What You’re Doing Now Isn’t Working

What do you do when you realize this? I realized this lately when I decided to re-take up bowling. When I was in junior high I was in a league and loved to bowl. Every Saturday morning for years my little brother and I would go up to our local bowling alley and bowl in leagues. It was a lot of fun and I wasn’t awful, so my parents even bought me my own bowling ball. I was 14. I’m almost 50 now. I’ve taken up bowling again—yes, with the same ball—if you must know.

As you might expect, I was pretty awful when I first started back up. But I knew I used to really like it and wasn’t all that bad, so I try to go bowling when I can. I keep my ball in the trunk, and if I’m in a town for a night that has a bowling alley, I often seek it out. I remembered a lot about what I was doing and kept trying to force myself to hit a particular mark in a way I thought I remembered. I tried and tried and tried, but after trying to force it too much, I realized what I was doing wasn’t working. I needed to try something different.

In the world of self-regulation, that was evidence of a pretty good self-monitoring strategy. I made the realization that I needed to change a behavior, or at least a strategy. I actually came up with a plan (e.g., move over one whole mark) and tried it out. Much better! I actually throw a hook, not a straight ball. Now I’ve not only monitored my growth but re-evaluated and determined new strategies. I’m not great, but I’m better. Still some fine tuning needed, especially where spares are concerned.

But forget about me

Let’s put that into a schooling context. I recently visited an elementary school where I was going to spend some time with teachers. It was the end of the day for students and as I approached the school, I approached a heart wrenchingly upset young girl and her mother leaving the school. She was probably 6 or 7 and all bundled up in her pink, puffy winter coat, with beautiful long blonde hair…and tears streaming down her face. She was outright bawling!

As I got closer, I heard her say to her Mom, “I didn’t mean to, but it’s so boring! There’s nothing to do here!” Oh no! Six years old and bored with school! It was heart breaking.

You need a little back story.  I visit a lot of classrooms. I did a rough estimate recently and I figure it’s easily over a 100 a year, so more than a thousand classrooms in my career. Unfortunately, I have to agree with the little tawny-headed cherub. In so many classrooms I visit, it is tremendously boring! Why is that?

Unintended consequences

Imagine yourself in this situation. You’re seated in a room, and all about you are all kinds of interesting things to look at and interact with. There are colorful posters on the walls, lots of books, crayons, markers, and maybe some of my new discovery—glitter glue! There are games to play, and books to read, a TV, maybe a digital whiteboard and even a few computers or iPads where you can find unlimited games and videos and all kinds of things to interest you. The catch is…you can’t touch any of it. You can’t get out of your seat. You aren’t even allowed to speak. Welcome to school.

Why do we continue to do this to children in classroom after classroom all across the country? In these classrooms, the teachers often work out of great compassion for the children and most appear obviously driven by the concern that their students have to do well on…“the test.” Because of this, they work nonstop. They’re up, talking, reading things to kids, talking, moving about, talking, distributing worksheet after worksheet, talking, and having kids put papers in notebooks, folders, and through it all, talking.

Students can’t get a word in. Many have given up trying. They’ve realized that if they sit there long enough, the teacher will do it for them. They don’t really have to read or learn anything, because it’s all given to them on handout after handout. Most worksheets are so prescriptive that you don’t have to do any real thinking to fill in the blanks or connect the dots. When the teacher asks a question, there’s no need to know the answer. If you wait, the teacher will tell you the answer, or at worst you’ll just have to read it off the worksheet that you were given the answers to. What students have learned in all of this is how to win the game of school.

Moving our mark

Despite the best intentions of the standards movement, and the accountability movement, and well-meaning teachers trying to face the pressures these have placed on their lives, the unintended consequence of all this is that what we’re doing isn’t working. I believe standards are a great idea, but few teachers really put into action teaching to the level of rigor they require. Instead they shovel out basic facts and figures at such a dizzying pace that I know they must be exhausted at the end of the day. Talk about coverage.

And then we test kids day in and day out on those basic facts figures. Honestly! I talked with a teacher on a Thursday who said this was a “review day,” because they were going to test the next day, so they could be prepared for the upcoming benchmark, which is supersedes “the test” at the end of the year. How many times do you really have to test that kid? How much instructional time are we loosing annually? Is there a better way?

I think there is, but it’s going to take some hard work. Because that work is looking deeply at what we’re doing, whether a teacher in the classroom, an administrator reviewing those benchmark scores, or those at the highest levels that are developing standards and sanctioning schools that don’t meet performance goals. We have to truly reflect on what we’re doing and realize, what we’re doing isn’t working.

Well, yes, some of it is working, but not all of it. That’s the main idea. We have to know what does and does NOT work, and stop doing the latter. I appreciate that it’s a really difficult thing to do—to look at your own practice and realize something isn’t working, but we have to. And we have to do it over and over.

I was in a school a few weeks ago where yet another faculty member said (and it doesn’t matter which school, I truly hear it almost everywhere I go), “I feel so pressured to get through one activity and on to the next that there’s no time to do all this other stuff you want me to do.”

My question? “Does what you’re doing now work?”

The answer, when I get one, is usually, “I don’t know.”

Let’s find out, then move our mark.