report what I saw in schools, and enrage others about the inequities that existed there.

I initially began blogging under a pseudonym, "The Reflective Educator." I wasn't particularly careful about hiding my voice off the internet, though, and district officials soon discovered who was writing my blog.

That naivety believed that, of all places, public education would be a sector in which employees would be given the right to honestly express their views, and relate their working conditions. It's public, after all - AND EDUCATION!

But soon after I began doing so, I was threatened with a lawsuit on one occasion, and given a horrendous performance review in another district. This for writing about my opinions on schools and experiences in them.

An administrator I trusted convinced me to put my name on the blog if I really wanted to take a stand. She argued that I would be taken more seriously if I was brave enough to do so.

But attaching my name to this blog has also limited what I feel comfortable writing about. When I was first hired at my current school, the district made clear that they knew about my blog.

"Hi James. How was your first day? Great, great. Glad to have you on board. So....... by the way, we know you have a blog. Just wanted to let you know that we'll be monitoring it"

"Ummm - okay. Thanks for the heads up?"

Don't be fooled, you can't exactly express your opinion as a public school teacher freely. You do need to be careful. But as Ms. Flanagan points out, it's important work. Somebody needs to do it.