Friday, June 18, 2010

I believe there are no emergencies in education...

I believe that there are no emergencies in education; in nearly every challenge we need only to realize that the past can show us the way to the future.
I am re-posting this article as the second installment of my beliefs about leadership and education. Thanks for reading.

Teachers, parents, students, society... there are no emergencies in education.


I first saw this video about a year ago, and have used it in virtually every presentation I've done since to parents and teachers both. Having been fascinated by the concept of scale my entire life, (and like most, having felt insignificant so many times,) this speech by Carl Sagan is the starkest reminder that we are truly blessed just to be here leave alone the opportunity to interact as human beings in a "mode of dust suspended on a sunbeam."

We are privileged beyond belief to be here on this earth. Humankind is a bizarre and wonderful gift when viewed from the perspective of Carl Sagan... when thought about, our existence in the cosmic reality is seemingly implausible. However, we are here, and this fact makes it so hard to realize why it appears to be our human tendency to exacerbate problems and issues to the point where our experience being here is not enjoyable. When we reduce ourselves to over-complicating issues, especially those that can't be explained, we cannot simply be here, in the present, gracious for our gift of existence.

Sagan's message carries massive implications for teachers. Notwithstanding the obvious physical emergencies that simply come with all aspects of life (injury, threat, risk etc.), within our daily grind when even the most trivial challenges become emergencies, how often can we say we are truly in the 'here and now' for our students, modeling the virtues of wonderment, curiosity, awareness... mindfulness? We get so wrapped up in the externally applied pressures of what we do that we lose our connection with our students; the only reason teachers exist.
Yes, teachers have pressures: we have deadlines; a responsibility to be accountable; the requirement to be well-planned and challenging behavior to deal with (from our students and colleagues)... our job requires  substantial skill-levels in organization, efficiency and decisiveness... doing it would be impossible otherwise. All this is not a burden though, it's a privilege.

Teachers, we have a challenging job, but in every challenge lies opportunity, and I would argue our teaching opportunity provides us with what I consider to be the most impacting and resonant responsibility this pale blue dot has to offer- the responsibility to teach.

We exist within a cosmic irony. Our very existence on earth is unexplainable, our origin unknown... we are a faith-based entity... we have to believe we are here for a reason. To believe otherwise would result in a very lonely, purposeless existence. So in this vast, unexplainable and overwhelming universe wherein our existence is completely insignificant, alas teachers are here and we have something significant to do. We are the ones responsible for helping all of us make sense of our ironic existence, our role in the world, our purpose... to find significance.

Every student is worth our full attention, and it is our primary responsibility to divine their individual strengths so they can be shared with the world. At the same time, we must bring the world to each individual student... help them realize how truly massive it is and what can be learned by being part of it all.

There is no person alive that should miss the opportunity to be significant.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Competition doesn't have to be a four letter word...

flickr CC image via stockicide

Competition isn't inherently bad. Whether a competitive learning environment is perceived as positive or negative depends entirely on the context within which we define competition.

When it comes to competition, once again, educators are polarizing an issue unnecessarily. It's a black and white issue for us- either we endorse competitive learning environments as positive teaching and learning, or we denounce them as a negative influence. I think it's when we impose a norm-referenced competitive learning environment on kids in school that it becomes potentially negative and perhaps debilitating.

There has to be a middle ground.

Are we not competitive by nature? Just watch a group of kids playing sometime... inevitably, and without provocation, they will engage in some sort of competition... seeing how long they can hold there breath under water, seeing how high they can climb on the monkey bars or just having a friendly running race... kids like competition when it's designed by them. Why not nurture this tendency in school? Perhaps we need to let kids be the authors of their own learning to a degree. Perhaps this is the middle ground we should target.

Let's use a standards-based learning (SBL) environment as our positive example. In as SBL environment, every student is judged against a set of learning standards that are consistent and measurable. When these standards are differentiated into levels of achievement, they also allow for a considerable amount of assessment flexibility. SBL environments permit us to get away from variations of a Gaussian Curve analysis of any particular group of students- arguably an unfair and statistically-biased form of summative assessment, and instead focus on the individual achievement of each student. In this context, each student is competing against his own prior levels of achievement, working to improve his knowledge and skill-set... taking on the responsibility for directing his own learning. In my mind there's nothing wrong with this form of competition.

Education, like golf, is ultimately an individually driven effort... to be successful at golf we need only to worry about our own score... to be successful at learning we need only to be concerned with our own progress.
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