Wednesday, August 31, 2011

DO what should be done THEN tell, not tell what should be done.

Last night, I watched an interesting pseudo-documentary called "A National Disgrace, Revisited" hosted by Dan Rather. It as an unflattering and scathing two-hour piece on the schools, School Board, and various individuals (including the former Superintendent) connected Detroit Public School System.   When I watch these investigative reports, I try to approach them from a neutral, critical-thinking perspective.  These shows tend to be laden with editorial comment and often have a bias towards sensationalism rather than fact.  But nonetheless, I believe that I always have something to gain by seeing different perspectives on public education.

There were a number of threads that wove their way through the narrative, including a piece on a young student who was making her way through high school with the goal of going on to a four-year college.  The young girl had a challenging home situation; she had a single mother and a younger sister moving from rental property to rental property, trying to scratch out a living on a very limited income.  The mother was a selfless, hard-working woman whose goal was to have her children enjoy a life better than the one she had.   Mom placed a very high value on education and was pushing her children off to school at 5:30AM each day to ensure they had enough time for the public transportation system could get them to school and work.

Throughout the program, the overarching theme was the need for (and resistance to) educational reform.  At one point, Dan Rather asked the mother what she would say if she could say anything to the DPS School Board about the education afforded to her children, and she responded with a comment that resonated with me.  She said: "I know you care, now what are you doing to show it?"

Each day, I read countless newspaper articles, impassioned posts, and convincing studies that shout out "we are failing children", "change the system", or "do something different".  These excellent resources are written by talented, skilled educators who work in the system today and clearly care deeply about students and student learning.  And to this end, I agree with all of them (or at least almost all of them) that I have read.  But then I think about Mom's comment in the DPS investigative report--"I know you care, now what are you doing to show it?".

This year, I am going to focus less on TELLING people how much I care about students, education and the need for educational reform to better meet the needs of student  and teacher learners.  Instead, I am going to focus more on DOING things to make our school and current system of education better and then share with others.  I have started the ball rolling on supporting teacher Micro-Observations to improve instructional practice, and have just purchased pods of Android Tablets for each of our departments to support collaborative student learning and technology use in the classroom.  We will continue to work on our dynamic and interactive online School Improvement Plan.  As a school district, we have enacted new policy this summer to support Personal Learning Devices and Smartphones in the classroom, and have implemented free wi-fi for students and staff.

While these activities are neither exhaustive or perfect, I believe they will continue to make positive changes for our school.  We will DO, then we will SHARE.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Minor Tweaks

Over the course of the summer, I have had a bit more time to catch up on my reading.  And while I did manage to toss in a John Grisham and a sequel to the Bourne Trilogy, I also had the opportunity to read a couple of great books that were more germane to education.  One of those books was The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.

The basic premise Gladwell makes in the book is that "achievement is based less on talent than it is on opportunity".  He cites numerous examples of this with individuals he calls 'outliers', from Bill Gates and Paul Allen having been given free computer time at the University of Washington during their formative years to the Beatles becoming outstanding performers because of a set of marathon gigs they accepted in Hamburg.  In each of these instances, the individuals had talent, make no mistake.  However, they also had and took advantage of opportunities to hone that talent to the level that has made them recognized for it today.

Gladwell also talks about the advantages that are conferred on individuals that are born closer to arbitrary registration cutoffs and deadlines.  He highlights several examples that illustrate this point: rep hockey players tend to be born in the months of January through April (registration deadlined in January), soccer players on the English National squad are all born in September, October, or November (registration deadline in September).  Gladwell also indicates that students that are born earlier in the year (closer to the January registration deadline) can tend to be treated differently than their peer group that is born later in the year.  The reason, Gladwell cites, is that developmentally, a hockey player, a soccer player, a student that is born closer to that arbitrary cutoff date tends to be developmentally more advanced than their peers who are born months later, especially at an early age.  As a result, Gladwell contends, these more developed children can be seen as more talented and get more specialized training than the younger members of their cohort group.

Gladwell makes the point that we are neglecting the talent pool in the other 'half' of the year.  Imagine, he says, how talented our Canadian hockey teams would be if we had a hockey registration date and league for those children born in January AND another league for those born after June, complete with separate rep teams and specialized coaching for each of the different groups?  He goes on to wonder why we don't do something like this in schools.
While I don't agree with all of the points that Gladwell makes in his book, his observations about the registration deadline determining the grade cohort for children in schools made me think.  Why do we have one registration date for children?  Moreover, why do we organize schools according to age?  I know this is being general, and there are many exceptions, but are we able to accomodate the developmental differences between a kindergarten student born on January 2nd and another born on December 20th?  Could we re-organize schools to enable us to meet the needs of children more effectively, by perhaps having asynchronous starting points for our young students to meet them where they are at developmentally?  Are there other changes to schedules, reporting methods, or other small, subtle, technical parts of education that we are overlooking that could have notable effects on student learning?

I believe that meeting the diverse needs of our learners is foundational to the movement towards personalized, 21st Century learning.  I also believe that discovering a student's talents and then providing them with opportunities to hone and showcase those talents is another cornerstone of personalized learning.  But without oversimplifying the issue, I often wonder if there are not some simpler steps that we can take (such as those that Gladwell suggests) that might help us cultivate the talents of each of the students in our school.  To provide them with those exceptional opportunities afforded those like the Beatles, Paul Allen, and Bill Gates.  Are there easier ways that we can make all of our students "outliers"?

I enjoy thinking about big picture ideas for education, and trying to implement major, multifaceted initiatives that will positively impact each of our partner groups.  Yet sometimes I wonder if we overlook some of the minor tweaks we could make to day-to-day operational items that could have a major and positive impact on our students.

I think it is worth a peek.