|There are an infinite number of things a school might focus on improving, but there is one priority that trumps all others. To be more accurate, there is one major initiative that will have a greater positive effect on the atmosphere and morale of school life than all the other initiatives combined. Simply put, it is the cultivation of great learners; children and adolescents who are eager to learn, capable of learning, engaged by teachers, and willing to work up to their ability.
A public declaration to assiduously work toward this goal is an important first step. But the difference between good schools and great schools is all about follow-through. It is the persistent pursuit of ideas and practice that makes goals a reality, and which models for students the steps by which someone achieves excellence.
Please don’t misinterpret this as a prelude to a sermon declaring that students’ grades are the greatest reward for a well run school. Rather, academic performance is the result of a well orchestrated educational climate. Here, I’m talking about a school atmosphere that can’t be created by inspirational posters, school mottos, or new technology. It’s an ethos which tilts on the vision of school heads, the skills of teachers, and the commitment of school systems to provide those teachers with the tools needed to be effective 21st century educators.
This is a perpetual type of commitment, because schools are dynamic organisms that serve a malleable, morphing population – children. There is no finite body of knowledge that one can acquire to become a great teacher, because the natures of both children and learning are in constant flux. Some things may not change, but all of the vulnerability in schools is linked to those things that do change.
To ensure we’re on the same page, allow me to make two clarifications:
First, by emphasizing teacher development as the lynchpin of school success, in no way do I intend to blame teachers for the abysmal performance of students who lack parental guidance, and whose social and psychological problems require solutions far beyond the scope of most schools. Teachers can certainly be a part of the solution for these students, but threatening to terminate teachers who cannot lift the grades of neglected and unsupervised students is unconstructive and unscientific. Let’s remember, however, that the percentage of students who fall within this category is generally quite small, and certainly does not include all those students who may lack “perfect” parents.
Second, teacher development is not the same thing as teacher training. Teacher training is done as part of one’s education to become a teacher. Professional teachers are already trained. By contrast,teacher development is a continuous process that feeds the intellect of teachers the same way it does for allied professionals. Psychologists, speech/language therapists, guidance counselors and a myriad of other professions rely on professional development to stimulate critical thinking about what is going on in student’s lives, and how the professions can effectively respond to those changes.
First Things First
I worry that there is too often a “spread the focus around” approach, as though students and schools are best served by a scattering of resources so that eventually everybody gets a little of what interests them. In my view, this is ineffective leadership, and is symptomatic of confusion about educational priorities. A similar confusion pervades events organized by schools for parents.
More specifically, – and I respect that many readers will disagree – until a school is reasonably certain that it has cultivated a community of engaged, responsive learners – I think it’s a mistake to spend time, money, and energy discussing cyber-bullying, internet security issues, the dress-code, extra-curriculars, and even substance abuse. All of these issues are important, but secondary to the top priority of cultivating great learners.
Again, student grades are not the only way to assess whether a school is developing great learners. Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother makes an interesting argument for making grades the top priority, but it is extraordinarily well rebutted by Wesley Yang’s Paper Tigers article in New York Magazine. Yang’s major point is that great marks don’t necessarily translate into great vocational skills, and that many students who were once high-achieving high school students are languishing in less than stellar careers because they lack the people skills needed for career advancement.
I’m less emphatic about academic achievement than the idea that school is a major component of developing great people. What’s more, I firmly believe that the social problems which currently dominate the attention of schools will be dramatically helped by focusing on the top priority of education: cultivating great learners. Nothing is more infectious than engaged immersion, and nothing generates a passion for learning like a passion for teaching.
Minds in Motion
Those who follow this newsletter will certainly know of my interest in the effects of executive function on student capability. From my perspective, it is the most important and widely relevant concept in the entire field of child development. It is difficult for me to understand how any school can move forward with the intention of providing a first rate education without first providing teachers with a solid understanding of executive functions. The capability that emerges from harnessing these skills may not be the only goal of education, but I don’t know of any school that doesn’t value these attributes highly.
One of the reason professional development loses steam in school is that so much of it is excessively “academic.” It’s great to include aspects of science, but schools are primarily interested in ideas that have immediate application. Still, there’s a difference between important ideas that have practical application, and concepts that are so basic that they teeter on mundane. So many of the programs offered as teacher development are intensely programmatic; it often feels as though the bullet points and “tips” can be anticipated before one attends the seminar.
An American Conundrum
In America, we are inundated daily with stories designed to scare us about the wellbeing of children, stir alarm about social inequality, or our failure to educate in comparison with other nations. Such stories poke at our national identity, provoking strong feelings and circular debate. And although there may be important concerns behind such stories, the emotional effect of this information diet is a culture of reactivity. America is such a massive nation, with so many young people to educate, that at any given moment it’s possible to find a cohort of students who appear to be “hanging on” and in desperate need of immediate help.
The specter of students who may be unable to meet basic job requirements, potentially incapable of living within the mainstream of American society, is an invitation to be reactive. Yet the drama of such perspectives is antithetical to the proactivity that drives great teacher development. The many school visits I have made which, among others, include public schools, charter schools, and schools serving disadvantaged students, suggest to me that where professional development is made a priority, there is almost always an atmosphere of positivity and curiosity. These are essential ingredients for morale and accomplishment.
Your counterpoint might be “sorry, but we’re too burdened by the incessant need to focus on standardized tests to be concerned with such things.” But an age such as ours, where educational “value” might unfortunately be reduced to “measurable outcomes,” is precisely the time for school leaders to fight for the intellectual development of school staff. Note that I said school leaders.
Sometimes, the word “intellectual” elicits suspicion, as if it suggests that teaching should be more of an abstract exercise. To the contrary, my use of “intellectual” implies a renewed focus on the meaning of school and the purpose of education; to exchange and debate ideas, to understand that teaching is a kind of “practice” involving both art and philosophy, to remember that student achievement cannot exist in a vacuum – it can only occur in the light of teacher achievement.
Now the challenge is to connect teacher development with tangible development in students. This is important not only for purposes of accountability, but because cultivating great students is the life force of any school; it is the clarity that brings purpose to the school day in the midst of paperwork, meetings, etc.
Yet if that is so, why does teacher development seem to be going the way of recess and art classes – steadily downsized until it has become little more than a token nod in a great many schools? If it were not for statutes and regulations requiring professional development, teacher development might cease to exist altogether!
As I write this newsletter I’m in Sydney Australia, where I have been consulting with The Shore School for the past five weeks. Shore has a generous Board that was willing to fund an extended visit. It is a unique opportunity for both the school and myself, and not one that I anticipate could be replicated by many other schools.
Still, I ask myself why so much of my consulting work takes me outside of the United States, when there is so much to be accomplished in my own country? Like many educational consultants, I have regrettably discovered that we Americans tend to be a bit less convinced by the merits of professional development than those in other countries. When we do discuss education, our conversations and worry seem to invariably focus on underachieving students. These kids represent a challenge for an already faltering economy.
But is the panicked, politically charged tone of our discussion the best way to lead? For me, it leads to a kind of anxious exhaustion conveyed well by educational slogans like “Race to the Top.” The top of what exactly, and what shall we do once we get there?
I’m not sure if American schools are simply too overburdened by other mandates, have budgets that are too tightly squeezed, have lost belief that there is anything new to learn, or simply suffer from an inferiority complex that gets masked as all of the above. Perhaps the American public has forgotten that schools are not just the battlefield where we wage proxy war to debate political viewpoints. Whatever the case, meaningful educational leadership must look at teacher development not as an ancillary activity that exists apart from the primary activities of school, but one that makes the spirit of education sustainable.
Copyright Adam Cox, 2011
|Engagement Improves Grades
Having spent a number of years emphasizing the benefits of experiential/interactive education, I was pleased to see that a recent studyby the University of British Columbia found that interactive instruction greatly increased the amount of learning students accomplished in physics.Researchers found that students in an interactive class were nearly twice as engaged as their counterparts in the traditional class. Students from the experimental class scored nearly twice as well in a test designed to determine their grasp of complex physics concepts (average score 74 per cent vs. 41 per cent, with random guessing producing a score of 23 per cent). Attendance in the interactive class also increased by 20 per cent during the experiment.
According to co-author of the study, Carl Wieman, “This study shows that we can achieve individual attention without individual interaction, and that even in a large class, the positive effects of a tutor or apprenticeship model can be achieved by using evidence-based teaching methods.”
During the experimental week, research teachers gave no formal lectures, but guided students through a series of activities that had previously been shown to enhance learning, such as paired and small-group discussions and active learning tasks, which included the use of remote-control “clickers” to provide feedback for in-class questions. Pre-class reading assignments and quizzes were also given to ensure students were prepared to discuss course material upon arrival in class.
“These activities require more work from the students, but the students report that they feel they are learning more and are more vested in their own learning,” according to study authors.
|Ask Dr. Cox|
Q. We are a family of four. My husband and I have two beautiful children, a 14 year- old son and a 12 year old daughter. I am writing to you because unfortunately our son has received in-school and lunch suspensions for being playful in school. His teachers are complaining of him being very talkative and disturbing their classrooms. They have attempted to change his seat, but he somehow still finds a way to socialize with his friends. I am not sure where to go and what to do. My husband and I have met with the dean of 8th graders to see what is happening with his progress, and to see whether he needs to take additional classes during the Summer of 2011. The dean believes that our son needs to participate in Summer school program to get ready for high school next year. Our son tells us that he has no problem concentrating, and that he promises to correct his behavior, but it happens again and again. His father is not a very patient man and gets angry at him most of the time and the anger sometimes turns into a harsh punishment. As his mom, I want to find a way to help, but have no clue why this thing is happening and what is causing it. I really want to help him but need help myself to start. Please advise me on this important matter.
Savita T., Tallahassee, Fl
I have a feeling that your son may be having more difficulty with concentration and self-control than he realizes, or is able to convey to you. I would suggest having him evaluated by a psychologist with expertise in executive dysfunction or ADHD. It will be particularly important to gather some impressions from your son’s teachers to assess their perception of his behavior in class. Once you have this additional information, please schedule a meeting between you and your husband, and his principle teachers. At this meeting, ask your son’s teachers what specific corrections they would like to see, strategize about a plan for achieving those changes, and then set a date for a follow-up meeting to assess his progress. Bring your son into at least a part of that meeting so he knows exactly what changes his teachers are looking for, and so that he knows that you have been informed of specifics.
Your husband needs to understand that your son’s problems are not a moral failing, but the result of impulsivity and in all likelihood, a dysregulated prefrontal cortex. Many doctors call this problem ADHD, although I believe it is better understood as executive dysfunction. Please research this term on my website and other websites. Often, medication can help alleviate core symptoms. In other cases, extensive surrogate supports (executive function coaching) can mitigate problems. It will be important for your husband to become better informed about the reasons for your son’s problems. We certainly wouldn’t punish someone for having uncontrolled diabetes – and we shouldn’t act too harshly toward dysregulated boys either. Don’t give up, things can get much better. Good luck.
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