Sunday, October 17, 2010

Look Deeper, Listen and Watch More Intently, Collaborate and Learn

There are so many people who seem to focus on school reform these days. Some of us are growing weary of those who take a deficit view of the situation and make major non-educated assumptions about what learning and teaching is or should be. Many of those who are speaking the loudest have very little direct contact with the day-to-day lives of teachers and students in schools. And yet, people are listening and believing that the state of student learning is hopeless and that education in our country needs a complete makeover with intricate ways of monitoring and measuring.

I worry that there are reformers out there that set their sights right over the tops of the our students’ heads. One might wonder if children actually live and learn in our current school communities. Too much focus is placed on scores, data, and deficit thinking. Imagine gazing across a beautiful ocean and never thinking about what wonders lie beneath. What could we discover just below the surface and what wonders would we find if our gaze had the depth to look beyond the surface? We need to put our students back into our line of vision and take the time to know and respond to them as unique learners. There are many teachers and schools who value the learning lives of students. But for others our children seem to be lost in the crowd. They seemed to be swallowed up by the negative perspectives of those who think they know what our schools need.

We only need to walk through the halls of our schools to know that children need to know someone cares about them, that there are people who believe in their potential and that learning is about inquiry, discovery and passion. Teachers are engaging students in thoughtful inquiry and giving them opportunities to develop knowledge as well as the behaviors, skills and attitudes they will need for the future. However, these are not easily measured so many are blinded by the data produced when we only measure those things that can easily be measured. Wasn’t it Albert Einstein who said, “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Let’s think about what we value. Stamina, curiosity, persistence, choice, collaboration and passion are all important to me. I don’t really care about measuring them. I care about making sure we are giving students opportunities to learn them successfully. Let’s prepare them to be independent, passion-driven learners. Let’s create learning environments where all students can learn.

Maybe I’m expecting too much. Some folks seem to be deaf to the voices of our children. Positive school reform should begin with less talking and more listening, especially to the symphony of wisdom that comes from our students. Every child’s voice has power and wisdom. Let’s all be very quiet and listen to our children and then act on what they tell us about their learning. Let’s be positive and hopeful about our children’s future.

photo via Flicker by Pink Sherbert Photography

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Teach Wisely, Teach Well

This article was first posted at Dangerously Irrelevant on September 21, 2010

The Current Landscape

These are challenging times in the current landscape of learning and teaching. The standards movement is pressing upon us and students and teachers are being measured in the narrowest of ways. I know that any and every measurement can tell me something about a child and I fear that focusing on any one measurement can be dangerous. The biggest mistake we can make is to be single-minded. Concentrating on a standardized score or focusing on only the standards that we are required to teach will not allow us the opportunity to create a variety of rich, interactive, collaborative and thoughtful experiences that enrich learning and teaching.

In the worst situations, it’s not the data that is problematic but how the data is interpreted, generalized, and misused to make educational decisions. I think that all measurements can be helpful in creating a clear and precise profile of a learner. I tend to lean toward more authentic measurements and what they tell me about students. However, every piece of data is a piece of the puzzle. What the results can do is help to clarify the most effective instruction and be responsive to each student’s needs. Some knowledge and skills are easily measured. Some are not. When it comes right down to it, a good teacher knows her students well and teaches in response to what she knows about the individual child.

I worry that we look at standards the way we narrow a Google map search on. We can narrow in on the smallest of detail. But knowing the big picture is also important. We can consider standards, measurements and data and completely lose sight of the bigger picture. Each educational measure we put in place is a part of the whole and we must not forget that. What does a standard or a test score tell us about a student’s persistence or level of self-efficacy? How can we support students by giving them the skills they need for more critical thinking, inquiry and thoughtful pursuits.

What Next?

Whether or not we agree with standards and accountability, it is an immense part of the learning landscape. So we need to help others understand its place in the big picture.

The most important question we can ask when we are presented with any kind of measurement of progress is to ask “What next?” How will we formulate learning experiences that will move each child forward. What will we focus on? What are the strengths of the child and how can we teach from those strengths instead of looking at the deficits?

Causations for low and even high performance are being generalized. Some educators are guessing why students perform the way they do and linking to practices that may not have a positive impact on student learning. In some cases, we are instituting programs and practices that detour us from focusing on 21st century skills. If anything the standards and data-driven accountability fuel the need to speak out, to do what is right for kids, to broaden our perspective on what counts as learning.


· Stay the course and make decisions based on what’s right for kids

· Embrace 21st century learning

· Use measurement results to teach from a child’s strengths

· Be political. Let your thoughts be heard.

While it’s the most challenging time in education, it is also the most exciting. We are increasing the potential for our students to be active and participatory learners. We are encouraging them to build a learning community both locally and globally that will help them reach success. We cannot abandon our efforts to give our students what they will need to help them be successful in learning and life.

Karen Szymusiak is principal of Glacier Ridge Elementary in Dublin, Ohio. She can be found online at Karen has coauthored Beyond Leveled Books, Still Learning to Read, and Day to Day Assessment in the Reading Workshop. Her favorite moments are those spent with children. She says, "If we really listen to children, they tell us all there is to know about teaching wisely and well."