Stamping Out Great Teachers

I’m listening to Seth Godin’s Linchpin1 and early in the book he makes these observations about our education system and teachers.

Why is society working so hard to kill our natural born artists? When we try to drill and practice someone into subservient obedience, we’re stamping out the artist that lives within.

Let me be really clear. Great teachers are wonderful, they change lives. We need them.

The problem is that most schools don’t like great teachers. They’re organized to stamp them out, bore them, bureaucratize them, and make them average.

Godin’s usual focus is business and marketing but he’s also written some very insightful pieces on American education. For more, download his manifesto, Stop Stealing Dreams, “a series of provocations” that he hopes will lead to people taking action, and watch his TEDx talk of the same title.

  1. I know it’s three years old. I’m always behind on my reading

Getting Unstuck

Seth Godin:

When times get confusing, it’s easy to revert to the habits that got you here. More often than not, that’s precisely the wrong approach. The very thing that got you here is the thing that everyone who’s here is doing, and if that’s what it took to get to the next level, no one would be stuck.

Of course his point is directed at business.

However, falling back on the habits that got us here is exactly why reform of the American education system is stuck in the 1960’s. Teacher-directed instruction, using a curriculum based on the concept of a fixed knowledge base, with learning assessed in the narrowest possible manner is “precisely the wrong approach”.

When do we move to the next level?

Collecting Dots

In a recent, very short post, Seth Godin observes that it’s very easy to collect dots but not so easy to make some meaning from them.  Of course, in his analogy dots are data, and learning to connect them in meaningful ways takes a lot of work.

Here in our overly-large school district (and elsewhere I’m sure), teachers are spending an increasing amount of class time collecting dots, but what happens after that?

Why then, do we spend so much time collecting dots instead? More facts, more tests, more need for data, even when we have no clue (and no practice) in doing anything with it.

And there’s one of the big problems with obsessing over data. It’s useless, and potentially harmful, unless someone has the ability to make meaning from it, skills that Godin says are “rare, prized and valuable”.

However, as with so many other parts of the American education system, we expect every teacher to either come to the table understanding how to connect dots, or learn it in their spare time.

Dots that represent some very complex and highly variable data, kids and their learning.

Slightly off topic: a good way to look at dots/data by the wonderful cartoonist (and visual philosopher) Hugh MacLeod.

Defining Yourself

Today Seth Godin discusses the problem with new words, specifically identifiers for jobs, devices and ideas that didn’t exist a few years ago and don’t easily explain themselves.

The iPhone isn’t really a phone, it’s actually not a very good phone at all, but calling it a phone made it easy for people to put it into a category. The category was expanded by the behavior of the iPhone, and now “phone” means something far more than it used to. “What do you mean your phone can’t tell me how far away the diner is?”  Of course, this was an absurd thing to expect from a phone not very long ago.

Mario Batali calls himself a chef, but of course he rarely if ever sets up in a kitchen and cooks meals for strangers at minimum wage. But chef is a lot easier and simpler than a whole bunch of hyphens.

My job title, assigned by the overly-large school district, is pretty lousy, not to mention vague: Instructional Technology Specialist1. It doesn’t come close to explaining what I do.

Better would be “helping educators improve their professional practice through the use of new tools for communication and collaboration (and other duties as assigned)” but that doesn’t fit well into the small “job title” box on a form or into the very brief conversational space following the inquiry “what do you do?”.

In the past few years, when asked to provide a job title/position for conferences and such I’ve been using “Educator. Blogger. Learner. Geek”. Not perfect but it’s a step towards defining myself outside of the small group of people I work with2.

How do you define yourself to the outside world?

  1. The official HR job category is Education Specialist, Instructional Technology. Even worse.

  2. Many given the same job title.

Future Happens

From Seth Godin:

The thing is, the future happens. Every single day, like it or not. Sure, tomorrow is risky, frightening and in some way represents one step closer to the end. But it also brings with it the possibility of better and the chance to do something that matters.

Doesn’t that explain exactly why many (most?) of us chose to be teachers?

That’s No Way to Predict the Future

Another thought from Seth Godin that he probably didn’t intend to apply to our education system but in which my warped head saw a link.

One of the problems of using the past to predict the future is that we sometimes fall in love with the inevitable coincidental patterns that can’t help but exist in any set. But that doesn’t mean that they work for predicting the future. Past performance is often no predictor of future results.

We seem to do a lot of that “it’s always worked for us in the past” kind of planning in our overly-large school district.

And it’s pretty much the foundation of everything they do a short distance up the road in Congress.

Processing Change (or Not)

In the middle third of today’s post, Seth Godin has something interesting to say about the way people process change.

If you’re eager for change, every bit of information and every event represents an opportunity to learn, to grow and to change for the better. You hear some advice and you listen to it, consider it (possibly reject it), iterate on it and actually do something different in response.

On the other hand, if you’re afraid of change or in love with the path you’re on or focused obsessively on your GTD list, then incoming represents a distraction and a risk. So you process it with the narrative, “how can this input be used to further what I’ve already decided to do?” At worst, you ignore it. At best, you use a tiny percentage of it to your advantage.

I’m pretty sure our leadership (principals, assorted superintendents, school board members, politicians, etc.) has heard a large variety of ideas and advice about school reform. Certainly that’s reflected in all their talk about “21st century” this, 4C’s that, global perspective, innovation, Finland, etc.

However, based on what is actually done with all those ideas, what becomes part of daily practice, I’m convinced most of those “leaders” fall in Godin’s second group.

Part of it has to do with the illusion that our overly-large school district is already doing a great job, the path only requires minor course corrections, and that we really do have a very long GTD list* to work on (starting and ending with preparing for the SOLs).

But anytime someone suggests radically altering our traditional processes, it’s not hard to sense that fear of change lingering in the background.

* I’m assuming GTD stands for Got To Do. Someone let me know if I’m off base with that.

No Change, Just Better Numbers

Seth Godin’s daily post begins with a couple of interesting lines.

As soon as we measure something, we seek to improve the numbers.

Which is a worthwhile endeavor, if better numbers are the point of the exercise.

Is he writing about standardized test scores? No. As is usual, Godin is presenting his thoughts about a business issue.

However, between that opening and his concluding paragraph…

The questions we ask change the thing we make. Organizations that do nothing but measure the numbers rarely create breakthroughs. Merely better numbers.

… it’s not hard to see plenty of overlap with our adoration of numbers (aka “data”) – and a corresponding lack of breakthroughs – in current education policy.

What’s in Your Backlist?

In his post from yesterday, Seth Godin talks about the concept of the “backlist” and how the idea no longer belongs to just authors and musicians.

A backlist is the collection of works from earlier in a career that fans discover (or rediscover) even as the artist continues to create new works.

It used to be that ordinary people didn’t have anything like a backlist. Before web publishing tools became cheap and easy to use, very little of we did was ever stored in a way that someone could easily find. Now I have ten years of a backlist* that may have value to someone, even if it’s only me.

The same applies to students. Not too long ago, the work most of them did – both in and out of school – largely disappeared after graduation. It was as if their creative life didn’t exist prior that point.

Now most are building their backlist at a furious pace, whether they realize it or not.

Godin ends his post by stating “Your history of work is as important as the work you’ll do tomorrow.”. 

So, what are we as their teachers doing to help kids make that history something they’ll be proud to have their fans discover in the future?

*More if you want to go rummaging through the Internet Archive.

Proud of Being Ignorant

Seth Godin ended his post yesterday with this idea

I confess that I’m amazed when I meet hard-working, smart people who are completely clueless about how their industry works, how their tools work…

It never made sense to be proud of being ignorant, but we’re in a new era now. Look it up.

I’m also amazed at the number of smart, hard-working teachers and administrators I meet who are largely clueless about technology. Both the tools available to improve their professional practice as well as the devices being carried by many of their students that could be leveraged in the service of learning.

What’s worse is that many of them are still proud of their ignorance. Or at least of their unwillingness to expand their ideas of what learning could be.

Creating Schools for the Weird

In his book “We Are All Weird“, Seth Godin offers a short but interesting manifesto on how the age of mass (mass marketing, mass manufacture) is fast disappearing as the concept of “normal” becomes obsolete and the audience/customer splinters into thousands of tribes (another of his concepts).

Godin’s primary audience is business people, of course, but in this book he does offer a brief look at education, which is probably the “mass” institution in this country that is the most resistant to change.

At the end of that section, Godin offers a simple proposal for transforming American education.

A different approach to education is almost impossible to conceptualize and seemingly impossible to execute. The simple alternative to our broken system of education is to embrace the weird, to abandon normal. To acknowledge that our factories don’t need so many cogs, so many compliant workers, so many people willing to work cheap.

It’s simple but it’s not easy. It’s not easy because we can’t process weird, we can’t mass produce students when we have to work with them one at a time or in like minded groups. We can’t test these kids into compliance and thus we can’t have a reliable, process-oriented factory mindset for the business of education. No, it’s not easy at all.

When we consider whom we pay the most, whom we seek to hire, whom we applaude, follow, and emulate, these grownups are the outliers, the weird ones. Did they get there by being normal students in school and then magically transform themselves in to Yo Yo Ma or Richard Branson? Hardly. The stories of so many outliers are remarkably familiar. They didn’t like the conformity forced on them by school, struggled, suffered, survived, and now they’re revered.

What happens if our schools, and the people who run them, and fund them, stop seeing the mass and start looking for the weird? What if they acknowledge that more compliance doesn’t make a better school but merely makes one that’s easier to run?

My proposed solution is simple. Don’t waste a lot of time and money pushing kids in directions they don’t want to go. Instead, find out what weirdness they excel at and encourage them to do that. And then get out of the way.

Ok, so maybe you don’t like the idea of calling your students “weird”. Substitute “unique” instead. Godin’s ideas still make a lot of sense, although maybe with less impact.

I know I’ve ranted many times in this space about all the many “leaders” proposing reforms to the education system modeled on business principles. However, this approach is more about relating to the needs of people than about reforming traditional business methods.

Although many policy makers may view learning as an assembly line process, it’s really all about many, many unique, individual people in our classrooms. And any experienced teacher will tell you they’re all weird.

Compared to What?

From Seth Godin’s blog today.

The easiest way to sell yourself short is to compare your work to the competition. To say that you are 5% cheaper or have one or two features that stand out–this is a formula for slightly better mediocrity.

What about a school comparing itself to others using average scores on standardized tests? Or worse, the numbers of students who simply took a particular test?

American education policy sells kids short, aiming for a mediocrity of the lowest common denominator for them, instead of searching for Godin’s magical unicorn.

Getting Past Ignorance

In his post today, Seth Godin says “society changes when we change what we’re embarrassed about” and wonders how long it will take before the general populace is “ashamed at being uninformed”.

Unfortunately, he starts with a flawed premise when he says “In just ten years, someone who professes to not know how to use the internet is seen as a fool.”.

There are too many high profile people who are not only ignorant of how the internet works but are almost proud of it.

For but one example, read the clueless comments made by key members of the House Judiciary Committee, supposedly “leaders” elected to represent American society, when debating SOPA.

But that attitude of pride in a lack of understanding of the web and technology in general is not reserved for congress critters. Look around our schools and you’ll find large numbers of teachers and administrators who don’t know, and in too many cases don’t want to learn, even the most basic concepts of working on the web.

They are still fond of reciting without question the most recent TV tabloid predator report (all headlines, no facts), or redistributing the scary story, long ago checked and disproven by Snopes, sent by their brother-in-law. And I may scream loud and long at the next person who uses the “digital immigrant” concept to excuse their ignorance.

Like Godin, I also wonder when American society will get past believing in “pseudoscience” and accepting as fact “thin propaganda”, but I don’t think we are at his starting point where people are seen as fools for not knowing how to use the internet.