Thursday, March 9, 2017

Crystal Balls & Magic Bullets

I have spent a good majority of my educational career helping teachers and administrators figure out how to become the best that they can be for their students and supporting them in doing it. It is my passion, and it is something that I love being a part of.  The thing is, though, it’s not rocket science. Really.

There are times that I feel like the character in one of my favorite books, The Fortune Tellers, by Lloyd Alexander. In the book, a carpenter hears that a fortune teller has come to town, so he decides to pay him a visit.  When the carpenter finds the old man, he quickly asks if he sees wealth in the future.  The fortune teller looks into his crystal ball and confirms that the young carpenter will indeed be rich... as long as he earns lots of money.  The carpenter is ecstatic and then wants to know if he will be famous.  Again, the fortune teller stares into the crystal ball and attests that fame IS in the young man’s future….as long as he becomes well-known. Of course, the carpenter is thrilled and leaves the old man’s shop eager for all his good fortune to come.

A short time later, the carpenter returns to the shop with more questions and finds the old man’s hat and crystal ball abandoned on the table.  He looks into the ball and sees...nothing.  
Unfortunately, like the carpenter who believed the magic was in the hat and crystal ball, we often misunderstand what predicts success.

One of the questions I get asked more than any other is “What are other schools doing that works?”  That is usually followed by a question about a specific program or resource and whether it is effective.  Those are two fundamentally different questions, you see.

When I get asked about the best programs or resources or tools or trend or anything along those lines, that is when I feel like the fortune teller.  Here’s the can put a hammer in my hand, but I can’t build you a house.  Even if there is someone using that exact same brand of hammer to build a house next’s not going to build my house. The hammer is nothing without the carpenter. So let’s look into the crystal ball:
Q: Could I use this hammer to build a house?
A: long as you know how and have the ability to build a house.

Like I said-it’s not rocket science.  It never has been and never will be a matter of what tools we use.  Yes, tools and resources and programs...even frameworks and approaches to instruction can certainly help, but the impact any of those have on students depends on the ability, knowledge, and skills of the people using them.  Back to the crystal ball:

Q: Will this be a good ____________ for my campus/district/organization?
A: long as your teachers are equipped with the knowledge and ability and skills to teach their students

Q: Is the teacher really THAT important?
A: Yes...but only if you want the students to learn.

Contrary to what it may appear, it takes a highly skilled teacher to design experiences that allow students to own their learning and not be dependent on the instructor. It requires amazing abilities for teacher to take what they are given (curriculum, classroom space, resources, programs) and customize it for the interests and needs of their students.  A teacher must depend on deep understanding and knowledge of how content is learned in order to recognize when a student is struggling and to know how to adjust instruction accordingly. All of these elements of effective teaching can be deepened and enhanced by resources or programs, but none of them can be replaced by them.

Okay, but how do we help teachers gain these skills?  It is essentially a matter of nature AND nurture.  While some people may have an innate ability or talent as a teacher, those seeds are nurtured or squelched by who and what is provided for growth. Simply put...we must create environments where teachers can learn (1)from others (2)over time (3) while doing the job. Building professional learning networks and creating a culture of coaching and mentoring is critical in helping teachers hone their skills.  In this day of technology and access, there are endless avenues to provide teachers the learning needed and help them connect with other educators from all over the world.  When this type of investment is intentionally and consistently made in teachers, results follow.

They start to pick up on the things that effective teachers do and adapt those to their own classrooms. They begin trying “recipes” and adding their own flavors.  They imitate mentor artists. They share experiences and reflect on how to revise. Little by little, they start building the habits that allow them to make good instructional decisions. And pretty soon-they are taking that “magic” resource and seeing for what it is--a vehicle for applying their understandings of effective teaching rather than the source of effective teaching.

So, let’s return to the story.  When the carpenter sees the hat and crystal ball, he picks them up wondering what happened to the fortune teller.  While he is holding them, a woman comes in and thinks that the “magic” of the tools has changed the fortune teller from an old “codger” to a “handsome young man!”  She hurries to tell others who immediately want the young man to tell them what he sees for their own future.  Once he realizes the tools are not magic, the carpenter understands what the old man did and decides to try that for himself:

“Shall we live long and happy?” asked the cloth merchant. “Indeed so,” replied the carpenter. “You need only stay healthy and keep breathing.”

From there, all of the “predictions” that the old man had for the carpenter came true.