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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

Who Knows What’s Best for Students?

By Peter DeWitt — June 08, 2016 6 min read
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If you sign into your favorite social media account, you’ve probably noticed a plethora of educators, researches, politicians, policymakers, writers, media people with husbands that started their own schools with hedge fund money, and edustars Tweeting what they think everyone should be doing in the classroom.

If it’s not Twitter it’s most likely Facebook that we can click on articles, animated videos and presentations from everyone from a parent to a teacher to even the creator of Facebook himself talking about what’s needed in classrooms and schools.

Long before social media...yes kids...there was a time when we didn’t have smartphones, tablets and laptops, and we actually had to talk at each other in person with sentences that lasted longer than 140 characters. Let’s try that again. Long before social media there were still people writing articles and books about what works best in classrooms, and we flocked to read what we would hope would solve all of our issues with all of the students sitting in our classrooms.

We found out after we read through those articles and books that there were no silver bullets that would solve all of our problems. Sometimes we walked away with more problems.

Social Media Extravaganza
There are times when I log into my social media accounts and become over stimulated by the articles, blogs and video presentations that offer new advice (that when you scratch the surface and do your own research you sometimes find is just repackaged old advice with a new name). Truth be told, I hope I never have given the impression that what I write about, or what others write about in guest blogs for Finding Common Ground (FCG) is supposed to be a one-size-fits-all answer to all of your problems because...

...there are no easy answers to all of our issues. And sometimes we make issues where there aren’t any.

When I click on the information Tweeted or posted by others, I float between thinking it sounds really great, and sometimes worrying that they want to provide the most noise with the loudest voice to show they know better than everyone else.

It has me constantly wondering...who knows what’s best for students? Who should we listen to?

Students? We talk a lot about what they need but we don’t always seem to involve them in the dialogue. We have curriculum to teach and things to cover that they may need to know in life, but I wonder if we give them enough input into what that looks like? Do we move beyond the student surveys, and co-construct learning intentions (Hattie) with them and provide the opportunity to spend part of their day exploring their own learning so they are curating their own learning as much as they are forced to sit back and consume it? Do we provide them with feedback at the same time we listen to their feedback?

Parents? - We don’t always do such a hot job of listening to parents, and sometimes that’s because we are the ones with the degrees so we think we know best. Schools and districts have gotten into branding to show parents what is happening in their school, but I wonder if that’s just becoming another way we tell parents our message without ever listening to their message?

We need to engage in dialogue at our open houses, PTA/O meetings, and other stakeholder meetings where we are asking parents what they want their children to know when they leave our grade or our school. Have we ever simply had them write down at open house their answer to the question, “What do you want out of your child’s education this year?

Teachers? There is a lot of research that shows that if teachers have a low level of self-efficacy they are more likely to believe that they do not have an impact on student learning. Bandura (1980’s) and Rachel Eells (2011) have researched self-efficacy and collective teacher efficacy (respectively) and their research has shown that we have many teachers who don’t feel like they are making an impact, and that is so sad. Accountability, mandates and one-size-fits-all programs certainly don’t help self-efficacy.

It’s why the work of educators like Jenni Donohoo and her work on collaborative inquiry is so important. We need PLC’s that really foster the collective efforts of all members, and instructional coaching that helps teachers co-construct goals, and we need less programs and compliance coaches. Teachers have put so much time and effort into their profession...we should really want to hear what they have to say. If we don’t, we are just creating more teachers with a low level of self-efficacy.

Building leaders? Hopefully building leaders have spent a great deal of their time observing multiple classrooms. Building leaders are surrounded by high quality teaching and learning, and they can collectively bring those teachers together to share best practices in faculty meetings and grade level meetings. We need more collaborative leaders.

District leaders? District leaders have the same luxury of seeing great teaching and learning as building leaders, but they get experience it across the district, and can develop ways to share what they have seen. However, just like building leaders, district leaders have to make sure they aren’t always chasing after the shiny new toy that comes out in the next book or article. They have to do a needs assessment, and have lots of dialogue with all of the groups from above to see how they can help strengthen that need that was assessed.

Consultants? Truth be told I wasn’t always kind to consultants, and then I became one. Over the last two years I have had the opportunity to see some highly impactful examples of learning, teaching and leading, and sadly, many examples where students didn’t seem to be learning much at all because their schools lacked engaging instruction and leadership.

Consultants who have taught, led buildings or districts, and work with researchers can provide insight into what students need. Talking heads who seem to be selling a gimmick are not needed at all. Before you go to a consultant, try to tap into the power of the teachers, students and leaders in your school community first.

Researchers? If we are going to have an impact on student learning, we need to make sure we are looking at research. Additionally, we need research that focuses on student learning that is reliable, valid and encompasses a large and diverse population of students. However, we also need to spend time, time, time to see how that research fits into our school context.

In the End
All of the groups from above can offer important insight into what is best for student learning, but it takes collaboration. Collaboration is a word that we use a lot, but sometimes that collaboration is very surface-level because the decisions have been made well before the group ever comes together to collaborate.

Schools are good at surface level.

There are too many schools that say they are “Growth mindset schools,” “Daily 5 schools,” or “PLC schools” when the reality is that they are just doing it in name alone and true, deep dialogue is not taking place across the grade levels and departments.

Before we chase the shiny new toy, we need to make sure that our needs assessment says we should be playing around with that toy in the first place. We need to know how that will help us with student learning. If that prep work hasn’t been done, and the different groups that make up our schools aren’t involved in the dialogue, that shiny new toy will get lost along with all of the others ones we chased before it.

We should always ask, “How is this best for students?”

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (2012. Corwin Press), Flipping Leadership Doesn’t Mean Reinventing the Wheel (2014. Corwin Press), School Climate Change (2014. ASCD) and the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of NDE

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.