Why Learning Innovation Can’t Come From Teachers Alone

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102510 019Why Learning Innovation Can’t Come From Teachers Alone

by Terry Heick

Grant Wiggins, a learning expert who has inspired me since my first year in the classroom, recently wrote about the intersection of academic standards and creativity.

“Why do people insist on viewing the Standards as inconsistent with teacher creativity and choice? I am baffled by such uncreative thinking. That’s like saying the architect cannot be creative because every house has to meet building code. Indeed, the whole point of mandating standards as opposed to curriculum is to free people up to create innovative curriculum that addresses the standards.

You’re an architect: your clients are students. Your job is to develop client-friendly learning that also meets code. How does this restrict freedom?

Here is an obvious illustration of our failure to think imaginatively now. When I started teaching in 1972, the legacy of the ’60s was still in full force in my school. There were all sorts of creative courses: Death and Dying, The Wilderness, Political Philosophy, Ethics, Why Do We Do What We Do? etc.

More importantly, many of these cool courses met the English requirement. In other words, back in the day there was no English 9, 10, 11, 12. rather, there were electives – real freedom of choice for teachers and kids! So, you could meet your English 10 obligations by taking Satire or American Fiction or Shakespeare or Cinema, on a tri-mester system (so you were not stuck with a year-long course you might hate).

There is NOTHING in the Common Core ELA Standards that prohibits you and your colleagues from inventing a similar system of choices. All you would have to do, like the architect, would be to ensure that no matter the choice it was addressing the relevant 9-10 and 11-12 standards. How hard would that be, people?

When I hear everyone endlessly whining about what harm the Standards are doing to creative teaching it has the opposite effect on me that you intend. I think: boy, how unimaginative those teachers are. Glad my kid doesn’t have them.”

As usual, he has a point. Having standards and accountability doesn’t prevent teachers from being innovative any more than having safety regulations keep the designer of a roller coaster from creating a fun roller coaster.

But there’s a flaw in the analogy: schools aren’t buildings, restaurants, or amusement parks, but cultural infrastructures that take children from barely being able to talk to world-challenging university students and professionals. This was my response to his letter above that I thought I’d share here. It’s a bit of a rant, but then again this is a blog and ranting is my thing….

“Unfortunately, the standards subsume everything else in their wake–at least in every district I’ve taught in. Curriculum maps, planning documents, district resources, PD, walk-throughs, “checkpoint” assessments, grading policies, school reading lists, technology policies, bell ringers, concept maps, signage on the walls and much, much more are all not just “driven” by the standards, but signed, sealed, and delivered, painted and stamped “standards.”

It is hard to serve two masters, so standards win.

In most public schools, two words matter: “standards” and proficiency (and, increasingly, “data”). Reading level serves test performance. If students are not “on grade level” they can’t “test well.” Same with grouping strategies, literacy strategies, questioning strategies, thinking strategies, instructional strategies, and so on–all built, selected, and endorsed for their value in promoting standards proficiency.

Not self-knowledge.

Not learning habits.

Not curiosity.

Not creativity.

Not innovation.

Not collaboration.

Not problem-solving.

Not joy for learning.

Not wisdom.

This doesn’t mean that these things can’t happen as a by-product of a well-designed learning experience that itself is drawn up to promote standards proficiency, but when the proficiency doesn’t come and things get tight at the old data team meeting, what do you think is the first to go?

And for a district under intense pressure to “perform” the screws are tightened even further. When “proficiency doesn’t happen,” that means teachers need to step up their game!

Plan backwards not just from standards, but power standards that matter.

Plan for transfer from the beginning using lesson formats that make as much sense to your administrators as they do to you and your department members.

Use fresh and relevant data from constant well-designed assessments to revise that previously meticulously planned instruction.

Know not just which students have “mastered” which standards, but also around what depth of knowledge or level of Bloom’s Taxonomy they bottomed out, and then personalize learning for them moving forward.

Give students voice and choice completing authentic work that leaves the classroom to solve real-world problems using technology that works and that has credibility with the learners.

Handle the GT, ESL, ECE, struggling readers, hesitant readers, struggling writers, etc., while administering fluency probes twice a week and then taking all that data and somehow merging it with the recent district assessment, exit slip, ACT Explore data, and the stack of On-Demands the students just left on your desk to “drive instruction.”

And do it all with creativity and innovation not once, or fifty times, but every single day–all the while keeping in mind that all of those aforementioned resources and strategies are designed not to support teachers in creativity, technology, or innovation, but “standards-based instruction,” “vertical alignment,” and “district non-negotiables.”

This means all that creativity comes from teachers on blogs and social media in their spare time as they try to find out how to truly engage a 21st century learner who has access to more information on their smartphone than the whole school library has on its shelves.

In practice the standards are as punitive as they are supportive. Districts and administrators hand teachers “curriculum maps” that aren’t maps at all, but copy/pasted mannequins of maps that are “standards-driven.” This puts an incredible burden on individual teachers to take that mess, and then figure out how new learning models (e.g., blended learning), technologies (e.g., mobile learning), and curriculum planning tools (e.g., project-based learning) fit in on their own while still giving the districts exactly what they want to see, packaged exactly like they want it packaged–and in a blue binder right by the door so they can verify it all as they blow-by.

And don’t forget that they’re absolutely overwhelming to teach to students in their scope and breadth–at least in ELA. 6 different sets of standards! While it is certainly possible to get every student “proficient” for every standard (especially with some of the generous cut scores) by the end of the year, it is incredibly difficult to monitor the ongoing (versus snapshot) proficiency of 50+ different standards.

Mastery can perish.

I read the standards and rarely see anything that I wouldn’t expect my own son or daughter to be able to do. On paper, they aren’t misguided. The problem is not simply their implementation (which means we can’t just yell at principals), and not just their tone and spirit (which means we can’t simply rewrite them), but their net effect in a school that struggles with the overwhelming challenge to bring an increasingly connected (e.g., via technology) and diverse (e.g., socioeconomic, literacy levels) student body to spend 12+ years of their lives to “master” purely academic standards that mean almost nothing to them personally.

They don’t support or provide focus, common language, or common ground, they punish, distract, and bleach.

When is the last time you’ve walked into a classroom and seen real joy for learning and understanding? Not simply a fun activity, or students enjoying working together, or even vague engagement, but rather resonating, engrossed, curiosity-driven and rigorous learning that changes kids from the inside out?

With the hundreds of millions of dollars we spend, and the equal amount many parents spend on technology, not to mention our unparalleled access to information and community in 2013–rather than “unimaginative teachers,” our lack of ambition and vision in what and how we expect children to learn might just be the tether.

If what you’re after is “proficiency” of “standards,” be careful what you wish for.

Image attribution flickr user emrank, wolfganglonien, and flickeringbrad