Back to School: The End of the Silly Season

In Washington, where I live, the summer months are often called the “silly season,” the time when logic flies out the window and the news media focus (more than they usually do) on the frivolous and the outrageous. During a presidential election year, the silly season becomes a time of alarmist rhetoric, full of dire warnings and exaggerated accusations. Candidates and their surrogates say horrendous things about their opponents. It would all qualify as silly if so many people weren’t willing to accept and believe the absolute worst about those with whom they disagree.

This is not just a political issue. In many aspects of our lives, we tend to favor information that confirms what we already believe or suspect to be true. This is called a confirmation bias, and it affects our ability to weigh new information objectively and make rational decisions based on data. There is an old saying that you are entitled to your own opinions but you’re not entitled to your own facts, but this turns out not to be true. Increasingly in our fragmented culture, we do have our own facts. It becomes easier and easier to avoid seeing or hearing anything that would challenge our preconceived notions.

It would be nice to believe that this kind of thinking does not affect us in our professional lives as educators—that we are able to embrace “data-driven instruction” when it comes to our students and “life-long learning” when it comes to our own practice. But I suspect the confirmation bias plays its role with us as well. Are we too easily certain that the instructional decisions we make are the soundest and wisest ones—that the strategies we employ are the most effective, and that the activities in which we engage our students are the most productive? How strongly do we believe in own expertise, even though it is shielded from outside view and tested rarely, if ever, against outside metrics? How often do we allow ourselves to say, “I need to learn a different way?”

In a recent research study on differentiated instruction, I discovered that isolation can breed not only stagnation, but also complacency. The teachers I interviewed who liked the isolation of the classroom tended not to question or challenge their own practice. They resisted or scorned professional development. They found classroom observations to be a waste of time. They knew what they knew, and they did what they did, and it was all Good Enough. They deliberately avoided seeing or hearing anything that might challenge their comfortable vision of themselves as proficient practitioners.

On the other hand, those teachers who reached out to collaborate with peers or participate in informal classroom observations proved much more flexible and adaptable in their practice—much more willing to experiment with new techniques. They were more self-reflective and more self-critical. They were more willing to accept the fact that there were areas of their practice where they could grow and improve.  They were more willing to say, “Show me how you do it.”

These teachers often had to defy the structural isolation in which they worked in order to observe or work with peers. Nothing in their school culture was encouraging them to leave their rooms or seek out new learning. They brought a culture of collaboration into the school with them from previous careers or other life experiences.

Are we willing to see data that challenges what we think about ourselves? Are we willing to open the door that might allow us to learn something new? In a recent OpEd piece in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman described what Andreas Schleicher and his team at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the people responsible for the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA test) have been doing to make their data more visible and accessible to people around the world. They are trying to design ways for educators and parents to compare not only national performance on the world stage (how does the United States compare with Finland?) but also individual school performance (how does my son’s school compare with a socioeconomically similar school in Finland?)

“Imagine, in a few years, you could sign onto a Web site and see this is how my school compares with a similar school anywhere in the world,” says Schleicher. “And then you take this information to your local superintendent and ask: ‘Why are we not doing as well as schools in China or Finland?’ ”

What would a superintendent say in response to a challenge like this, when most of them don’t know what goes on in individual classrooms across the district, or how one teacher’s techniques and approaches compare, in effectiveness, with any other’s?  They may know which schools are doing well or doing poorly, getting better or getting worse based on some metric or other. But would they know why?

Are we willing to talk about what we do, and let people see what we do? Are we willing to investigate what actually works, and why it works? Are we willing to learn from each other?

Inevitably, in politics and in our larger life, the silly season gives way to the more melancholy realities of autumn. We go back to school. We get back to work. We bear down and get ready for winter. If we truly believe in life-long learning, then every day must be back-to-school-day for us. We need to ask ourselves the same questions we ask when we look at our children: What new things will you learn this year? What new things will you explore?  In what ways will you grow?

 

Andrew Ordover manages the design and creation of all of Catapult Learning instructional programs. Andrew has worked in curriculum development at public and private schools in Atlanta, New York City, and the Slovak Republic. He has created print and online programs for K12 students and has developed live and online professional development workshops and courses for teachers. Most recently, he served as Director of Academic Quality at ASCD. Andrew has a BA in English from Emory University, an MFA in theatre from UCLA, and is currently completing work on his doctorate in education.

1 Comment

  1. Debbie Whitfill August 20, 2012 Reply

    Andrew,

    Great reminder to all of us! I plan on sharing it with a district using Literacy First who has a group of teachers who believe they have already arrived.

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