How and Why > What

My What is about to enter adulthood. I have been nurturing What since the turn of the century, and it is about to turn 18. My What has grown from a tiny shelf of textbooks and flimsy lesson plans into a repository of worksheets, unit plans, and assignments. For the longest time, I thought What was the thing that would engage learners and make learning memorable and meaningful. Because of this, I have long shielded it away from prying eyes. And to be fair, my What has kept most students entertained and engaged over the years (AKA compliant). When I first started in the classroom, I believed this to be the measure of a job well done. But I was wrong.

I have come to realise that relying exclusively on What is akin to sailing a boat on a flat sea without wind or wave. Fine for staying afloat and keeping safe, but these conditions don’t allow anyone to travel far. A teacher’s real impact lies in their How and Why. As Monte Syrie notes, teaching must be more than a transaction of delivering content to kids. Content is everywhere from textbooks and television to the mighty Google machine. If education is merely reduced to a content delivery system, then teachers could, and should, be replaced with hardware, online lectures, VR resources, and artificial intelligence learning programs. But great teaching isn’t about content; it’s about relationships, connections, trust, and skill.

“The artistry of teaching comes in the how.” — George Couros

Earlier this year, the Australian network SBS featured a series called Testing Teachers that followed the lives of 6 new teachers thrown into educationally disadvantaged schools. Participants were selected as part of a Teach for Australia program modelled after similar programs in the USA and the UK. While each associate teacher had completed a bachelor degree with a high credit average in their given field of expertise, usually STEM subjects, they were only given 13 weeks training, seven weeks online and six weeks face to face, before commencing an 80% teaching load at their new schools. Each participant was given on-the-job mentoring for the two year duration of their placement. A noble cause, brave participants, but the show was excruciating to watch at times.

As Dan Haesler noted, “I’m not sure the government would consider fast-tracking doctors into hard-to-staff hospitals by giving them a 6-week training course as Teach for Australia does for university graduates to get them into the schools that no-one wants to work in.” Filling hard-to-staff schools with inexperienced teachers who have extensive subject matter knowledge, but little pedagogical content is a woefully inadequate response to a significant problem. My heart sunk watching most of the candidates get thrown under the bus, as it seemed most arrived at their respective schools expecting compliance where little would be offered. These disadvantaged schools require and deserve creative, empowering, innovative and highly skilled teachers, not just enthusiastic, highly knowledgeable candidates who happen to be available. I would argue that middling, teacher directed, content-driven learning was the last thing most of these students needed. Which leaves me to wonder, are these types of programs good for the students involved? Teaching For Australia rightfully identifies the need for an injection of high-quality teachers in schools with educationally disadvantaged students, but that seems to run counter to the reality of the TFA program.

My first few years working in low socioeconomic status schools, even as a mature-aged graduate teacher, were mostly a case of survival on a day-to-day basis. It was stressful, exhausting, and came with an enormous learning curve. And that was on the back of a four-year bachelor degree in education. I can’t imagine being confronted each day with a film crew to document my every movement, particularly after having just six weeks of face-to-face pedagogical training. I highly recommend watching this series if it’s available to you, if only as a brutal reminder that having extensive subject knowledge alone does not a great teacher make.

2017 — Year of the Dumpster Fire*

I’ll remember 2017 as the year I dragged all of my What, How and Why out onto the front lawn, critically examined it, determined what was worth keeping then put the rest in a dumpster and set it on fire.

This year I committed to investigating and solving some issues that had troubled me for years. I’m not a small shift kind of guy. I like change, and if something needs fixing, I say go big or go home. I set out to remedy the toll that assessing and grading were taking on my time and my family. The lack of ownership that students were taking for their learning. The superficial nature of many learning units and projects I was rolling over each year. The lack of success some hard-working students were achieving because of my assessment practices. The list goes on, and while I haven’t found all the answers I’m searching for, I made a pretty decent dent and two ideas in particular radically altered my How and Why.

This year I stopped grading and moved all assessment back into the classroom on the back of articles by Arthur Chiaravalli and Caitlin Tucker. I had no idea that by doing less, I could give my students far more. It seemed counterintuitive, but it worked. Despite the fact that I was investing increasing amounts of time measuring and assessing student learning, I was seeing little return on the investment I was making. I was burning myself out by doing too much, particularly out of school hours. A recent Mark Sonnemann post discusses the impossible standards teachers hold themselves to and the drive to do more and more:

“For most of us, the first instinct is to overwork. We believe that if we only spent more time preparing, if we came in on weekends, if we became even more involved in extra-curriculars, if we ran homework clubs or created online communities to support students, if we read more, if we learned the new tech, if — if — if, that we would be able to meet the needs. It is possible, if we were just smarter, and more efficient, and more targeted, to pass the test.”

So rather than trying to manage the stress and time pressure, I removed it. An oft-used quote attributed to Kerry Doyle is “the person doing the assessing is the person doing the learning”, so I got out of the way. In his article, Arthur Chiaravalli explains how he modified Dr Todd Finley’s “Letter to Class” method whereby a critical mass of student work is scanned, and strengths and weaknesses are recorded. Students are then asked to examine, revise and possibly resubmit their unmarked work based on the feedback provided in the class letter. This was a game changer for me. I’d never considered NOT giving individual feedback, but it is a powerful tool. Arming students with the skills to confidently self and peer-assess takes time, and despite initially disliking this shift, the majority of our class reported that doing their own marking had a significant impact on their understanding.

The greatest gift that adopting these changes has given me is time. Time to read, reflect, write, plan, communicate with stakeholders, and develop my own skills. I’ve invested heavily in my Why and How which has had a positive knock-on effect for students. Most importantly, it has given me time to be Dad for my young family without the nagging, guilt-ridden feeling that I should be assessing and grading the never-ending flow of student work.

*A great many blackline masters were harmed in the making of this blog post.

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