Context Matters

Educating the whole child means, in our 21st century, creating the conditions for social-emotional learning (SEL). Often, in my experience, out of a love of children and a desire to build resilient, compassionate learners, SEL is moved out of the classroom context into pastoral care environments, especially in independent or international schools. Private schools seeking to prove a value addition may lean on advisory or pastoral care programs within the school day from this desire to serve each child’s need and to most easily package their whole child approach.

In fact, I wonder if schools that chose to promote their SEL within the classroom approaches might spur a revolt among their community by a perceived dilution of academic rigor or contact time? Seems possible. If we love educating for “The Big Five” personality traits (or the positive factors while mitigating those which may form obstacles to success, like “neuroticism”, through “grit” activities, etc.), we may change our minds quickly if we catch a whiff of time away from math instruction.

Here lie some of the inherent tensions and contradictions within schools – the tension between doing something important well and searching for a place to do a little of something important because it seems important to do or the contradictions between what we do and how we do it.

Trusting relationships provide the foundation for learning. One of my past professors described Vygotsky’s concept of the “More Knowledgeable Other” (MKO) guiding a learner through the Zone of Proximal Development as the definition of care in education. Many online guides to Vygotsky quickly point out that the MKO need not be a person, but could be an electronic tutor or the like. That’s true, but the student needs to trust the source – its knowledge and its raison d’être to aid the learner. In my opinion, research by another former professor, Dr. Anastasiya Lipnevich, that shows college students improved faster when rubric feedback was perceived as coming from a computer than from a professor suggests how distrust or the perception of disinterested or cursory grading renders feedback worthless more than it suggests electronic grading has value.

In short, we learn from one another in rich, safe contexts when we do real things – or do tasks in academic environments in which we trust each other and care about the outcome. The same is true of SEL. We learn positive behaviors from models who we trust and care about, and the only people from whom we can receive and integrate feedback on our bad behaviors are those we care about and trust.

The key point is that all behaviors must arise in an authentic context if we are to learn from them. School and classrooms may be arbitrary, but like fiat currencies, they are the coin of the realm. What are we to do? The gold standard should be real, authentic, meaningful environments in which we engage together in shared journeys of learning and discovery, but sometimes, paper money has value, too. It’s easier to carry. It scales.

SEL in arbitrary environments, like an advisory in which no authentic or contextually meaningful tasks are engaged in together, proves a hollow enterprise, often something like an online activity to uncover our strengths or a team building activity to highlight “grit”. These context-free activities demand an exceptionally talented teacher to maintain student interest and focus, or at least an exceptionally agreeable teacher (#BigFive).

I can’t do it. And I question any claims that building a marshmallow tower together once per year provides sticky learning on the nature of one’s own character. Relationship building and social emotional learning stand as essential pillars of a complete education, but should occur in the context of nothing less arbitrary as a classroom, to say nothing of other domains of school, like sports fields or service work. This learning is too important to fake.

On Modeling & Teacher Assessment

I often monitor the daily Twitter #Edchat conversation for nuggets of goodness, but have never jumped in until this week. Yesterday, a conversation was flowing around the concept of teacher portfolios for teacher assessment. I have some experience with this, as my first year at Tohatchi High School featured a mentoring program and a portfolio to judge my highly qualified-ness. While I worked to complete this portfolio in earnest, many of my peers openly joked about it as a hoop to be jumped through, ticked off the boxes, and scored exactly the same as me: Passed.

When a principal is asked to assess 35 or more professional portfolios, I question the depth of assessment that will result. On a more basic level, I question the need for standardized assessment of teachers as much as I question the need for standardized assessment of children. Most likely, teacher portfolios will take time and attention away from planning, delivering (or organizing), and assessing student learning. Granted, this is a skeptical view of the portfolio in operation because the term assessment in the United States is forever wedded, at least on the macro level, to the term high stakes. If teacher assessment is used to determine levels of compensation, terms of employment, or competency for publication (as in New York), teachers will rationally place their energy in satisfying those demands, which would be in creating beautiful portfolios rather than reflecting actual practices – dog-and-pony-show production. As long as education “reform” in the US is centered on the fetishization of data, these processes will fail, portfolios more than most because portfolio data is qualitative, not quantitative, and so not easily aggregated and communicated for (spurious) purposes.

An argument that was presented in the Twitter conversation was that teacher portfolios would serve as models for student portfolios, and that teachers would be role models by producing their portfolios, learning how best to instruct portfolio creation through action. Modeling is clearly an essential practice for teaching skills. If students are building art, writing, physical education,  or media portfolios, for example, their respective teachers should model the creation of quality products and the organization of these products into portfolios. If teachers cannot produce such quality content, they should reach out to those who can. But modeling the authentic creation of a body of work – videos of discus throws showing improvement over time, for another example – is much different than teachers using portfolios of their teaching practices as exemplars for students. I regularly notice unwarranted enthusiasm for treating students like wee teachers, engaging them in information about instructional practices and training them to deliver content, especially among progressive educational circles (whatever that means). I wonder if anyone is asking students about their genuine level of interest in these materials and skills, or if they’d rather have an opportunity to develop a portfolio of apps or websites they designed themselves? A model portfolio of a teacher-as-learner would be of limited value to a student seeking to create a portfolio of herself as a learner, because the material and skills involved are bound to differ wildly.

I love teaching; I am endlessly fascinated by education. I don’t imagine others to share my passion. Some do – fantastic! Others don’t, and when those others are our charges, we should engage them in the creation of work products related to their own passions. Portfolio creation is a great idea, but the reasons behind requiring people to do so and the goals for the process and product should be more universal and flexible, requiring teachers who can model skills other than teaching. Otherwise, those involved may not see far enough past their own noses to truly engage students in authentic, meaningful learning activities.

Creating an Environment for Writing

Edutopia’s blog section has a nice piece up today with “Five Fundamentals for Creating a Positive Writing Atmosphere” that I like a great deal and not just because it begins with one of my classroom mantras: writers write. As teachers of writing, and all teachers are writing and communication teachers (and models), this piece is worth a look. I particularly like the idea of modeling writing for our students, which is one of the reasons I have a class blog and why I love #4 on the list, which is to “set pure tone” by doing the writing assignments yourself:

Jeffrey Wilhelm, professor of English education at Boise State University and the director of the Boise State Writing Project, believes that teachers need to write in order to teach writing. In his interview for the book, Teaching the Neglected “R”, he clearly states that it’s important for teachers to do the writing assignments they give students and then ask, “Would I do the work I’m asking my students to do?

This is essential – could I write a descriptive essay about Thomas Jefferson using my five senses? What did Jefferson smell like? How does he smell today? What kind of grade would that piece get me in fifth grade? Writing responses to AP-style prompts and sharing them with students has informed my instruction, given me compassion for some of the uncool realities behind on-the-spot literature surprise attacks, and shown me the potential value of document-based synthesis surprise attacks.

I also value the realization that writing takes time and so often schools cram in more and more and more, choking out time for creative enterprise and energy. Students amaze me at the depth and beauty of their output so often whilst being strung between endless club, activity, academic, artistic, and social demands. Some freedom and space in both the physical and time dimensions can give opportunities for creative output – written or otherwise.

An environment for writing in the classroom corresponds to an environment for creative, active learning in the school and beyond. I’ll be thinking about this blog piece as I plot out next year’s curriculum and loose plan in the next few weeks.