Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘There’s Nothing More Innovative Than Care’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 21, 2014 16 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series on this topic)

Ingrid Veilleux asked:

How does caring relate to our current focus on standards in education?

The Common Core Standards are on everybody’s lips in education. Most states are implementing them, and the few that aren’t are creating their own that bear a close resemblance to Common Core. I’ve searched them for the words “care” or “caring” and all I come up with is “career” -- nothing about care or caring for our students can be found.

So, how does caring relate to our current focus on standards in education?

Today, educators Andre Perry, Sara Ahmed, Kristine Mraz, Sean Slade, and Mai Xi Lee provide responses. You’ll also be able to listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Sean and Mai Xi on my BAM! Radio show. However, because of the holiday break, it won’t be online there until after the first of the year.

Readers might be interested in some related resources I’ve collected:

The Best Resources On The Importance Of Building Positive Relationships With Students

The Best Posts About Trust & Education

And, if you haven’t seen this TED Talk given by late Rita Pierson, you’ll want to watch it. You can find the transcript here:

Now, to today’s guests...

Response From Dr. Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. Previously, Perry worked in both academic and administrative capacities, most notably as CEO of the Capital One-University of New Orleans Charter Network, which consisted of four charter schools in New Orleans:

Standards aren’t imbued with care, but people should be.

Democratic countries need their formal educational systems to have standards. Societal and individual growth is predicated on people (especially young ones) learning and advancing established knowledge. Consequently, schools should teach what students need in order to advance prior knowledge. These standards aren’t necessarily caring (what I define as being culturally sensitive), but they project the sympathies of the writers. The standards of Home Economics weren’t inherently insensitive per se, but thank goodness someone saw that girls and women could also make advancements in microwave technology.

Inclusion makes curriculums more caring.

However, standards-based education advocates press forward without having adequately addressed white privilege, which is a source of deafness in the movement. If architects of standards-based curriculums and assessments don’t address white privilege, Common Core will go the way of Home Economic standards.

Listen carefully and you can hear the insensitivity of white privilege in many who advocate for standards-based reform.

There’s nothing more uncaring than the emotionally empty buzzword of “data driven.” We hear the hackneyed phrase in most forums in which users want their reforms or initiatives to sound smart, reasoned and researched. However, “data driven” is also a euphemism for “I really don’t have to care what you think; these numbers justify my silencing of your inferior beliefs.” Some people have the luxury of not connecting with black and brown communities where data driven rhetoric is supposed to signal tough, smart love.

Reforms should be community and student driven, and educators should use data to help students and communities achieve their goals. In my experience, educators who are data and not people driven are more likely to fire than to develop; more likely to expel than to reconcile. It’s simply easier to close a school than to build its capacity when you don’t share the fate of the community you supposedly serve.

Data driven people tend to improve by deletion. The problem is that people don’t disappear as easily as numbers. Fired teachers are still in the community. Expelled students get their lessons somewhere other than schools. But again, if you’re not connected to the communities impacted by the aforementioned actions, you see deletion as benevolent.

The device of the achievement gap also fits nicely into a data driven framework. Closing the black-white achievement gap has been raison d'être for standard based-reform advocates. The black-white achievement gap reeks of white privilege. Whites are the assumed standard to be reached. And educational leaders prove everyday that there are too many nefarious ways to reach that false standard. Incredibly high expulsion and suspension rates certainly help schools “improve” or reach a numerical goal, but the practices hurt individuals and communities. I always joke (kinda) that the easiest way to close the black and white achievement gap is to stop educating white people. This sounds preposterous, but equally absurd actions take place everyday in the name of closing the gap.

Education leaders will fire teachers in mass, expel students, deny special education services, cheat on standardized tests and shutter school schools in spite of larger community goals and needs - particularly black and brown communities’ needs.

What do these words and actions say about the care in our standards?

When current designers of curriculums address white privilege, become more inclusive and subsequently use standards in caring ways we’ll create accountability systems that developmental in nature. Growth measures will seek actual human capital increases in the number of black and brown teachers, biologists, mathematicians and scientists. Educational organizations will make diversity a key performance indicator. Talk about poverty and racism won’t only come from the usual suspects.

Promoting standard-based reforms isn’t an inherently careless act. However, being inclusive removes doubt. White privilege blinds the most well intended advocates from a valuable lesson: there’s nothing more innovative than care.

Response From Sara Ahmed

Sara Ahmed has taught in urban, suburban, public, independent, and international schools. She is currently teaching middle school literacy and social studies using the inquiry model at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, California. Sara is coauthor with Harvey “Smokey” Daniels of Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry:

The Caring Common Project at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education surveyed 10,000 middle and high school students about what meant more to them, “achieving at a high level, happiness, or caring for others.” Nearly 80 percent of students ranked achievement or happiness over caring for others. Gulp.

It’s also worth mentioning that one of the key design considerations of the Common Core State Standards is a focus on results rather than means. In other words our current focus is: Achieve. Achieve. Achieve. By any means necessary; the journey does not matter. The text goes on to explain that the CCSS does not mandate teachers to a particular practice as long as they are getting the results.

As educators, where are our standards for caring and empathy? They are inherent. They exist in our hearts and minds. However, they do not exist in the document that drives the work in our classrooms. Thus, they are not measured. They are not taught. And, according to 80% of the surveyed kiddos, they are not valued.

So, how can we grow upstanders in today’s world?

Model what we value. Kids value what parents and teachers model for them. We can show them that results are not all that matter. In our actions, our lessons, and our everyday choices, we can show that the means--character, compassion, worth ethic, leadership, and collaboration-- not only bear desirable results, they make us human.

Help kids to know themselves and others. Kids need to first know and care about themselves and then the world around them. We make this possible when we build a space where students’ identity is celebrated and diversity (of thought, race, gender, religion) is honored thoughtfully and authentically.

Encourage empathy. You can’t tell a child to care about others, but you can provide them opportunities to see themselves in others and to exercise their natural empathy. You can find out more about who they are as individuals and connect small moments in their lives to yours, or to the work at hand. You can celebrate the identity of characters, of women and men of history, of athletes, of scientists and mathematicians of the world, so they too can find their voice, pursue their passion, or name their struggle.

Caring is a way to rid our society of bullying, of racism, of prejudice. It needs to be valued and modeled.

Response From Kristine Mraz & Paul Swan

Kristine (Kristi) Mraz is a kindergarten teacher, consultant and author. She is co-author of the Smarter Charts books (with Marjorie Martinelli) and tweets as @MrazKristine. Her latest book, with Christine Hertz, is about building positive habits for energized and engaged living and learning, available in summer 2015. Kristi wrote this with the kind help of Paul Swan. Paul is an Elementary school teacher and is currently a Clinical Specialist for preservice teachers at Melbourne University where he lectures and conducts regular classroom observations. He is currently midway through his PhD titled ‘Mentalization and Empathy in Elementary School Teachers':

To answer this question, it helps to think about how ‘standards’ and ‘caring’ relate. The standards, for our intent in this question, constitute a “what”, specifically, what children need to know to be successful in the world. Caring, in teacher-student relationships, represents the how, as in “how can we help our students to best acquire the ‘what’ needed to be successful in the world?” The answer to how is, in short, by caring.

Key theorists such as Nel Noddings (2000) and Maxine Greene (1988) refer to the importance of teachers having a “caring relation” with students. In a meta-analysis of over 800 studies addressing influences on student achievement, Hattie (2009) found teacher-student relationships to be the 12th most important factor with an average effect size of .72 across 229 studies.

A list of standards to meet is not nearly as powerful for children as teacher who cares about their world. Swan (2012) in his article ‘Mentalization: A Tool to Measure Empathy in Primary School Teachers’, describes teacher empathy as a teacher who has “the ability to sense the student’s inner world of private personal meanings as if they were their own” (p. 8). You can not hope to teach someone, unless you first strive to understand their unique world, motivations and emotions. Swan has been studying teacher-student relationships and the role and sources of empathy and found that when it comes to student achievement, the warmth of the relationship between teacher and student, and a teacher’s ability to be empathic, matters.

Knowing a child deeply, and understanding their unique viewpoint, allows you to find the best ways to support a child as he or she makes sense of the “what’s” in their world. We all have experience with this sense of being “known”. Consider in your own experience the times in which you felt someone “got you” and its impact on your actions. Standards matter, but the children we teach matter more. Focusing on teacher empathy begets deeper and more powerful classroom practice (See Swan’s work on teacher relationships and empathy below).

So how does caring relate to our current focus on standards? They are companions in instruction. Your teaching will only be as strong as your connections, your ability to understand and empathize with your children. A “what” without a “how” is a goal that will not be achieved. We must fight to keep caring a fundamental tenet of education.

For more on Paul Swan’s work, visit here.

For more on John Hattie’s work see the book: Hattie, J. (2013). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.

Response From Sean Slade

Sean Slade is director of Whole Child Programs at ASCD. The Whole Child Initiative is an effort to change the conversation about education from a focus on narrowly defined academic achievement to one that promotes the long term development and success of children. Sean is the co-author (with Peter DeWitt) of School Climate Change: How do I build a positive environment for learning? (ASCD, 2014):

The sad truth is that caring currently doesn’t relate to the focus on standards in education. The good news is that it still can.

A recent report from the Making Caring Common Project (Harvard Graduate School of Education) outlined that caring ranks far below achievement in the eyes of our students and even their parents. When asked to rank what was most important to them - achieving at a high level, happiness (feeling good most of the time), or caring for others - the vast majority (80%) chose achievement or happiness with only 20% selecting caring for others. And it wasn’t just their opinions, this was also what they believed their peers, their families, and their teachers wanted. From the Executive Summary:

At the root of this problem may be a rhetoric/reality gap, a gap between what parents and other

adults say are their top priorities and the real messages they convey in their behavior day to day...About 80% of the youth in our survey report that their parents are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others. A similar percentage of youth perceive teachers as prioritizing students’ achievements over their caring.

Focus and mindset

What is clear though from this report is the need to change mindset if we want caring to be a core part of our children’s rearing and education. A continued focus on academic achievement-only will produce a generation of children and a society which is only focused on achievement - and a narrow definition of that term. Changing mindset is the first step in changing systems. A recalibration of why we have an education system and a realignment with what we believe we require as a society is needed - if we value collaboration, cooperation, empowerment and even caring then we must place these as core parts of our system. A whole child focus ensures that each child, in each school and in each community is healthy, safe, engaged, supported and challenged.

CCSS and caring

And while changing mindset can help to refocus education, it does have a formidable foe - if we want to view it that way - in the Common Core State Standards or, in fact, any academic standards currently out there. Academic standards place the value on academics. However, how we approach, introduce, or teach to these standards is up to each of us. As standards are benchmarks and not pedagogy nor curriculum, how we teach towards these standards is our choice, our decision.

Want more focus on collaboration, on cooperation? Then ensure that these actions are integral to the teaching that takes place. Want to develop the caring and nurturing skills of your students? Plan activities that touch and practice these attributes.

The standards are academic, but they don’t force caring out of the equation.

Response From Mai Xi Lee

Mai Xi Lee is Director of Social Emotional Learning for the Sacramento City Unified School District:

Caring has a direct correlation to the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS). When we think about some of the things the CCSS calls for, such as collaboration, perspective-taking, the ability to make viable arguments, perseverance, problem-solving, and engaging in deeper learning, we can’t help but see the relevance and importance of caring.

To care about something means to place importance and interest in that thing. Placing importance and interest in working together collaboratively, making a viable argument for your own opinion while respecting another perspective, learning to problem solve, persevering through difficult learning challenges, and engaging in learning for deeper understanding are monumental to the process of learning, both in school and in life. It goes without saying that when students care about something, they’re more focused and are apt to do better. Caring is that intrinsic motivation that leads to persistence in action, which results in academic and personal resiliency. So, how do we teach and reinforce caring from our students?

Caring begins with a thoughtful social emotional learning (SEL) process. The Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has identified 5 core SEL competencies that support students’ SEL development: Self-Awareness, Self- Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision-Making.

In order to be motivated to care, students should have a strong sense of self-awareness (a recognition of their emotions, values, strengths, weaknesses), be able to self-manage (regulating their emotions and setting goals), develop a sense of social awareness ( showing understanding and empathy for others), connect to others by building positive relationships (working collaboratively, cohesively, and resolving conflicts), and making responsible decisions (evaluating, reflecting, and making constructive ethical choices). By walking through all 5 core SEL competencies, students develop their sense of care, interest, and concern for the goals they need to set and the actions they need to take in order to be successful, both with the CCSS and in their personal lives.

Ultimately, you can’t wish or will someone to care about something. Caring or showing interest is a personal social emotional learning journey and is unique to each individual. As an educator, I’ve often heard my colleagues lament that their students just “don’t care”. It’s very hard to be positive and to stay connected to our students if we don’t think they care enough to connect to us and/or what we have to offer them. Perhaps we ought to start investing time to seek out and inquire about what it is that they care about and start from there. Allowing ourselves and our students to walk through the process of developing social emotional learning skills might be a good place to start. The skills learned will certainly support the Common Core State Standards and reinforce the process of care, interest, and concern for learning and achievement, both for us and our students.

Thanks to Andre, Sara, Kristine, Sean and Mai Xi for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be including readers’ comments in Part Two.

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