Measure What Matters
Yesterday Jasmine (grade six) and Aymani (grade 4) were sitting together editing each other’s papers. Shelby (grade six), who was sitting nearby overheard them wrestling with the problem of how to indicate to each other the things that needed fixing. She said, “There were signs you can use.”
Shelby went over to the selves where the materials were kept, got a stack of 3 x 5 cards, went to an open table and began making a set of cards. Each card had its own editing symbol (“SP” for spelling, “/” for lower case, ?;. for punctuation, and so on.) The other two girls joined her at the table and immediately started using them to edit each other’s work.
In the course of the rest of the day several other students got involved as they, too, needed the tools that Shelby had created. By the end of the day there were two new educational materials in the class that the students had collaboratively created, a stack of laminated 3 x 5 cards that would facilitate the communication between students as the they helped each other improve their writing, and a game for memorizing the symbols of editing.
Martha, the teacher, simply looked on with pride at the learning factory she had created, for this is the art of the true educator; i.e. the art of creating the conditions in which learning will take place on its own.
Why do we like this story? We like it because the children are not only learning skills that will help them to become good writers (and some items that will be on standardized tests), but also to become proficient in the skills that life will require they be get better and better at as they get older, the skills of: communicating, creating and collaborating.
Looking a little more critically at these events in Martha’s classroom we see children practicing the art of criticizing as a way of pursuing excellence. We also see children connecting needs, motives and ideas in ways that create potential for even more learning.
Yes, problem solving is an important educational objective. School should teach our children to become ever better problem-solvers. Good teachers teach “the basics,” in the context of problems. (“Describe the falling of a leaf with correct grammar and spelling, and do it in exactly 300 words.”) However, if we really want our children to be prepared for the challenges of the real world we want them to get a lot of practice communicating, criticizing, connecting, creating, and collaborating. These should be our metrics.
But another C-word is the kingpin of them all: contributing. The driving force behind the communication, criticism, connection, creation and collaboration in Martha’s class is the inherent human drive to be useful to each other, to make a difference, to be valuable—to contribute.
Generally, a teacher in a school is held accountable for getting kids to know correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Holding students and teachers accountable for these “standards” is a simple matter of giving the students a test. This practice should by now be notorious as a violation of sound educational principles. I hope that ridiculing No-Child-Left-Behind-type practices is by now cliché.
The new “Common Core” standards take into consideration that we want more. We want schools, teachers and students to be held accountable for getting the students to use correct spelling, punctuation and grammar as they communicate interesting ideas and important information in writing. Moreover, we want understanding to undergird these measurable skills. But the controversy around the Common Core shows that we haven’t learned that setting standards does not yield better education.
Martha is not standards driven; she takes them for granted. Martha is building a learning organization. She is creating the conditions in which twenty-six 4th, 5th and 6th graders educate themselves as they educate each other.
Understanding education one-dimensionally misunderstands how the brain works, insults children, and leads ironically to worse academic performance. Even if all we care about is things like “the five-paragraph essay” and knowing “i before e, except after c…” our focus should be brain development. Maximizing brain development requires more than just teaching. Our classrooms must be learning communities—groups of humans working together to solve problems.
What should we hold Martha accountable for? Measure the incidence of communication, criticism, connection, collaboration, creation, and contribution in her classroom. How do we know if Martha is doing a good job? Look at the children and register the commitment in their eyes.