Sunday, December 13, 2015

"Data vs. Story" The Debate is Everywhere

Data versus Story.
I see these two perspectives battling it out in many facets of life.

The statistical approach is demanded in schooling and marketing. The analytics are desperately consulted by sports franchises looking for the slightest edge. Even churches can begin to define themselves by the numbers.

The old idea of Story, determining meaning through interactions and connections with others, remains critical. It's not as shiny and at times it's uncomfortable, but its proven to work in everyone of the fore mentioned categories.

In Education

As an educator I'm trained to chase anything that provides a glimmer of hope. (This is also why I fit the persona of the typical Cleveland sports fan.) Education decision makers are enamored with data-driven instruction, standardized assessments, and progress monitoring because these things provide a quick picture. A simple number that is easy to understand. This makes it easy to calculate the next move without understanding the story and all of its variables.

Our analytical nature and our desire to understand and interpret everything sometimes takes over. Like Philip when Jesus fed the 5,000. He was crunching the numbers attempting to figure out how much it would cost to feed the crowd. While Andrew didn't require a clear numerical answer. He just directed the few loaves and fish to the One who chooses to work through relationship and story (John 6:1-15). The Creator of humans seemed to choose story over data in this case.
    -Sidenote: If you're looking for a model, Jesus' preferred teaching strategy was and is  personal connection and parables.

I have faith in our teachers because the initial desire to be a teacher is rooted in building relationships with students. There are teachers fighting off the confines of data with strategies like genius hour and maker space that are based on the personal connection between the student and her learning. This educational design also relies on human interaction and processing the world around us.

In Marketing

For so long business and marketing has been about precise decisions based on consumer statistics. Now, the modern business model is seeking to build value through growing relationships with honest generosity. See the marketing philosophy of Seth Godin or Donald Miller's StoryBrand as examples.

In Church

Too often the blinders of the flesh take over and measure worth according to the attendance numbers or financial giving. I'm sure the book has been written, 10 steps to become a mega church. The struggle is the same here as it is in business, sports, or school. The temptation to see quick results and affirm one's impact is constant. The longstanding church is relationship-driven utilizing authentic connections between people.

In Sports

Professional sports is going the opposite direction, putting an increased emphasis on the analytics while placing team chemistry in the backseat. Franchises are using extreme equations to determine their most productive roster. Check out the movie Moneyball as evidence of this mentality.
But we can't solely rely on statistics. It is the reason we can never accurately compare players across decades and generations, because we can't isolate statistics in a bubble. If we could then it's easy to conclude that Karl Malone was the second best NBA player of all-time (second in career points). Also Drew Bledsoe was a better quarterback than Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, and Bart Starr (more passing yards).
We'd be silly to make these claims without considering the never ending variables. 

Choose Story

No matter the industry, the best teams and franchises pair good players with great team chemistry.

Our mind and thoughts are driven by the concept of story, it's the only way we can determine meaning in our lives which are pushed by so many unpredicted variables. I have no doubt that story is intended to better the human being. There's even a data based book that proves this: Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story.

Go ahead and attempt to map out your days and years ahead using statistics and a linear equation. Let me know how accurate your hypothesis is to reality. 
Instead engage with those around you while acting according to your established vision.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Lead Them From Darkness: But Where's the Light?

I attended a seminar recently where the instructor shared the etymology of the word “educator”.
  • “duc” being the Greek meaning for -leader.
  • “e” or “ex”, translates to meaning -out of, -from.

So as christians intend to be light for the world, educators also hope to lead others from  darkness. For christians, I think the definition of “light” and “dark” is made pretty clear. Being in the light is being near God. It is not the life situation or circumstance that determines the brightness or dimness, it is purely the state of one’s relationship with God.

  36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
   we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”[a]
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[b] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
    -Romans 8:36-39

          Though in education the definitions of light and dark have become muddled. Is “light” simply knowledge? For the sake of humanity, I hope not! In this case I find it easier to examine the darkness in order to discover its counterpart.
I do believe educators are meant to lead people out of ignorance. For me this clearly defines darkness. Not ignorant of subject areas (history, math, science, etc.) but ignorant of life and the nature of people. A complete lack in understanding one’s self, a deformed concept of community and relationships.
Therefore leading students from darkness is exploring the intricacies of life. The warmth of the light pours over us as we discover the value of all things around us. Seeking understanding of human systems while finding the flaws of the human heart.   
I suppose in faith and in education, the idea of light and dark is quite similar. The enemy’s tactics remain constant: isolate and disconnect the object. I pray no student finds darkness in my classroom.
Be Light: Desire to know each student and be genuinely persistent.   
Peace in seeking!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Why My Class Will Not Be Efficient

What a disservice it would be...To bring together 25 uniquely made children, each boasting uncommon experiences, uncontainable interests, various upbringings, and then disregard all of that for the teacher’s pompous plan.

Would you rather have your child become a creator or a cog? A cog is formed to fit into one specific spot and maintain one duty. That gear may look nice and shiny on the outside with its refined skill-set, but it performs limited functions. A creator is surely interactive, artistic, and dynamic. The needed environment for developing these two would be quite different.

The making of a cog:

One must be told where to go and what to do requiring strict training and redundancy. A controlled environment removed from all variables. Very efficient!

The making of a creator:

A creator must draw deep understanding of herself and the world around her from authentic experiences. The creator engages and explores available resources and surroundings.

I hope the image on the right displays the characteristics of my classroom community this year. (Which of the two pictured neighborhoods would you rather visit?)

Jon Acuff suggests that relationships are not designed to be efficient but instead messy. I struggle with this since I’m working towards being a more relational teacher to my students. But again I think this boils down to our personal intentions. If my intention is to deliver as much content as possible to my students then I must forfeit in the area of relationship. If my intent is to stand with my students through support, encouragement, and authentic interactions then I’m going to have to concede strict control over the specifics of student learning.

Many teachers have the syllabus structured and set no matter what kid walks in the door. These teachers embrace efficiency while neglecting creativity and student autonomy.
Without knowing the future world our youth will grow up in, I think a focus on social-emotional development will serve them better than a strict academic agenda. It will also give them the tools to better navigate their learning as young adults and in their eventual professions.

I will take depth and vulnerability over efficiency. This philosophy will grow life-long learners much more than the teacher that covers a large quantity of content on the surface, which obviously lacks genuine engagement.  Which results in a healthier person?

Here's too a "messy" year!

See also: "How to Avoid a Shallow Education"

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Way We're Made to Learn

“Are we there yet? Are we there yet? How about now?” Curiosity can be annoying sometimes. Especially when it is the persistent kind. Don’t worry parents and teachers,  it’s been documented that we, as humans ask less and less questions as we age. On the surface this might sound relieving to the exhausted caretaker, but I actually find it quite concerning. I’d much rather be surrounded by learners who question and search for truth, rather than ones who just want to know they’re right. Unfortunately I’ve witnessed education that has produced the latter.

We label children as being naive and ignorant when really the adults are the ones too busy with the mundane to engage with what matters, resulting in a harmful ignorance. So often today I find people are fighting to be heard (myself included), instead of a people who first: engage, explore, research, and consider.

I see a shift in our curiosity as we age. Children ask questions and explore based on genuine personal interest. As adults our curiosity is driven based on a motive to be right, and to build support for our predetermined position. When does such a shift happen? What are we doing to cause this? 

Why don’t we follow the development methods God has used in reaching His people spiritually. He speaks to us using a personal authentic experience, our inquiry, and then application of what has been learned. Obviously God knows how His creation learns best, so why don’t we use this same model in our academic process.

Why would God choose to leave us with such wonder and mystery, not only about this world but also about who He is? I think he desires His learners to have a healthy practice of wrestling in wonder and deeply exploring curiosities that result in perspective, overarching respect, and of course wisdom. I look to C.S. Lewis as being a fantastic model of this, and boy did he land on those three resulting characteristics.  
So teach them to explore and to be curious. Let’s be quick to question, thorough in seeking, and slow in concluding. For if our kids can maintain and engage their curiosity over time they’ll be equipped for a life full of learning. When God draws their attention to Himself, these learners, filled with curiosity, will not dismiss it or misinterpret the encounter. They will engage, seek, and discover who He is. I this this concept of inquiry learning closely relates to "God's Vision for the Classroom" (a past post).

Imagine how better prepared our kids would be if we didn’t just quickly give them an answer loaded with bias, but took the time to wonder, inquire, and discover along side them. This world would be relieved of much hate and ignorance.

What do you wonder about? Engage your wonder. You will not be disappointed!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Why I Love Being a Teacher

Wait, Wait, Wait!!! Before you close this out of disgust expecting to hear about me laying under the sun on the beach...Yes it is easy to say "I love being a teacher" at the beginning of summer but, please hear me out.
I can honestly say that my current mindset is not "which tanning oil is best for achieving a Greek-like golden tone,"  but "how can I be better for my students in the upcoming year." 

That is the reason I love teaching, much more even than summer break. I love that I get a fresh shot at being the best teacher for my students every year. Maybe it is the lifelong Cleveland sports fan in me saying "next year is the year". And maybe this just speaks to my short comings and deficiencies as a teacher, but I'd like to think that I just want to be better for my kids. Believe me, I've had lessons and even units epically fail. I've had students that I know I didn't reach. To these failures I think I've found the answer! I will be better next year because of this solution! While I have lofty aspirations for the start of every new school year, I think I've discovered something foundational that will make this one great. 
Here it is...
My leading desire will be achieving a closeness with the students. More than curriculum, more than control or power, more than student academic growth. I aspire to be relational first. This was and is obviously the desire of Jesus and he was able to make miraculous progress with a pretty rough classroom. 
It's easy to state this as a mindset and leave it at that. Although to make the desired impact on the students it will need to be at the foundation of every decision I make this year. Lessons will revolve around inquire and self-reflection. Classroom management will be a shared responsibility, empowering students to recognize the importance of accountability. Even mundane tasks will carry a collaboration. Every person in the class will be a needed resource.
Now, how will I do this... 
and that is what the summer is for!   

Peace in the preparation

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Responding to Distractions: Shhh, Not Now!

Let me start by saying, it's much easier to be reflective on this topic after numerous days of spring break. A week since I last "shush"-ed a student or attempted to ignore the annoyance of constant pencil tapping.
Oh the overwhelming distractions! Don't these kids know they're interfering with the agenda I have for their learning?
Though it doesn't end there, I have this same frustrated, selfish response to my son whining about his Lego creation that won't stay together.
And the same response still when my wife reminds me that the porch light is still burnt out.

How can I possibly accomplish MY "greater purpose" or MY agenda when God is allowing all of these irritating interruptions to slow me down?
My most popular selfish reaction to these distractions is always motivated by my intent to simply eliminate the distraction. My intolerant attempt to dispose of the disturbance always results in damaging relationships. This behavior obviously does not represent my Lord who lovingly values relationship.
As I struggled with an understanding of how to respond to distractions, the sacrificial practices of Lent came to mind. During this time of preparation, many give up stuff in an effort to draw nearer to God. Surely this could fall into the category of simply eliminating distractions. Are we actually less distracted and more devoted, or do we just find other convenient distractions? I'm not sure God wants us to simply eliminate the distraction. It's much more productive and sustainable to evaluate the distraction and reflect on the reason behind it.
As a teacher I often find myself submitting to the easy response of dismissing, ignoring, or even disciplining the distraction. I've taken the tapping pencil and I've shushed the chatterbox. Did Jesus ever have to face disturbances? How did He respond?
First, I think most the miracles He performed were prompted due to a so called distraction. But I'm choosing to highlight one that took place while he was teaching.
(Luke 5:17-39) Jesus is teaching to a packed house, literally. The audience included both his followers as well as Pharisees and scribes who opposed Him. Needless to say, it is already a challenging classroom environment. To add to this, a group of men start digging a hole through the roof, dropping chunks of the clay ceiling on the room before finally dropping a person down the hole. Talk about a distraction! How does Jesus respond to this rude interruption of his teaching? He evaluates the distraction, sees a need and a desire. He gracefully responds by understanding the need and tending to it, amid an otherwise chaotic situation.
What a lesson about recognizing the teachable moments! Jesus views distraction as opportunity instead of annoyance.
So what will be my reaction when my son, student, spouse, or stranger is digging through the roof to get my attention? Will my response be one of selfishness or grace?

As I mature...err...get older, I'm finding my God takes great notice to the fine details in the daily process of life. I think He is more concerned with the nature of my constant interactions with others (how I respond to distraction), rather than some achievable end product. I'm confident He'll continue to offer opportunities (distractions) for me to develop a better story through Him.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Schools Worshiping the Idol

A Timely Rant on Standardized Testing:

IDOL: Any person or thing regarded with blind admiration, adoration, or devotion.
“Whatever controls us is our lord. The person who seeks power is controlled by power. The person who seeks acceptance is controlled by acceptance. We do not control ourselves. We are controlled by the lord of our lives.”

The idol gains power and control through building fear in the worshiper. I can tell you through communication with many teachers and administrators, there is a real fear of the ramifications of this test. The result being much teaching to the test and administrators spending endless hours preparing teachers and students for them through tutorials and practice.

So what is controlling our education system? It’s not the local administrators, certainly not the teachers, unfortunately not the communities.
It’s Standardized Testing. Noam Chomsky suggests that it has caused all involved to “achieve a rank.” Districts want an “Excellent” report card, teachers want an “accomplished” status, students want the “advanced” label.  

Are schools the place to have people working toward a rank? I believe this is the reason so many young people walk out of their education into the “real-world” with insecurity and confusion. Students don’t spend their time in our schools discovering themselves and their world through authentic interactions. They spend their time memorizing content specific skills that move them closer to a meaningless rank.

If you are working for the purpose of achieving a rank or title then you are actually moving away from that goal.

Seeing this disease in our schools, Seth Godin explains the following result:
Let me be really clear: Great teachers are really wonderful. They change lives. We need them. The problem is that most schools don’t like great teachers. They’re organized to stamp them out, bore them, bureaucratize them, and make them average.

The tests are limiting a child's education by restraining the teachers instruction to a strict list of skills and items.
It limits us by causing each person involved to work in a selfish manner, pinning each cog against the one’s around him/her.
Some might say that competition is healthy and motivating, but not when it causes one to undermine the system for personal gain.

The bottom line is that the purpose of the standardized tests are not to move teaching and learning forward. The purpose is for big business to feed off of our children while providing government an increased control of its education factory.

What if assessment looked like this:
The teacher and student collaboratively create a narrative for that pupil displaying their exploration of their unique abilities, their growth in specific content skills, areas of mastery, and areas of needed improvement.
I’m pretty sure we could do this with the hours students are spending currently on testing.
Although the state probably wouldn’t like this, as they prefer subjects that are easily measurable and comparable (precisely the opposite of human nature).

So "Assess for Growth with Patience and Persistence" (a previous post).