Education, evaluation, learning, Lessons Learned In Combat

What Our Education System Gets Wrong about Learning

So much about our education system leads people–including some educators– to believe that learning is a linear process. That learning as a result of “good” teaching or “best” practices is part of a fairly neat, continuous progression, save the inevitable few bumps in the road.

Pretty simple, right?
Exhibit A.


I don't even know what this means.
I don’t even know WHAT this means.

This grave misconception about learning is reflected in the way we assess and report out on a grand scale, particularly in our collective use (and misuse) of standardized assessments. It’s reflected in text gradients like this one created by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, which inherently implies that students’ literacy development is part of a continuous, uninterrupted progression. It’s reflected in scope and sequence documents that are developed to align with standards (which themselves reflect this fallacy about learning). It is so embedded in our collective thinking about how people learn that we sometimes panic when student learning temporarily falls off the rails–particularly when it comes to literacy, when a student might, for example, fail to demonstrate progress along the text level gradient. And how many of us, during a parent-teacher conference, have found ourselves the brunt of an angry parent’s ire over how his child doesn’t appear to be “making progress?”

You can all put your hands down.
You can all put your hands down.

The truth, of course, is that while it is important to be aware when student learning becomes alarmingly stagnant, it’s also true that most learning is a messy, tangled, disorganized process. In other words, learning looks like my four year-old nephew’s attempt to write in cursive. (Sorry, buddy.) At my school, my colleagues and I are attempting to honor this understanding about learning by changing the way we report out on it–while at the same time helping families understand this disordered, unsteady process. And really, why would they understand it, having been led, for decades, to believe otherwise? Having (for the most part) experienced the ordered, systematic, departmentalized vision of learning that school–and its reporting practices– have traditionally reflected?

Yesterday, during a meeting about a new reporting method that some of my brilliant colleagues are in the process of designing, the idea of using a sports metaphor to support this understanding came up–of equating “school learning” to “sports learning,” a process that most people would agree includes its fair share of setbacks and bumps in the road. As I listened to my principal talk about how her husband coaches basketball (and how his players progress–and/or don’t–over time), I thought of my oldest daughter, who has been a competitive gymnast for the past three years.

Specifically, I thought about how, her first year in competition, my daughter learned a relatively “simple” balance beam routine that included a handstand, a half (180 degree) turn, and a round off dismount. That year, she consistently executed her beam skills cleanly and gracefully and often placed high during competitions, frequently taking home first, second, or third-place medals for beam.

In her second year of competition, her coaches decided to challenge her by adding a few more complex skills to her routine. For example, instead of jumping straight up off the beam, she was expected to execute a tuck jump, during which she had to bring her knees horizontal (or higher) at peak height. Her 180 degree turn needed to be executed starting from a different, more challenging position. And so on. During that second year, my daughter continued to execute her skills well, but they tended to be less clean (or she would wobble a little more frequently). Her scores that year were not as high, which meant she did not place as frequently.

But did that mean she wasn’t learning? Of course not. She was learning, and she was progressing, but what was reported out to the spectators (i.e., her beam scores) was less impressive to the untrained eye. In addition, because such skills are complex, different but equally competent judges would award my daughter different scores for the same routine, much like different but equally competent teachers might evaluate students’ school-based skills and understandings differently.

My colleagues and I work in a competency-based K-6 school, and the competencies that we are in the process of developing as a faculty/staff will be ultimately reported out on using the terms approachingconstructing, or applying an understanding, a shift from more traditional reporting practices (an early draft of our literacy competencies can be found here). As educators, we are aware that students’ understandings of these competencies will shift and change from year to year–and trimester to trimester–depending on a variety of factors, such as the depth or complexity of the work, students’ social and emotional wellness, the time of the year, and so on. For example, a kindergarten student might be constructing an understanding that there are many ways to read texts, demonstrated by how she alternates between reading the words she knows and by “reading” the illustrations she sees within the same book. In fourth grade, that student might still be constructing an understanding that there are many ways to read texts as demonstrated by how she is able to explain that not all online texts are reliable, but is not yet able to consistently choose texts from reliable sources when doing research. Has that student learned about the many ways in which we read texts between kindergarten and fourth grade? Yes. But explaining a concept like this to both students and their families will be challenging, because doing so must work in conjunction with a huge paradigm shift about learning itself.

I am, however, excited by the sports metaphor, as I think it will, as my colleague Julie pointed out, potentially give families a “foothold” into this much-needed shift in thinking.

Enormous as it is, I have faith that my colleagues and I are up to this challenge. I am even hopeful that the majority of our families will come to understand and embrace this more accurate vision and reporting out of student learning, especially as we work to connect it to other kinds of learning (like learning to play an instrument, for example).

I do wonder, though, how to sustain such an understanding when we live and work within a system that, through its time-honored practices, threatens to undermine our work . That–as a whole–gets how people learn so horribly, foolishly wrong.


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