The Worst Words in Education

01/24/2011
Golden Gloves Prelim Bouts
Image by kate.gardiner via Flickr

“Life is full of harsh realities. And I want as a parent to give my kids the ability to navigate thru life.”

Those are the worst words in education.

They are the worst words because they are used to justify cruelty to children.

What kind of cruelty?

Competition, for one.

I’m not talking about football games, elections for class president or the selection of the prom king and queen.

I’m talking about academic competition, things like spelling bees and other class-wide contests.

This afternoon, before the NFL playoffs, I watched a three-part video in which Rick Lavoie discusses why competitive learning is so problematic, and why it is a bad way to motivate students.

According to Lavoie, there is a major difference between the competition in school and competition elsewhere.  In school we are forced to compete. In life we only compete when we want to.

“The only person motivated by competition is the person who thinks there’s a chance of winning.”

“We do our best work when we compete against ourselves, not against others.”

I learned this in fifth grade.

I loved fifth grade. I’ve written about my experiences in Mrs. Lorenz’s class before.

In a response to that post my friend Mary Beth Hertz commented:  “It seems a common thread is that we remember the teachers who took their time to find out who we were and to treat us as people. We also seem to remember the teachers who were a little out of the box.”

Mrs. Lorenz wasn’t always out of the box and one event in her class came back to me as I watched the LaVoie video.

We had been studying simple machines in science. It was the third of fourth unit of our science study and Mrs. Lorenz decided that instead of giving us a midterm exam, she would have a science bee.

Example of one of the 5 simple machines: Screw

Image via Wikipedia

We were divided into two teams according to some criteria or another. Each team had a mix of students from the different levels of ability in the classroom. Whenever a team member answered a question the questioner could challenge the answer. When an answer was challenged, Mrs. Lorenz would render judgment. An incorrect answer would get the answering student eliminated. Failing to challenge an incorrect answer would get both students eliminated. A correct answer would allow the students to remain in the game and the answerer would get to ask a question of the next member of the opposite team.

It sounds very complicated, but we all understood how it worked. We flipped a coin to see which team would get to ask the first question.

The game progressed and each team lost a few players in the first round, and more in the second and third passes through the remaining students. It came down to two students, one of the girls in the class and me.

I asked her a question and she got it right. She asked me to name the five simple machines. I named six and she was smiling broadly as she challenged my answer. If I were wrong she would win. If I were correct, I would win.

Mrs. Lorenz took her time making her judgment. The tension in the room grew.

She looked at me then turned to the girl and told her I was correct.

My teammates were excitedly congratulating me but I was watching the girl’s face and it looked like she was going to cry. Having me lose meant that much to her. I was very upset by the whole situation but did not really understand why.

I have a better idea now. What happened that day more than 45 years ago was very cruel to that girl, to our teammates and to me.

That girl was very smart, she was probably a better student than I was, but she needed to defeat me to feel that way. Because she didn’t, she was ready to cry.

Her teammates felt like losers and my teammates felt like winners. Neither feeling was accurate.

We moved the next year and I have no idea what happened to that girl, but I never took part in a class competition again. If I were forced to, I’d deliberately lose in the first round.

My being smart or not, my achieving or not, has nothing to do with anyone else’s work, only my own.  Whether I choose to compete or not has nothing to do with anyone else. It is my decision and no one can make me compete if I don’t want to.

It seems the realities of school are considerably harsher than those of life. That is cruelty. If we really want school to prepare children for the realities of life, competition should operate the same way in school and out.

Let’s end mandatory competition.

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What Grade Would You Give This? Why?

01/23/2011
Etruscan A.
Image via Wikipedia

As a student I never liked the idea of grades because they never told the right story about my effort (or lack of it), my abilities (or lack of them) or whether I was being challenged enough.

Was that B because I couldn’t do A-level work or because I was not interested enough to do so, or because the assignment was too easy and did not require my full attention or effort?.

As a parent, I don’t like grades because they don’t tell me anything I don’t already know about my son: he’s a great reader and writer who loves history but struggles with math and the whole concept of homework. (except for the math part he is a lot like me as a student).

As a teacher, I don’t like grades because they do not represent a standardized scale of measurement. An inch is an inch and a mile is a mile, but what the hell is a B-minus? Is my b-minus the same as the teacher in the next room’s, in the next school’s? What is the distinction between a B and a C, and does that C I might give mean the work was too challenging for that student or that I could not engage her enough to get her to work hard. Does that B represent an otherwise A student who didn’t try or an otherwise D student who got inspired and worked his tail off.

I also don’t like grades because I see my students concerned more with what grade they might get than with what they might learn in pursuit of that grade.

In addition to teaching in a middle school, I teach at a college, SUNY/Empire State College, that for most of its existence did not give letter grades.

We give them now because graduate schools demand it, but we continue the process of writing narratives about a student’s learning, how that learning was accomplished and how it was demonstrated.

I graduated from this college and my transcript is about a half-inch thick (no wonder grad schools don’t like them), but it gives the best description of me as a learner I have ever seen.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could give that kind of description to all students and their parents? What would it take to make that happen?

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Learning a Universal Language

01/20/2011
Angry Talk (Comic Style)
Image via Wikipedia

I just learned a new language.

I used to run a British pub in New York City where we used to joke that we spoke about a dozen languages: American English, British English, Irish English, Australian English, Singapore English, Nigerian English, Indian English, Scottish English, Welsh English, South African English, Canadian English and Spanish.

I’m not yet fluent in my new language, but I’m learning it very quickly, probably because I am exposed to it so frequently.

New York City is the world’s most linguistically diverse place and this language is all around here, but I bet it is in your town, too. It’s probably in your school, maybe even in your classroom.

It was in my library today.

What language is so pervasive that it is common in New York City and Little Rock, Arkansas; in Omaha, Nebraska, in Adelaide, Australia and anywhere else there are enough people to have a middle or high school?

The language of anger.

Angry Sphynx
Image via Wikipedia

Anger a language? You bet!

Everything anyone does, wears, doesn’t do or doesn’t wear is a form of communication, a language.

Today some kids communicated by pulling a whole bunch of books off the shelves of my library and scattering them around the room. I wasn’t there at the time, but when I came back I understood their language right away.

Those kids were speaking anger, much more a universal language than Esperanto could ever be.

What were those kids angry about? I can only guess; being in school when they don’t want to be, being in the library with a rookie teacher from a different academy (we have seven in our school) who was covering the class for an absent colleague; and, likely, some stuff happening at home or elsewhere outside of school.

Everyone connected with school these days seems to have plenty to be angry about.

Teachers are angry about budget cuts, standardized tests, and people with no educational background criticizing their job performance and telling them how to do their jobs better.

Principals are angry that their jobs depend on raising test scores for all, but raising them for the most challenging students at a faster rate despite uncontrollable external factors including poverty and budget cuts.

Students are angry because their school building looks and feels like a prison, compliance is the response expected, and everyone they come into contact with in school is focused on short-term results.

By the way, many experts say the focus on short-term profit making was one of the major factors behind the recent economic collapse. If that is true, the current focus on short-term educational success will likely lead to a collapse in our field, too.

It’s just one more thing to be angry about.

Anger Is the Swiss Army Knife of Emotions T-shirt
Image by Mike Monteiro via Flickr

Or is that the opportunity we’ve all be looking for to make some real changes in how school is done?

That’s what anger is, an opportunity to make changes.

It is not easy to change things even slightly, much less radically, when everyone’s happy.

But when everyone is angry the door is wide open.

The question is, will we take advantage of the anger or spend our energy trying to repress it?

I’m angry about the probable answer to that.

You should be, too.

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Bad Teachers Cause Student Failure? Great Doctors Have Patients Who Die.

01/16/2011
Heart
Image via Wikipedia

In discussions of the reasons for using value-added data to assess teacher effectiveness the following argument for firing teachers comes up a lot: “If a heart surgeon fails at his job, she/he will no longer retain that job.”

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

Who in his right mind would want an incompetent heart surgeon? Probably the same people who would want an incompetent teacher.

But there is a serious problem with this argument: even the best heart surgeons have patients who die.

The best heart surgeons have patients who die for most of the same reasons that patients of less stellar heart surgeons die; and, oddly enough, they are many of the same reasons that students fail, even some students who are taught by really, really good teachers.

It is really very simple and can be explained in three words: uncontrollable external factors.

Lit cigarette
Image via Wikipedia

Heart surgeons have patients who don’t follow aftercare instructions,who smoke, eat fatty foods, eschew exercise, drink excessively and otherwise engage in other activities that render the heart surgeon’s skills moot.

They also have patients who come from high poverty areas where getting good nutrition is more difficult and high-calorie foods are more common. And they have patients with genetic proclivities that make maintaining good heart health particularly challenging.

Many of those patients die. It is not the heart surgeon’s fault.

Even the best heart surgeons will tell you that they are not miracle workers and can’t make you healthy if you don’t do what you have to do.

Patients have to take responsibility for their own health; if they don’t, no heart surgeon can save them, no matter how well-trained or how highly skilled.

Teachers deal with uncontrollable external factors, too.

The uncontrollable external factors affecting teacher effectiveness include poverty, inadequate early childhood development, and brain-based aberrations that make learning particularly difficult.

Teachers have students who don’t take responsibility for their learning the same way some heart patients fail to assume responsibility for their health. We have students who don’t pay attention to instructions, fail to exercise their minds, watch high-fat television programs and otherwise engage in activities that render our teaching moot.

Many of those students fail. It is not the teacher’s fault.

Of course, heart surgeons have one big advantage over teachers.

Valve
Image by lschmitt77 via Flickr

They can replace defective or damaged parts. New valves? Not a problem. Reroute blood around a clogged artery? We do it every day! Need a new heart? Done!

I wish surgeons could do the same with brains.

But even then, it would be up to the individual to use it.

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What If Businesses Were Run Like Schools?

01/15/2011

Just under a year ago I wrote a post called Run Schools Like Businesses? Absolutely!

That post drew more comments than any post I’ve written. Today two more comments came in and they are so on-point that they deserve a post of their own. Here they are:

  1. Mike Jacobson says:

    To all of those experts out there:

    wholesale
    Image by TheTruthAbout via Flickr

    The business world is always trying to hold the world of education to their standards. As educators we believe that it is time to hold businesses to the same standards that we are responsible for upholding.

    So from this moment on, this is what we expect from the business world! We would like your business to be held accountable for the success of other businesses that purchase your product.

    When you are selling your product to other businesses we demand that you are accommodating the needs of your customers so that you can meet the demands that each of your customers have. We would like you to design your sales presentations to fit the needs of nonreaders, visual buyers, auditory buyers, kinesthetic buyers, deaf people, blind people, people in wheel chairs, people with all physical and mental handicaps, people that speak every other language other than English.

    A postcard with the public domain

    Image via Wikipedia

    We would like to base your pay and your compensation on how successful the people that use your product are! It is your job to prove your success with real sales data and numbers.

    We would like you to find a way to sell your product to all customers regardless of their income, their intelligence, and how successful they are in using your product. And we are mandating that you must do this for all of the above mentioned people and make it against the law if you do not fulfill these conditions.

    We would also like to hold you accountable for selling your product to people that have no use for your product, and that have told you right up front that they have no use for your product. And we mandate that you must make up your sales presentation to all customers that do not show up to your sales meeting regardless of the excuse such as family emergencies, personal health issues, or any other reason even including that they just didn’t feel like it!

    We demand that you must try to sell your product to other companies even if the boss of their company thinks that you are a complete joke and have no value to anyone! We also demand that you try to sell your product to customers that have unrealistic expectations as to how your product should work or actually does work.

    We demand that you must consider the input of your customers even if they tell you how to run your company and you know their ideas are bad ideas!

    We demand that you have no choice who you can sell your product to.

    We say that it will be OK if the public distorts the truth about how your company works and that it is OK to put these distortions all over the media in anyway that the public chooses and they may release these opinions for every one to see. There shall be no connection to reality when it comes to spreading opinions and it should make no difference how inaccurate these opinions are because that is the freedom of speech and it is exactly what our forefathers would have wanted!

    If someone with no knowledge of how your product actually works or is produced, you must let their opinion take priority over what you know as an expert on your product even if you have been building and selling your product for more than 20 years!

    Customer Lifecycle
    Image by davemc500hats via Flickr

    We demand that you must try to sell your product to customers that are not even having their basic needs met. You must try to sell your product to starving people, people with no shelter, and to people living in horrific living conditions. We demand that you sell your product to people that are abusive, that are criminals, that could care less about anything but drugs and alcohol!

    Your performance rating on all of the above conditions will depend on how you well you meet all of the above stated conditions! And lastly your pay will be determined by your success! In addition, any additional costs that may be incurred meeting these conditions shall not be reimbursed, you must take it out of the company budget!

    This is the world as an educator sees it and maybe people would have compassion for educators if they could see the world through the eyes of a teacher!

    A concerned teacher in 2011!

  2. Deb White Groebner says:

    WOW. Mike Jacobson, you did an excellent job of putting this issue into perspective. Thank you!

    What about adding “Your business is expected to increase the number of products and their performance to 100% proficiency after having the company’s funding resources slashed by 20% or more. If you are not able to do so in a given year, no matter what the circumstances, you will be punished by having more resources taken away until you are able to meet the standards of a distant oversight group that has only read about your business and has little, if any, experience with your product. At no time will you be permitted to turn a profit.”

    Another teacher

    Anyone else?
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Jumping Through Certification Hoops Should Be For Everyone

01/10/2011
Cathie Black Visits Hillcrest High School, Dec...
Image by lancmanoffice via Flickr

I’ve spent the day learning about the hoops I have to jump through — a 2nd master degree, for one — to be certified as a school librarian. Oh, and I have until August to get 18 of the 36 required credits if I want to be able to do the job I’m doing now next year.

I think our new school’s chancellor should have the same opportunity I have, get half the credits for an education leadership degree to be allowed to continue to do her job past Labor Day.

If I worked at an elementary school it would not be an issue but certified librarians are required at all secondary schools.

That I’ve done more in one month in and for the library, and for the students and teachers who now can use it than the certified librarian (certified in 1956, btw) did in the past six years is apparently not as important as having that piece of paper certifying me.

That I can teach the students and teachers about technology and how to use it effectively and safely where the certified librarian thinks the electric typewriter is a threat to society is not as important as having that certificate.

The "QWERTY" layout of typewriter ke...
Image via Wikipedia

If the certificate is that important for me to have, shouldn’t the school chancellor have one, too?

This post started as a comment on The Innovative Educator blog.Enhanced by Zemanta

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