Investigating the shadow

I relearned an important lesson about students today. And, as is often the case, the lesson was learned while visiting church. But, it wasn’t the priest who taught me the lesson. Not the deacon, not a Bible study leader… not even a human.

It was a candle that illumined me.

See, in our church, there’s candles. Candles do a variety of different things. The most obvious of these is they produce light. But this isn’t all they do. See?

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Actually, maybe you don’t see. I mean, when you are used to looking at candles like this, then the light is probably the most obvious effect. I suspect if you are close enough to it, you will quick recognize the heat as well.

But those candles are doing more than that. (I’m not trying to get all spiritual on you here. I’m talking physically.)

Can you see it? Maybe you need another picture of the candles.

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So, this is the same set of candles, but see? I took a picture of the shadow the candles cast on a nearby wall. See the distorted image vertically rising from the candles? There’s something happening to the light that passes through the space directly above the flames that messes with the light as it passes through.

But you can’t see it here. I mean, I guess maybe if you stare at it long enough… maybe…

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Anyway…

By now, it would be reasonable to ask why I was so interested in candles. And the simplest answer is that I saw something that intrigued me.

Is this the way it is with our students? There are lot of things they are doing that are obvious. They are loud or quiet. They are successful or struggling. They are social or reclusive. These things are obvious. These are the flame of the candle. Any teacher paying any attention to their students would see these things.

But what we don’t see are the hidden effects.

We don’t see that the successful student is working like crazy because of the pressure her parents are putting on her. (It’s not work ethic… it’s fear. Be prepared for what that looks like when the struggles come.) We may not see that that student who is struggling is a skilled leader on her soccer team. (There’s a lot of usable strengths if you can just create classroom situations that use them.) We don’t see that the student who we don’t think is paying attention could design and implement not less than 3 effective fixes for that wobbly stool in your classroom. (How can you sell your content on that student?)

To successfully support these students, we need to see their shadow along with their light.

How do you look at your students differently? There’s a variety of different ways, but the first is that you need to be interested. You need to be willing to see something that intrigues you. Find ways to see them differently. In general, school mostly expects students to do the same sorts of things. But you don’t HAVE to do it that way. Challenge the successful student. Innovate with the struggling student. Chat with the quiet student.

Remember that their “shadow” would almost certainly reveal plenty of things going on. Important actions, skills, impacts that you aren’t aware of. How would the classroom experience improve, both for the student and for you, if you knew what those “shadow” effects were?

Zooming In, Zooming Out: On Education Research (and Religion)

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U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Chris Desmond. (RELEASED)

Feedback. Various researchers have stated that effective feedback should be of the “what’s next?” variety. Good feedback helps people see “what’s next?”

But what if the feedback is corrective? Is the revision of the previous attempt implicitly the “what’s next”? What if it wasn’t implicit? What if the teacher explicitly told the student to revise? Then does it become better feedback? What if the feedback isn’t directly related to the content, but instead the organization of their work? Does that reduce the quality of the feedback since the correction is toward a non-content goal?

What if? What about that? How about this?

These have been the conversations in which I’ve found myself several times over the last few weeks. My mind has been racing. Not only to understand the intense scrutiny with which we are examining teacher moves, but also to convince myself that these types of conversations are valuable.

Lines of questioning like I mentioned above are like zooming really far in on a certain single aspect of teaching and for a moment exploring it in isolation. Treating it like it is the only factor that matters in order to understand that one thing completely. As though, for a moment, all that mattered was good feedback. Or formative assessment. Or opportunities to respond.

The fact is that these different aspect of teaching and learning don’t exist in isolation. That’s one of the unrelenting truths of the classroom. Opportunities to respond and feedback depend on the quality of the classroom management. Good feedback depends, at least partly, on effective working relationships with students. And good formative assessment is quite dependent on the skill of assessment writing.

So, does the essential interconnectedness of these different elements of good instruction mean that we shouldn’t separate them out and examine each one? Well, not so fast. It’s true that lines of questioning like that can go on for a long time and in the end, we’ve created some pretty well-defined boundaries around things like feedback, or formative assessment, or opportunities to respond. But, I think we need to suspend our disbelief for a moment to understand that these types of conversations ARE important.

I repeat: These conversations are important to have and I believe more practitioners should be having them. There are a variety of terms that we use as educators that are common AND really poorly defined. Feedback is an excellent example, but also terms like “mastery”, “high standards”, even words like “compassion” get used with widely different understandings and thus widely different corresponding behaviors.

But these are words that have meanings and corresponding behaviors that will improve students’ lives and school experiences when done properly (and will have limited effects when done poorly.) There isn’t always an A-for-effort when it comes to teacher moves. “I tried to give good feedback” is noble, but “I gave good feedback” is more effective for student learning. And switching from the former to the latter will require locking down what effective feedback is and what it is not. This is true for any number of teacher moves from instruction to assessment to classroom management to communication.

But we can’t stay zoomed in. I credit a colleague for saying, “Education research is about constantly zooming in and then zooming out. Getting narrow and then widening your view. You work to create definitions, then you zoom out to see those definitions in context.”

This discussion isn’t entirely different from the back-and-forth required to become effective practioners of most religions. Most of the religions that I am even surface-level familiar with have this same back-and-forth between the experiential, spiritual, the perhaps undefinable side with the clinical, dogmatic and well-defined side.

For example, some religions practice fasting from food and drink for different times of the year. Further, some fast from meat and dairy on the ground that for a given time, they shouldn’t eat “animal products.”

What about eggs? Eggs aren’t meat or dairy, but they are clearly an animal product.

What about fish? Depends on how you define “meat.”

What about honey? Are bees animals? Is honey a “product” of that animal?

What about soy milk? It’s not an animal product, but it’s feels kinda like cheating. Is the goal to make do without milk? Or simply to not consume the animal product?

And when should do children start this? Should infants suspend nursing during the fasts because it’s milk? Or are infants exempt? If infants are exempt, what about their mothers who are needing to keep their diet somewhat consistent to stay well-nourished to feed their infants? When would the religious leaders guide the parents to start having the children begin fasting?

See? It all gets very clinical quite quickly. By asking such questions, we’ve allowed ourselves to zoom all the way into the nitty gritty details about this one aspect of the spiritual experience. And quite frankly, that’s okay as long as we remember that the  clinical exists to enable us to serve the bigger picture better. The point of fasting (at least as far as I’ve understood it) is to be able to pray better. That’s what we see when we zoom back out.

And being willing to help practitioners dig through the nitty-gritty can be a way to honor the sincerity of their devotion. They want to do the very best job they can and they have questions. That’s okay. It’s okay if they want to zoom in and examine the different elements of the work they are trying to do. We should encourage them to do that inasmuch as it is providing effective supports to their efforts toward the bigger-picture goals.

And this brings us back to the classroom. Classroom teachers should be encouraged to zoom in on the finer details of their work, too. The zooming in provides definitions and supports techniques. The zooming out provides context. Zooming in is where the fine-tuning occurs. Zooming out is where we learn how those updated practices look amidst the sea of other factors. Do we really have time? What will that activity look like the way my desks are configured? When will I be able to provide feedback to the second and third step of the project for each group?

It takes both. Neither is good enough on their own. They aren’t enemies, but rather they complement one another. And when we gain an appreciation of the place, value, and role of the zoom-in and the zoom-out, then we can start to use them both to make our work better and better.