AHA #3. If it’s broken, throw it out.

I’ve been reading Alfie Kohn’s book The Schools Our Children Deserve; it is part of the required reading for a course I’m taking. Just before summer got crazy busy with Other Stuff, I had read through Part 1: “Tougher Standards versus Better Education”. I admit I do not feel intrinsically motivated to write thoughtful any reflections on Chapter 5 (Getting School Reform Wrong) or Chapter 6 (Getting Improvement Wrong); while they contain additional compelling evidence for what is currently amiss in eduction and with ed reform, I am already long on board. In fact, even though I took a un-planned break from the course, I’ve continued to think/read/journal/blog/reflect in order to keep moving myself towards insights about teaching and learning.

Recently, I decided to take up Kohn’s book again, looking forward to “Part 2”, in which Pooh Kohn offers solutions. Chapter 7: Starting From Scratch.

Well, beam me up Scottie if this chapter isn’t fully in sync with my current thinking and wondering.  Suddenly, I feel motivated. Huh.

What I’ve been wondering about in recent weeks stems from a conversation I had with Jackie, a middle school math teacher friend. I volunteer regularly in her room and we meet to talk almost as regularly about pedagogy and moving student learning forward and other Important Things. My role in part is to support her implementation of several strategies that are intended to create an active learning culture in which students make sense of math.

She noticed that in spite of the on-going, long term math PD that has been invested in K-12 teachers in her district and in spite of her efforts to increase student talk and focus on student reasoning, learning remains for the most part passive and feels glacially slow. Mindsets cling to answer-getting, compliance, and performance, about speed and status. In many ways, what she wants happening in her classroom differs from what is actually happening.

Been there, done that.

Neither she nor I are implying that their previous teachers are at fault! Nor are we blaming the students! (I just heard again today that The Reason students don’t learn is that they “just don’t try hard enough”.  I disagree.  I may need to blog about that.) At this point, this is merely an observation that her desired change seems too minimal. Its frustrating. We know there is more work to do, more than we anticipated.  Persevere.


Every worthwhile observation should be followed by a genuine question. It’s how we learn, how we find solutions.  What I wonder is, exactly what is going on in schools and classrooms (including mine) that impedes or prevents moving from a performance culture to a learning culture?

If we only make changes- even great ones– to some of the things we do while maintaining others, the “old-school” culture prevails. This is a big AHA for me.  Most teachers seeking to improve practice consider what to do differently or what to add in, but it is equally important is to identify what needs to be (gasp) thrown out.  In October 19’s post, I listed several widely accepted, rarely scrutinized practices that I believe undermine honest efforts to transform teaching and learning. Alfie Kohn provides a similar list and includes justification.  For both of us, grades top the list. Teachers, administrators, parents, even students, should make their own lists. This is where conversations need to begin; this is where priorities get identified, appropriate long-term goals get made, resources located, and plans developed . This is where meaningful change- change that moves education forward–stands a chance.

I recommend reading Kohn’s book. In the meantime, here’s some of my additional take-aways from Chapter 7:

  • You can’t make people want to do something, like learn. You might offer rewards and threaten punishments (grades, points, stickers, perks, honor roll, a different track, detention, praise, admonishments, etc.) but you get compliance or defiance, not motivation. Being extrinsically motivated to get the reward or avoid the punishment is not the same as being intrinsically motivated to learn. Intrinsic motivation comes naturally and heightens engagement, but can be extinguished or nourished, depending on what takes place in the learning environment.
  • The purpose of school, the reasons for educating people, tend to be debated in rather polarized terms. This or that.  Kohn writes, “It’s more a continuum than an either-or, but the point on that continuum we identify as ideal makes all the difference.”  A lot of this and a little that.  For individual educators, teams, schools, and communities, identifying where that point is located will help clarify which practices support or impede genuine learning.
  • In “traditional” school cultures, there is a disconnect between long term goals (those ideals shared by most educators and parents) and short term goals (those skills, mandated and tested) and practices within classrooms. We say we want one thing, and we do and/or allow something else. (Is that the problem Jackie and I are facing??) If our long term goals are for students to be curious, to be intrinsically motivated, active learners, to listen empathetically, to construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others, to persevere, to make sense of complicated ideas, and so on (all valuable life skills, by the way), but we put more energy into short term goals like being sure they can correctly add and subtract rational numbers, then it is possible– even probable— that the long term goals will never be met.
  • If, on the other hand, we first identify that ideal place on the continuum, clarify our long-term goals, and then teach in such a way that always supports these goals, then both long and short term goals will be met. Frequently meeting and reflecting on our long term goals and evaluating what is happening in our learning communities is a must.  Remember, some practices may need to be updated, included, or even discarded to be sure long term goals are supported.
  • Achievement should not ever be a long term goal. Low achievement is not the real issue (although it is popular to say so), disengagement is. Its not that students are not “trying” hard enough; they just don’t see the point.  We should be wondering why.  The performance/compliance/accountability culture that is touted as the “solution” is actually a massive obstacle to achievement; focusing on grades and points and data and test scores in order to improve learning simply backfires.  John Nichols said, “Teaching requires the consent of the students, and discontent will not be chased away by the exercise of power.”  (That quote is in Kohn’s book.)
  •  In contrast, high achievement results naturally when both long and short term goals are met by capitalizing on intrinsic motivation and student interest. Common sense tells us that all people learn best when they are interested in what they are learning about; schools can and should be putting their efforts into creating and sustaining learning environments for students and their teachers.

If you have not already done so, please check out  MARK CHUBB’S informative post about how his district set and went about meeting long term learningculture goals and what happened to student achievement.

Where is the “ideal” place on the continuum?  For you, for your school, for your students.  Why?

What practices and policies do you use or see used in your school or district that are intended to create and sustain an active learning culture? How effective are they?

What else is going on that undermines these efforts and perpetuates fixed mindsets, passive learning, and disengagement?

What’s on your list? Why?  Who will you share it with?


3 thoughts on “AHA #3. If it’s broken, throw it out.

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