When I started this blog, I decided that, if I could not write about serious things in a playful way, I was not going to do it. Life is too short (at least mine is) for any additional dullness in it. Since some of my former students are now reading my blog, I figured that I would make good on a threat that I made to them throughout my career: I always told my students that I had a good memory and that, at some point in my life, I was going to write about them. Well, today is the day, all you former students! I am going to use references to some of you in this post. Names have been omitted to protect the innocent, but I am going to write about some of the things you and I learned together in our time, and I am going to do it in a public forum. What we learned seems very relevant and important this morning as I write this post.
The problem with heavy-handed reform efforts (especially those firmly embedded in political contexts) is that they tend to shut down creative approaches to change at exactly the time when innovation is most important. Reforms fail not because reform was not — or is — not needed. Reforms fail because the either-or mentality of extremists at both ends of the spectrum in the debate tend to demand credal purity more than pragmatic solutions. The past tends to become so idealized or so vilified that the way forward is missed and we just squander opportunities. I think that is happening in education today, and I believe it’s time to lighten up. Yes, we need to improve, but we are not marching in a funeral procession here. Can we not at least retain enough optimism to consider the full range of options available to us? Are there not certain attitudes and skills and understandings that we can bring to the debate that can give us a chance both to smile and to teach a new generation of children? Do we gain that much by making our schools increasingly duller and more frightening places to be? Can we not at least respect our students enough to take some time to listen to them and to learn along with them?
I know for a fact that change is possible. Old dogs can learn new tricks, and I am proof of that. And, for those of you who are frightened by change, there is a comforting corollary to that statement: old tricks still work on new dogs. My students can attest to that. We lived it. Life is not an endless stream of mutually exclusive alternatives. The adventure comes by living the life between these statements.
When I was about mid-way through my teaching career, I took a summer course called Critical Skills. It was a program offered by Antioch University New England Graduate School in Keene, NH ( http://www.antiochne.edu/ ). The motto of the program was “Teachers Teaching Teachers”. It was a unique program at that time (and, in my view, it still is). It was a one week intensive course facilitated by classroom teachers for other classroom teachers. It focused on how to take the normal school curriculum and turn it into “problems for students to solve”. It was an experiential program grounded in constructivism. My entire career up to that point involved my using a pretty traditional “lecture” type instruction in my classes. I was a secondary English teacher (an old style red pen and tweed sport coat English teacher). The Critical Skills course was really my first formal exposure to a constructivist methodology (something that I had avoided, almost as I might avoid the nurse’s office after a reported outbreak of head lice in the school. Yes, I knew such things existed but why expose myself to that?).
What I learned in that course was how I might better explore a full range of instructional designs in my classes. I left the course understanding that lessons could be more than just top down, teacher-dominated designs geared to individuals arranged in rows like feed lot cows. But I also learned that students are not just the opposite of that either: They are not free range chickens running all over the lawns of the school pecking at constructivist kernels of corn sprinkled at random in their academic barn yard. For whatever reason, I was ready to listen to alternative approaches to curricular design that summer. I learned the importance of flexible planning, how to assert intentional control over a process without subverting the process and the need to once again become a learner among learners.
Somehow, as I survey the educational reform efforts today, I see these efforts as coming dangerously close to bringing us back to a feed lot mentality that I simply find objectionable. I want to argue against that, and I want to be a voice for creative moderation. This may go against the grain, but I think it is worth the effort. In this post, I am just going to list a few of the guiding principles I learned that helped me change at the midpoint in my career. (In the next post, I am going to present some operating principles that tie the big ideas or essential knowledge of a curriculum to specific instructional methodologies.)
To begin with, the hardest part of change (at least for me) was walking away from prior success and gambling on something new. I felt that I was pretty successful as a stand up lecturer. There was a high stakes exit exam, a high powered summative assessment, at the end of my course: the New York State Comprehensive Regents Examination in English. My students tended to do well on that exam, and I had to fight the desire to play the game conservatively. However, it did reach a point where I understood that my style of teaching was meeting my needs more than it was meeting the needs of my students. After I took that Critical Skills course, I went back into the classroom and I explained to my students what I wanted to try. When I got all done with my explanation, one student raised his hand (yes, it was that long ago), and said, “Mr. Fox, that is not you!” and I said, “I know it is not me, but it is the me I would like to become.” So my first tip is to admit the risk, to be open about it and to seek help from the best professional development experts we have out there today — our students. I am a perfectionist by nature, and this step was maybe the toughest part of the entire change process. Making a public declaration of the intent to change is quite a risk.
Main Point: If we want to teach students to be learners, we must be learners ourselves. The best classes are those in which the teacher is a model for learning.
I really struggled trying to find the “right balance” between top down designed classes and backwards designed constructivist classes. Timing was troublesome, but I did get better at it as time went on. My students understood my pain and really helped me. I had a particular girl who had a unique way of teaching me to how to integrate formal planning and incidental learning. She would come into the classroom on Monday mornings, walk over to my desk, throw open my plan book and say — dramatically and loudly — “Let’s see where he scheduled spontaneous fun this week!” The first time she did that I was just so stunned that I could not do anything but laugh, but eventually it became a ritual as well as an important regulator for me in designing my classes. Ah, yes, a culture must be intentionally developed for productive spontaneity to occur. It was ok for some things to happen that were not planned. My, what a novel approach to life!
An important concept really helped me to come to grips with this — the Puzzle vs. Problem Continuum. If we envision curriculum planning as a continuum and, at one end, we had puzzles and, at the other end, we had problems, there is a whole range of design options that would open up for us. It would be possible (and perhaps advisable at times) to design lower complexity challenges that are more puzzled-based (i.e., one possible solution that the lesson is designed around and that give the teacher more control and that limit the risk for students since protocols for puzzle solution can be carefully scaffolded for success). At the other end, we could have problems (really messy problems) with no clear solutions where students needed to assert a great deal of independence and assume much more responsibility for their learning. These problems consume more time, but they are a better way to teach long term understandings and to address knowledge transfer issues (precisely the kinds of learning that are important for higher order thinking skills and lifelong learning).
Main Point: Lesson designs exist on a continuum of potential choices. It is not an either-or situation. Incidental or spontaneous learning is a productive outcome of a healthy learning culture. Incidental learning does not diminish or threaten more planned and structured learning; it complements it. It is joyful learning and not a cause for recrimination.
Effective lesson designs may demand teachers to cede some power to students and to enter into a collaboration with their students. I personally was trained to believe that a teacher needed to be in control of every facet of the classroom — design, instruction, classroom management, and so on. Although this is mostly an illusory “not tied to the real world” view of teaching, it is the one I operated under for many years. I needed to find a balance that would work for me. I started writing “challenges” for my students, and, since I am a pretty conscientious guy on most days, I would put everything I had into those curricular challenges. I was too controlling, but it was what I needed to get started. Eventually, I would present the challenges to students and we would “chunk” the challenges. I use “chunking” here in a psycholinguistic context, and it means that we would discuss what it was I wanted them to do and how I wanted them to do it. At the start, it was really a matter of “Do they understand what it is that I want?” The students would chafe a bit at my desire to control, but they played along. Often, they simply gave me enough rope to “hang myself” and they would say after the event: “Why did you not just listen to us to begin with?” Fortunately for me, I do have a sense of humor as well as some professional integrity, and I could admit my limitations. Eventually, this evolved into a classroom ritual. The kids allowed me to spend my weekends writing “the perfect challenge” and then I would copy that challenge off for them to read as we began a class. Then, and I still love this student to this day for the impact she had on my career, it became a ritual for a particular girl in the class to wait until everyone had read my “perfect challenge” and she would say, “Mr. Fox, this is SO not going to happen!” Then, I would smile and ask, “Why not?”. And the kids eventually would rewrite the challenge for themselves and I would negotiate with them. It was liberating and it was fun. I always maintained the integrity of the curriculum, but I ceded the how to them and, as I grew more comfortable with the process, I ceded more and more of the instructional design responsibilities. As long as we could meet the goals and outcomes we needed to meet, I was a pretty flexible guy. To be fair, I was not a real good process person anyway. I was (and still am) one of those people who focuses on the end product and does not really have a real good idea of how to get there.
Main point: The teacher is not the sole designer of the curriculum. Teachers have learning intentions, but students have learning intentions as well. Effective classrooms are characterized more by a serious negotiation among learners. Sharing learning intentions is a bilateral process based on a respect for all learners (the teacher as well as the students).
I always feared doing a lot of small group work in the classroom for two reasons: first, it would require moving furniture around (and I am pretty much of a plodder who loves sameness); and, second, I always thought that group work simply introduced students to the “near occasion of sin” and that bad behavior would have to be the short term consequence of innovation. It never occurred to me that the biggest problem would be my own behavior. When I started to give my students more control (more responsibility, really), and I moved more in the direction of problems and away from controlled puzzles (solved individually or in pairs), I found that I often drifted over to student discussions. I was kind of a hovering presence in the room, sort of like an old lingering aunt waiting to be kissed goodbye at the end of a Christmas night as she was about to leave for the place where all old aunts live. This kept happening until one day, a student looked up at me and said, “Mr. Fox, just because you’re bored doesn’t mean that you can come over here and vamp off us!” I always think of this as my “Slow Down Moses Moment”. That girl was absolutely right in what she said, and her courage in saying that made me a better teacher. It was more than just a blunt plea to let them take control of their own learning; it was an opportunity for me to invent a new role for myself in the classroom.
The unintended consequence of this “don’t vamp off us” comment was that, by pulling back from the process and learning how to watch it, I eventually learned how to listen and observe and note the kinds of things that were important to formative assessment. At the end of the process — after the game was played — I learned how to lead students through a reflective thinking process. We could actually discuss what happened as they worked, what they might want to celebrate having done and what they might want to change in order to improve their efforts on the next assignment. Wow, it was real teaching to people who wanted to listen. The power of the teacher may be more in the teaching done “after the fact” than “before the fact”. If it had not been for a girl with enough courage to tell me not to “vamp off them”, I might never have learned that or had the joys of teaching that way.
Main Point: In curricular planning, we need to be mindful that there is a time for teachers to assert control and to do direct teaching, but there is as well a time to relinquish control and to simply observe students as they learn for themselves. It may be less of an issue of what we do during the instructional process than it is when we do it. Timing is vital to learning, and astute observation is important to formative assessment.
I am not going to pretend that these anecdotes are any more than what they are. They are memories of experiences that I had with my students that helped me grow professionally and that perhaps assisted in the learning of my students at a particular point in their academic lives. There are others that I could have added that might have been more or less pertinent to the readers of this post. However, I did want to illustrate something that I just think we need to bear in mind as we think about curricular design. What we design may be the products of our intellects, but what we are doing is not really designing products at all. We are designing processes for children to engage in so that they can be the ones who produce. For all our talk about the knowledge, skills and dispositions we think are important for children to have in the 21st Century, it seems to me that we do not really spend enough time thinking about how our aspirations for children are grounded in the dispositions of our teachers. That is what this post was really all about. We need to relax, we need to smile, we need to have courage, and we need to change. And that is a good thing because we are learners and we must model that for our students.