26 June 2011

The art of seeing

part two    part three     afterthought

How do you see a classroom? What do you see when you look at a “learning space”? What questions do you ask when you watch someone teach? Or watch someone learn?
I sat in a conference session recently and listened to Matthew Kuhn explain how a “Marzano-Approved,” “Bill Gates-Loved,” “Arne Duncan-Endorsed,” iPad app from McRel could allow you to understand pedagogy in your school while “observing” for “three to five minutes.” Well, not actually observing, more like staring down at your high-gloss iPad screen while sitting in the back of a classroom. (for a look at Marzano's research regarding products he is paid to research, see Jon Becker)
Where's this on Marzano's checklist?
Mr. Kuhn promised “accuracy,” “reliability,” “validity,” and many other buzzwords of America’s corporate elite – from Jeb “You can buy my brothers school stuff” Bush to Joel “Give me your kids Money” Klein, from Salman “Learn via my home lectures!” Kahn to Bill “I copied all my major projects” Gates, from Michelle “Tape their mouths shut” Rhee to Arne “I hate schools, teachers, and students” Duncan. He also promised his that his company’s checklist for teacher evaluation was “non-evaluative.” And it is.
It is every bit as non-evaluative as the above paragraph.
There is a deep misconception which runs through the world of our educational policy “leaders.” It is a misconception based in enlightenment philosophy and the scientific management systems which grew up during the second industrial revolution. It is a very dangerous disbelief based in a sad underestimation of the human species and a specifically trained inability to actually see.
This misconception is the belief that human behavior and experience can be reduced to a numerical scale.
"We can't measure engagement" - Matthew Kuhn
It is the belief that you can take me and Michelle Rhee and add us together, then divide by two, and come up with an “average” educational change advocate.
It is the belief that you end up with an “objective truth” when you take a specifically chosen set of questions and determine that there will be a correct answer to those questions.
“You watch the video of this teacher,” Kuhn told us, “then discuss what you see at your tables, and then I’ll tell you the right answer.”
Oh my.
It will come as a shock to Mr. Gates, Mr. Duncan, Mr. Khan, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Washington Post, and others, but I’m here to tell you that quantitative analysis of your school will always tell you what the “researcher” wants to hear. And that analysis has no more validity than if you let anyone wander your building and report on your school. You will have a minimal snapshot, a story framed by the personal beliefs, experiences, and grudges of the person who chose the questions and the person who decided how, when, and where, to collect the “data.”
Imagine: I am at a gathering and I ask everyone, “how tall are you?” “how much do you weigh?” “can you explain Einstein’s theory of relativity?” And I ask these questions at the start of the event. Or, if I ask – after everyone has had three drinks, “who’s your favorite poet?” “what island would you most want to live on?” “can you explain how Liverpool beat Milan in the 2005 Champions League Final in Istanbul?”
Would I get the same view of the guests?
The comparison to education is not ridiculous. The questions asked, the checklist provided, the rubric you’ve created, will always limit your ability to observe. And the measurements you report will always limit your imagination and your ability to create and change.
“Where’s the checkbox for “kids drawing on the floor?”’ I asked the conference later. Where’s the checkbox for “student movement”? for “kids had seating choices”? for “students seemed really happy”? As Tomaz Lasic once asked, “Where’s the tickbox for “student smiled for the first time today”?

Those who only see the checklist will never be artists, or creators, or even valued observers
Because if that’s not on your checklist, you will not see it. Surely not in your five minute “power walkthrough.” And if you don’t see those things, and a million more things not on Marzano’s checklists, you will not see your school.
You have to learn the art of deep mapping. You have to learn the art of “ADHD vision.” You have to learn to see a holistic world made of many tiny elements. You have to learn again to see.
“This was hard,” one school administrator said after Pam Moran and I had sent a conference session out to try “ADHD vision” during a 15-minute walk, “I really don’t know how to observe people.”
She is not alone. The ability to observe humanity is taken away from us by a combination of our North American views of privacy and our belief in magical numbers. We think it impolite to look too closely at each other. We distrust our human vision and have been taught to rely on statistical models.
New York Mayor John Lindsay walks unplowed Queens streets
When I was young a huge snowstorm hit New York City. It took hours after the snow began for plows to begin rolling, and the result was a mess that took weeks to clean up. I still remember the city official on the news, “We can’t send the plows out without a report from the weather bureau,” he said. “Weather bureau?” the Sanitation Union leader laughed in response, “all you had to do was look out the window.”
And today, while Gates and Duncan count, they have taught us to not look out that window. No Child Left Behind tells us tons of things which everyone knows are not true, but our policies, our editorials, and our political campaigns keep claiming – in John Lindsay administration terms – that “no storm is coming.” Duncan says that NCLB will show next year that 82% of our schools are failing – which is obviously absurd – and that he will let you escape the failing label if you enrich his friends by buying their reform models. And “everyone” sits back and lets that untruth stand. Duncan says, high-stakes tests should determine teacher salaries while not forcing teachers to “teach to the test,” and gets away with this observable lie. From one end of America to another politicians claim that both “teachers make all the difference” and that “teacher training does not matter” (Teach for America) and fewer news media call anyone on that crazed contradiction than called Donald Rumsfeld on his duality of “Iraq is filled with weapons of mass destruction ready to be used in 15 minutes,” and, “Iraq will be very easy to conquer and control, and we need very few troops.”
On the other hand, none of the numbers we have show the brilliant, creative work being generated by kids in great classrooms. None of the numbers show the teachers struggling everyday to overcome America’s embarrassing cultures of poverty-acceptance and child disregard. None of the numbers show that system-changing adaptations – open classrooms, multiage education, studio-style schools, project-based learning, passion-based learning – lead to kids with more adaptable human skills.

Angels in America
, the work of another victim of whole language instruction

Observation, however, shows that the much maligned progressive education of the Baby Boomers and early Gen Xers produced the world's most inventive economy. The group without rigorous testing, the "whole language victims," the "new math victims," produced everything from micro-computers to Google, from effective solar power to Pixar, from Foursquare to Burning Man.

Deep Mapping
So we must stop being blinded by our incredibly limited view of "science." Rather, we must learn to see again, to see widely and complexly. To build our own deep maps of the people, places, and experiences before us. You cannot describe the experience of a middle school English class without knowing what happened in the corridor before class began, or what happened the night before at home. You cannot describe the work coming out of a tenth grade math class without understanding the full experience of students and their parents with mathematics to that point. You cannot tell me anything about reading among seven-year-olds without deeply considering the brain function and homelife of each student. And you cannot tell me about the "performance" of any school if you have not deep-mapped it to include a million data points - most of which cannot be charted or averaged or statistically normed.

Human observation and deep mapping are hard, but hardly impossible. These are skills which we all had before school began, and which we must recapture. We'll start by putting down our checklists... and in the next post, we will start to practice...

- Ira Socol

1 comment:

Karen Janowski said...

Thank you, ira, for this outstanding series.