Thursday, December 6, 2012

Getting Beat Up and Liking It

On Monday, I had the pleasure of meeting and listening to world-renowned educational reformer Alfie Kohn.  Working in partnership with another one of our high schools and their tremendous Principal Sheryl Lindquist, we were able to bring our staff together with 350 other members of the district and work with Mr. Kohn for the entire day.

If you haven't seen him before, know that Alfie Kohn unplugged has no filter.  He is in your face.  He is kicking in your classroom door.  He is thumbing his nose at your rules, yawning through your lessons, tearing your rubrics in half and crumpling up your homework.  He is throwing your new textbooks out the window, laughing at your grading practices, drawing funny faces on your multiple choice tests, and not picking up his report card at the end of the term.  He is yelling in the Principal's office, stamping his feet in front of the School Board, and mocking the Ministry of Education and government.  All in an undying effort to find a way to shake the foundation of a traditional education system.

And in the end, in a room full of teachers, administrators and trustees whose collective lapels he was mercilessly grabbing and shaking for more than four hours, Mr. Kohn got exactly what he deserved.

A standing ovation.

It's not often you get the daylights beaten out of you out on the playground by the guy with glasses and get up afterward and thank him.  But that's what we did.

I had several takeaways from Mr. Kohn's presentation (trying to think back to when I was a teacher and now how this still applies to me as a Principal):
1.  We must continuously ask ourselves "How does this affect the learner's INTEREST in learning?"  Reflecting on my own experiences as a teacher, I recall starting many units in science with my primary focus being on what it was that I wanted students to know.  And while I planned some exciting (in my own mind) lessons, I was completely cognizant of the fact that I was creating a few lessons that "we would just have to get through" to cover the material.  I think that I have a better understanding of the importance of this now, but it took me quite a while.
    • Implications for me as a teacher:  I needed to get to know my students much better, to have had a better understand their interests, contstantly tried to find ways to take the skills and concepts I wanted them to learn put them into a context that allowed them opportunities to construct their own meaning.
    • Implications for me as a Principal:  How many times in the past have I gone into a staff meeting focused on 'the material we needed to get through' rather than trying to continuously try to get a better understanding our staff, how they learn best, and to find ways to pique their interest in staff development?  Too many.  This year we have made significant changes in trying to create this ownership for our faculty but I know that I still have a long way to go.  
2.  We enter into problem-solving with more and better questions
    • Implications for me as a teacher:  When I asked students questions, too often I asked them in such a way that there was only one answer, and that answer was the one that I was looking for.  Or my questions were at such a superficial level that they actually inhibited the students thinking deeply about a problem and and perhaps coming up with their own questions or discovering their own problems. 
    • Implications for me as a Principal:  Much like I was at the start of my teaching career, too often in the past I would go into staff meetings with a preconceived notion or solution that met my needs as opposed to entering the discussion being comfortable not knowing where we were going to end up.  This year, we are going to be re-examining our collaborative time model and methods, our Connections Tutorials, our Academic Intervention program, and our mandatory study block.  In the past, I might have come in with a couple of models with a few tweaks, but in March I will be asking our staff questions instead, such as
      • How can we create a timetable that collectively
        • allows for teachers to differentiate instruction?
        • has built in time so teachers can collaborate with other teachers?
        • provides targeted support and intervention for students?
        • allows maximum choice and flexibility for students?
        • gradually and appropriately releases responsibility to the student for their own learning?
3.  We need to let go of practices that are designed to control the learner or the learning environment.  Guilty as charged when I was a teacher and now as a Principal.  When I wanted to make sure that kids did their homework?  Ahhh, the good old pop quiz gets 'em every time.  Get that project in by my deadline or we'll take off a few late marks! (How many marks taken off depended on things so arbitrary I cannot even begin to mention them).  Need you to do that reading, so here's a fill in the blank worksheet.  Ugh.  I shudder at some of these things I did in the first couple of years of teaching when I look back now.
  • Implications for me as a teacher:  Finding entry points for students that reflected their interests within the context of the skills that I was teaching.  Providing choice to the student in how to tackle a problem and how to demonstrate their learning.  Developing a community of values, and a community of practice.  Being flexible with deadlines, and being committed to discovering what a student knows as opposed to when they know it and a single tool to assess their knowledge.  While not an exhaustive list, certainly several things that I got better at as a teacher, and still needed to improve in my own practice.
  • Implications for me as a Principal:  It is vital that I find multiple entry points that reflect our staff's interests within the context of the concepts that we are learning together.  Much like with tie timetable questions above, I must provide our staff with as much opportunity to shape their learning.  As a group, we need to think less in terms of policies that direct us and more to practices that support those values which we collectively have developed (as we did in 2011).

4. We need to look very carefully at the message that a grade sends to the learner as opposed to feedback.  There is much debate about grades in education.  Motivator or de-motivator?  Accurate or arbitrary?  Reflective of standards or 'select and sorters'?  For me as a student, I can say with honesty that I was hungry to know "how to get an A"  and "how well am I doing compared to Joey" in many classes as opposed to being focused on what I was actually doing.  Grades motivated me to get better grades, but they didn't motivate me to learn, nor did they motivate me to work harder.  I would often try to find the 'path of least resistance' to the mark that I wanted, and sometimes didn't try more challenging things because it might 'hurt my GPA'.  If there was a grade and some comments, and the grade was what I wanted I didn't even read the comment.  And heaven forbid if the work wasn't for marks...well, just forget it.
  • Implications for me as a teacher:  It wasn't until later in my career that I realized that grades motivated those students who were motivated by grades.  Unfortunately for me, I also realized that there were many students who were not motivated by grades at all.  But it was amazing how much a student would come back to me if I only gave them feedback.  Over and over again this meaningful dialogue would take place as the student and I would discuss and even debate what they were turning in to me.  
  • Implications for me as a Principal: Grades are not going away tomorrow.  The Ministry asks us to provide a summative letter grade at the end of a semester or year, and we must do that.  However, I think there is a great deal of latitude that we have in terms of the constant feedback that we can give leading up to that grade, and even more rich discussion and debate that can take place about the grade itself.  While the situation may not be ideal, there are many possibilities here that we need to explore with feedback rather than grades.
Overall, Alfie Kohn 'beat me up'.  But with ideas that I took away, I can honestly say "I liked it!" .  He is a must see for any educator who wants to broaden their horizons and challenge their own beliefs about this great thing we call education.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with all of the statements here but wonder about the long term impact this type of talk will have on people. A good speaker will challenge your ideas but would you use this same approach with your own staff? If you want them to move forward I am not sure you (specifically you Cale) would use this same approach because it doesn't illustrate what people are doing right. I remember a quote that Dean Shareski shared about speaking and the notion that people will not only remember what you told them, but how you made them feel. Would you want your teachers using this same approach with your students? The ideas are great and I know from our many conversations that this is not you MO, but I guess that I am curious on how effective this approach will work long term as both someone who speaks and still works in a school district.

    Ideas are great but they mean nothing if you do not connect with people on a different level.

    Thoughts or am I way off here?


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