Sunday, June 9, 2019

Learning is not a competition. But what is it really?

Ms. Sackstein has a point and you'll learn more about her thinking in her article "How Can We Move Education Forward When So Many Educators Can't See Past the Way We've Always Done It?" The upshot of her article is this:
Once we jump down the grading rabbit hole, for example, we aren't just changing the way we label learning on a report card, we have to look deeper (italics mine). What are we calling learning? How will it be assessed and by whom? Which standards are we using? Are they universal? How do we agree on what mastery looks like at every age level in different content areas?"
All of these are complex questions and yes, answering them, agreeing on the answers, and norming those answers would be great. But my oh my will be it difficult, if not impossible.

I love the universal standards questions. We've tried Common Core for Math and ELA and, it still exists in many forms, some slightly modified and renamed by states and yet essentially Common Core.

In October 2018, Singapore announced it was doing away with ranking systems in its report cards. The Education Minister announced that, "Learning is not a competition." The Education department and, apparently, the teachers of Singapore realize there is no point in encouraging students to compare themselves to their classmates.

The reality is that our world and the future world of our students is and will be radically different. We have to make radical changes, and we have to make them now.

As I thought about Sackstein's writing and what we think we might be looking for, I realized that I already know a number of teachers who are just doing what they need to do and not just because we've been saying that one-size-fits-all doesn't work for anyone: not the student and not the teacher. I remember having a long conversation with a social studies teacher who noted that success for one of her students was different from success for another student. Which leads me to think that defining mastery at every age level in any content area is not a good use of anyone's time.

I've long been a proponent of the one-room schoolhouse concept: that kids work through their learning at their own pace, achieve proficiency or mastery or whatever they need, and then move on to the next thing. That teachers facilitate that learning to help them discover what they're really interested in and guide them accordingly. Oh yea, I know that's hard to do for about a zillion reasons though the "modern" one-room schoolhouse isn't a new idea.

I've given a lot of thought to how I would design a school system if I were starting from scratch. There are a lot of conditions and requirements, of course, and would require that unions completely rethink the role of a classroom teacher and the expectations of a teacher. And it would require that colleges and universities approach teacher preparation completely differently.

Whether it's a redesigned school system or a one-room schoolhouse, or what we have now, the key element is the student and what and how the student is learning. It's about the learning, the learning, the learning.

We've been toying with differentiation and personalization for a long time now. We have adopted tools and software programs that claim to assist in both or either, but the structure of how we do school hasn't changed radically. We adopt new programs and initiatives and hope for change, even as we try to cling to old ways of doing. We are reluctant to change in case it doesn't work which is exactly the wrong reason not to change. But if we don't have a vision or an idea of the kinds of outcomes we want before we change, we'll be setting ourselves for failure because we have to be thinking about students and their learning.

I think the most important question Ms. Sackstein asks ends up getting buried: "What are we calling learning?"

Don't crowd learning with how its going to be assessed because then you've already predetermined what learning is. Don't weight learning with the need for data, with trying to determine the socioeconomic challenges or privileges of a student. Don't confuse it with curriculum or pacing guides or even content areas.

Strip it to its bare minimum: what is learning? It's the process of acquiring new skills and knowledge through experience, study, or being taught.

Now we can reimagine how learning could be accomplished by students, for students and with the help, guidance, coaching, facilitation of classroom teachers. Especially if we stop thinking that learning is a competition and that every student has to learn everything to the same level of competency.

Maybe some day this will be more than a dream. Maybe.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Social Emotional Learning matters. . .to everyone

I didn't grow up with FOMO--the fear of missing out--and many of the other challenges today's kids experience so it can be easy for me to dismiss legitimate SEL concerns. After reading this article about social emotional learning, I realize that it can also be easy for education to adopt a new concept or issue and ask teachers to add it to whatever else they're doing, that we don't always train folks to understand why something is important, and HOW and WHEN to make use of any training.

When I think about the stressors of growing up and how those can be exacerbated by social media, it's no wonder "7 in 10 teens think anxiety and depression are major problems for their peers." Some will say the easiest solution is take away students' phones and to limit their time on social media. I suspect that would just be FOMO amplified. Of course, kids aren't the only ones influenced by FOMO as adults can fall victim to it as well.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has been doing this work of SEL education for over two decades, so the concept really isn't new. I think it's become a thing because there is finally recognition that students need to be taught how to manage themselves.

The SEL wheel is informative and the explanations for each of those pie segments might be enlightening.

I hear teachers remind students to "make good choices." They say that repeatedly throughout the school day. Yes, responsible decision-making is important, but what if kids really don't know how to make good decisions? What if they have limited self-awareness or self-management? What if they don't have much experience with social awareness because of their age or their own family background? What if they're still working on those relationship skills?

I get to work with teachers at all grade levels and I have mountains of respect for kinder and 1st grade teachers because a lot of what they do is related to these SEL core competencies in addition to teaching them other stuff like, IDK, how to read, how to blow their noses, how to write, how to count--that list goes on and on.

Somehow we stop being overt in teaching or coaching these core competencies as students get older. We tend to assume (always dangerous) that students have some proficiency, even mastery, of these SEL core competencies by the time they're in upper elementary and certainly when they're in middle and high school. And yet, student behavior tells us that is simply not the case.

High school teachers are often flummoxed because this SEL stuff is not what they expect to have to do. Some middle school teachers seem less perplexed because they are champions at working with kids who are going through multiples of changes--physical, emotional, hormonal. (If you have not thanked or honored a middle school teacher recently, it's way past time.)

If anything, I think FOMO amplifies these SEL concerns for middle and high school students. All that self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making is likely in tatters by the time they hit middle school and then shredded again in high school, especially for freshmen.

So I think it's imperative that we are mindful that there are stages of SEL, compounded by FOMO, and often exacerbated by whatever is or is not happening at home. Helicopter or snow shovel parents? Complex adult/guardian relationships? Absence of regular adult/guardian positive influences?

This is all a big ask for teachers. The expectations for educators are immense and there is no sign of that letting up with increasing demands and concerns from a wide range of sources. But educators can't be expected to just "do" SEL; they have to be trained and, in fact, they often need a little SEL for themselves.

I suspect we make it a lot harder than it really needs to be with fancy programs and PD that, in theory, help teachers embed SEL. I'm not saying PD or training isn't necessary, but I do think that those who are making decisions about professional learning and expectations for SEL as well as trauma-informed teaching and learning (a whole different area that needs to be included and not treated as its own one-off) need to think holistically about what they would like to see happening in their schools and their classrooms, and they need to do so with teacher input as well as parental input.

This isn't just an education concern so kids behave in classrooms and do well on their tests. This is a community well-being and growth concern, and matters--or should matter--to everyone.