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Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/25 at 07:40 PM
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2013 Montana Heritage Project

Leading students into engagement

Schools cannot be made great by great teacher performances. They will only be made great by great student performances.

Phillip C. Schlechty, Working on the Work

Phillip Schlechty suggests that the primary role of teachers is leader rather than of facilitator, as favored by constructionists, or coach, as favored by the Coalition of Essential Schools.

I think this is right. A high school teacher’s main problem in this age of mass education is a lack of authentic engagement by students. Once students are engaged, both coaching and facilitating—not to mention lecturing and assigning—can be quite effective.

To get what Schlechty calls “authentic engagement” teachers need to lead. He points out that the work of teachers has more in common with the work of other leadership professionals such as business executives, clergy, and military officers than it does with the work of diagnosticians or physicians. This is helpful to keep in mind as the medicalization of education continues apace.

The real work for teachers comes into focus when we consider the five patterns of engagement that Schlechty describes:

Authentic engagement. The student associates the task with a result or product that has meaning and value for the student, such as reading a book on a topic of personal interest or to get information needed to solve a problem the student is actively trying to solve.

Ritual engagement. The task has little inherent or direct value to the student, but the student associates it with outcomes or results that do have value, as when a student reads a book in order to pass a test.

Passive compliance. The task is done to avoid negative consequences, although the student sees little meaning or value in the tasks themselves.

Retreatism. The student is disengaged from the tasks and does not attempt to comply with the demands of the task, but does not try to disrupt the work or substitute other activities for it.

Rebellion. The student refuses to do the task, tries to disrupt the work, or attempts to substitute other tasks to which he or she is committed in lieu of those assigned by the teacher.

“Authentic” comes to our lips so easily these days that thoughtful people will hesitate before uttering it, but Schlechty’s list is useful nonetheless. Many teachers, even those in very good schools, are content with passive compliance and ritual engagement. On some days, any teacher would be thankful to achieve a class that was ritually engaged. In countless well-managed classrooms most students are well-behaved and busy with productive work with few or no students authentically engaged. Indeed, honor students can learn quite a lot and do quite well on tests with these levels of engagement.

On some days or for some classes, this is no doubt enough. Our world puts lots of demands on us to learn things, and it’s only sane to comply and to get the rituals down. In the last week I needed to learn the controls of an unfamiliar digital camera, figure out how to use a new preloaded syringe to give myself medical injections, gather background on a political leader that circumstances have dictated I will be working with in the near future, and figure out why my website was taking visitors to random pages after they submitted an email form to us. None of this was done with great passion. I complied with my plight and went through the familiar rituals. It’s how we live now.

But as schools trend toward being ritual centers, they anaesthesize those within them. If young people hit the books only because they want to get into good colleges and get high-paying jobs, they may be deaf to the highest ideals of our culture. If students study only to register higher scores on competitive tests, they may be sleepwalking through the sublime realities less distracted travelers encounter in science and literature. And if we--the leaders--spend valuable class time coaching kids to score better on tests and writing assessments, we are contributing to a phony culture where trophies trump accomplishments. We are saying quite clearly that scores matter more than deep learning.

To get kids engaged in real work is a leadership challenge. In fact, getting good performances from others—helping them find their voices--is nearly always a leader’s most important work. Leaders inspire, coach, share information, ensure emotional support, arrange opportunities and resources, provide scaffolding for aspects of the performance that are still too difficult, facilitate associations with peers and mentors, and arrange recognition for accomplishments.

There’s nothing new about any of this, of course. It’s what good teachers have always done.

But we all know that it isn’t always done. We wouldn’t have to visit many classes in a typical high school to see lots of passive compliance.

What intrigues me about heritage teachers who consistently get high quality intellectual products from students is the skill with which they put before students work that engages them. I’ve noted several factors about that place-based research that students have said are important:

1. It is real work. The projects are organized with a final public exhibition as a mission. The need to have a complex finished product by a specified deadline gives the work shape and energizes the participants.

2. The work is important. Students believe they are preserving history that will otherwise be lost, or giving voice to people who would otherwise be silent. They believe this because their teachers and others aren’t shy about telling them what they are doing is important.

3. The work is social. Students get to be part of a team that has a mission—getting ready for a public performance. This gives them a reason for being together and things worth talking about. Since they are dependent on each other for how well things work out, what they do matters. Also, community mentors, parents and grandparents, and outside experts get involved with the work. People like being involved in things that lots of other people are involved in

We know that what students learn is affected by the effort they put into the work at least as much as it is by their intellectual ability. A great deal of attention should be paid to the quality of work that teachers provide. I believe that place-based research projects provide one of the most straightforward ways to engage students in real work—work that is inherently important, work that is inherently social, and work that has natural audiences beyond the classroom—and that heritage projects should be a part of the curriculum in every school.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/31 at 10:56 AM
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2008 Montana Heritage Project

Reforming school: now what?

One of the more comical aspects of NCLB is
the Hickory Farms facade on the US Depart-
ment of Education building in Washington,
D.C. The homey little red school house
acknowledges what we all know: kids do best
in human-scale places. We are apparently not
supposed to really notice that vast bureau-
cratic structure looming behind, that repre-
sents the reality of school reform via federal

Why are the politicians in charge of education?

Diane Ravitch asks Deborah Meier a critical question on the Bridging Differences blog:

. . .how did American education fall so effortlessly into the control of Know Nothings from the world of business, law, and politics?

How indeed?

Since schools are politically-governed institutions, why would you expect them not to be controlled by politicians? And as you increasingly centralize their governance, how would you not expect lawyers and businessmen to increase their control, as they have of most other centralized bureaucracies where there’s huge opportunity for gain?

It’s not quite true that these politicians, lawyers and businessmen truly know nothing. It’s just that in a democracy where vast numbers of voters are ignorant or inattentive or both, politics will often be dominated by opportunists who pander for gain. It would take a Know Nothing—or at least someone uninformed by much history— to expect otherwise.

Schools depend on the surrounding community for both their clientle and their staff. Public schools also depend on that community for their governance. Ever since I was a young, reform-minded principal, I’ve been quite sure that the community needs to be the unit of educational change, if we are talking about a public school. As long as decisions are made by elections, it’s nearly inconceivable that a school will operate for long at a higher intellectual or ethical level than the community in which it is embedded. To get the community to do something difficult, such as succeeding at teaching children difficult things, at least a majority of the community will need to see and understand the need for doing hard things.

Lost in a national “community”

That seemed hard enough in the town where I worked. When the size of the decision-making community has been expanded to include the entire nation, as it has been under No Child Left Behind, the difficulty is beyond daunting. No individual is likely to be heard above the roar of institutional voices, speaking through costly lawyers in forums created and controlled by big money. Of course we lose our voices.

At this juncture, those of us who would like schools to be thoughtful places where difficult and meaningful work is the daily task, our choices for getting there seem to be either to educate a majority of the national citizenry to share our vision, so we can get past gridlock or ugly compromises and can get on with the work, or to escape national decision-making (though we may want to keep national information gathering and dissemination) and let folks at the site make most of the decisions, through some system of decentralization.

The most hopeful may be vouchers which could allow a network of private schools where decisions about professional practice could be made by professional educators without undue interference from local politicians. Disgruntled parents would not need to campaign for politicians who promise some axe grinding. Instead, their freedom would be preserved through choice. If they disliked what was happening at school, instead of getting involved in politics they could just change schools.

One danger, of course, is that many private schools would just be local franchise outlets of large corporations offering the educational equivalent of happy meals: cheap, standardized, and gratifying but not very good for you. To be honest, I’m not at all sure this would be worse than what many kids are now getting, and I’m also sure that educational fast food would not be the only offerings on the market. McDonalds has not driven good restaurants out of business.

Be that as it may, we are nowhere near the first choice袀reaching a shared vision of what quality public schools would look likeԢindeed, we may be moving farther from it, judging by the partisan tone of our national political conversation. So the first choice seems, well, impossible.

And if the second choice—a robust national system of private schools—doesn’t quite seem impossible, it does seem unsatisfying, ineffective and unrealistic, at least in the short term.

One initial problem with it is that new schools would be staffed by people from the existing education industry and so would tend to re-create the system we would hope to reform. A lot of ideas about teaching that have been demonstrated not to work (whole language, learning styles, multiple intelligences, portfolio assessments and most thing deemed “authentic” or “student-centered") are, nevertheless, ubiquitous and seemingly as ineradicable as false ideas about medicine that seem so ingrained that even many doctors believe them: we only use 10 percent of our brains or we should drink at least eight glasses of water a day.

Speaking about the difficulty of making progress by increasing parental choice, Ravitch somewhat irreverently points out that

most schools will reflect the dominant ideas of the schools of education, where most teachers get their training, so most schools will adopt programs of whole language and fuzzy math. . . . Most students under a pure choice regime will know very little about history or literature or science.

City Journal

This is what I’ve thought for a long time. Parental choice may be better for reasons having to do with freedom, but I wouldn’t expect it to lead to mass improvement on standardized tests. In the short run, a new charter school or voucher school is unlikely to be fundamentally different than a typical public school. Where would it find people who think and act in ways fundamentally different than their colleagues up the street?

Where are our teaching orders?

So things at the moment look a little bleak. At such times, when there seems no clear way forward, I sometimes finding myself thinking about an odd comment Philip Rief once threw out: “Where are our teaching orders?”

An order is as different from an organization as a team is from a committee. In an order, each member has internalized the principles that the larger order is dedicated to so that, in a sense, each member contains the whole. People are bound together by their shared vision and shared commitment rather than by the formal rules, though formal rules will certainly exist as expressions of the vision and commitment and as a way to remember complex learnings.

A good teaching order would both train teachers and operate schools. The animating vision of the order provides guidance not only for the curriculum, but also for system-wide discipline involving the conduct of teachers and administrators as well as students. Most schools today have adopted the vision of school as a due-process bureaucracy. Students are taught they have rights. Less often are they taught they have duties to any particular social order.

At present, leaders who would create different schools usually need to use teachers trained by the universities into the standard progressive ed vision. Though we do have hundreds or thousands of programs that do some teacher training, the training is usually inservice and narrowly focused, and after a summer institute the teachers return to their various schools, where they are likely to be quite lonely.

Focusing on the work at hand

Even so, I feel oddly optimistic. Maybe because at the moment I have lots of work to do and the school I’m at is at least in comparative terms a sane place. It would be a breach of faith to feel pessimistic when every twenty-four hours a brand new morning arrives, and I have energy.

I also know that the rules that govern our reality respond to us. Many of those laws are, as Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman put it, “socially constructed,” and some realities we can change by changing such simple things as the way we walk, our posture and the expression on our face.

At times when we can’t do all we would like to do, it may be enough to be honest with ourselves, to listen carefully, to think clearly and to speak candidly. Sometimes we don’t need to solve problems so much as we need to lose our fear of them and turn away from them to the other things that matter to us more.

We only need to change our minds and all sorts of unsolvable problems vanish. Something is going to change. Keep busy and look forward to what’s going to happen next.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/19 at 02:09 AM
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2008 Montana Heritage Project
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