The environment for risk-taking

Yesterday, I was in a local elementary school having conversation with grade-level teams about their students’ math learning. I heard something that I found incredibly impressive.

In one particular grade level, there was a small number of students who were still not quite mastering the targeted skills, but were getting really close. Many of these students had begun the year with a long way to go, so this is a very impressive amount of growth for these students. (In some cases, some of these students experience a year’s growth in their math abilities during the first semester.)

We started examining what had led to such growth, one of the classroom teachers remarked, “Well, they really try hard. They like to work problems out in front of the other students. They make mistakes, but the other students correct them.”

I paused.

Think of that. Just… do me a favor, will ya? Go ahead and picture the typical struggling math student. Got the image? I’ll bet you that student just LOVES putting their math skills on display for the whole class to see, don’t they? I’ll bet that student loves letting the other students in the class critique his/her work. (Sarcasm may not come through real well in the blogging medium…)


I asked this teacher, “You’ve created an atmosphere the atmosphere in your classroom that makes that student feel safe to make mistakes in front of the other students?”

Teacher shrugged as if it were really no big deal. “Mmm-hmm. Yeah.” (As if to say, “Sure, what’s the big deal? We’re all just trying to learn as much as we can.)

I love that it’s no big deal to her and her colleagues. But that is not common.

Believe me, I am convinced in the power of students examining and critiquing each other’s work, but ordinarily there is a bit of strategery involved to keep the pieces of work anonymous. (See Best Reflection for an example of what I’m talking about.)

But that’s not the case for this teacher. What a vision for a classroom. A place so safe and so locked into the mutual learning process that there is no need for anonymity. A student can stand up in front of his/her peers, submit their best try, the peers appreciate the sincerity and can offer feedback.

It’s just no wonder that the students who entered that class behind their peers were catching up so fast… and imagine where they’ll be by the end of the year.

Applying Growth Mindset to our Teachers

I enjoy reading/hearing discussions of education from the perspective of non-educators. Dan Carlin goes there occasionally as does Steve Dubner from Freakonomics and it was one of Dubner’s posts that captured my attention today.

The piece (entitled “Is America’s Education problem really just a teacher problem?”) explores the conjecture that has been expressed by a wide variety of people that the issue that our modern education system is dealing with really boils down to teachers. If teachers teach well, then the education goes well. If teachers don’t teach well, education doesn’t go well.

While I’m not prepared to validate the conjecture, I do think there is some value in exploring the power improved teacher performance might have to address some of our systems lingering issues. For example:

  • By focusing on teaching, we stick to factors we can control. Blaming the parent, the kid, the politician, the funding, etc. might be accurate and possibly satisfying, but we can’t control how those behave, so let’s not create solutions that require one of those “uncontrollables” to act a certain way.
  • By focusing on teaching, we stick to factors that are close to the students. Curricula, standards, college entrance tests, etc. are all going to have to be figured out eventually, but those are slow-burning solutions.
  • By focusing on teaching, we get a chance to explore a wide variety of the educational experience of the student. Instruction, assessment, feedback, engagement, classroom management, community relations, positive behavior supports, data collection and analysis all play a part in the work of the teacher. In addition, we can explore teacher training, recruitment and hiring, mentorship and development, pay, evaluation and union politics… I could keep going. That is an awful lot of the education sector that opens up when we start examining the work of the teacher.

And while I’m not in any position to put the salvation of the American public education system on the shoulders of the teaching profession, I would imagine if we give ourselves permission to examine the teaching profession, we might find some areas of improvement that would allow our system to better serve our young people.

Let’s also get out of the way right now that there aren’t any simple explanations to this problem and, as such, there aren’t any simple solutions. Also, let’s get on the same page about something else. From the article:

“When we say that U.S. students aren’t doing very well, and that U.S. teachers aren’t the best and brightest, let’s remember that we’re talking about averages. There are of course millions of American kids who get a great education in public school. There are of course many, many excellent teachers. We should also note that just because a future teacher finishes near the top of their high-school or college class doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a great classroom teacher.”

American schools aren’t universally awful and it can also be a little tricky to predict what kind of student will end up becoming an excellent teacher. And while the system is complex and there’s a lot of moving parts, the teacher plays a central role in designing the experiences that students have during the school day. From the article (this quote is from David Levin):

When you think about the most important people in a kid’s life outside of their family it starts with their teacher. I mean for the obvious reason, right? You leave home, you go to school, and the teacher is the determinant of how that day goes. And even as the kids get older, when all the research says the peer effect is so essential, teachers have a huge impact on how peers interact in the classroom.

So, perhaps the most reasonable next step would be to make sure that each classroom has a talent teacher in it. Get rid of the lousy teachers and replace them with better ones. Right?

From the article (this quote is from Dana Goldstein):

And what I found is that this pair of solutions, driving people out, bringing new people in, it’s not enough. Because the demand for teachers is so high — we do need 100,000 new teachers every year to satisfy the labor market. So, what I suggest is, instead of starting with our fear of bad teaching, we look at teachers who are excellent at what they do right here in the United States, and we ask about how to create systems where we can replicate their best practices.

That’s a lot of teachers. 100,000 new employees every year? That’s a ton. And as far as best practices go, there are a couple of pretty approachable frameworks that are becoming pretty common place (Bob Marzano and John Hattie are becoming household names for a reason), so choosing a framework around the teacher development programs in school districts shouldn’t be the hard part. So what is the hard part?

Perhaps the hard part is that many schools envision their roles as developers of young people. (I don’t disagree with this, by the way…) Schools are in the human growth business. I suspect every single school in the country has a mission/vision statement that includes a lot of student-centered language about growth, development, and the like.

At the same time, I reckon hardly ANY of those districts see themselves as TEACHER development institutions.

But why not? If the data, research, and logic trail all point to excellent teaching being a huge indicator of overall district excellence (read “district excellence” as lots and lots of young people learning lots and lots and lots of good stuff), then wouldn’t a constantly improving teaching staff be a pretty reliable pathway toward improvement?

But what might that look like?

  • Schools subscribing to professional journals on behalf of their teachers and developing norms that the articles are read and discussed.
  • Real, effective mentorship programs that nurture the growth of their young teachers instead dumping them into classes and schedules that veterans would NEVER stand for.
  • open door policies where teachers are expected to visit each other’s classrooms to support, watch and then ask questions about what they saw and heard.
  • peer observation and feedback sessions with the intention of supporting the growth of a teacher who is struggling in an identified way. (Perhaps learning walks a la Kevin Feldman.)
  • teachers who are taking college course work getting opportunities to showcase their projects, discuss the texts that they are reading, and lead discussion in staff meetings.
  • high school math teachers (for example) being invited into an art teacher’s classroom so that the art teacher can demonstrate a really effective technique. (I am not a big fan of “only a math teacher can help/support/advise/understand another math teacher.)
  • a principal making sure that as many possible people on staff are qualified to lead a classroom of students for an hour so if a teacher needs to observe, discuss, consult, or brainstorm there is a variety of paraprofessionals, interventionists, guidance counselors, administrators, and other personnel who can stand in and let the growth process happen. (I can remember one school I worked at where even the athletic director could manage a classroom.)

This mindset see schools as the last part of the teacher training process. What if we saw the schools as the place that completed the training? (Not unlike teaching hospitals that openly have developing doctors learning their craft with real patients.) Not only will you be serving to improving the skill set of the teaching staff, but when professionals are cared for, have a sense of ownership and autonomy, their motivation and morale tend to improve.

Schools have long understood their role in developing humans, but perhaps they’ve fallen short because they’ve behaved as though their only task was to develop the minors. Perhaps if we get to the place where our schools understand their role in developing the adults as well, then we’d start to see the improvement that we’ve been seeking for so long.