Friday, April 23, 2010

Training or Teaching? Part 2: Learning is self-training

I talked a little bit about training in Part 1 of this series, mostly in the context of external training (trainer-trainee). In this installment I will be discussing true learning. Learning is simply self-training.

A learned behavior is the most ingrained of all trained behaviors. So-called bad habits like nail biting or hair twirling start almost by accident and snowball from there. A child under stress learns by chance the act of chewing ones nails alleviates stress. This works because anxiety/panic is a discomforting feeling that tells us our needs are not being met. Doing something always relieves the feeling of anxiety more than doing nothing. Chewing your fingernails is doing something as far as the brain is concerned, so it creates a small amount of relief from the anxiety. This behavior can become self-rewarding enough to become routine, and the longer is is routine, the harder the habit will be to break. Woe to the kid who learns to disrupt class for attention and something to do at an early age!

True learning occurs only when the person wants to learn something for themselves. Initial interest in the topic is what usually sparks true learning, but not always. Creating conditions that help generate initial interest is the key to unlocking the door to lifelong learning and the true job of a teacher. Consider the kid who comes home from his field trip to the natural history museum enthralled with dinosaurs. He suddenly wants a dinosaur toy, pajamas, cereal, lunchbox, etc. What happens when we present the kid with a colorful book with pictures and lots of information above his "grade level"? The kid isn't going to know the difference other than he might need help with the book at first. I envision the kid pointing and the parent helping them to understand the books "tricky" parts. That is true learning at its best!

Learning is consciously directing the brain to produce new behaviors that bring a person closer to a self-defined goal. The kid mentioned earlier wants to learn about dinosaurs because he finds them interesting, not because mom tells him its important to learn it, not because he needs to know it for a grade, and definitely not because someone was going to punish or reward him if he doesn't learn 'enough'. He is truly learning for himself. A kid that learns something because someone else told them to will only learn until the person is happy, a kid who wants to pass will only do enough to get a D, but the kid who wants to learn for himself has no externally imposed limit.

Experiments have been done on dolphins and creative learning behavior. Dolphins were basically brought into a tank for a certian time limit. Researchers would then feed the dolphin it's favorite fish when it performed an original trick for the session. To get fish in the next session, the dolphin would have to perform an original trick. Predicably, the dolphin of course first tried what it did the first session, but without reward. When the dolphin did a different trick it started getting fish again. This pattern continued with the dolphin always trying last session's trick, but when the desired outcome was not achieved, the dolphin would then try a different trick and acheive success for the session. Eventually the dolphin ran out of tricks and for 15 sessions recieved no fish at all. It would sometimes swim in circles, sometimes try to splash researchers (misbehave), sometimes sit in the center of the tank and do nothing. Ocaisionally the dolphin would frantically try tricks to get a fish. 15 sessions went by and the researchers described the dolphin as looking "despondent". On the 15th session the dolphin by chance performed an original trick and was rewarded. Eureeka! The dolphin learned it was it's creativity that was being rewarded, not just performing tricks. In it's excitement at the end of the session it returned to its normal tank and began practicing and inventing tricks to impress the researchers. Eventually the routines became so elaborate and complex researchers had to end the experiment because they could no longer tell what was an original or new trick. Dolphin art!

This experiment was also done with humans. Upon figuring out that original behavior was rewarded the participants expressed releif moreso than excitement. The relief of the participants is obviously the result of a change in attitute from "I can't do this" to "I can do this." That's what everyone needs to feel for true education to occur. Sometimes that means the student will be frustrated, but the end result is worth the wait. It won't do to "rescue" students from frustration. Abraham Lincoln once said "give me 6 hours to chop down a tree and I'll spend the first 4 sharpening the axe." Instead we teachers often run in with a chainsaw to get the tree started for the kid. The result is that the kid never learns how to do it for themselves.

Who do we want our children to be like? The dolphin or the lion? (see part 1)

Teaching works with the nature of the child while training attempts to alter the nature of the child though pleasure and pain. The benefits from working with nature are obvious. Let's say the dinosaur kid mentioned earlier could not read well. A teacher would find books about dinosaurs for the kid to read choosing books carefully that help improve the child's reading level. The trainer would begin by having the kid write, repeat, and memorize the letters and phonics sounds of the English language with the goal of helping the child to eventually get up to level and be able to read the books on dinosaurs he likes. Who teaches the kid to read more effectively? Ever teacher knows this is common sense.

Teaching is about opening doors for students in the hopes they will step though them to see whats on the other side, not about shoving lines of kids though a revolving door to a place they don't want to go. Teaching requires trust from all parties involved.

The problem with goals in education is that they are always set by the wrong person. Student learning goals are set by the teacher. Teacher learning targets are set by the district, school board, government, or administrator. Administrative targets for attendance, graduation rates, etc. are set by the district. It's like we don't trust someone else to set a fair goal for themselves so we make it for them and blame them when they don't accomplish 'their' goals. Maybe they didn't accomplish the goal because they resented arbitrary goals being unfairly imposed on them, maybe it was directives from management that conflict with the reality of the situation from an employee's perspective, maybe the goal was genuinely impossible. Whatever the reason, low quality is the result. In order for quality to emerge in an organization there must be some shared goals, communication, and vision, but in education it seems like everybody is obsessed with watching everybody else to make sure they are doing their job instead of focusing on their own. Blame may help people hold onto their jobs in the short term, but it isn't going to save public education.

As for core standards like reading and writing, I am convinced that they can be taught in context of the child's interests. Its ridiculus to standardize curricula when all that is needed is to meet the student's needs. We can set standards at a district level, but we must allow students and teachers to work together with some degree of freedom to meet those standards.

Look at the appalling lack of respect we observe in schools. It's been going on since before the time of Aristotle who opined about the unlearned disrespectful youth of his day. Students' knee-jerk, no-thought, reactive, impulsive behavior is nothing new. They have been busy learning and misbehaving to reach their goals in line with their own agendas for millenia. They are young so their goals are often short term and do not usually align with a teacher's goals.

When a kid throws a paper airplane the goal is increase his power, freedom, and his reputation (love/belonging), and fun. The long term consequences like detention or a call home, usually do not usually interfere with his original goal and therefore are deemed inconsequential unrelated annoyances. He'll deal with those later and find some way to resist and frustrate the people who imposed those consequences. He'll show them! In the meantime he feels throwing the airplane and the accomplishment of his goal were well worth it in the end. He never reflects on his behavior or all the energy he will waste getting even. He doesn't think about the damage to his relationships with others caused by his actions. He believes the world is out to pick on him and he is a pawn in a game. What a shame! What a waste of potential!!!

When people do not agree to be trained their response is to learn to beat the system. This is common sense and it is universal. When people have no say and are given orders they resist. How often do employees assume the boss is up to no good or has an agenda when he is really just doing something his boss told him to do?

Our students don't know how to do so many important things for themselves, but I think if they know just 5 things, they could honestly choose better, happier lives for themselves.

Students need to know...

...They all have 5 basic needs: Survival, Freedom, Fun, Love/Belonging, and Power; and EVERYTHING they do from breathing to homework to laughing out loud is an effort to meet one or more of those needs.

...How to set clear goals for themselves that satisfy their needs in positive, productive ways and think about what success would look like before action is carried out.

...How to make a long term plan that addresses potential problems and will get them what they need and carry it out.

...How to honestly evaluate if their choices and behavior used in carrying out the plan got them what they wanted. Feelings are our built-in guide. Feeling happy means success; feeling sad, depressed, frustrated, angry, anxious, panicked, "sick", etc, are our body's way of telling us we are not getting what we need. These negative emotions are also social signals that tell us we need help satisfying our need(s). Being stuck in these negative emotions and constantly relying on others will eventually be interpreted by others as a form of control and destroy the relationship.

...Frustration means its time re-evaluate your goals, form a new plan, carry it out, evaluate the result and repeat as needed. The key to success is the ability to turn frustration into a reachable goal.

The above 5 items are called the GPAR process (Goal, Plan, Action, Result)and students are already doing it every second of their lives. Whatever the student's behavior is: doing homework, participating, dancing on a table, talking in class, etc. You can bet that at some point the student had a goal in mind, then chose a behavior, carried it out, and realized doing the behavior made them feel very happy (met a need in some way, at least for the short term.) If repeating the behavior continues to get the same or better results, the behavior will become self-trained into the student's brain. The behavior will be permanent so long as students continue to believe everything they do is not their fault because they "couldn't" control their behavior. When students learn to extend the GPAR they are already doing into the future and reap the positive feeling that comes from achieving long term goals, they learn what it means to be successful.

Better family structure will help students be successful, but only enough to please their parents. The key to successful education isn't just better families, its getting students to learn for themselves and in so doing becoming true lifelong learners. The student who learns for themselves has no limit!

You Learn for Yourself and yourself alone.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Training or Teaching? Part 1: External Training and Behavior

I have spent a lot of time researching the difference between teaching and training in working toward a master's degree. I'd like to clarify that I feel that both are important, but teachers most of all should know the limitations and applications of both in everyday life. The structure of our modern schools allows for little authentic teaching to occur outside of the realm of training. I hope that teachers who read this to connect their own experiences with brain theory.

Training uses pleasure and pain to achieve a desired response to a particular set of environmental conditions. The purpose of training is to get the trainee to perform an action or set of actions with as little thought as possible. Although it is impossible to eliminate all thought from "doing", it is possible to almost entirely eliminate thinking from the "doing" process in a limited environment. Any major change in the environment or situation could result in paralyzing stress on the trainee. A new situation demands thinking which the pure trainee is ill-equipped to handle. Training by it's nature takes thought out of the equation. If the environment is sufficiently different, the trainee will forget their training entirely and look to their own nature and experience for answers. Little thought needs to be given to the trainee's needs by the trainer because every trainer has but one goal. Get the trainee to always do what they say well and without question through practice/repetition. The ultimate goal of training is impossible because the trainee will always have free will, but training is such that a partial goal will reap varying degrees of success. A well trained basketball team that trusts their coach 95% does better than the one that doesn't trust their coach at all. Training has applications in nearly all sports, the military, animal obedience, the safety of young children, police forces, firefighting, emergency medicine, etc. It is impossible to train anyone who doesn't agree (at least reluctantly) to the training. People trained against their will learn to frustrate and antagonize the system and take every opportunity to do so.

Training does have drawbacks that are rooted in the brain and the methods used in training. The biggest one being the ability to think for one's self and problem solve. Training is about following. A good trainee does what he or she has been told without question. Problem solving and thinking for yourself are processes that require some degree of leadership over self and thus no amount of training will develop these skills.

Animal training is a good example. A lion is trained with meat and the whip. Lions have a need for survival; eating and avoiding bodily harm are high on their survival list so they will "agree" to be trained in this way. The trainer stands tall, looks intimidating, and uses his posture and nerves of steel to establish trust with the animals. When the lions begin to trust him the training begins. No trainer starts with the difficult tricks first. In order for the lions to be ready for those they must first learn the basics: How to stand on a pedestal and wait for instruction, how to follow the trainer properly, how to go where the trainer points on command, and so on. As the lions' brains become accustom to these behaviors they begin to do them without much thought.

The repetition of behavior is very important to training because of the way the brain works. The nerve cells in our brains have small gaps between them called synapses. These gaps are needed because they act like switches that control the flow of electricity in the brain. Nerves communicate with each other via chemicals called neurotransmitters. A nerve on one side of the synapse releases neurotransmitters which then travel the gap to the other nerve and the message is communicated. The longer this chemical exchange takes, the more delay we experience in producing behavior, giving us more time to think about other possibilities. Repetition of a behavior physically alters the brain so that the nerve cells involved in that behavior move closer together thus shortening the synapse gap and making the behavior happen more quickly, eliminating extra think time. It is a mistake to think that any trained behavior is cemented. No trained behavior is instant, there will always be time to think. A person who has bitten their nails their entire life will almost instinctively put their hand in their mouth when nervous. This is a self-trained behavior, and the key to changing it is to start training the brain to realize when it is happening and to stop. When nervous, the brain is going to want to take the path of least resistance, nail-biting. These relapses occur because the nail-biting neurons are still close together, but eventually with practice the training for realization will become more second nature than the nail-biting behavior. If you have spent years biting your nails it may take years to practice realizing your are biting your nails and stop. Over-eating, hair twirling, shouting in a classroom, etc. are all examples of self-trained behavior.

Teachers and psychologists stress the importance of catching negative behaviors when the child is young because it is harder to retrain than it is to train. To retrain themselves a person must believe their behavior is bad and be willing to replace it with a new one. Self-control is essential to the re-training process. Since self-control requires self-leadership, external training cannot be used alone to re-train an engrained behavior. Can a person who has not practiced self control retrain themselves? It is possible, but only if the person truly wants it enough. Even then it is a struggle, because the brain always wants to take path of least resistance. Over time the neurons involved in the negative behavior may distance themselves a bit from less frequent use resulting in small amounts of un-training but the person will always have to vigilant. Un-trained just means "out of practice" or "rusty". If they do the negative behavior again the brain will speed-learn and the behavior could reassert itself. Re-training is about the brain learning a new positive behavior neural pathway better than the negative behavior pathway it is currently used to taking to enact real long term behavioral change.

In the same way, it is a mistake to think that the lion is not choosing its behavior. Because the repetition has made the behavior easy, the lion chooses the path of least resistance. A new situation will increase the resistance of the trained behavior, perhaps long enough for the lion to think up a different behavior and choose that instead. The behavior the lion chooses will certainly be one that is well ingrained in its nature.

Let's take for example the lion who has been trained to open its mouth on command. This lion knows that opening its mouth in its limited caged environment on the command of a trainer produces pleasure (or did at one time with meat) The trainer may even feel confident enough to stick his head in the lion's mouth, but what happens when someone brings an old fashioned flash-bulb camera and the light bulb explodes with a loud flash and a pop? This unexpected change in the environment gives the lion think time. Lions that are stressed out in the wild do not sit still on pedestals with their mouths open. Their mouths are closed and they are alert. The lion may choose to close his mouth on the trainer. We all know what lions do when they feel something struggling in their jaws. Incidentally, the most common cause of a trainer being mauled is when the trainer trips while walking backwards. Something as simple as a trainer falling is irresistible to the lion and all of the training in its feline head evaporates as it's true nature comes forward.

I acknowledge the animals themselves are the main attraction, but there is also an element of drama. If training were 100% effective terrible accidents would never happen, and the drama and tension would be lost. Many trainers will not work with a lion who has mauled someone because the lion will always know that killing the trainer is an option and the more practice the lion gets at this, the more likely it will attack. A trained Orca named Tilikum mauled and killed 3 trainers before being retired as untrainable.

So here is the million dollar question. Are your students trained into creating the appearance of "good behavior" while inside their nature to be kids and goof around is just below the surface eagerly waiting for an opportunity to express itself in negative and unproductive ways? What do trained kids do when they have a substitute? What do they do when they have a fire drill after a snowstorm? What do they do when you have an activity with rubber bands? What do they do when one person in a lunchroom throws food? What do they do when they go to college? Is it possible to train our students to behave in every conceivable situation? If so, is that the goal of our public education system?

What if students no longer fear the teacher's punishment or accept their bribes? What do we do with these un-trainable students? Appallingly the current solution in the US is to stick them in self-contained classrooms, give them an alphabet soup of labels that tell the kid what's "wrong" with them, and sometimes drug them into proper behavior. Wake up people! Maybe the kid doesn't learn because he thinks its a waste of time and wants to disrupt the class because its and easy way to impress a girl he likes. That is not a label or a syndrome, its common sense! The kid has already figured out he doesn't have to do anything you tell him to do and accepts the consequences. The answer isn't finding bigger consequences! It's finding a way to meet his needs with the goal of him valuing and choosing learning. Maybe the answer is to pair the two because she is an A+ student. He doesn't want to look dumb, does he? The short term goal is to get him to learn for the girl he likes, the long term goal is to get him to connect that the learning itself feels good by asking him how he feels about his learning, listening, and helping so he will learn for himself.

Some teachers will say that training is an important step that must happen if real teaching is to occur. I would take issue with that. In my experience training just begets more training. When students learn that training is the game they tend to apply what they learn from it universally to other aspects of education and begin to expect it. In fact they may be begin to demand it both because it is familiar and because it transfers almost all personal responsibility to the trainer. By high school students are so good at frustrating and defeating the training model that all of school is becomes a game of cat-and-mouse to get a letter (A, B, C, or D) with minimal effort. Students see training and school seem to go so hand-in-hand and they begin to confuse training and authentic learning altogether.

As evidence consider the kid who can do the problem: 2+3x=14 but has no idea how to do 15=7x+1. Why is that? If the kid has truly learned the processes of inverse operations and equality, this should be a slam dunk. I think is is obvious to any math teacher what is going on here. The kid has learned and memorized an order of doing (training), not a learned a way of thinking. Students are applying their behavior training from follow the rules (sit down, take out a notebook, be quite, take notes) to the learning of math itself. Why else would the order and position of the variables matter so much to them? Students who have been trained into math compartmentalize each kind of problem: "this is what I do when the x is first, this is what I do when their is no number in front of the x, this is what I do when the x is on the other side, etc." When given a story problem outside of their training these kids raise their hands and ask teachers to "set this problem up for them so they can solve it." That's a BIG problem! No one is going to be there to set it up for them in the real world, so by clinging to these repetitious training exercises instead of encouraging open-ended and dynamic real-world problems what are we teaching them? If they can't use the math for anything then I guess we are teaching them how to move X's and Y's around to look pretty and NOTHING ELSE!

Why? There are 2 reasons. First is because we were trained in this way. A few of us honed the curiosity inherent in our human nature and explored math on a conceptual level, but most of us did not. I once had difficulty figuring out how and where a student had made a mistake on a problem involving the area of a triangle. A seasoned 10 year math teacher 'corrected' me that the area of a triangle A=.5B*H was one half the base times one half the height! I was once at a professional development where my group was asked to develop an activity for a computer. Since our activity involved a falling object, and I was in charge of the technology side of the lesson I asked if another group member could make up some real world data for an example by taking a parabolic model and making the data "off" by a little bit to simulate human error. "Any parabola will do, it doesn't have to be earth gravity", I told them. Not a single one of them could do it. "I'm not good at physics", one of them said. That means 3 certified math teachers out of 4 had no idea how to apply simple algebra 1.

Second is that training is so much faster and easier than the alternative. The trainer does not have to take into account the trainee's needs. (although ones who do will have more success) The trainer only needs to find out the students 'stops' and use them to 'force' the student to 'learn'. Johnny isn't learning well so I'll talk to his coach and he won't play basketball again until he can do what I tell him. Sheniqua likes photography, so I'll talk to her photography teacher and let her leave class 15 minutes early to take pictures outside, but only if she does what I say.

Seasoned teachers know that training is almost always made easier when they build and cultivate a relationship with their students. (I think this is why elementary teachers have more success than high school teachers. They have more time to develop relationships and if students destroy their relationship with their teacher there is greater impact on their everyday learning) It seems there is something need satisfying for teachers and students to care about one another and this relationship makes even the hardest training seem easier. The essence of that is the core of real teaching and authentic learning and will be discussed in my next post. True teaching is channeling the nature of the student itself to produce positive outcomes, not trying to change the nature of the student using punishment and/or bribes.

Trained kids cannot adapt to even the simplest changes in routine. This is why so much emphasis is on structure in modern classrooms. Structuring the student's life at school becomes the teacher's job under the training model. The essence of personal responsibility is delegated to an authority figure and it is deemed acceptable by pretty much everyone involved!!! It's not acceptable because unless students learn to set positive goals for themselves on their own (which takes practice), they won't set their own goals or structure their own lives because we insist on doing that for them! This essentially leaves them always looking for some external source to control their behavior and structure their lives for them. (perhaps they'll find a controlling abusive husband, an unhealthy spirituality, join the military for the wrong reasons, or lean on mom and dad forever for structure instead of self-reflecting and growing as a person)

The inability of students to adapt to new conditions is shocking! Students fail simple standardized tests because they 'look different' than normal tests. If they can't do that, what happens to them when they leave school and the knowledge they got there was trained into that particular school environment? What happens when a professor doesn't mark them absent and call home? What happens when The instructor doesn't make special interventions for them when they struggle? THE STUDENT LOSES when we take the easy way by training instead of teaching.

Training isn't all negative. Their are many positives of training. In sports the field and rules do not change. When they do change is is relatively minor and the athletes have plenty of time to adjust their training. The grace and beauty of an athlete free in action is a site to behold. Unencumbered by thought they fly effortlessly down the field awing fans everywhere.

The policeman who is in a shootout or the firefighter who runs into a burning building risk life and limb to save others. When asked by a news reporter after the fact about how they manage to stay cool under fire they will almost certainly say "it's all training"

The well trained EMT assesses the situation and applies medicine quickly to save lives.

The soldier trains for combat is many situations. Elite soldiers can learn to tame every conceivable condition: wind, rain, heat, freezing cold water, exhaustion, etc. The training of these brave men and women protects us and the freedoms we enjoy.

It is for those reasons and many more that we should never get rid of training, but...

...Getting rid of thought is not something we should be doing in the classroom! EVER! PERIOD!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Survival in school. GET THE PICTURE!

The famed TV survivorman Bear Grills said that in order to survive in the wild you have to have a tangible goal, a reason to continue. Survivors should keep a personal vision of themselves outside of their current circumstances. Picturing yourself at home with your family, going back to a job you love, or even playing fetch with your dog can help keep a positive mindset in a life and death situation. A vague goal of "getting home" or "surviving" will not do. In fact, Mr. Grills keeps a physical and mental picture of his family with him at all times because he knows better than anyone that in the most intense survival situations, without a clear picture of something powerfully positive, a negative mindset will cloud a person's judgment leading to certain death. That picture is key to getting out of a survival situation and back to living your life.


Survivors ALWAYS try to maximize their gain while minimizing their risk and effort, they seize every advantage and always look for weakness in others. In fact, many predator and prey animals have developed anatomy for this very purpose. Looking like something poisonous, camouflage, elaborate displays of strength, and warning sounds are just some of nature's genius at work minimizing risk and maximizing survivability with minimum effort.

Survival is rooted in the idea that we can control completely someone other than ourselves. The truth is the only person we can really control is ourselves, which is why no survival tactic in the animal kingdom is 100% effective.

When we pretend we can control others (especially for long periods of time), we set ourselves up for failure and frustration before we begin. When that failure is realized and we feel our weakest, we go into survival mode, putting on our own elaborate displays, camouflage, warning sounds, and displays of strength. Our schools are no exception.

I want to begin by saying that the following does not apply to everyone. I bow to you, the parents, administrators, teachers, etc. that put your reputation and lively hood at risk by facing reality with brave eyes and steel nerves. May you long survive!

So how does this self preservation play out in our schools?

The survivalist parent: These "good" parents' goals are to maximize their son/daughter's grade with minimum effort on their part. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being aggressive. Most people assume that a letter grade is an actual indicator of learning (This is one of education's biggest problems: the grade-focused mindset). The survival of these parents' reputation as "good parents" depends on these letters. Someone will suffer until that letter is something more than an F or a D. They work hard to tear down teachers, administrators, and schools by creating scenes and public relations nightmares. These parents will not face the reality that they cannot control their children. They must blame the system because to do otherwise would be their 'death' as a 'good parent'. They find creative ways to sue districts using central office to bully principals and principals to bully teachers into giving them what they want: letters on a sheet of paper once per quarter that make them and their son/daughter feel good. As an added bonus they may even become hero-of-the-moment for their child. These parents create elaborate excuses for their child and cause massive damage to schools politically and culturally by playing teachers, students, and administrators against one another and creating an atmosphere of fear.

The survivalist teacher: To survive as a teacher means keeping your job. Teachers have it worst of all when it comes to survival. The teacher's survival depends on controlling 70-240 students per day, but again the only person we can control is ourselves. Children know teachers can't fail them all. Teachers soon realize that less than 10% of students genuinely want to learn. Though cultivation of personal relationships they may be able to get this number as high as 30%, and with the other 20% willing to do just enough to get by, that leaves them with 50% of students who don't deserve an F- in the teacher's book. To survive as a teacher, one must lie to themselves or rationalize their inflation of grades because to fail more than 30% of students will conflict with the administrator's goal of high GPA numbers and graduation rates. This could result in bad evaluations, probation, extra work for them to show improvement on their part, and constant monitoring. To avoid this slow and agonizing death most teachers are 'content' to pass enough children to camouflage the fact that they couldn't do the impossible: Make every student excel in curricula that was dictated to them by the district and is about as interesting as watching paint dry. A few are outright evil. Not only do they pass children, they befriend administrators and point them toward other potential 'prey' to avoid scrutiny themselves. These scum sucking parasites of the teaching world tend to target teachers who make them look bad: the ones who work hard and do their best despite all odds. It doesn't matter how good a teacher you are, teachers are given so many things to document and do, once targeted, there will always be something a misguided administrator (who's too overwhelmed to see the truth) can pick at.

The survivalist administrator - Administrator survival is a numbers game to keep their job, and their school funded and operating. The administrator quickly learns that doing things like increasing test scores and changing the culture of a learning environment are complex problems that require cooperation of staff, a vision, a plan, and an effort and a willingness by all involved to carry out the plan. Plans can take years to bear fruit (years they aren't given) and they carry loads of risk. Public relations is the way to survive. Their goal is to control everyone in the school to produce immediate results. Again the only person we can control is ourselves. So when this plan inevitably fails, administrators are quick to point fingers at problem teachers and support staff, buddy up with political allies in the district, and do everything in their power to boost the numbers the district will be looking at. Attendance, Overall GPA, suspension rates, special ed scores, graduation rates, WKCE test scores, etc. If a kid is failing to attend, transfer him to another school. If a kid needs a credit to graduate, hassle the teacher, then change the grade in the computer so the kid walks down the aisle. If a parent is upset give them what they want, its not worth the risk of them calling the district and a lot easier to throw some teacher under a bus! Meeting their own goals better than their rivals on paper means avoiding district scrutiny and assures survival from the district lion.

The district: To survive as a district you must find measures of success that the public will accept. Since little authentic learning is happening in our schools, these measures must seem like ideals worth working towards, but have little to do with actual student learning. Good graduation rates, suspension/attendance rates, test scores, etc. Seem like things to strive for and have public appeal, but have almost nothing to do with how much our students are actually learning, what skills they have, or what they are capable of doing with what they learned.

To survive public scrutiny, you must use statistics in ways that confuse and obscure the truth. I believe the word for this was coined by Steven Colbert as "truthiness". Even if an overall 2% gain is technically statistically insignificant, the public doesn't need to know that! The headline is "District test scores show modest improvements with significant gains in a few schools." Pretend 90% of students go to school A and the other 10% go to small charter schools B-Z. Even if the WKCE scores dropped an astronomical 40% overall, if most of these small charter schools show even .0005% improvement the headline is "70% of district schools show improvement on WKCE!"

Its easy to write this and think I am angry at the people themselves. For the record I am not. I just look at them as survivalists in a system that pits them into roles of predator and prey. These people have always been well intentioned and didn't go into education to survive. Its just where they found themselves. A joyful hike in the woods became a survivalist nightmare when they found themselves lost. Somewhere the mentality of "play not to lose by making things look good" took over the strategy of "play to win by educating our youth". That defined goal of student learning was lost.


Somewhere in their pocket there is a faded torn and weathered picture LONG forgotten. It has a student smiling and showing off his group project with a blue ribbon dangling from it. It has a class filled with joy, laughter, school spirit, pride, and a sense of accomplishment from a job well done. If has a principal shaking the students hand and playing with the project himself. It shows kids learning for the joy of learning. Where did we put that picture?