After spending the better part of last week in staff development sessions for my year-round middle school, I’ve come to a painful realization: Schools — and the parents, practitioners, principals, and policymakers who support them — have a dysfunctional relationship with answers.
“What kinds of patterns can we find in the wrong answers that students gave on the end of grade exams?” we ask at the beginning of every school year. “Are certain groups and/or grade levels better at answering certain types of questions? How should we change the way that we deliver information to ensure that more kids get more answers right on next year’s exams?”
We dissect individual test items, looking for vocabulary words that might have tripped students up; we try to spot teachers that seem to have discovered the best practices for helping kids to master required content; and we worry about what standardized testing results would say to our community about our accomplishments. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
And that bugs me. When the schooling becomes a single-minded grind to find “the right answers,” powerful questions are pushed aside.
At the community level, that means no one ever digs deep enough to figure out just what we want our kids to learn while they’re in school. We haven’t collectively clarified the kinds of educational outcomes that we care about. Instead, we blindly accept the arguments of policymakers that schools are failing and more accountability is the only answer (read: public ridicule based on rankings released after once-a-year multiple choice tests are administered).
At the district level, that means no one ever pushes back against practices that few educators believe in. “Are we REALLY convinced that standardization — of content, of delivery, of assessments — is making our schools stronger?” is a question that no one seems willing to ask. Instead, we accept the status quo and do the best we can to work within a system that we know is broken.
At the school level, that means no one ever questions the value of the content that we’re required to teach. “What do we want students to know and be able to do?” isn’t worth talking about; it’s a question that has already been answered in daily pacing guides designed to ensure that anything that might be on the end of grade exams is covered before June 1.
And at the classroom level, that means no one ever dares to imagine. Phrases such as “what would happen if” and “why should we believe in” that play a regular role in the language of innovators and entrepreneurs are replaced with phrases such as “do you know how to” and “what do you remember about?” These do nothing more than emphasize the skills required to find the right answers to someone else’s questions.
The simple truth is that reform just isn’t possible in organizations who have forgotten how to ask their own questions — and sadly, that’s what education has become.
Like many accomplished educators, Bill Ferriter wears many professional hats. He’s a Solution Tree author and presenter, an accomplished blogger, and a senior fellow in the Teacher Leaders Network. He checks all of those titles at the door each morning, though, when he walks into his classroom.