Education Week - September 18, 2013 - (Page 32)

32 EDUCATION WEEK n SEPTEMBER 18, 2013 n COMMENTARY Encouraging Courage Robbie Lawrence By Alfie Kohn E | INSIDE | ducation research doesn’t always get the respect it deserves, but let’s be honest: There’s already enough of it to help us decide what to do (or stop doing) on many critical issues. Likewise, there are plenty of examples of outstanding classrooms and schools in which that research is being put into practice. What’s lacking is sufficient courage for those examples to be widely followed. It pains me to say this, but professionals in our field often seem content to work within the constraints of traditional policies and accepted assumptions—even when they don’t make sense. Conversely, too many educators seem to have lost their capacity to be outraged by outrageous things. Handed foolish and destructive mandates, they respond only by requesting guidance on how to implement them. The Cowardly Lion was able to admit that he lacked what made the muskrat guard his musk. Cowardly humans are more likely just to change the subject. Propose something that makes a meaningful difference, and you’ll hear, “But we’ve always ...,” “But the parents will never ...,” “But we can’t be the only school in the area to ...” What, then, do truly courageous educators do? They dig deeper, they take responsibility, and they share power. Digging deeper. It requires gumption to follow one’s principles wherever they lead. One may hope, for example, that children will be lifelong learners. But what if evidence and experience tell us that interest in learning declines when students are graded and made to work on academic assignments at home? Are we willing to question any traditional practices—including grades and homework—that interfere with important goals? Advanced Placement courses often just accelerate the 26 WHY THE NEW TEACHER ED. STANDARDS MATTER worst kind of lecture-based, textbook-oriented instruction. They’re “rigorous,” but that doesn’t mean they’re good. When it was reported that Scarsdale High School in New York joined other schools in deciding to drop all AP courses, an administrator at a nearby school circulated the article to his colleagues under the heading “Do we have the guts?” To dig deeper is to ask the root questions: not how many AP courses kids should take, but whether to replace the “ [T]oo many educators seem to have lost their capacity to be outraged by outrageous things. ” College Board’s curriculum with our own; not how much homework to assign, but why kids should have to work a second shift every evening; not how to grade, but whether to do so at all. Even when practices seem to be producing good results, a courageous educator questions the criteria: “Wait a minute—we say this policy ‘works,’ but doesn’t that just mean it raises scores on bad tests?” “My classroom may be quiet and orderly, but am I promoting intellectual and moral development, or merely compliance?” “Aren’t our graduates getting into prestigious colleges mostly because they’re from affluent families? Are we helping them become deep and passionate thinkers?” Taking responsibility. The path of least resistance is to attribute problems to those who have less power than you. It’s much harder to respond the way a San Diego teacher did (when she wrote several years ago in these pages): “If a child starts to act up, I ask myself: ‘How have I failed this 26 UNFAIRLY FIRED TEACHERS DESERVE COURT PROTECTION child? What is it about this lesson that is leaving her outside the learning? How can I adapt my plan to engage this child?’ I stopped blaming my children.” We have to be willing to fight for what’s right even in the face of concerted opposition. Maureen Downey, a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote several years ago about how tough that can be in a culture where those “who speak up when they believe their students’ welfare is at stake, and who question the system, earn the label of troublemaker.” Lots of principals, she added, are “too cowed to practice ‘creative insubordination.’ ” Parting with power. It takes guts, not just talent, for a teacher to lead students beyond a predictable search for right answers—and to let them play an active role in the quest for meaning that replaces it. That entails not only accepting some unpredictability and messiness but also giving up some control. A teacher in Washington state was proud of herself for having posted this sign at the front of her classroom: “Think for yourself; the teacher might be wrong!” But gradually she realized that her classroom wasn’t really learner-centered. “I wanted [students] to think for themselves,” she confessed in a journal article, “but only so long as their thinking didn’t slow down my predetermined lesson plan or get in the way of my teacher-led activity or argue against my classroom policies.” It takes courage to admit one hasn’t gone as far as one thought. I’ve met teachers who took a deep breath and let kids PAGE 28 > ALFIE KOHN is the author of 12 books on education and human behavior, including Feel-Bad Education (Beacon Press, 2011). His next book, to be published in early 2014, is The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children and Parenting (Da Capo Press). His website is 27 A SANDY HOOK PARENT’S LETTER TO TEACHERS 28 LETTERS TO THE EDITOR ▲

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - September 18, 2013

Education Week - September 18, 2013
Calif. Testing Move Hits Federal Nerve
Teacher-Review Tool: Classroom Portfolios
TFA Educators Found to Boost Math Learning
Assessment Group Sets Accommodations Policy
News in Brief
Report Roundup
Spoken-Word Poets Bring Words to Life for Students
Partnership in Bronx Aims to Build Skills On Behalf of Parents
National-Board Certification to Be Cheaper, Smoother
Iowa District Reimagines the Five-Day School Week
DIGITAL DIRECTIONS: Consumer Demand for Digital Ed. Games Seen Rising
Blogs of the Week
Ed. Dept., Arizona in Clash Over Waiver
Congress Gears Up for Higher Ed. Law Renewal
Policy Brief
Louisiana Vouchers, Desegregation Case Prove Volatile Mix
House Panelists Question Relevancy of Education Dept. Research
Why the New Teacher Ed. Standards Matter
Unfairly Fired Teachers Deserve Court Protection
A Sandy Hook Parent’s Letter to Teachers
TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Encouraging Courage

Education Week - September 18, 2013