Sunday, November 21, 2010

Unexploited resource time on LeaderTalk

I posted this on LeaderTalk

The Unexploited Resource: Time

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Have you ever wondered why there are so many schedules out there for high schools? I would suggest it is due to efforts by educational leaders to make the most out of the second most precious resource in education. If you are thinking money is the first, think again. Despite what a great many within our own profession would profess, our most precious resource is our people.

Human capital in any organization is often overlooked and even more often not increased through proper investments. This being said, most successful leaders have already figured this out and get the most out of their best by breaking the tradition of allowing your best teachers to teach the most teachable students. There are those leaders out there that realize, you need your best teachers with those hardest to teach.

Time on the other hand, still holds plenty to be exploited if we can just break from the mass production model which has long outlived its usefulness. Gone are the days when there was value to being able to mentally store great quantities of information about a narrow topic and being able to recall it quickly leading to organizational efficiency. Technology now makes these skills unmarketable. Instead we now look at information as the artist looks at clay. As Daniel Pink states in his book "A Whole New Mind," this is the era of creativity.

Creativity is a funny thing in that it requires the integration of skill and information. Not information in nice neat organizational bundles, but rather in webs of inter-connectivity. We know that learning is a social process, but in the industrial model of school, we isolate individuals so we can sort and select them for specific tasks. Unfortunately many of these tasks are no longer done by people and those that are still done by people are not done by people here in this country.

We place value on concepts and skills by their inclusion in the curriculum. However, we do not always allocate time based on importance nor even in varied bundles conducive to acquisition of that particular skill or concept. We measure proficiency in aggregated scores which communicate little and in credits based on seat time. In attempts to better utilize time, we change the length of the allocations, but do little in terms of allocating more time for subjects which require it or even more desirable, different amounts of time for each child beyond elementary school. We have set up curriculum and even schedules based on the average student's rate of learning. We require the same amount of time for most subjects varying a few by length of term rather than length of meeting period. There have been some attempts to move students through the curriculum at a pace conducive to their success, but more energy has been spent on figuring out various ways to break the day up into equal pieces in different ways. Popular methods of organizing time for high schools today include what some call a "traditional" eight or seven period day, where the day is divided into 40-50 minute periods. Each subject in this model gets the same amount of time during the day, but some subjects may get less time by lasting fewer terms. There are a number of variations to this in terms of term length. There are quarters, semesters, trimesters and a number of others I am sure I am leaving out. The other most popular schedules in high schools today are variations of the block schedule. In this model a student is engaged in fewer classes for longer periods of time, but again the day is equally divided into periods or blocks of time.

We had a scheduling model in the 70's that allowed for subjects to vary meeting frequency, meeting length and even left it up to the student as to where they would spend a significant part of their day to get the extra help they needed in the area they needed it. It was called the Flexible Modular Schedule. The day was still broken into periods, but they were very small and courses did not all use the same number of them nor did they all meet every day. The complexity of building such a schedule is why most schools left this model. Today's technology would allow for this type of schedule to be reintroduced. However, we now have a student population that has been told where to go and what to do and has little likelihood of success in managing their time without a great deal of training. Emphasis on a grade, test score or diploma rather than mastery of skills and concepts would deter schools from risking letting students learn the skill of self-management and making decisions about their own time.

We talk about tradition a lot in education. With the infusion of technology, we need to start taking a look at innovation rather than tradition as computer software programs allow for meeting many of the students learning needs in terms of subject matter. It is skills that are still best learned in the context of a classroom filled with other students. One could possibly argue that time management is one of the most vital skills in our adult world today. We desperately need to begin to look at innovative ways to manage one of our most important yet unexploited resources, time. Students need to be part of the process of determining how much time they need to truly master a concept and skill. this will not be the same for all students. My proposal would be to spend less time in structured settings and allow more flexibility for each student to access the help they need when they need it.

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Students' Insights

I had the great opportunity to speak with some Fort Dodge students in Mr. Marshall Hoovler's classroom on Friday. They were engaged in a discussion which, until my arrival, was being wonderfully facilitated by Mr. Hoovler. He has a great way of asking probing questions and then the rare ability to shut up and let his students hash it out. He will expertly step back when the conversation lulls and stir things up again.
This post is not about his abilities to facilitate student discussions, nor even about discussions in general, but more importantly about that specific discussion. Their discussion was concerning Plato's allegory of the cave. Yes, this is commonly a work in high school literature. So, obviously, this is not really blog worthy and the conversation being about school is not surprising either, but the fact that the teachers where those chained in the cave was.
Typically I have seen students get into great conversations about their own learning and/or lack thereof. This was discussed, but as I was sitting there listening, the conversation took a sudden change. The students asked me to join their conversation and began talking about how teachers are also really in their own cave and refuse to free themselves or even believe those who have escaped when they come to tell them about the world out there. Students were questioning me about how a schedule change we are considering was going. They wanted to know what teachers were thinking and what I thought would happen. They asked questions about why I thought we needed a change and why if I saw those things, why were there teachers who were being so negative about a possible change.
I tried to explain that it is due to their feelings that the new schedules might not help these problems, but they weren't buying it. They turned the discussion to fear of change. They asked several good questions about how the current system was developed. I gave them a brief (five minutes) educational history about Carnegie Units, Chapter 12 of the Iowa Code, and Board Policy changes which led us to our current system. They asked how changes would be made if we decided there was a need to change. I explained the process that I intended to use to gather input from stakeholders but also shared that I was having some difficulty getting teachers to actually engage in the process. They went back to Plato's Cave. I was a moron and not really ready to use this opportunity to discuss more on their perception of teachers' cave, but rather turned the discussion to a discussion about their cave. Why they were more concerned more about grades than they are about learning. I told them that, in my opinion, the first step to truly change schools and break the bonds to tradition and thus free us from the cave is the elimination of grades. They asked all of the right questions, what would replace grades, how would we rank students, would colleges accept the new reporting scheme, how would we pick a graduation speaker, etc... The final question generated some pretty passionate discussion about how class ranking was a flawed system in and of itself. They commented about the fact that the types of classes a student takes can have a big impact on their overall GPA. I capitalized on this conversation to point out that this was also a problem with grades. I asked the students my favorite question, "What do grades really tell us?" which generally gets a range of responses. These responses almost always include comments about "kissing up". I wasn't disappointed with this group as they brought it up and opened the door further about the "fairness" of grading.
I asked the students why, with a system that everyone can see is so flawed, do they think we resist change so vehemently? They had their own answers, but pressed me for mine. I bluntly stated, "Fear and the economy we have developed around grades". I wrote Grades and Skills on the board. I asked them which have value. There were no immediate responses. Then some cited grades due to scholarships. I asked them how much they thought grades really played into most scholarships and how many of our students got those types of scholarships. I used my son as an example. He was the recipient of a very large academic scholarship from a university, but received very little of the scholarship money offered by the community in which he lived.
I cited several very large scholarship winners in our previous graduating class in Fort Dodge and asked if those big winners were the same students speaking at graduation. They quickly realized that grades are not the only factor, nor even the most important factor for many local scholarships. I asked them again as to how many students receive the type of scholarship my son had received and after some mumbling, I told them. Not very many. Other factors carry a great deal of weight with scholarship selection committees.
I also pointed out that scholarships were indeed financial, but asked students how those scholarships impacted a student beyond their expenditure. I asked them, "Do the students who get the big scholarships by avoiding courses really do as well as those who take the more rigorous courses and pay their own way?" I tried to stress that the focus on grades restrains us from placing our focus on what is really important and that is the learning these grades are supposed to represent. They were quick to acknowledge that the grades did not necessarily represent skills and that a student who "played the school game" well often got better grades than the students who were difficult, but actually knew or could do more.
Again, the questions were asked as to why teachers don't just change it if they know it is broken. Mr. Hoovler asked me what would it take for us to change and if all schools had to change at once. I told the class that in my opinion change no longer happens gradually, and explained the idea of innovative disruption. I was shocked with the speed in which the class accepted and even provided examples of how they have witnessed disruptive innovation in society.
The students brought the conversation right back to our staff, our school, and Plato's cave. Several comments were made about the fact that some of their teachers had been in the "cave" too long and conversation about changes in the way they were tested ensued. The comments were quick to discuss the fact that knowing stuff on tests was probably not a marketable skill since most of them could look it up. I shared with them that I agree with their view and cited the need to change what was being asked of students in their classes as being the focus of most of our professional development. I also took the opportunity to ask if the current schedule structure was the best structure for how they were currently being taught? How about the way in which I had just described being taught. Again some great questions were being asked.
This whole exchange was an incredible learning experience for me. I have often used students in decisions I have made as an administrator, but superficially at best.
I am not so sure we shouldn't be following the business model and spending more time asking customers what they want. I am not so sure that during out "early releases" we have with staff, that we shouldn't be keeping the students those afternoons as well and sharing the same things we are sharing with staff with them.
I know this for certain, I will be attempting to do just that with at least some of our students from now on. I am quite sure that the exchange we had in the class period described was not only refreshing to me, but very informative as well. I am also quite certain that we need to allow students to engage in this type of discussion far more often than we do.
Kuddos to Mr. Hoovler and his students for providing me with one of the best experiences I have had in school since moving to Fort Dodge.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Should this even have to be said

It is amazing to me that as a profession, we have lost such a great deal of respect over the years. I don't know, maybe we never had it to begin with. My mother used to insist that when we did laundry we hung our underwear on the inside lines unseen by all but those who were doing the laundry. We were careful to have outer garments obscuring their view from anyone who might wonder by. We did this as some things should remain private she would tell us. Somethings you just don't talk about outside the family. Now I am not advocating for a major cover up of any kind, nor for any sort of deception of the public we serve, but I am extremely disappointed that it has become common practice for educators to bash educators. I am not talking about the multi-million dollar industry of what I would consider pseudo educators who are making their living off of bashing those in the trenches.
Now if you have read some of my contributions to sites like Dangerously Irrelevant, I too have been drawn into this type of behavior at times, but I think there is a fine line which I to have crossed between criticizing practices and flat out people bashing.
There is not an industry out there that doesn't have its fair share of characters. This includes not only those who are less than capable and those who are a down right disgrace to their organization. Then there are also those who are like most people, having their good and bad days. Those who are one day an inspiration to the students they work with and on other days say things that have ramifications equally as destructive.
I am extremely disappointed that as a profession, we often put each other down far more often than we say good things about one an other. This has become a cultural norm not only in the educational profession but in others as well. Just take a look at political campaigns. The spend very little time talking about what they will do to better our system, but rather spend millions of dollars decimating their opponent. I am not sure that I know anything about what the candidates stand for and are wanting to do, but I can tell you oodles of things about each and every mistake they have made and skeleton in their closet.
What we as educators need to understand that we are not in competition with each other but rather all on the same team. We need to spend more time communicating the strengths of our colleagues and leaders, rather than sharing every mistake they might make.
I ask the other teachers in our building to make 10 parent phone calls a week. I stress that these phone calls are to communicate both the struggles and the accomplishments of the students. In other words, don't just call parents to tell them about how big a pain in the ass their kid was today without being willing to call them on another day to tell them about how great their child did on a test, quiz or maybe even a kind word they extended a fellow student.
I am trying very hard to make this a positive post. One that will inspire positive communication and collective efficacy within our educational organizations and not just another teacher bashing rant.
These positive things happen in all schools, they just need to happen more often. The unethical behavior of running another teacher down to a parent or a student need to cease. We need to remember that those who live in glass houses best not cast stones. I assure you that we work in glass houses in education. People are eager to look in and when they see something they don't like cast a big stone rather than offer encouragement.

I spoke with a student in my office today who was complaining about a teacher. They were quick to point out all of the teacher's flaws, but had to be reminded of all of the wonderful things this teacher had done for her. I had to explain to her that she is not the only one who is stressed out by school. She had to be educated about the fact that teachers are people too and that they make mistakes, get upset and say things they don't really mean just like students do. No we hope that they do these things less often that the normal person would as we want all teachers to be encouraging, compassionate and self-sacrificing at all times. We want them to live their job and leave all their personal stresses at home. We want them to be flawless in what they do, how they treat people, how they grade work, etc.
I believe that sometimes we all forget that we are all just people. That we do have lives outside of the school day and should. That we may not get everything done in a day and should not be expected to stay up all night to ensure everything is perfectly planned for the next day.
It is easy to get sucked into the practice of bashing others, it is often easier to hang our undies on the inside and outside lines, but as a profession we do ourselves no favors in bashing our peers as in the end, we are all lumped together as teachers in the mind of those we serve.