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):
- 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.
- 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?
- 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).
- 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.