To Succeed in Teaching, Think Like a …..

Because the pandemic has exposed the fundamental inequities in our education system, there’s lots of ‘Big Picture’ thinking going on about American public education.  For example, Paul Reville, the former Massachusetts Secretary of Education who now teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, hopes that this pandemic will be education’s “Sputnik moment.” 

I hope that he and others who are looking ahead are right and that we will fundamentally overhaul our approach. Because I have written about this in Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education, I want to focus here on succeeding RIGHT NOW.  Not next year when schools have reopened, but tomorrow and next week, when teachers and parents are struggling to achieve ‘home learning.’

Four pathways to success: 

  1. Think like a librarian
  2. Think like a swimming instructor
  3. Think like a highway engineer
  4. Think like a gardener

Librarians do not have a captive audience. After all, no one is required to attend the library.  To survive and prosper, librarians have had to identify their audiences and find ways to appeal to them, to draw them into their buildings or electronic networks.  For the most part, they’ve succeeded, and without pandering.  

With school buildings shuttered, students do not have to ‘attend’ anything.  They can log on to classes to get credit for ‘being there,’ but there’s no way for the teachers to know who’s paying attention and who’s FaceTiming friends.  And we know that more than 25% of students in Los Angeles, for example, aren’t even bothering to log on. Even parents who are monitoring their children’s efforts cannot be certain that the kids are paying attention.  

So the adults must ask students the librarian’s questions: 

          What can I do to make material this appealing to you? 

          How can I persuade you to invest your energies in this subject? 

          What else are you interested in?  (Because knowing that might allow you to teach this important material at the same time,)

For example, perhaps focusing on one subject for a month at a time might be more appealing than trying to study five subjects every day.  The block schedule of 50-minute periods may work inside school buildings, but that doesn’t mean it can simply transfer to the home.  What if we compressed the semester of American history into one month, American literature into another month, and so on? Would a series of deep dives be more engaging?  For openers, try asking the students.

Swimming instructors are measured by results. If wannabe swimmers don’t learn to swim, the instructor cannot claim, “I taught them effectively, so it’s not my fault that they cannot swim.”  No, he or she has to find new ways to teach swimming, because the instructor owns the failure.  In my experience, many teachers already think the way competent swimming instructors do. But not enough!  Every teacher and parent has to live by the mantra, “If they’re not learning, then I am not teaching.”   

And I don’t mean waiting around for bubble test results at the end of the year (or later).  Teachers need to assess frequently, take a clear-headed look at the results, and adapt accordingly. That means asking for help.  That also means that leadership must abandon the all-too-prevalent “Gotcha” attitude toward teachers. The new thinking has to be: “Assess to improve,” and not “Test to punish.”

Highway engineers–the men and women who design our roads and streets–have one important goal in mind: to get us safely from Point A to Point B.  Because their data and their own life experience tells them that drivers’ attention wanders and cars sometimes stray and weave, highway engineers build roads whose lanes are about one-third wider than the cars that travel on them.  Without that extra room for predictable error, we’d have many more highway accidents. Instead, nearly all of us arrive at our destinations safely.

Apply that to teaching and learning, and we will have an education system that treats failure as nothing more than an opportunity to try again.  Let me trot out the story of WD-40 one more time. If the chemical engineers who developed that ubiquitous product had been penalized for failing, work would have stopped after their first try, which they conveniently labelled “WD-1.”  Instead, they tried and failed 38 more times before hitting on a formula that worked!

Plan your teaching with that in mind. Don’t take it personally when a student doesn’t get it the first time, or the fifth. Explore the reasoning behind the error, but not punitively. Celebrate wherever possible.

Gardeners understand that what they are involved in is a work in progress.  And works in progress take time, faith, work, and love. The last thing a gardener would ever do is pull up the emerging plant or flower by the roots to see if it’s growing.  Nurturing is essential. That’s true whether or not schools are open.  

Gardeners know that roses demand one kind of attention, which is different from what green beans, tomatoes, and hydrangeas require.  “One size fits all’ doesn’t apply to gardening or to teaching and learning. The educational equivalent of the gardener’s mind are the questions, “How is this child smart, what is she interested in, and what can I do to nurture her interests?”  

What’s more, gardeners don’t hover over their seedlings; they pay the appropriate amount of attention and then walk away, leaving nature, the sun, the earth, and the seeds to do the work of growing.  

To be like gardeners, teachers and parents cannot hover; they cannot expect students to be ‘on task’ all the time.  In fact, in these awful times, play and free time have never been more important.

Those are suggestions for successful teaching and learning now.  Looking down the road, here are three thoughts about how the system must be changed:

  1. Most likely to succeed are those school districts that have been encouraging teachers to work together and have given them the time to watch each other teach and to grow professionally in other ways.  Districts that have empowered teachers to use technology for exploration and production are better suited to today’s new reality.
  2. Least likely to succeed are districts that either are technology-poor or habitually use technology for control (counting and measuring) rather than exploration and production.
  3. The current model of teaching in most American public schools is one of ‘Crowd Control,’ and not teaching and learning.  Simply put, many teachers are assigned too many students for them to be able to help more than a handful. Sadly, things haven’t changed all that much from when I taught high school English in the mid-60’s. Back then, I was responsible for five classes of roughly 25 students each, a total of 125 high school 10th, 11th, and 12th graders.  Because I believed that students needed to write and rewrite regularly, I was reading and correcting 250 short (1 page, written in class) papers every week. I could handle this because I was 22 and fresh out of college. However, I know now that I couldn’t have kept that up for long. In fact, I left teaching for graduate school after two years–two wonderful but exhausting years.


6 thoughts on “To Succeed in Teaching, Think Like a …..

  1. Thoughtful commentary on thinking broadly, doing things differently, and taking responsibilty for learning and engagment. Thanks John.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an opportunity for educators and parents to step back and take a good hard look at education. Today’s system of education was never designed to serve all students. In fact it is not designed to serve any students.

    In this article, John, you indicate that the 50 minute block period will not be good when children are at home. Allow me to expand on that. It is also not good for students in the school building. Think about how parents, for example, have the freedom to take their children into the community, to design the lesson around the childs reality. This could be done in the school building by teachers without the constraints of a 50 minute period. This is as I write in all of my books, especially my most recent “Stop Politically Driven Education”.

    When I was administrator of my innovative school in Milwaukee WI, The Milwaukee Village School, A team of teachers came to me and asked to spend the week on science. The only problem was I was concerned why they felt they had to ask. At the beginning of the year I told them it was their class, they are in charge. And they could blend their “minutes” any way they wanted.

    Those teachers took their students to Lake Michigan to test the water. And then contacted schools around the Great Lakes and compared notes. This began a great lesson, not in 50 minute segments but in extended time frames allowing teachers to do activities that inspire the students.

    The focus at home and at school must also shift from who’s going to win and get the “A” to who is going to learn and what they are going to learn. At home and at school rather than give a fake letter grade, document what learning the child has demonstrated, in the way they do it best. It is important to know what they have learned and where they go from there, and a letter grade tells NOTHING about their skills.

    At home as well as when students return to school, students must learn to analyze, assess, explore, research and debate issues to come up with their answers to questions that affect their future. Not simply regurgitate the answers the teacher or parent tell them. Make their answers their own. Remember, students open or close their minds when THEY decide not when we tell them. That’s why, with student input, the lessons to be learned must appeal to them, excite them, interest them.

    It is important not only that we get creative when the children are at home focusing on John’s pathway to success, but also educators must be ready when students return to the building. When students return, educators will have no idea what level the students are on in any of the areas of study. The big test is out of date and a new one will take three to four months to return the information to the teachers. Here are some suggestions for their return:

    To begin, educators must make every effort to gather information about every student:

    1. Previous teachers should write down the goals of the individual students, which ones were successful and which weren’t.

    2. A small pretest in reading and math should be given at the classroom level to be compared with the previous teachers information. A post test will follow at the semester.

    3. Simple evaluations should be given on every academic area including everything from science to music class. These evaluations must not be in test form but be demonstrations of learning to assure we understand what the child can do. i.e. science project

    3. It is important to recognize that the big standardized test will be outdated and is too slow to get back to the teachers. Not to mention that it only a snap shot in time and by itself is fundamentally useless. It should be discarded completely because educators have a better way!

    Having gathered this information, teachers should:

    1 Work with parents and other educators to develop new individual goals that are realistic for their pathway to success in their community and beyond. This must be done at the teacher level because they know the children.

    2. MAP (My Action Plan) should be developed by that team using the goals that will lead to students individual success without regard for obsolete grade levels. And teams must be able to divide their time as they see fit.

    3. This MAP will then be used as an assessment tool replacing completely letter grades with a statement of goals achieved, not achieved and details about the objectives leading to the goals. Letter grades will become moot as students skills and abilities will be all over the board. Eliminate them in lieu of level statements.

    4. Pass and fail must be put on pause as a means of determining grade levels. Immediate support must be avaqilable for those students who are learning slower even if we have to wait for them while it will also be available for advanced students so they are not held behind.

    5. Failure will still exist however with a new philosophy. Failure will now become a part of the learning process. In life we fail all the time, that’s how we learn. Now in school, we will use failure to reteach immediately so as to allow no one to be left behind. Being first and being last will be of no significance.

    6. Differentiated instruction is of utmost importance. There are many ways to do this and my bet is that most teachers are on top of this already. They just need to be given a chance. Of course this needs small class size. Without small class size it might be a good time to extend the time off until that is achieved!

    7. Universities will have a tough time trying to determine who will be accepted at their institution. To resolve this, the MAP can be maintained through the educational years of the student, done as a portfolio and handed to the University personnel as evidence of success.

    8. Develop thematic units that begin and end when the units are completed and assessed, not based on a timeline. These units will allow for demonstrations of learning through Exhibitions and experience developed in the community.

    Someday, hopefully, students will return the school with the knowledge that they have learned valuable information at home. And educators can begin a new school year with the knowledge that there were better ways to educate children than the 50 minute chalk talk.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s