30. Causing REAL CHANGE: Difficult and Exacting Work

Self-proclaimed and popularly acclaimed change experts proliferate in many organizations. They speak, write books, conduct workshops, or coin pithy admonitions. Some even morph into what is euphemistically called a “sage on the stage.”

Americans love these kinds of change experts. Because they are frequently entertaining, humorous, and dynamic. With pearls of wisdom that capture the imagination and, momentarily, inspire new ways of thinking and acting.

Some make fortunes by “blowing in, blowing off, and blowing out.” Those who achieve celebrity status are welcomed effusively, perform magnificently, and depart triumphantly. No worries about whether their message has changed anything.

They leave it to local leaders to take care of managing details. Once the prophet of change answers a few questions, walks off the stage, and collects the massive fee, the task is achieved. Our expert is ready for the next venue in the schedule.

This perspective on many American change agents sounds cynical. Intentionally so.

While politicians scream for more accountability from schools and teachers, Pied Pipers of change skip down the lane toward big money. Without worrying about how much difference they made in curriculum design, student learning or teacher performance.

Who cares? Accountability is related to how popular they are, how many more gigs they get, and how much income they generate.

They are not like Barbara, Mary, and Rebecca — three members of a team of local leaders working elbow to elbow with colleagues and professional associates. Every day, week, and month. Facing the hard stuff and working through processes designed to REALLY make a difference.

The new learning infrastructure does not need or want change agent Pied Pipers. Any more than replacing worn out bridges needs visionary dreamers without onsite skills to build them.  

There is more than a simplistic difference of opinion involved. Divisions are cultural and historical. Hard to resolve.

As Barbara and Mary work with the subject area committee, opposing arguments are based on five pervasively traditional viewpoints:

  1. CAUSING STUDENTS TO THINK IS NOT THE MISSION OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Public school curriculum must deal with basics and not delve into philosophical aspects of learning and behaving. In brief, public schools are conveyers of information, not responsible for making students think deeply.
  1. CURRICULAR COVERAGE IS WHAT SCHOOLS ARE HELD ACCOUNTABLE FOR: Public school teachers are held accountable for teaching content breadth, not depth. The task of preparing and implementing lessons that are more than factual coverage is too complex and time-consuming.
  1. TESTING STUDENT KNOWLEDGE MUST BE OBJECTIVE FOR SCHOOLS TO MEET MEASURABLE EXPECTATIONS: Assessment of student learning in the new learning infrastructure is subjective, formative, and difficult to record and track. Parents expect definitive progress reports using number or letter grades. More definitive than teacher judgments based on observations alone. Student progress reports and transcript notations remain part of the standard database for academic records and official transcripts. Summative assessment scores remain sacrosanct in the minds of many teachers, parents, and school patrons.
  1. STUDENTS IN THE LOWER GRADES ARE NOT READY FOR ABSTRACT REASONING: Most public-school students through the first years of high school are incapable of the abstract reasoning required to meet analytical and scholarly outcomes.
  1. TEACHER PREPARATION PROGRAMS DO NOT PREPARE NOVICES FOR SUCH ADVANCED WAYS OF TEACHING AND LEARNING: University coursework and instructional methods programs rarely if ever guide prospective teachers toward development and application of sophisticated learning behaviors in their students.  

Barbara and Mary’s Story – Part 5

Dr. Rebecca Johnson, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, was well acquainted with the obstacles we would encounter in discussions with the subject area committee.

We started our committee’s work with the “walls analysis,” to authentically involve significant teacher input from the beginning.

When teachers were told they were a critical part of the process from the get-go — we meant it.

But we believe what is now utilized in the district is not enough. And moderate tinkering with curriculum-mapping strategies will not help.

Rebecca made that point clear to the committee, an action that eased our follow-up work.

“Analysis of the current situation was a good start,” Rebecca said. “It was a baseline. Like analyzing an old bridge for what was good about it in terms of location, foundational and subsoil support systems, and compatibility with the surroundings.

“But the replacement bridge needs to accommodate different kinds of traffic volume and patterns. Vehicle weight and speed are serious considerations.

“In other words, keep what is good. But plan for the future with structural innovations.”

Rebecca forthrightly told SAC members she already knew their concerns when they began pairing the existing curriculum with the new language arts mastery statement. She gave each SAC member six 3 X 5 index cards. The top card was light blue and contained the phrase:

The other five cards were white and contained these questions:

We told Rebecca we had already anticipated a problem interpreting the mastery statement. That led us to develop a scenario around the first outcome: Defining reality in the context of decisions made valid through background knowledge and evidence.

Because that outcome clearly involves student thinking and reflection.

We interpreted the outcome as focusing on the use of language in real life settings. Using such an interpretation meant extensive use of role play and scenarios, even in virtual instructional platforms.

Role play and scenarios necessitate more planning and instructional time, paired with the need for ongoing formative assessment and intense student interactions.

Our concerns paralleled Rebecca’s points on the index cards.

“It’s better to use the generic questions on the index cards,” Rebecca said. “They create a first layer of reflection among SAC members. Once basic principles are discussed and agreed upon, it’s easier to establish common ground in dealing with the mastery statement itself.”

We had to agree with Rebecca. Without a baseline agreement about essential principles, we might drive ourselves into the ground with minutiae as we parsed each element of the proposed mastery statement.

Ideally, everyone on the subject area committee would come around to the perspective of John Dewey — schools are for preparing students for the real world.

Not the simplistic saying so often attributed to Dewey, “Students learn by doing.”

What Dewey was really saying is that students learn by THINKING ABOUT WHAT THEY ARE DOING.

For students to think deeply in applied circumstances, the curriculum in which they participate must give them time and opportunity to do just that.

And the ramifications are enormous!

©2021 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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