Friday, May 24, 2013

3 Major Shifts Public Education needs to make

"When practice becomes unmoored from purpose, rigidity sets in." This is one of my favorite quotes from Grant Wiggins. An entire series of books could be written on the implications this has not only on education but our society in general.

This is precisely why I always go back to asking the question: What are my long term goals for my students? Parents want their kids to be happy, hard working, motivated, responsible, honest, empathetic, intelligent, collaborative, creative and courageous. Of course we want our children to grow academically, but we also want them to grow emotionally, socially and physically, and this requires a well-rounded education.

I want to tell you a true story that happened in my grade 8 classroom a few years ago, and then I want to challenge us all to make 3 major shifts in public education.
As my grade 8 students filed into my classroom, I prepared to gather their attention so we could start science class when Liza, one of my students, approached me and said, “Mr. Bower, Alex won't come and talk to you, but he is very upset.”

I turned to look at Alex, and I could immediately see how distraught he was. His head sulked, his shoulders slumped and his eyes were red with the beginnings of tears. I could tell something was really wrong. Liza continued to tell me that Alex had lost his silver chain. I thanked Liza and approached Alex. At first he hesitated but then he told me that he was playing football outside at lunch and that it must have fallen off somewhere on the football field. 
I asked him if he thought we should go look for it, and he asked, “You mean I could do that?” I replied with the affirmative.

I turned to the class and said, “Class, we have a problem. Someone has lost something very valuable to them, and this item is somewhere outside. Alex was playing football at lunch and his silver chain is lost somewhere out on the football field. Does anyone have any ideas for how we could solve this problem?”

Lewis threw up his hand and blurted, “we could go outside and look for Alex's chain and then play football for the rest of class.” I was impressed with half of Lewis's response and unsure about the other. Hands flew up as every student volunteered to go outside. Rather than leap from our desks and march immediately outside to find the chain, I wanted to clarify something.  
“Lewis, I know that it is the last class on a Friday before you leave for a fun-filled weekend, and I bet many of us would love to do this just so we could go outside for the duration of this period and perhaps even get to play football; however, could someone come up with a better reason for why you would volunteer to do this?”

Lewis knew exactly what I was getting at, and he replied, “We should go outside to help Alex find his sliver chain.” Other students just as quickly blurted their agreement. The best reason to go outside right now was to help Alex, because he needed our help.

And so we marched outside to find another class playing football, so I invited them and their teacher to join us. We lined up on the end line, and began to walk together, looking down, searching for Alex's chain.

I looked up sporadically to see every student looking intently at their section of ground. I couldn't help but get that warm fuzzy feeling. My class was working together to accomplish a common goal. But that feeling was quickly hijacked by another thought – what if we don't find the chain? Wouldn't it be awesome if we actually found it!

Any thoughts of pessimism I might have had quickly evaporated when Colby announced, “I found it.” You can only imagine the feeling I had, and the atmosphere that was created amongst 50 grade 8 students, 2 teachers and 2 student teachers. Everyone had a huge smile on their face, but none were larger than the look of glee that could be found on Alex. While he walked over to Colby to accept the chain and say thank you, almost every student in the class came over to give Alex a congratulatory pat on the back. We were all so very happy for Alex.

Not wanting to be done with this experience, I asked the students to share what they thought about today's class.

Ethan shared with us a story about when he was in elementary; he tumbled down a hill and lost his lens out of his glasses. Upon returning from recess, he told his teacher what had happened, and she had told him to gather some friends and go find it, because this was important. They found it. I could tell Ethan looked back upon this experience with enthusiasm and joy; it was a pleasurable memory.

Jared shared with us a story about when he was in elementary; he had lost his glasses on the school yard. Upon returning from recess, he told his teacher what had happened, and she had told him that this was class time, and that he had lost his glasses during recess, so he would have to look for them on his own time. He never found his glasses. I could tell Jared looked back upon this experience with disgust and contempt; it was a vile memory.  
As we concluded the debriefing, child after child agreed whole-heartedly that today's activity was the right thing to do. The following list of words and phrases were used time and time again by the students to describe the whole event: kindness, teamwork, community, motivation, doing the right thing, citizenship, considerate, helpful, respect, responsibility and cooperation.
Let's use this story to push 3 major shifts in public education:


What if the class agreed to help Alex only if they could personally gain? What if Lewis agreed to help only if he got to play football? What if Colby only gave Alex his chain because he did a quick cost-benefit analysis and decided the reward was worth more than the chain? Motivation matters -- it's not just important that we teach kids to do the right things, but we must also do the right things for the right reasons. Children who grow up doing the right things for the wrong reasons grow up to be adults who stop doing the right things because they can personally gain by doing otherwise.

Research tells us there are two kinds of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic, and they are inversely related -- meaning if one grows, the other usually diminishes. The research also tells us that extrinsic motivators are only effective in gaining short-term compliance. When we frame teaching as do this and you'll get that, students will care less about this because they are distracted by that.

When it comes to intelligence, many people have shifted from asking "how smart are my students?" to "how are my students smart?".

We need to shift from "how motivated are my students?" to "how are my students motivated?".


The anecdotal evidence and scientific research that makes up the case against the use of rewards and punishments is as impressive as it is secretive.

The reason Alex hesitated when he told me he was playing football was because the boys were playing tackle again despite being told over and over again that they were to play touch football. If I subscribed to punishment or its pseudonym consequences, I might say to Alex that because he chose to play tackle football, the natural consequence is that he lost his gold chain. Alex will in fact learn a lesson, but it won't likely be that he shouldn't have played tackle -- rather, he will likely learn that his teacher doesn't care.

Rewards and punishments are not opposites -- they are too sides of the same coin. Rewards control via seduction and punishments control via fear. Classrooms that focus on power ultimately resort to controlling children to gain compliance. Classrooms that focus on empowerment seek to collaborate with children to be engaged.

We need to shift from focusing on control and compliance and move towards collaboration and engagement.


Under what circumstances would the teacher choose not to take their class outside to help find Alex's chain?

What if you are a grade 7 teacher and you are responsible for teaching over 1300 outcomes? What if this happened moments before the kids were scheduled to take a standardized test?

While it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that content-bloated curricula and test-based accountability might be obstacles for great teachers and real learning, this is precisely what the research has been showing us. Curriculum should not be something that is designed, laminated and mailed to the schools by distant authorities, nor should assessment be reduced to a primitive grunt that says, "test scores low, make them go up."

I once had a politician say to me, "Well you know Joe, what doesn't get tested, doesn't get taught." In some ways they are horribly wrong -- and in other ways they are horribly right (but not the way they might like to believe) If this is true, can someone show me the test that holds me accountable for helping Alex and/or teaching the class citizenship, collaboration and kindness? It's true that we should concern ourselves with what's on the test -- however, I think we grossly overlook what's not on the test.

The things that matter most in school are difficult, if not impossible, to measure, but they can always be observed and described.

We need to shift from valuing what we measure to measuring what we value. 


We live in exciting times -- especially education. Things are changing -- especially in Alberta. With change comes crisis and opportunity. With change comes promise and peril. 

The way I see it, these are three critical shifts that public education needs to make:
  • Shift away from asking "how motivated are my students?" and move towards "how are my students motivated?".
  • Shift away from focusing on control and compliance and move towards collaboration and engagement.
  • Shift away from valuing what we measure and move towards measuring what we value.
I'll leave you with one final thought.

Please remember that the only thing that cancerous education policies and sit-and-get-spew-and-forget traditional school requires to succeed is for strong, progressive teachers to do nothing.

1 comment:

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