Sunday, October 11, 2009

Turning the Horse

I read recently that if you try to turn a galloping horse sharply, you'll probably wear yourself out and just make the horse mad.  Instead, it was suggested that you gently guide the horse in the direction that you want, slowly influencing direction with a gentle touch.

For far too much of my career, I tried to forcefully turn the horse, when I wasn't trying to drag it in a direction it didn't really want to go.  Sometimes it was an individual who was, in my eyes, "on the road to hell."  Other times, it was the whole class.  Fortunately for me, I got too old to fight the class.

Somewhere along my career I noticed that students acted far more appropriately when I had them doing something "fun":  a hands-on science experiment, a Social Studies craft activity, or perhaps one of our musicals.  The more I reflected on it, the more I began to realize that this was my hook.  No matter what the makeup of the class in September, by December, they were, for the most part, with me.  It was really simple.

Early in the year, we did lots of "fun" things.  By "fun," don't think for a moment that I wasn't teaching.  I was.  I just made sure that everything was done in the most active mode possible.  I wanted my students to get used to listening to and following my directions.  They had fun if they did.  They sat out if they didn't.  They're smart.  They figured it out on their own.  The horse was getting easier to turn.  Progressively, I could ask them to persist a little longer on the "hard" things like writing or reading textbooks, because they were becoming used to obliging my requests, and they knew that we'd do easier, more engaging things as well.

Patiently, over the year, I turned the horse.  I never lost sight of where we needed to be in May for our annual tests.  I always spoke the language of accomplishment.  Personally, I kept data like assignment completion statistics to make sure we were making progress.  I always told them where we were headed.  Because they knew where we were headed, they allowed themselves to be led there.  The results were a happier class, a happier teacher, and even happier administrators.  We all won because we each got something that we wanted.

This year, I've had the opportunity to visit many classrooms.  I see many variations on trying to drag the galloping horse in some direction or another.  I'm so happy I got too old to fight the horse.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Just Follow the Research

Following the research has always been a hobby of mine.  No, perhaps "passion" is more correct than "hobby."  No, perhaps "obsession" is closer to the real truth.  It's silly, I've reasoned, to not look to research when the past 50-75 years have seen so much educational research.  Tools and techniques have been refined to the point that it seems we should know everything there is to know about learners.  Human motivation is powered by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.  This supports the idea that commonalities of behavior should and do exist.  The nature vs. nurture debate suggests that although we share some common traits, our early experience with the world has a significant leverage, moving us to be unique and always unlike our peers.

The book I'm currently reading, Einstein Never Used Flash Cards,  describes how "leaps of faith" have been made from research.  At the very least, these misinterpretations of research represent a detour from successfully guiding young people to a productive adulthood.  One of the best known of these research-based "urban legends" is the notion that playing classical music will make for a brighter child.  It was reported that research done on human subjects asking subjects to listen to classical music, Mozart, I believe, led to improved mental functioning on a set of lab tasks.  Researchers took this specific result and generalized it to offer the idea that classical music improved brain functioning.  People and businesses with a stake in that idea, grasped it and touted the idea as fact.  Recorded classical music was sold as a brain builder for young children, even for the unborn!  Businesses were told to play classical music to boost creativity and production.  Later research challenged the earlier boosterish love affair with classical music.  True, classical music seemed to have a slight short-time positive effect on  people's ability to complete a manual task, but that effect seemed to last no longer than a quarter-hour.  There was no reason to suspect ANY long-term effect on the brain.

It never makes sense to violate our sense of our own experience because an interpretation of a piece of research conflicts with your fundamental sense of what's right.  Think of  The Emperor's New Clothes.  It also serves no child well to reject a premise because it conflicts with a popularly held belief.  This means that when we read research, we have to embrace it with our whole brain, asking how it fits with our experiential data and where it conflicts.  This is to say that, when it comes to people, a piece of research is neither "wrong" or "right."  More appropriately, it fits or does not fit with our working "theories" of educational practice.

It seems to me that research is like a pattern.  One looks at the actions of real people - children in this case - and then see if action matches proposition or not.  If it does, perhaps we know something more about the way children act and why they do what they do.  If the actions and theory don't fit well together, then, without immediately asserting that the theory is faulty, it's enough to say, "It doesn't apply here."  Then, if one would like, one can attempt to reconcile the factual differences which make for a poor fit between theory and the real world.