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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are Bad Ideas Making Us Miss the Good Ones?

By Peter DeWitt — June 05, 2014 4 min read
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Over the past couple of years I have been dissecting our need for standards, accountability and constant mandates. I float back and forth between standards not being age-appropriate, to wondering if it’s the standards that are bad or what we do to them. Over and over again, I believe that if we know that standards have limitations, we can teach around those limitations. I mean, Olympic figure skating has strict standards and look how beautiful those performances can be...

The Common Core State Standards are not the ones I am referring to, but they have certainly been a whole new ballgame. In some states, like New York, the Common Core went from being standards to “voluntary” curriculum that schools can decide to adopt. I’m not a fan of scripted curriculum, and depending on how top-down the school leader is, I become less and less in favor of them.

It seems as though there are many bad ideas in education, and they are preventing us from seeing the good ones. Scripted curriculum is one of those bad ideas. If you have scripted curriculum, can you also have reflective, free-thinking, creative teachers? In Focus on Teaching, Jim Knight focused on autonomy in teaching and he wrote,

Giving people choices is important for other reasons than just reducing resistance. If we tell staff they must do what we, the principal, the central office, or the state, say they must do, we are working from the assumption that there is only one answer and that we know what it is, or at least that we know better than they what they should do."

Knight goes on to say,

In reality however, those who work directly with students know a lot about what is best for those students. Teachers' knowledge should be embraced, not suppressed. If we want reflective educators, teachers who think, we must make sure that teachers are free to make meaningful decisions about what and how they teach."

There was a time when teachers were invited into the decision-making process where curriculum was concerned. I’m not just talking about only the teachers who agree with the leaders in charge, but diverse thinkers who do not agree with the direction their school district may be going. It’s too easy these days for teachers and leaders to take the path of least resistance, and perhaps school districts always did that and I remember things more fondly than they were but teachers, along with students, need to be involved in the process of choosing what to learn.

Meeting in the Middle

In order to bypass the bad ideas in order to embrace the good ones, we need to meet in the middle. I understand that it is difficult to come to consensus when diverse thinkers are involved in a process, but it’s probably less difficult than making one group happy and the other groups feel as though they don’t matter. Shared-decision making groups have always had the potential to only end up making the decision that the school leader wanted in the first place. Those leaders like shared decision-making as long as the group ends up “sharing in the decision that the leader is making.”

When it comes to deciding the curriculum, there needs to be parameters in place. It also has to be understood that, when diverse thinkers are on one decision-making panel, no one will get 100% of what they want. They shouldn’t. Standards bring the commonality, but teaching and learning in each classroom brings the creativity.

When the decision of what to teach and learn is taken out of the hands of teachers and students, trust begins to disappear and morale begins to lower. The school climate changes from a group of risk-takers to a building filled with rule followers. Teachers feel less likely to step outside of their box, and they may feel even less likely to care whether their teaching style needs to change.

High-Impact Instruction

One of the best ways for educators to step outside of their comfort zone, and get a good sense of how they sound, act, and engage when they are teaching is through the use of video. In Jim Knight’s new book Focus on Teaching: Using Video for High-Impact Instruction, teachers and leaders can learn about the process.

I fear that many teachers won’t use video as a way to formally observe themselves, because they would view it as a “gotcha,” especially if they work for an unsupportive administrator. One that makes the decisions alone, and forces scripted curriculum, and one-size-fits-all programs. That’s too bad because Jim Knight lays out many reasons why video should be used.

When it comes to high-impact instructional practices and using video to monitor who you are doing, as well as how you can improve, Knight offers some of the following framework:

  • Encourage a Safe Culture - Jim talks a lot about making sure participants feel “psychologically safe.” In order to effectively use video to create high-impact instruction, participants must feel safe to expose themselves to colleagues.
  • Keep the Emphasis on the Positive - Participants need to know that they are using video to create a positive result. Harping on the negative, and pointing out what is wrong instead of what is right, is used too often by leaders. Focus on the positive.
  • Monitor Competition - Jim quotes Michael Fullan to say that “healthy competition can be good” but we also know that some educators can take competition to a new height. It’s up to the group, and the leader, to monitor competition. In the long run, this should be about the students winning.
  • Walk the Talk - Team leaders, especially if it’s the principal, needs to video themselves teaching. It’s important that everyone on the team, and I mean everyone, steps outside of their comfort zone.

In the End

It may seem odd to begin a blog about standards and compliance, and move on to an instructional coaching technique, like the one offered by Jim Knight. The reality is that they are related. If teachers do not feel as though they are valued, they will feel less likely to work in teams to improve their instruction. They will, however, be more likely to walk into their classrooms, shut their door, and become a silo.

It seems as though education has always been about taking one idea and going full steam ahead as if it is the silver bullet to ending all of our problems. Using scripted curriculum, standards on steroids, and other one-size-fits-all approaches are taking the thinking out of teaching and learning. And sadly, because of the leaders who force these decisions among teachers, great instructional techniques like those offered by Jim Knight could be missed or ignored, and that would be very sad for education.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.