Although I am right, I am irrelevant

Richard Elmore recently edited a book entitled, I used to think, and now I think. Twenty well known educators wrote essays on this topic. I was struck by the ridiculousness of what they used to think, and the common sense of what they now think. In other words, they used to think what they were taught within the social science paradigm for school improvement. Now they simply use common sense and experience, when they look at school improvement.

Here is my personal IUTTANIT:

Like many education professors, I used to believe:

  1. Good teaching cannot be defined, so we describe it in hundreds of ways, hoping aspiring teachers learn something from those descriptions.
  2. Good teaching produces test scores that are better than the ones students would have gotten with less “effective” teaching. (Teaching is an applied social science.)
  3. Teachers should be held accountable for the development of student knowledge and skill. Student test scores are the bottom line.
  4. Our beliefs about education should be based on “research-based” facts and reason because those are the “best” beliefs.

Now that I am wiser, I believe the opposite:

  1. Good teaching can be defined. A definition says what something always is and what it never is. Good teaching always involves understanding, imagination, strong character, courage, humility and generosity. It never involves ignorance, intellectual incompetence, weakness, fear of truth, pride, or selfishness. It is difficult to be a good teacher, but it is not complicated.
  2. Good teaching starts with teacher appreciation for the subject and students. It ends with student appreciation for the lessons and teacher. (Teaching is an art.)
  3. Knowledge and skills are not “measured” by standardized tests. Test results are not points on a ruler, they are like light switches that are either “on” or “off.” Therefore, teachers should be held accountable for modeling and teaching the six virtues that lead to knowledge and skills. They are easy to observe. No standardized tests needed.
  4. Beliefs are based on experiences, not facts and reason. All of us “just believe” many things. An example is those who just believe that “beliefs should be based on facts and reason.”

Nobody believes what I believe. So, although I am right, I am irrelevant.  I love irony.

Computers go better with virtues

Guest blog by James Bell

Business & Technology Teacher

Mitchell High School, Mitchell County, NC

Teachers try to present information and knowledge in a meaningful way. Incorporating the six virtues adds “flesh and blood” to what is otherwise “bare-bones” learning that lacks the desired impact.

As a rookie teacher I taught business and computers to middle-schoolers. This was challenging because we had few computers and not enough space for the ones we had. Later in the year I was also assigned to teach a beginning computers class at both K-8 schools (now closed).

One of these schools was trying to develop better relationships with parents, so teachers brainstormed ideas and came up with having a “Computer Night.” We invited parents, grandparents and other community members to attend a program in which students would demonstrate their computer skills and teach basic technology lessons to adults in our rural community.

Our goals were to (1) develop deeper understanding of computer technology, (2) increase parent and community involvement, and (3) inform community members about their schools.  Preparation for Computer Night focused on preparing students to be courteous, humble and confident in their demonstrations.

When Computer Night arrived, the media center was packed. Students welcomed the adults and beamed as they demonstrated their skills.  Parents and community members were pleased with our efforts and eagerly went to the computers for hands-on learning.

We had only one problem — too many people showed up. We needed more pizza. The principal and several others headed to local pizza places and even went to the next town to get more pizza.

Computer Night was a memorable, meaningful night of learning. It was a great success because of faculty and student understanding, imagination, humility and generosity.

Real life applications of marketing

Guest blog by Ryan D. Moody, Marketing Teacher, Ragsdale High School, Jamestown, NC

In today’s school climate of fear and mistrust, it is difficult to teach students about marketing and promotion. Decision makers are wary of allowing students too much leeway in activities. This story, however, is about my principal showing the courage and imagination that enabled my students to engage in meaningful activities.

I was frustrated with just showing my students examples of college webpages promoting their sports teams and programs.  I wanted their learning to go beyond collegiate advertising and branding on the internet.

Therefore, I asked my principal for permission to have our Sports and Entertainment II students take over web page design for our school’s athletic teams.  After some consideration she agreed to take the risk.

Since taking over, the students look forward to their weekly update sessions, when they apply their understanding of successful web page design and imagine new ways to promote the teams. The principal’s willingness to trust the students and treat them as budding “professionals” allowed them to show their true abilities and maturity.

It’s a test score, not “achievement.”

Educators don’t believe in the six-virtue definition of the educated person. It’s not that they evaluated it and found it wanting; it’s that they believe an “educated” person is one who earns degrees by scoring high on tests. That’s what I call, “schooled.”

Professors of education know the importance of precise definitions. They know that studying a teaching method’s “effectiveness” starts with an operational definition of “effective.” The word has no meaning, until they give it one. That’s why definitions are important. Even social scientists start with the inductive thinking that asks, “What is the meaning of ‘effectiveness’ in this study?”

The most common way to define “effectiveness” is in terms of higher test scores. Researchers realize the shallowness of higher test scores, however, so they report their findings and rationales by saying things like, “The data show increases in student achievement (or performance, or success, or learning).

They don’t say, “Data show increases in student test scores,” because then we would ask:

  1. How much of an increase?
  2. How many more correct answers did students get?

And then we would find out that the answer to the second question is that 25 students averaged fewer than two more correct answers on a 50-item test. In other words, educators spent the whole year teaching students to get one or two more correct answers on the end-of-year, 50-question, multiple-choice test.

High standardized test scores determine a person’s level of “schooling.” More information is needed to know if the person is “educated.” I love irony.

Improving schools is difficult. Don’t make it complicated.

A must-read for school personnel is Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal’s Reframing Organizations (RO). It uses clear language to explain an idea that is so simple it can be remembered and applied in even the most complex, hectic, school situations. When applied to schools, the theory behind RO is that educators acquire a full understanding of school situations by looking at them through four different “frames:” (1) structural, (2) human relations, (3) political, and (4) symbolic.

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Generosity gives in both directions

From Kimberly Leonard, Resource Teacher for Academically Gifted, Louisburg Elementary School, NC

This past Christmas our school and a local business sponsored a coat drive for needy children. Once the coats were in, we wrapped and tagged them for size and gender.

As children arrived in the school lobby, they took seats around the Christmas tree. When they started opening and trying on their gifts, their faces lit with excitement.

One little boy put his hands in the pockets of his new coat.  He discovered gloves and money and screamed, “I found 10 dollars in my pocket!” One of the business sponsors asked him what he was going to spend it on.  He thought a minute and said, “I’ve never had money before to buy my mom a present. What can I buy her for Christmas with 10 dollars?”

This 8-year-old boy’s generous spirit shook the earth below our feet.  There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.  And the generous spirits of the donaters will be remembered forever in these young hearts.  Giving always lets you reap more than you sow.

K-5 principal drives improvement

From Christie McMahon, Glen Alpine Elementary School, Burke County, NC

When my new administrator came to our school she had a vision for what she thought our school could be. The staff and students were satisfied but not pushed to achieve new levels of achievement. She showed imagination, courage, and strong character in order to create a better environment for everyone within our school.

First, she demonstrated imagination. She imagined a school full of technology where students would have daily technological interaction to fuel their learning.

She demonstrated courage and strong character when others told her there wasn’t any money to make the changes and purchase the necessary equipment.  She even encountered resistance from staff members.  She persevered through every obstacle to achieve her vision. Her courage and character drew others into her mission.

She has been at our school for three years. There is a Smart Board in every classroom. There are two fully staffed computer labs.  We have document cameras, digital cameras, laptops, etc., for the students to use in the classrooms.

The school climate has also improved under her administration. Her example of strong character, courage, and imagination have infiltrated all of the staff members at our school and helped to make it a better place to be.


Teacher Evaluations: Delicate Conversation? or Ironic Ignorance?

The Washington Post headline reads, “Evaluation of DC Teachers is a Delicate Conversation:”

The article is about a teacher who wanted to know why a “master educator” evaluator gave him a low grade on his math lesson:

Master Educator:  This does not measure your effort . . . But I do see your effort . . .

Math Teacher: So — what is this measuring?

Master Educator: It’s measuring the effectiveness of that effort . . .


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We need studies to tell us this?

Education Research Crap (or Duh!)

“Workplace Conditions That Matter to Teachers” is the theme of the January, 2011, Principal’s Research Review newsletter (from the National Association of Secondary School Principals). The following research findings appear on page 1:

Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions.

(Hirsch & Church, 209, p. 1)

Research indicates that . . . effective teaching can be enabled or constrained by the school workplace and the supports it offers (or fails to offer).

(Johnson, 2006b, p. 1)

Teachers’ perceptions of their schools are their reality; therefore, teachers’ behavior and efficacy are a direct result of those views.

(Hirsch, Sioberg, & Germuth, 2010, p. 1)

Conditions that are created by the leadership of the principal matter.

(Leithwood, 2006, p. 47)

Cut the Crap (or Translation)

Evidently, now we know that:

1. Teachers and students work and study together in classrooms.
2. School and classroom environments affect student learning.
3. Teachers’ beliefs affect their behavior.
4. Teachers sometimes allow principals to influence their work.

As mentioned in an earlier blog (“Research-based” does more harm than good), education research should be valued for confirming what we already know. Four examples are listed above.

Translation: I did not need a single study to tell me any of this.

“Research-based” does more harm than good

Natural science produces knowledge about cause and effect. Biologists, chemists, and physicists use the scientific method to discover laws that can be used to shape the environment to human desires.

A good example is the invention of air conditioning. Compressed air is cooler than non-compressed air, so air conditioners compress air and blow this cooler air into the room. So now we have air conditioning and more comfort on hot days.

Social science produces knowledge about correlations. Social scientists statistically control multiple factors to discover a single factor’s causation probability. They create theoretical situations in which, “when all other things are equal,” a correlation can be described as one factor having a certain probability of causing another.

In TSVOTEP I explained that taking social science findings out of the situation in which “all other things are equal,” strips them of what makes them true, which is being in a situation in which “all other things are equal” (chapter 8). In the real world, all other things are never equal, so educators can’t know if a specific social science correlation holds true in their situation. So far, no harm done. Educators can ignore social science findings, realizing that all other things are never equal in the real world.

For years teachers and principals have ignored educational research, but now that they are supposed to use “research-based” methods, they need to challenge this idea with a stronger argument for why they should pay no heed. As this blog explains, one reason is that social science findings sometimes do more harm than good.

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