Schools Are No Place for Secrets

Anyone who has stepped into a school, particularly as an adult, can see it plainly: schools are places where lives are changed.  Students learn things they otherwise would not.  Their minds are opened to a range of new ideas and thinking.  And they leave being able to do things – read and write, chief among that list – they could not do before.  But the problem: not every classroom functions as well as it could.  Some students enjoy better instruction than others. The difference between student outcomes can be staggering.

The reasons for this are many, but one major cause of inequitable education outcomes is that the best practices of the field are not universally and widely distributed.  Most teachers labour admirably, giving of themselves tremendous effort, but with frequently inferior instructional techniques.  These well-meaning teachers are not villains; every teacher is at one time or another stuck using imperfect practices.  I certainly have been, and, in many areas, probably still am.  And the students – my students included – pay the price.

What to do?  Look to another field where high reliability is key: healthcare.  Don Berwick (the American doctor, medical administrator and reformer) has argued that the solution to improving health outcomes lies in a radical concept: hospitals should keep no secrets.  They should more carefully measure outcomes and share data on success – and failure.  In so doing, the best practices would be identified and shared across hospitals.  And by making this information public, patients would know who does the best work, as measured by the health and wellness of their patients.

If we can begin to insist that hospitals – notoriously complex institutions – measure and share performance data, why not schools?  There are challenges, to be sure.  One major obstacle is that presently there is not universal agreement on appropriate measures.  Second, the tendency of media and advocacy organizations to rank might mean that schools are pitted against one another.  Third, shaming and blaming have no place in the effective improvement strategies of large organizations, especially unionized ones.  But used well, this could be a powerful driver for change.  With an appropriate set of performance measures, the best practices of the field are likely to gain traction.  We would know what works and we could scale up those practices.  The worst performing classrooms could get better by learning from the best performing.

As teachers, most of us are working without much guidance.  Simple but critical tasks are often left up to our best guesses.  What is the best method of beginning a class?  How do you productively get the attention of the reluctant learner in the back?  What is the best way of leading a whole-class discussion – and what questioning sequences work best?  How do we provide feedback on assignments so students actually improve? These questions are at the heart of our enterprise; they are to the teacher what resection techniques are to the surgeon.  And yet without data, each teacher is left to resort to a collection of folk wisdom and anecdote.  Each teacher ends up relying on a set of shop-worn practices.  But without a “no secrets” approach, each of us is never sure if what we are doing is better than any other method.  That is a shame.

We have more to gain than lose through applying the idea of “no secrets” to schooling.  Measured against the possible benefits, the challenges facing this kind of project are small.  Without knowing, in concrete ways, which practices work best, how can we hope to ensure that all students receive the best possible instruction?  Indeed, finding out what works and raising the quality of teaching practice in all classrooms is an imperative, not a luxury.

Knowing is the first step to improvement.  Let’s begin by viewing secrecy as damaging.  Let’s throw open the doors and allow improvements to spread.


A Contagious Vagueness

Last year, Salon ran an interview by Alice Karekezi with a New York City public school educator and curriculum advisor Diana Senechal. Senechal had recently released a book, The Republic of Noise. Her critique of some standard educational practices is intriguing, and while not empirically verifiable, rings true. (I am definitely going to be stealing the phrase, contagious vagueness.)

Below is an abridged version of the interview. (The whole thing can be found here.)

What’s your definition of solitude?
The idea of solitude as an attribute of the mind goes back to antiquity. The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus distinguished between a negative sort of isolation (helplessness, removal from others) and the strength that comes from relying on one’s own mental resources. Quintilian wrote about the importance of overcoming distractions through mental concentration and separation. “In the midst of crowds, therefore, on a journey, and even at festive meetings,” he wrote, “let thought secure for herself privacy.”
Solitude is not about being in a hut out in the woods or being out in the desert or living without other people around. I define solitude as a certain apartness that we always have, whether we’re among others or not. It is something that can be practiced — maybe to think just on one’s own, even when in a meeting or in a group and so forth — but that also has been nurtured by time alone. So there’s an ongoing solitude that’s always there, and there’s also a shaped or practiced solitude, which requires both time alone with things, to be thinking about things and working on things, and time among others when you nonetheless think independently.

You’re critical of certain educational philosophies in practice in schools today, especially the workshop model. Why?
The workshop model has an emphasis on group work and a de-emphasis on teacher presentation. What happens is the teacher is supposed to give a mini-lesson which is about 10 minutes long. From there students are supposed to work in groups on something related to that mini-lesson, sometimes independently, but most of the time in groups. At the end they are supposed to share about what they learned. This was mandated across the board, across the grades and subjects, in many schools. Every lesson is supposed to follow a workshop model. (Of course some schools were a little bit more flexible about this than others.)
The problem with that is that the workshop model is very wonderful for certain lessons and topics, but when you apply it across the board, you are constraining the subject matter. You need a variety of approaches in order to deal with a topic. You may need a lesson where the teacher gives an extended presentation to give the students necessary background. Or an extended discussion. For instance, the students may have a project that they will have to do together, but they have to work on their own to build up to that point.
Also, schools have put an enormous emphasis on skills – or what are called skills – at the expense of content. This has been going on for decades. No one wants to specify what students should read, but they say that they should be analyzing and comparing and contrasting. Well, none of this has meaning unless you know what it is you’re comparing and contrasting or analyzing. What happens is, students write essays that show that they haven’t read very closely, and yet this passes because it meets the checks on the checklist: that it has the right number of paragraphs; it has an introduction, body, conclusion; it seems as though they’re comparing something with something. There is a contagious vagueness because we don’t specify what we’re talking about and what students should learn. We then encourage in them a certain vagueness and carelessness. The problem perpetuates itself, and it turns up much later when students enter college and don’t know how to write a coherent essay. Well, the reason this comes up is that they’re in courses where they’re expected to read on specific topics, and that’s where things fall apart and it’s no longer about the rubric.
So the problem lies in the idea of putting the model above the actual subject. You have to think about the subject and think about how you’re going to bring this to the students, and think about the type of lesson that will do that best. Often you’ll find that you need a combination of types of lessons.

You write that we “mistake distraction for engagement”? How so? How does it affect even mental cognition?
I’m not a psychologist, but in the classroom and in many discussions on education, what I see is an emphasis on keeping the students busy from start to finish. Not letting a moment creep in where they don’t have something specific to do, something concrete where they are actually producing something. So if you keep them busy, busy, busy, and doing something at every moment, then supposedly they’re engaged. And when supervisors walk into classrooms and look and see the students writing and turning and talking, their conclusion is “Oh! What an engaged class!” The problem with that is then students don’t learn how to handle moments of doubt, or moments of silence, or moments where they have to struggle with a problem and they can’t produce something right on the spot. So, the students themselves come to expect to be put to work at every moment. If you want to give them something more difficult, you have to expect a little uncertainty.

In Teaching, Peace is Every Step

I’ve recently enjoyed reading Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and popularizer of many of the modern traditions associated with mindfulness. Anyone who’s spent any time in a school at all usually begins his description of his experiences in emotional terms – “I felt miserable… I loved my music teacher… I hated gym class…” – and so I’ve gotten used to conceiving of schools in emotional terms as well as rational ones.

This brief passage serves as a reminder of an important lesson about human interactions – one that might remind teachers that merely pushing harder does not always result in the changes we’d like to see in our pupils.

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look to the reason it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or our family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and arguments. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”

What We Have Got Here is (a) Failure to Communicate

I’ve recently been reading and hearing (from some engaging and entertaining presenters) about something called “nonviolent communication” – a way of understanding the basic underlying emotional interactions of communication.The general idea is this: when we communicate, our emotions play a large role in the success or lack thereof in any interaction.  We tend to get defensive, angry, hurt and snippy when we talk with others – especially as teachers, work that I’ve said before is highly emotional labour.  The land is filled with staff meetings burdened with hostility – the people with the arms crossed at the back of the room, angry, disengaged, and muttering.

I can’t imagine something more worthwhile to the process of improving any organization that relies on any interaction – like schools – than the improvement of communication.  The quantity of human productivity lost to bitterness and frustration must be worth billions to any national economy; and school that ignores bad communication must lose capacity.

Nonviolent communication, though not originally devised for corporate productivity, has been applied to a variety of organizations.  In its basic form is quite powerful, and probably most of us do it all the time, even if we don’t articulate it that way.  It rests on two elements: feelings and needs.  We “feel” because we “need.”  I might feel frustrated at a poorly-organized staff meeting because I need clarity and purpose.  You might feel angry at a colleague who dismisses my work because you value reciprocity.  And so on. This way of thinking is an acknowledgement that we are emotional creatures, that communication is often bedevilled by emotional reactions, that those emotional reactions are driven by underlying beliefs, values or needs, and that articulating this whole mess openly might make us all happier, less defensive, and more productive.

It sounds overly lotus-eating, impractical, highly granola, but I’m not so sure.  I think even the most cynical type would acknowledge that the spectrum of emotional responses in organizations is a major impediment to organizational health.

It’s cliched to say that under anger is hurt.  But unless we address the subteranean feelings, and accept that people are highly emotional creatures, it is unlikely that we can get the best out of them.  If we accept that as teachers we need to address our students’ emotional states before we can have them learn at peak performance, why should we behave differently towards the adults in the room?  If happy teachers teach better, shouldn’t we do our best to make sure people are happy?