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Author: Bill Zima

Where Are the Bullets?

December 3, 2012 by

Oh the lure of the quick fix. Humans are fascinated with them. Without this attraction, con artists and snake oil salesmen would not be viable professions. We see the desire to solve something quickly in the hero who simply needs to make a single correct decision, and the world is saved.

I recently watched a special commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception by Franco Harris. The host suggested the amazing play led to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ dominance in the 1970s. I am pretty sure, however, that the catch did not cause a giant shift in the cosmos allowing for the Steelers to win four Superbowls.  In fact, it was a team effort. After all, they did have a defensive line referred to collectively as the Iron Curtain.

It does make for a good story though.

In education, we too are susceptible to the hunt for the one right answer. “This program will raise test scores; all you need to do is have students write more; we need Singapore math; STEM is the key.” While all of these are legitimate arguments for how we can improve instruction, they are only a piece in how we improve learning. Educators need to stop seeking the “Silver Bullet.” It does not exist.

Instead, we need to do the slow and sometimes painful work of developing and effectively executing a strategy. Competency-based education, or Customized Learning, is not an “it” that comes in an easy to install program packet. It requires a shift away from the status quo. What worked for us in my school and district was this:

A process of facilitated conversations amongst all stakeholders that led to the establishment of a philosophical lens through which all decisions pass.

Those that pass are implemented; those that do not are dismissed or adjusted. I will break the statement down into sections to better clarify:

  • Process: The strategy should include well scripted actions that help to move your school or district closer to your vision.
  • Facilitated Conversations: It is important– almost critical– to use individuals from outside the district who have expertise in leading change. My district has been partnering with the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC) for the past four years.
  • All Stakeholders: All people who have an investment in the school need to have their voices heard and offer input into the direction of the system. The decisions should not be driven by people who lack expertise to make the informed choices, but they all should have an input into the bigger picture.
  • Philosophical Lens: By gathering the input from the stakeholders, a shared vision of what the perfect school or system looks and sounds like should be created.
  • Decisions are Passed: When we make a decision for how we will proceed to overcome an identified challenge, we must pass the decision through our lens. If it does not make it through, we seek another solution. Only those things that line with our beliefs are implemented. (more…)

Direct Instruction? That’s the Old Way

November 7, 2012 by

I met with a group of teachers yesterday for our monthly check in. The group is made up of individuals that willingly volunteered to try some of the processes and procedures of a customized classroom. They are omnivorous learners. They are the energetic group that is willing to jump in, give it a try, reflect, and then adjust. They are not concerned about building the airplane while it is flying. They have absolute confidence they can hit the exhaust vent and blow up the Death Star. . .most likely finding Obi-Wan Kenobi’s constant reminders as irritating; Yea, yea I got it. The Force. But, even with their voracious appetite and willingness to find the path through the ambiguity, they can sometimes talk themselves astray.

The issue this month: the role of direct instruction. Somehow, somewhere, someway, the idea that a teacher should talk directly with students has become part of the “old way.” The idea that students need to “learn on their own” is the new way. We want learners who can figure this stuff out. They need to struggle, ask questions, and seek those answers using their own reasoning. “Direct instruction is so old school. I need to get out of their way.”

This was not the first time I had heard that customized learning meant stepping out of students’ way. I was just surprised that it was being mentioned by my colleagues. I had worked hard to not allow that idea to sink in. I firmly believe that the direct instruction of material from the expert (the teacher) to the novice (the learner) is a legitimate and effective means of the transfer of information, data, facts, and skills. While teachers should refrain from giving out answers and allow students the opportunity to struggle, they need to be in the middle, monitoring, prompting, and guiding during all steps of the learning process, especially as the students begin to construct relevance from classroom lessons. It’s what I like to call the “input” step of the learning process. (more…)

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