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Posted by on in School Culture
Like many jobs in the world, particularly those that deal with humans, teaching requires focus on both forests and trees.

A teacher faces questions like these in the classroom:

What body of information do I need to convey to my students in a deep and integrated manner that best fits their pedagogical requirements and will most help them take their place as fully-actualized adults in the world?

What instructional techniques can best be used with this particular set of content-based objectives that also blend with and respect the cultural and personal backgrounds of my students while maintaining a whole child approach that helps achieve my global objectives?

But these questions are also part of the classroom world:

What's the most efficient way to get these test papers passed back?

Do I have enough copies of this worksheet?

Can I get Chris to stop jabbing Pat with a pencil?

You can't have one without the other. Focusing on the broad and deep concerns of education is like loving someone deeply and fully and never doing anything about it but sitting in your room and writing angsty poems. A broad vision without an action plan gets nothing done, achieves nothing for the students. But focus too intently on the nuts and bolts and you end up with a technician who completes tasks efficiently, even though the tasks have no real useful purpose behind them. You need a vision of how to get through the next year, and a plan for how to get through the next forty minutes.

Educational amateurs and neophytes often suffer from this balance problem. Beginning teachers may enter the classroom with Big Dreams about Touching the Future and Shaping Young Minds, but with no idea of how to get twenty-five teenagers to keep watching while the teacher writes on the board (chalk, white or smart). I've also seen new teachers arrive with stacks of unit plans and worksheets, ready to deploy them while moving briskly through the textbook, but with no idea of why they're doing any of it except that it's their idea of what teachers do. Each creates their own problems-- one leads to students who ask "What the heck are we doing?" while the other prompts students to ask "Why the heck are we doing this?" And the teacher has no answer, and the class sinks further and further into the weeds.

The educational amateurs who push the reformy agenda have similar issues.

On the one hand we have visionaries who offer broad vague ideas, like we will lift up teachers so that they will raise expectations of students, who will rise and succeed, emerging from school well-educated and primed to succeed while also closing the achievement gap. All of which is pretty, but completely avoids the question of how, exactly, this will work. You are face to face in a classroom with a student who doesn't understand what the first paragraph of "Call of the Wild" says-- exactly how will you Higher Expect him into understanding. And you're doing it in a room with thirty other students, some of which haven't eaten in twenty-four hours, and the walls in the room are crumbling, and you don't have enough copies of the book, so you're looking at a projection of it on the stained and peeling wall in a neighborhood historically riven by all the stress that comes with being on the wrong side of poverty and systemic racism. What exactly will you do in the next fifteen minutes? Visionaries don't have an answer. They just want you to keep your eyes on those higher expectations and big dreams etc etc etc. and when anyone brings up the "How do we spend the next forty minutes" question, visionaries level the accusation that folks lack vision and keep making excuses.

On the other hand, we have the technicians. These reformsters are excited because technology answers all the questions about how to manage tests and practice and worksheets and all the record-keeping. They know exactly what you're going to do for the next forty minutes-- have students log on to their program and pull up the next module of materials that have been selected by the AI and answer questions as the software process those answers so that you can see the data crunched on the monitor on your desk. Technicians are so excited about the efficiency and elegance of this system that they forget to ask if any of it actually is a good way to serve the educational needs of the students. They are so excited about the pipeline they've built that they never stop to consider that the solid, unyielding shape of that pipeline completely dictates what can pass through that pipeline, allowing curricular and pedagogical decisions to simply happen as a side-effect of the technical delivery system.

Visionaries build gorgeous golden imaginary productions without any means of transporting them into the world. Technicians build efficient systems for delivering things that don't do anyone any good.

Teaming them up is not enough. They will fight. They will argue, and they will ultimately produce something that includes the worst of both worlds.

No, an actual teacher has to have both a vision and an understanding of how to make it real. A teacher must always balance a broad, deep view, and a detailed, granular one. A teacher must see forests and trees, as well as leaves and bark and full-scale ecosystems. When we tell reformsters that they should talk to actual classroom teachers, it's invariably a reaction to their lack of a full scale of sight, their childlike belief that if you just concentrate really hard on the forest, the trees will take care of themselves-- or vice versa.

Teaching is by no means the only profession where this sort of many-scales issue exists. In most professions, part of the training and the wisdom of experience is based on learning to see forests and trees and how they fit together. But in every other profession, it is widely understood that it takes a professional to see All That. It is in teaching that powerful amateurs continue to believe that since they once camped in a forest or they have this one tree they know really well, that makes them knowledgeable to act like a professional educator (and in some cases, qualified to wave a giant chainsaw around with abandon).

Like any metaphor, this one this limitations, and not everyone fits inside. But we'll wait for another day to discuss the people who want to clear cut the forest and replace the trees with condos.

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Posted by on in Early Childhood

frustrated student

Pre-K is the growth sector of the privatized school industry. There's no existing institutional structure to sweep aside, and there's near-universal agreement that a good Pre-K foundation is important for all future success, coupled with research indicating that many of our children are already behind on the first day of kindergarten.

Unfortunately, "good Pre-K foundation" is a phrase that has been interpreted in some not-very-helpful ways by not-very-clever people with a not-very-deep understanding of what is developmentally appropriate for a four-year-old. Google "kindergarten is the new first grade" and you get over 5,000 results. Because some folks are just certain that what three- and four-year-olds need is academic preparation, direct instruction, and, of course, tests that let us measure the outcomes.

The research on the effectiveness is a huge muddy mess (made more muddy by the continued absence of a reliable and meaningful measure of school effectiveness in general). Some of the research has been rather alarmingly headline-generating, like the Stanford study that suggests that delayed kindergarten enrollment reduces the possibility of developing ADHD.

Now the folks at Defending the Early Years have published a short piece by Lilian Katz that provides a useful framework for explaining and understanding why some approaches to early childhood education are not useful.

Lilian Katz is professor emerita of early childhood education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as well as principal investigator for the Illinois Early Learning Project. Her study of and advocacy for early childhood education is extensive and spirited.

"Lively Minds: Distinctions between academic versus intellectual goals for young children" is a four page report with one page of cover and another one of endnotes-- so we can cut to the chase pretty quickly and easy. I've read it, but you should probably go ahead and read it, too.

First, Katz establishes what the goal for early childhood ed must be beyond a mix of free play and formal instruction:

In the early years, another major component of education (indeed for all age groups) must be to provide a wide range of experiences, opportunities, resources and contexts that will provoke, stimulate, and support children's innate intellectual disposition.

And then, as the title suggests. Katz distinguishes between academic and intellectual goals.

Academic goals are centered on "mastery of small discrete elements" usually connected to reading; these skills are subject to worksheets, drill, and other exercises aimed at literacy goals. "The items learned and practiced have correct answers, rely heavily on memorization, the application of formulae versus understanding, and consist largely of giving the teacher the correct answers that the children know she wants." So all the sit in your desk, do the tasks assigned, perform behaviors that please the teacher.

Intellectual goals "are those that address the life of the mind in its fullest sense (e.g. reasoning, predicting, analyzing, questioning, etc.) including a range of aesthetic and moral sensibilities."  This is about children making sense out of the world and pursuing their own curiosity.  Asking questions. Figuring it out. Analyzing and understanding ideas. This is about learning how to be fully human, how to be in the world.

Katz is not arguing that academics have no place in the early ed classroom. But she quickly and succinctly puts them in their proper place.

An appropriate curriculum in the early years is one that includes the encouragement and motivation of the children to seek mastery of basic academic skills, e.g. beginning writing skills, in the service of their intellectual pursuits.

I've talked about this for years-- one of the major problems of the modern reformy era is that it turns schools upside down. Students are made to serve the school instead of the other way around. Students must master skills and properly perform on tests because the school needs them to produce the "outcomes" that will allow the school to survive. Katz reminds us that it's supposed to be the other way around-- that the school serves the student by providing them with skills that the student can use to become her best, truest self and to carve out a place in the world. The purpose of teaching students this stuff is not so the student can perform for the school's benefit, but so that the skill and knowledge can benefit the student by helping the student create a life.

Katz follows up with a couple of other important points.

First, while it may be true thatstudents from poor backgrounds may lack early exposure to certain academic skills, it does not follow that "they lack the basic intellectual dispositions such as to make sense of experience, to analyze, hypothesize, predict." Even if they haven't been read to at home, Katz says, it is still reasonable and helpful to assume "that they too usually have lively minds."

Second-- well, second is a really a two-fer. Intellectual disposition can be damaged by "excessive and premature formal instruction," but it's not going to be strengthened by mindless or banal activities (she cites a year-long sharing time built around teddy bears). Do meaningful stuff. Or as we like to say in my family, children may be young, but they aren't dopes. They're just tiny human with fewer skills and less live experience.

Katz next looks at short- and long-term effects of early academic instruction. She notes that while there is research to support the notion that early brain stimulation is good for early brain development, there is no real reason to believe that academic instruction qualifies as brain stimulation. The differences that show up in research about the long-term effects of early education seem to Katz to be linked to what kind of instruction we're talking about.

Short term "benefits" can be shown from formal instruction aka basic test prep; more test prep = better test results-- oops, I mean, of course, "increased student achievement." So short term this sort of crap-- oops, I mean, this instructional model-- looks like it's working, but in the long term, not so much. In other words, the damage isn't evident till later.

Also-- and this was a surprise-- it appears that early formal instruction is in the long run more damaging to boys than to girls. This could be neurological (girls brains grow faster) or social (girls are more often taught to be compliant and passive). We don't really know yet.

Katz' recommendation is brief and clear:

Early childhood curriculum and teaching methods are likely to be best when they address children's lively minds so that they are quite frequently fully intellectually engaged.

Katz makes a lot of sense, and while she's a specialist in her particular field, I can't help noticing that much of what she says here about four-year-olds also applies to the sixteen-year-olds that enter my classroom every day.

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Posted by on in Professional Development

rainbow unicorn

The romantic notion has always been there, and plenty of teachers feed into it-- some people are just born teachers.

But the belief in born teachers has two seriously destructive side effects, one of which is becoming obvious and the other, perhaps less so.


If teachers are born and not made, then teacher certification programs are a waste of time. A smart person with an ivy league degree and five weeks of training could be a teacher, right? The belief also manifests in the argument that we should open the teaching profession to all sorts of alternative certification programs because that guy working as a civil engineer or that woman working as a computer programmer-- it could be that they are just born teachers who need the chance to put their God-given gift to work.

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Posted by on in Teaching Strategies

messy desk

First, we need to understand that the state of writing instruction has never been great.

If you are of a Certain Age (say, mine) you may recall a type of writing instruction that we could call the Lego Building Approach. In this method, students are first taught to construct sentences. Then they are taught how to arrange a certain number of sentences into a paragraph. Finally, they are taught to assemble those paragraphs into full essays.

This is junk. It assumes that the basic building block of a piece of writing is a sentence. No-- the basic building block of a piece of writing is an idea. To try to say something without having any idea what you want to say is a fool's errand.

Not that the Lego Building Approach should feel bad for being junk. The instructional writing landscape is littered with junk, clogged with junk, sometimes obscured by the broad shadow of towering junk. And on almost-weekly basis, folks try to sort out what the junk is and how best to clear it away.

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Posted by on in School Culture

Our local newspaper runs a "22 years ago today" item most days, a quick snapshot of what people were up to 22, 44 and 66 years ago. This morning I picked up the paper and saw a name I think about every year.

The student was in my class, long long ago. He was what we like to call an "at risk" student, which is such a professional term to use, when the human reality of at risk students is not so clinical. He was a student who could have gone either way-- having the ability and potential to make a stable and happy life for himself, but in circumstances that could easily push him in other directions. Watching an at risk student is like watching a dancer walking along the edge of a knife in a stiff wind, to one side fields of clover and to the other side, a long plunge into darkness.

I won't tell you that this student had the heartwarming charm of a television-ready at risk kid. He was not easy to like, abrasive and with a hair-trigger, not inclined to be kind to his peers. But not stupid, and able to make connections to people that he considered worth his time. I don't remember having to drag and carry him through my class. I didn't particularly build a strong connection with him, but he was never as completely openly defiant for me as he was in other classes. Win, I guess? He had the tools.

But life circumstances were on his side. I don't remember where his mother was, and he was briefly homeless after a huge fight with his father. The subject of the fight? His father refused to his newest batch of drugs with the son.

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