The blame game

“We don’t blame dentists when we don’t brush properly and we get a cavity. So why do we blame teachers when kids don’t pass because they don’t study?” (A meme recently posted on Facebook.)

I agree with the main point of this meme: Teachers get all kinds of undeserved blame for situations they have little control over.

But, taking a step back, I got to thinking that we spend far too much time trying to figure out who’s to blame in all kinds of situations. If we put as much energy into finding solutions as we often do figuring out who’s at fault, we could make great progress. (Actually, most of the blame game is really about absolving ourselves of responsibility. But, we don’t have to accept responsibility for a problem in order to want to do something about it!)

Here’s a truth: Any system is perfectly aligned to get the results it gets. If we are dealing with a system problem, we’re unlikely to solve it without addressing system issues. When large numbers of people are not succeeding in a system, it’s unlikely that it’s because there is something wrong with them!

I think about some of my own relatives who struggled in school because of undiagnosed learning disabilities and other challenges, and who were thought to be uncooperative, when in fact, they were simply suffering.

This meme kind of assumes that the blame for failure has to be the fault of either teachers or students. Either way, unless we understand why some students don’t study, my guess is that we won’t fix the problem. The only thing the blame game accomplishes is to allow the rest of us to walk away from thinking compassionately and creatively about solutions.

Learning without being taught

I have long been an admirer of Victor Wooten’s bass playing, ever since my brother-in-law gave me a Bela Fleck and the Flecktones CD, many years ago. Wooten is a brilliant musician. (Well, actually, so is my brother-in-law!)

Last night as I was randomly searching through TED talks on YouTube, I noticed that he had done one entitled “Music as a Language.” I watched it and was completely enthralled.

Wooten points out that we learn language without being “taught,” and how he learned to play music by growing up in a music-rich environment. His focus in this talk is about learning to express the music that is within each of us, and I think his insights could easily apply to life and learning much more broadly.

The thought emerged for me: What would it be like if schools were organized based on this insight? In a way, that’s the philosophy of makerspaces and language immersion programs. What would it be like if we stopped making children learn, and started letting them learn instead?

Here’s a video of Wooten’s TED talk.

Grades, indicators, and learning

Here’s an interesting (to me) reflective piece by author Dan Houck about grading, from Inside Higher Education. I think the writer has expressed the misgivings many educators feel about distilling the complex phenomenon of student learning down to a single letter or number.

I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with Peter Ewell, when I was working at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest and he was helping us think about related issues. We got onto the subject of indicators, of which grading is a good example–measures that stand in for more complex phenomena which are not easily measured. Dr. Ewell pointed out that indicators are reasonably useful until consequences are attached to them. When that happens, powerful motivations arise to distort the inputs to the measures, or to the measures themselves. We start to pay more attention to the indicator than to the underlying phenomenon it is meant to illuminate.

In the case of grading, we start to pay attention to the letter or number, rather than to the learning or performance it is supposed to indicate, with all kinds of unintended consequences. As an example, there have been numerous stories in the media about the Hope Scholarship’s requirement that students maintain a “B” average, and scholarship students’ choice of less challenging coursework to ensure that they maintain their eligibility. At least in some cases, rather than taking the hard, but possibly more rewarding, courses, paying attention to the indicator has the effect of increasing risk-aversion among some students.

In a way, though, the question of how–or whether–to grade students, should be accompanied by the more central question of how to engage students in meaningful and valuable learning, as I think Mr. Houck articulates in his reflections. What will help the students find their own reasons to want to squeeze every drop of value out of their school experiences? How best can their teachers help them do that? How can professors, schools and colleges design learning environments where that is at the top of the agenda?

How to make sure that PBL is applied well in schools

Helpful perspective from Mind/Shift at KQED by Thom Markham, PBL Global. This article responds to some current critiques of PBL, but focuses mostly on the way that educators’ perspectives need to change in order to implement PBL successfully. As he says, the point of PBL is not to sneakily manipulate students into learning that is focused on the standards, but to go far deeper into real learning that results in high levels of self-directed learning. This is not a long piece, but has a lot of good ideas.

Project-Based Learning (PBL) resources

Project-based learning (PBL) is an approach to teaching and learning that engages students in ways that traditional classrooms often don’t. One group that provides resources to help teachers create and implement PBL is the Buck Institute for Education. They have created a framework called “Gold-Standard” PBL, and many of the resources they offer are free on their website.

Also, Thom Markham is a PBL advocate, leadership coach, and prolific tweeter. His organization is PBL Global.

The CSTP Teacher Leadership Framework

I’ve been working with some mathematics educators recently on a grant proposal to develop teacher leadership in mathematics and found an organization that’s doing great work in teacher leadership, the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession (CSTP). They’ve developed a set of tools to help implement and evaluate their Teacher Leadership Framework. If this project is funded, I hope we’ll be able to use this framework to help understand the teacher leadership development process.

I’d be interested to hear from others who are using this or other frameworks to develop or study teacher leadership.

Undergraduate engineering students research smart structures

This summer, undergraduate engineering students participated in a collaborative research experience, in an innovative collaboration between engineering companies, the University of South Carolina, and San Francisco State University. They were learning about smart structures technology (SST) that helps buildings withstand earthquakes and other natural events.

AWAKE Career Development PBL Workshop

Just spent a couple really good days with 45+ Career Development Facilitators and Career Development Specialists from public schools around South Carolina who were exploring ways to use project-based learning (PBL) in collaboration with teachers, to help kids learn about career possibilities! A really great group of folks making a difference in the lives of kids.

A PD workshop sponsored by the AWAKE Center of Excellence at the University of South Carolina.