Start Here

The most useful professional development (PD) I’ve had over these past 10 years in education has been from presentations, workshops, and blogs that have given me a “start here.” It’s usually in the form of someone figuring out a really effective way to do something, then putting it into some kind of ready-to-go format, whether that’s a packaged method, or list of steps. The “start here” works because it’s the culmination of trial, error, and revision. The “start here” works because it represents the essential. When I’ve used someone else’s “start here,” it’s been really effective. Naturally, there’s adaptation and I’ve been able to put my own spin on things, but only after I’ve implemented whatever was presented to me. So what’s the problem?

Some teachers begin to change the “start here” right away.

For example, if I share a cocktail recipe with you called “The Lance Drink,” and upon seeing .25oz Sfumato in the ingredients you decide to just leave it out, you haven’t actually made The Lance Drink. You’ve certainly made a cocktail. It’s close, but something else. You’ve mixed together ingredients of which the outcome is unknown…and there’s a good chance it might not turn out very good. Let’s say you love vodka. It’s in every cocktail you make, no matter what. When I give you my recipe, you sub vodka for The Lance Drink’s rye base. Why? That’s what you’ve always used. It’s what you’ve always done. So you mix…you sip…but you immediately spit it out because vodka is a horrible combination with the other ingredients. You might even say “gee, this Lance Drink isn’t so great.”

Teaching is a bit like that.

Instead of going with something tried and true, teachers tend to hold onto stuff that just doesn’t mix, not giving the “start here” a real chance. Sometimes, they might go as far as to claim that the “start here” doesn’t work (or whatever), mischaracterizing whatever was presented to them. In the worst of cases, other teachers that never got the original “start here” just listen to the ones who changed something right away, and shun the changed version before they can try the original, effective one.

The next steps—for anyone who works with these teachers—become searching for how to reconcile old principles in the changed version with new ones that the original “start here” was based on. Sometimes there’s no solution. The principles are too conflicting. Sad. Yet it all could’ve been avoided by just taking the “start here” and rolling with it. I’ve actually heard back from teachers who’ve experienced both, mostly when it comes to grading practices. Instead of rolling with the “start here,” they tried some weird combo, thought things didn’t work, then gave up only to revert to old ways. Then, sometime later, they gave things another try—exactly how it was presented—and come to find out they’re all of a sudden embracing the change. Again, it all could’ve been avoided.

So, in sticking with the metaphor, what’s your vodka? Let go of that, and why not give rye a try next time?

The More You Hold Onto, The Harder The Shift

For this post, I had my favorite education topics in mind: grading and second language teaching. Just like the language teacher shifting focus to comprehension and maybe communicative purpose (and away from grammar, drills, paired speaking activities without purpose, etc.), any teacher shifting focus to learning (and away from grades) must change at least some of their practices for a successful and smooth rollout. How much change and what kind? The title says it all, but let’s take a closer look…

Principles & Assumptions
Key to shifting practice is adhering to certain principles and letting go of some assumptions. Otherwise, there’s not much of a shift at all. In fact, the more a teacher holds onto their old principles & assumptions, the harder it will be to make any kind of move. For a few years now, I’ve been recommending overhauling a few key practices so that new ones run smoothly. This is against common advice to just try something new little-by-little, I know. However, while that sounds appealing, in my experience the results are almost never what anyone wants. Consider the language teacher who adds tiered texts and embedded readings, yet holds onto measuring how well students identify verb endings. Sure, more-comprehensible texts is a step in a different (and dare I say “better”—gasp!) direction, but those grammar tests & quizzes under old principles will hinder the new practice.

It’s the same with grading.

If a teacher wants to try something new but holds onto aspects of their old system, there’s likely a conflict of principles, even if the teacher wasn’t aware of the old principles (which most often the case because no one really teaches teachers anything about grading). For example, attempting to teach for “mastery” while setting the gradebook to average scores creates a problem: the student who eventually masters content still has their previous, lower scores in the mix. That doesn’t make sense. While on the one hand, it’s appealing for the teacher to shift their thinking in terms of having standards to master, on the other hand the shift won’t fully be realized without adhering to the principles that make the shift actually work. In this example, the teacher would have to truly evaluate student work to make sure the most-recent learning evidence does show mastery, and have the grade reflect that. The computer can’t do that. Sure, it can automatically update the grade with a standard’s most-recent score, but that’s not the same. The computer doesn’t know whether the student had a bad day, or whether a really high score was a fluke. That’s why teachers need to collect multiple pieces of learning evidence and really know their students.

Of course, that’s if you bother with grades and points in the first place!!!!

From what I’ve seen and read in the literature, ungrading is where everything’s headed. We’ll have to wait until SBG is the dominant paradigm first, though, but I do predict more educators will recognize the ineffectiveness of and harm that grades do, just like what will eventually happen with grammar and language teaching.

So, what’s something you’re holding onto that’s preventing a smooth shift to something new?