Tuesday, October 8, 2013

‘Push Backs’ and ‘What Abouts’: Opportunities for Learning

This is a great idea, but what about…?” or “I can see this working with older students, but I don’t understand how this can work with students in Grade Two…” or “I know that you are asking me to think about how this might play itself out in my class, but I am preparing my students for the real world and in that real world we don’t…” As leaders, we deliberately listen for these ‘push backs’ or ‘what abouts.’  And, as leaders, we welcome them.  They help us to get a clearer picture of what our adult learners are thinking.  ‘Push backs’ and ‘what abouts’ are invitations for us to gain clarity, to search for simplicity, and to feed our learning forward.  As we consider other viewpoints, we might refine our message, shift our stance, or think about better ways to communicate.

I frequently hear and am asked to think through the ‘push backs’ or ‘what abouts’ in the area of triangulation of evidence of learning.  Remember that triangulation refers to the collection of assessment evidence from three different sources – product, observation, and conversation. 

Some might say that all we need is products from students, as that is enough to determine the degree to which students are meeting curricular expectations.  However, our curricula include outcomes that cannot be simply and only represented through the creation of a product. This is true in all subject areas. For example, in English, students need to be able to communicate orally; in mathematics, students need to use manipulatives and other mathematical tools in order to solve problems; in science, students need to be able to safely use materials; in social studies, students are asked to value and celebrate diversity. This list could go on and on, further illustrating the richness of our curriculum and the necessity for students to prove that they can articulate, that they understand, and that they are able to “do” outcomes like those listed above.  And therein lies the inherent need to go beyond product as a sole measure of students’ abilities to meet the breadth of that which is expected.

In the face of the ‘push backs’ and the ‘what abouts,’ we can discuss the tenets of triangulation as it is described above. And yet for some with whom we work, it is important to illustrate this assessment principle in a slightly different way and from a different frame of reference.  So, for example, when educators share a ‘push back’ or ‘what about’ in relation to triangulation, I often refer to the following allegory:

Imagine that I am your principal and this year we are to engage in the more formal supervision cycle that will result in a report being placed in your personnel file.  I come to your classroom one afternoon in March and apologize for not meeting with you prior to this.  I have been busy.  I am carrying an empty box and I ask you to fill that box with pieces of paper – lesson plans, unit plans, tests you have created, student work, letters that you have sent to parents and guardians, notes that you have received from students, etc.  I promise to return in a week and, since I am true to my word, I do.  You have prepared not one box, but two boxes and as I struggle to gather them under my arms, I walk towards the classroom door and indicate that I will call you to my office in about a month’s time so that you can read and sign off on my report.  You seem surprised and soon you ask me when I am going to schedule some observations of your teaching.  I let you know that I don’t have time for that; in fact, everything that I require to know about how you teach must be here in these boxes.  You pause for a moment and then ask me if we will have the chance to talk about your challenges and your strengths as you teach these students this year. Again, I remind you that I am incredibly busy and, though I would like to, I can’t imagine that I would have the time to sit and talk with you.  I tell you not to worry, as I am confident that these papers in these boxes will provide me with the data that I need to write up the report.

As I leave, you can’t believe what you just have heard.  I won’t be coming to watch you teach, nor will we engage in professional discourse about your teaching or your students’ learning?  This is shocking to you.  Your lesson plans are pretty cryptic, though you can decipher them; your unit plans may have more information in them but, again, you have used language that means something to you – others might miss the point.  And besides, the real strength of your teaching is when you are interacting and engaging with your students.  That must be witnessed!  You immediately begin to think about what your recourse in this situation might be. The thought crosses your mind that you should contact your teachers’ association representative. 

It is here that I stop this story.  Upon reflection, there is not a professional educator who would want to be judged in this way.  There are critical aspects to the supervision cycle that are missing and it seems absurd to suggest that you will be evaluated without the rigour of triangulation – observation, conversation, and product.

And yet when I first began teaching, all that mattered, as I determined the degree to which my students met the curricular outcomes, was product – those paper and pencil tasks that could easily fit ‘into the box.’  Why did I expect a degree of thoroughness that I was not prepared to afford my students?  If I expected this ‘due process,’ why did I think that my students deserved less?

As I work with teachers, we now would pause to reflect and analyze the ‘push backs’ or the ‘what abouts’ in relation to this story.  What connections can be made?  In what other ways could we respond?  What makes sense and what does not make sense?

The work of leadership requires us, from time to time, to pose a question or offer an allegory to reframe or refine a stance.  We need to be flexible in our thinking in order to present accounts or stories that ‘push back’ at the ‘push backs’ in a thoughtful and respectful way.  We gather these accounts and these stories as we consider the diversity of viewpoints and the experiences that come our way – they serve us well…they are a powerful teaching technique…they speak to our reality and the disconnect that can exist if we don’t pause to examine an disparate point of view.

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