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Sponges and Bombing: The Dangers of Keeping Up Appearances.

  • Written by Andrew Elliott McBurney
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Several years ago, when I worked at a very small night high school, after a faculty meeting (at which there was a grand total of five of us, including our principal), I found myself chatting with our principal, and he asked me, “What do you think of the idea that learning should ‘saturate’ the class period?”

I think he was asking me in order to bounce the phraseology off of someone to see how it sounded. Our district, like many, was pushing the idea of “bell-to-bell instruction” in order to discourage wasted time in the classroom, and I figure he wanted to frame it in a more positive sounding way. Or, I suppose it could have been an oblique way to suggest I was wasting time in my classroom, but I don’t believe it was, nor in any appraisal was I dinged for not having bell-to-bell instruction. (Ahem.)

I considered the phrase, and responded, “I’m not comfortable describing learning with a word usually associated with sponges and bombing.”

Let me be clear, I don’t believe in wasting time in the classroom, but neither do I think that learning is so incorporeal as to justify fuzzy classroom tasks like “Tell me how militarism makes you feel using glue sticks and yarn.” Nevertheless, unlike digging coal, there is no comparable sixteen-ton quota to measure real learning—which “bell-to-bell instruction” or “saturation-learning” inherently suggest. We want learning to occur during the whole class period, so how will we know if it is?

Whole books and leadership courses purport to have the answer of what “authentic” learning looks like; and these books and courses are used to train aspiring school principals to identify when it is occurring for the purpose of accurately appraising teachers in the classroom.

A lot of people a lot smarter than me have invested a lot of time and effort to develop these books and leadership courses to promote what may be fairly called a system of continuous improvement for both teachers and students. Additionally, one of the major purposes of adopting precise standards for both teachers and students is to be fair in assessing abilities and achievement. In fact, if we were to scrutinize any one element of this system as it has been developed, I doubt whether we could find very much at fault with it.

But the problem with many of these books and leadership courses is that they treat learning as a discrete activity, the appearance of which may be defined, identified, and measured. (I won’t identify the ones I’m thinking of right now because I’m not prepared to offer a full critique of them yet, but I expect that many teachers and not a few administrators out there would agree with my assertion, even if they disagree with my belief that it is a problem.) It raises the possibility that real learning may be occurring in a teacher’s classroom, but may not appear as such to an appraiser if it is unplanned.

Some administrators may cluck at this, anticipating an argument for less rigor and discipline in the classroom. Actually, the opposite is true.

Just as it is important to plan for learning, at the same time it is equally important to allow for unplanned learning to occur. I suppose this would be more a part of the art, rather than the science, of teaching. In fact, guiding unplanned learning may be the highest attainable skill in the art of teaching. Some teachers may possess it as a native ability, while others (like me) will have to cultivate it over time. It’s not something that is easily reflected in unit or lesson plans, and it requires some flexibility. It may not always look like what administrators are trained to look for.

In the current systems in place for continuous improvement, we have adopted measurable objectives for curriculum, identified characteristics of “authentic” learning for instruction, and developed common assessments from which we mine data to tell if our instruction has measured up.

Nevertheless, these systems miss something: if all of our objectives are only measurable objectives, if we think all learning may be identified only by prescriptive characteristics of “authentic” learning, and if we think all of our students’ learning may be perfectly anticipated, then we discourage the spirit of exploration and discovery fundamental to real learning. Unless one of the goals of 21st century education is to discourage all unplanned learning, then teachers, administrators, and those tasked with developing systems of continuous improvement ought to take these things into account.

Here are some suggestions:

  • • When teachers write lesson plans that allow leeway for exploratory learning and creativity, they should also be prepared to record during or after class the unplanned learning that occurs and its significance. Not only would this be instructive for the teacher in future planning, but it would also be a way to show administrators that the learning, while unplanned, was nevertheless of value.
  • • Administrators charged with appraising teacher performance should accept that not all real learning looks like the examples they may have seen in training. There may be a student staring off into space, for example. Is she “disengaged”? Or perhaps she is thinking deeply about what she is learning—more so than the stated objectives require—should we discourage the possibility? Another student may appear to be monopolizing the conversation in a group. Are the other students “disengaged”? Are they learning from what he is saying? Should we discourage the possibility by expecting equal participation from all group members whenever we are looking? The teacher may be discussing matters or asking questions that don’t seem to line up with the stated objectives? Do we chalk that up to goldbricking? Discuss it with the teacher. Give him or her a chance to explain. Allow for the possibility that even though the class may have ventured from the stated objectives, valuable learning may still be going on. In fact, I would encourage appraisers to be more actively involved with what is going on in the classroom—not so much that it interrupts or distracts from what the teacher and students are doing, but enough to gain more insight than from just silent observation. I realize some districts or states may not allow this, but I feel my best appraisers were more active than passive.
  • • Ideally, at the district or state level, appraisal systems should be developed so that they make allowances for learning beyond stated objectives.

Ultimately, though, this would involve putting a certain amount of faith in people’s common sense and good judgment. This is not the direction states are going, however, in developing their systems of continuous improvement. We should consider of what value are such a systems in a free country—are teachers to be reduced to the level of being mere functionaries bombarding students with low-level objectives to be soaked up like sponges? Is that the best way to promote responsibility, good citizenship, and innovation? Or do we want to promote real learning and real improvement?

(NOTE: This post one of a set of four posts, which, altogether, describe four dangers I believe are facing 21st century public education in the United States. The others are: “Traditional Equals Bad: The Dangers of Definitions,” “Allowing for Known Unknowns: The Dangers of Ignoring Reality,” and “Whatever Happened to Lifelong Learning?: The Dangers of Measurable Objectives.”)


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