Thursday, December 31, 2009

Dumbo's Magic Feather

Education has always been considered a "soft" science. I agree, but can't bring myself to discount anecdotal findings as invalid. Critics call this aspect of education study "touchy-feely" in order to dismiss the discipline entirely.
But in the past few days the unquantifiable aspect of success in classrooms keeps surfacing in my reading. This is where classroom practitioners and accountability gurus--those who want to use paper/pencil tests as the only valid measurement--part company.
There's something....something out there that can't be measured, but we know it's there.
The technical term - from the 'science' of education - is affect. Basically, how does the student feel about the subject and their ability to connect with material?
My colleague Nicole and I have dubbed it Dumbo's Magic Feather.
If you recall the movie Dumbo, the circus mouse convinces Dumbo to use his large ears to fly - something he's done once but can't seem to do again - by giving him a "magic" feather. Though the feather has no particular magical qualities, it does give Dumbo what he needs: the confidence to jump off the platform and fly again for the circus act. When he loses the feather, he discovers that he could fly all along. (In the teaching world, we might call the feather scaffolding - an intermediary tool to get a student just a little higher up before we pull the supports out and our students find they can stand on their own.)
When we remediate, Nicole and I have both found that the tool that best helps students who have met with failure repeatedly is the magic feather. Many students just need to be convinced that they can do it. Why do they need this encouragement? When skills are measured over and over again, the glass starts to look half empty instead of half full. Scores often reveal what ISN'T there instead of what is. "I got a 94. What happened to the other 6 points?"
Here's a sports example I read yesterday in Derrick Jensen's Walking on Water. (Those who loves statistics will often accept sports metaphors when they won't accept other kinds of touchy-feely evidence).
Jensen was a high jumping coach. He claims that what jumpers need most is confidence. His method was to always accentuate what jumpers were doing well and place less emphasis on what they weren't doing. Education, he says, is about leading the learner to want to learn on his own what is next needed. Encouragement is the key.
His second tactic was to train his athletes to only speak positively around the pit. Negative remarks - even remarks about poor weather conditions- were cause for punishment - extra laps or push ups. ALL of Jensen's eligible jumpers qualified for nationals. When other teams arrived on bad weather days all they did was gripe. Jensen's jumpers had nothing but positive remarks about how the weather would improve their performance.
Now you can argue that Jensen's jumpers were already pretty-good athletes. Those who couldn't jump to begin with weren't on the team. But you can probably also argue that most students have the raw stuff to make it through the public school system. Those who don't are going to need other tools and supports.
Testing rarely places emphasis on what a student is achieving. Most of the emphasis is on what is not there. Portfolios, a different kind of tool, can help students internalize what they have gained rather than what they have missed. The students locate their own good examples of how they have jumped over the bar - at least once. (Invisible teaching: this means the student already understands that the bar is there, what it looks like, and how high it is! Sneaky.)
Accentuate the positive. Look for growth, not loss.
Here's an anecdote: A weak ninth grade boy exhibits every behavior in class that underscores his view of himself as not-an-academic. After brainstorming to find events that are important to him (not the school), he writes an absolutely brilliant description of flying over the handlebars and landing in the gravel during a particularly traumatic bicycle accident.
He shares it with the class by reading it aloud.
We cheer.
I say, "Wow. That's amazing. You're a poet!"
Magic feather: you can fly. You did it once, you can do it again.
He beams.
From that day forward he writes and writes. One can only hope he continues that throughout the next three years.
When he reads aloud, we can not see any errors, of which I'm sure there are many. There are probably problems with capitals, spelling, punctuation -- the usual measurable skills. But, if he sees himself as a writer, he will be sure to seek out the solution to those issues on his own. Or he will choose to listen more attentively when a teacher points out what good writers do.
Fixing errors is the easy part.
Wanting to is the hard part.
That's why the touchy-feely part is even more important than the scores.
That's why punishing schools for failure is exactly the wrong way to go.
Find out what is working. Build on that.
Conduct your own experiment.
Here - you can use my feather.