Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Shift Happens: From "Wrong" to "Wrong Context"

by John T. Spencer - cross-posted from Education Rethink

binomial nomenclature has its place -- in the right context

My mentor looked at me cautiously and said, "John, you're not going to like hearing this, but No Child Left Behind wasn't evil. It was misguided. It was unwise, but there were some good things that came out of it."

"What do you mean?"

"You can disagree with the methods used. They were horrible. You can disagree with the approach. It needs to be changed. But I remember hearing teachers say things like 'that kid won't make it anyway' or 'you can't expect these kids to read at grade level.' In some schools, it was a wake-up call."

"We're being tested to death."

"I agree with you. But I was in those schools before and after and the results have been mixed. There were some teachers with a really low view of what urban students were capable of accomplishing."

She went on to explain the down side of standardized tests, the arrogance of some of the powerful elite and the failure to understand the context. But she also reminded me that many of the kill-and-drill proponents are misguided and unwise, but not altogether wrong in their motives.

"I've met some of those people and it might be hard to believe, but sometimes it's an issue of good people with good ideas with big blind spots."
*      *      * 

It's unpopular in the polemic world of edublogging to step out and say, "Maybe the enemy isn't so much an enemy as much as a misguided protagonist." But I wonder if maybe the real issue in education reform isn't that people are following wrong ideas as often as they are using good ideas, strategies and methods in the wrong context.

The following is a list of things that I've railed against and labeled as wrong when the truth is they each have a place in the right context:

  • Rewards: Daniel Pink does a great job describing the few situations where a reward works. If it's short-term and the task is very basic and not necessarily intrinsically rewarding. For example, I hate to mow the yard, yet I have an easier time mowing it if I can promise myself a half hour of reading time afterward. 
  • Multiple Choice Tests: The biggest failure in multiple choice is that it's being used in the wrong context. We use the tests to judge rather than inform. Finland uses multiple choice tests as an exit exam to determine larger trends in education. True, the tests are far from perfect, but they are decent at demonstrating reliably the larger trends in what needs to be changed. 
  • District Office Personell: I've ripped the D.O. in the past. I've mentioned why their jobs are useless. What I'm growing to understand is that they are often qualified people with great ideas, but they are placed in a context of compliance rather than leadership. 
  • PLC: I hated the concept when I saw it in action at my first school. (I mocked it for sounding like a drug - alongside PCP or LSD) Last year, however, I experienced a true Professional Learning Community with shared values, transparency and an intentional focus on providing meaningful intervention. It was all about the context. 
  • Politicians: My students had a chance to get to know a few legislators. What we found were people who genuinely believed in what they were doing and wanted to make a difference. The context of a broken system had curtailed their idealism and forced them into a place of either legislative impotence or bargaining against their beliefs. 
  • Lectures: I used to blast lectures. Then I heard a great sermon, I watched some amazing TED and I took the time to sit down and truly listen to the "I Have a Dream" speech. Talks and I realized that lecture had a place. We need stories. We need speeches. The issue is context. How often do we use lecture and where does this strategy belong?
  • Merit Pay: It's not a bad idea if a job is based upon economic norms. However,  in a social context with people who are driven by a desire to educate rather than make shiny objects, it is a colossal failure. The issue isn't the idea. It's the context. 
  • Home-schooling: When I first began blogging, I blasted home-schooling and un-schooling. Then I met people who had created an amazing context where authentic learning was happening. (The same goes for those who are quick to attack public school teachers as thieves, Nazis, slave-drivers or child-abusers) 
  • Edublog Awards: I recently wrote a post that was critical of these awards. The truth is that they do a great job promoting awareness among the blogging community. The problem is the context. It's a bad "place" for me to be when I'm in what feels like a hyper-competitive environment. 
  • Common Assessments: There is a real value in sharing data, planning together and creating assessments that are shared across a grade level. The problem is when they are top-down, hierarchical and based upon a multiple-choice framework. 
I could continue the list, but you get the idea. None of those are wrong. The real issue is the context. However, when I attack ideas rather than the context of implementation, I grow close-minded. I miss the nuance and the paradox. I fail to build bridges with the misguided protagonists. And most of all, I fail to see how often I am the misguided protagonist, bumbling through a Don Quixote world of education.


  1. From and eternal optimist, thanks. This was refreshing. I appreciate your blogs and thankful this week for you and the time you take to write.

  2. Great post, John! It's so rare to see this brand of pragmatism in the edu blogosphere.


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