Friday, April 9, 2010

Losing our way

Teachers encourage their students to prioritize and avoid distractions all the time. We employ all kinds of classroom management tactics to encourage a focused learning environment. However, perhaps more today than ever before, students are driven to distraction - and what's sadly ironic is that the adult's may be to blame.

In order to refocus ourselves, we need to understand what it means to properly prioritize.

In their book Made to Stick, Chip Heath and Dan Heath explain how defining and maintaining the essense of an idea can be so important:

It's hard to make ideas stick in a noisy, unpredictable, chaotic environment. If we're to succeed, the first step is this: Be simple. Not simple in terms of "dumbing down" or "sound bites." You don't have to speak in monosyllables to be simple. What we mean by "simple" is finding the core of the idea.

"Finding the core" means stripping an idea down to its most critical essence. To get to the core, we've got to weed out superfluous and tangential elements. But that's the easy part. The hard part is weeding out ideas that may be really important but just aren't the most important idea. The Army's Commander's Intent forces its officers to highlight the most important goal of an operation. The value of the Intent comes from its singularity. you can't have five North Stars, you can't have five "most important goals," and you can't have five Commander's Intents. Finding the core is analogous to writing the Commander's Intent - it's about discarding a lot of great insights in order to let the most important insight shine. The French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupery once offered a definition of engineering elegance: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." A designer of simple ideas should aspire to the same goal: knowing how much can be wrung out of an idea before it begins to lose its essence. 

Because most teachers have curriculums that are bloated with content, it can be a real challenge to maintain our focus. With the advent of today's high-stakes, standardized testing accountability, teachers may be more apt to become distracted than ever before. As if printing students' test scores in the local paper wasn't distracting enough, now policy-makers want to tie teachers' salaries to their students' test scores with merit pay. We've gone from targetting teacher's pride to targetting their wallets. All of these distractions make it hard for teachers to focus on our primary objective: learning. And if the teachers are having trouble maintaining focus, you can only imagine how distracted the kids are.

In the military, the Commander's Intent intentionally remains vaguely focused on the primary objective. This way the original plan may go up in smoke, but you still execute its intent. In the classroom this translates into: If there's only one teacher left to teach, they better be doing something to help student's to learn.

Unfortunately, top management might know what their priorites are but be completely inept at sharing and achieving them.What's worse is that there is very good reason to believe things are worse than that- for too long education reform has been driven by politicians who are incompetent at even identifying the primary goal of education.

As you prepare for your next lesson, think not about what you can add to your classroom, but how you can peal away the distractors and make it obvious to every single student in your class that, in the end, students are in school to learn.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Follow by Email