A Prism of Thought
During this season of renewal, we are offered a wonderful metaphor for life. Embodied in the buds of hope can be found the reignited spirit of purpose. The wonders expressed in the diversity of growth provide those willing to observe the understanding that cycles are not prisons but a prism by which thought can be reflected, refracted, and shifted. In our classrooms, this time of year is an opportunity to remind learners of this gift. Unfortunately, as they reengage the fluid and adaptable fixtures of Spring, these learners are also encumbered by the confining elements of a system that view this time of year in the frame of assessments, schedules, and numbers.
One of the greatest challenges facing institutional education is its reluctance to examine and reframe paradigms. Instead of examining assumptions to reimagine education, many individuals find comfort in sitting on their perch criticizing from upon high. Enter any meeting amongst school faculty and you are bound to experience these moments where a failure to define expectations has fostered a normative cognitive dissonance grounded in cynicism. From our vantage point, professionals must be committed to avoiding such perches. Believing that the strength of a vision is in its capacity to highlight inconsistencies as a mechanism for offering progressive solutions. Conveying ideas through a message of aspirational possibility and hoping that words can be used to bridge gaps, foster commonality, and provide clarity in instances where it is desperately needed.
Transformational or Transactional?
As learners, we are all too aware that success is rarely linear and that mistakes arising from blindspots are inevitable. To that end, we acknowledge the host of variables that are at play as the institution of education contends with political, economic, and social realities. The delicate nature of these positions demands critical analyses from all stakeholders. It is from these intricate positions of thought that taking the time to examine the gray is essential to ensuring that a vision is never clouded by poor judgment or the immediacy of the moment.
By appreciating the measure of a learner, leaders must acknowledge and value the capacity to look inward as an instrument for growth. Even in those moments when we slip, it is this facet of learning that is critical to making shifts as an individual and remaining true to purpose. From such a space, leaders can engage challenges and contribute to the broader issues facing our evolving world. In short, we believe that leadership is contextual and merely requires one to embrace the basic premise of learning. Moving towards introspection affords the willing an opportunity to strive for the adaptability necessary to uphold the noble nature of our charge. Unfortunately, five words uttered by a leader in our district have made it clear that such sentiments are merely convenient platitudes not perceived as the applicable basis for decision-making. This post will seek to demonstrate otherwise.
Failure Expressed in Five Words
What are we fighting for? We need only hearken back to the days of the Vietnam War to understand the connotation that comes along with these words. For our purposes, this simple question posed by an individual leader has framed everything that is fundamentally wrong in our hierarchical system. Let us provide some context — uttered at the conclusion of a “professional development” presentation, these words signified a directional shift for the district and its decision to acquiesce to political edicts. Following a PowerPoint that did not reference students or learning, these five words were designed to promote the importance of p-values, arbitrary algorithms, and compliance. Expressed as a rhetorical question, this leader was signaling an unwillingness to challenge the validity of state testing, suggesting that the state had made several concessions and had listened to the public. Ultimately, within our district, these five words summarily relegated the pillars of innovative learning to the back burner.
Anyone who has navigated the system of public education becomes acutely aware of the chasm that exists between values and actions. This was exemplified during the meeting where our instructional leaders extolled the virtues of promoting greater participation in state assessments. During this gathering of educators, the incongruence between schooling and learning was on full display as the word learner was replaced with defined terms of accountability and Annual Yearly Progress. To those who subscribe to the belief that learning is fluid and natural, the numbers bandied about merely reinforced that our system was imprisoning itself with data. Choosing to chain itself to measures in an effort to protect the hierarchy of subsystems that are fearful of arbitrary accountability lists.
In emphasizing the importance of student participation in state assessments these individuals gave us a glimpse at the manner in which regimented learning serves to advance the system at the expense of the learner. This desire to remove a state accountability label is a prime example of the shortcomings that result from reducing learning down to a number. These arbitrary mechanisms create a culture that constrains and discourages. Moreover, they obscure the underlying social issues that perpetuate the systematic deficiencies of this monocentric institution.
We are Fighting for the Learner
Over the years, we have found our greatest responsibility has been in deconstructing the faulty perception of those learners who believe they can’t. By fostering learning environments that give students the space to regain hope they slowly rebuild confidence. Not a particularly simple process in a system that continually erodes confidence as it moves students through grade levels without mastery. In this assembly line, many learners are woefully unprepared to meet the expectations of state standards and assessments established for the grade level they have been placed. In this systematic structure, students are labeled as behind, below, or struggling. These designations create closed-loop thinking, diminish intrinsic motivation, and leave impressionable minds with a disdain for schooling and the notion of learning. Sadly, in this system of grade levels, scope and sequence expectations, and accountability measures learners have been turned into a commodity (Grinell & Rabin, 2013).
At its very essence, learning is about crossing divides. By generating understanding, learners can bridge gaps in thought, foster inclusivity, and generate a culture grounded in confidence. From this position, learners are willing to take risks and examine possibilities. To engender such a culture, Elmore (2019) has suggested that district administrators, facilitators (educators), and parents foster an organizational setting that embraces divergent theories of learning. We should be fighting for these ideals.
While leaders in the institution may espouse the need for personalized learning, their mechanisms for action are mere surface-level attempts that only perpetuate the current system. To illustrate, we will use a fifth-grade student who struggles to compute basic subtraction problems. Earlier in the year, this learner could not correctly provide the difference when subtracting four minus zero. However, this student will be assessed in two weeks on math standards that will expect an understanding of decimals, dividing of fractions, and coordinate graphing. Why? Because the student is in fifth grade. Although this student will not demonstrate competency of grade-level standards, next year the student will be enrolled in sixth grade—only widening the gaps in understanding. Despite all we know about learning and the multitude of students who have lost a sense of self, institutional leaders have failed to act on behalf of learners by reimagining constructs and fighting against such ill-advised applications. Instead, in the case of our district, they promote state assessment participation that continues to widen the gap between schooling, learning, confidence, and self-identity.
Reimagining schooling begins with stopping the conveyor belt. However, that will require the critical element of intrinsic motivation as a vehicle for fostering change and breaking norms. There is potential for collective action as a number of districts across the country have made incremental shifts towards evolutionary-based learning. Such shifts demand a collaborative leadership willing to tackle the extensive layers of bureaucracy while engaging in the deep analysis that can truly define learning and its role in schools. It is from this position that a thoughtful examination of the district culture can unlock opportunities to address the challenges that arise from such a social dilemma. Instead of questioning the fight, leaders would be well served to introspectively question whether their decisions are predicated on preserving a systematic construct or the ideals of learning.
Guided by a simple desire to meet the needs of each learner, we entered this noble profession to make a difference. To that end, we combat the cold, ineffective, and uninspired demands of the hierarchical model. We fight for an inspired model of learning that embraces diversity, seeks to improve individual outcomes, and fosters an inherent passion to strive for more. We must be willing to take risks and examine failures through a prism of hopeful optimism. At a minimum, our learners deserve a collective commitment to look inward, move beyond compliance-driven measures, and foster consensus that generates progressive outcomes. It is simple; we care, as such, we fight to inspire change that instills a belief that despite obstacles, possibilities always exist.
Solutions-Based Questions & Pillars
Elmore, R. (2019). The future of learning and the future of assessment. ECNU Review of Education, 2(3), 328-341.
Grinell, S., & Rabin, C. (2013). Modern education. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 45(6), 748-767.