Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Slow Schools

In a recent blog post, Daniel Katz made a plea for a slow schools movement (like the slow foods movement). It's a great piece and well worth your time.

Katz is the director of Secondary Education and Secondary Special Education Teacher Preparation at Seton Hall University, and he begins the post with observations about what he's hearing from his alumni when they return. They are hurried.

This is not a new problem. Teaching has always involved doing an infinite number of tasks in a finite amount of time. People who want to say, "Yeah, just like every other profession" just don't get it. Teachers are up against finite time in a way that no other professions experience. And boy does this resonate.

The most read thing I have ever written in my life is this post about the hard part of teaching, how there is never enough. Over at HuffPost, it has pulled almost 450,000 facebook likes, and they've translated it into Italian, German and French. Nothing I have ever written in my life has come close. What that tells me is that this is a subject that really really resonates.

Teachers have always suffered from having more and more duties, tasks and responsibilities jammed into their days (and into the parts of their days that are supposed to be theirs). And as Katz correctly observes, those "new"duties are removed just about as often as governments repeal "temporary" taxes. But there is a new order of magnitude going on today.

In a policy environment that provides high stakes standardized tests the power to put teachers’ jobs in the balance and with an active movement afoot to remove teachers’ workplace protections, pressures today rival those at any point since the Common School movement began in the 19th century.

And as Katz observes, it's not just a matter of Getting Things Done, but of getting things done right.

However, the need for “slow schools” goes well beyond a simple desire to lift added and poorly thought out burdens from teachers who already had important work to do.  It goes towards fundamental aspects of what learning actually requires.  A productive school is one that hums with energy, but it is not the energy of people rushing anxiously from one obligation to another.  It is the energy of people grappling with challenging ideas and materials, working through from what they do not understand to what they do understand, and proposing and testing new hypotheses about how the world works around them.  That is a specific kind of energy that cannot happen under constant pressure to perform on command.

Thinking, understanding, coming to grips with concepts, and particular the kind of deep conceptual understanding that the Sultans of Common Core insist they want. This is one of the many self-contradictions of life under the Core-- we want you to go an inch wide and a mile deep, but we won't tell you what material you can now cut from the curriculum, mostly because we still expect you to cover everything you always covered-- just deeper and slower. We want you to drive from LA to San Francisco at 20 MPH, with a stop every hour to get out and smell the flowers, but we still expect you to leave after breakfast and get there in time for supper.

Deeper understanding takes time. Time, Katz says, that includes time for being confused and working through that confusion.

A deep and layered understanding of complex ideas cannot be forced to happen simply through intensity, although significance and deep understanding have intensity of their own.  Students necessarily must be frustrated as they grapple with complex and unknown concepts, but they need time in order to work through that confusion, and when forced or hurried to move they not only fail to develop the desired understanding, but also they become needlessly frustrated and disengaged from the task of learning.  Taken together, Bruner, Doyle, and Duckworth denote essential truisms about classrooms and learning:  1) students are capable of better and deeper understanding of more complex ideas than we often think they can; 2) the products, processes, and materials that support the development of that understanding are often highly ambiguous and complex to enact in a classroom; 3) confusion is an important part of the learning process, and learners need time and space to be where they are in their emerging understanding without being forced to move faster than they need.

 Unfortunately, what we've got is a system that demands results Right Now. Actually, not so much demands results as demands an assortment of paperwork and data points that can stand in for results. And so we have multiple tales of teachers are commanded to spend so much time planning to teach, documenting the planning to teach, document the results of the plan, documenting the results of the teaching, and documenting the analyses of the data generated by the plan to teach-- all this to the point that the teacher literally has no time to do her actual job.

Reformsters have become like the person who asks, fifteen minutes into a first date, "Are we going to get married, or not?" The demands for results (or at least data-filled reports that pass as results) have become so urgent that we lack the proper time to get the results in the first place (but then, we don't need actual results-- just data points and reports that pass for them).

Katz is right. We do need to slow down-- not for the harried and hurried teachers, but for the students who need the time to take that slow and sometimes muddled journey to understanding. I think Katz is absolutely correct-- we need a slow schools movement.

1 comment:

  1. We need to pay attention to cognitive psychologists like Bruner, Doyle, and Duckworth. And to the American Statistical Association, which says that using VAM models to evaluate and rank individual teachers doesn't tell you how to improve teaching and can in fact be counter-productive to improving the quality of education.