We’re in the midst of a transition to standards-based learning at our school. Like any new learning, there are moments of clarity, but more often than not, the way is murky and clouded with doubt and uncertainty. Those of us who were excited and inspired in August, are now exhausted and questioning ourselves and our practices. Principles of learning that seemed clear and unassailable after reading Wormeli and Zull and Guskey and O’Connor now seem contradictory and unstable. Where we once felt so confident and competent, we are now feeling like first year teachers all over again.
Amazing things are happening in our classrooms. Students know their targets, talk about learning, and are taking ownership of their progress. Teachers are clearly articulating goals, providing low risk practice, responding to formative assessments, and communicating progress based on achievement. In other words, learning is happening for students.
But scary things are also happening in our classrooms. Students are asking about grading changes, challenging new practices, and misinterpreting our words. Teachers are struggling with new strategies, stumbling over explanations, and making mistakes with new technology. In other words, learning is happening for teachers.
We tell our students that we value risk-taking and that we want them to push themselves to work outside of their comfort zones. We know that learning only occurs in the Zone of Proximal Development, and we teach students how to work through challenges and persevere. We know that success is built on the back of failure. So if we truly believe what we tell students, then it’s time to hold ourselves to those same principles of learning.
- Learning is not always comfortable: If you haven’t seen the Dr. Tae skateboarding TED Talk, take a look at it (great to show students as well). Through video of skateboarding practice, Dr. Tae illustrates just how painful the learning process can be. When learning to improve student learning we will fall, we will mess up, we will sometimes even get hurt. But then we will get a little better and little better and a little better.
- Learning takes practice: We know that the one doing is the one learning. While we can certainly gain valuable insights and inspiration from reading and listening to the experts, we won’t actually learn how to improve learning for students until we practice it. And we’ll get it wrong (see #1), and we’ll practice it again and get it wrong again (and maybe again), but we keep practicing. And one day we’ll get it a little bit right. And then we’ll get it even more right (though by then we’ll be getting something else wrong).
- Learning takes time: We can’t expect learning to come quickly, particularly when the new learning contradicts what we’ve experienced and practiced for years and decades. After we’ve practiced this unit we will head into next unit a little more confident; and then we’ll head into next semester feeling a little more competent; and then we’ll start next year feeling even more prepared. Or maybe it will take multiple years.
So why go through all of this change? How is it fair to our students to practice on them?
If we don’t respond to what we know about learning by making major changes in the way we teach and grade, then we have failed our students and ourselves. Maintaining the status quo is ethically questionable at best, and immoral at worst. Unlike doctors, we don’t have the luxury of practicing new techniques on cadavers, and unlike pilots, we don’t have access to a classroom simulation program. Our practice is on real, live students in real, live schools (with real, live parents). That makes it unbelievably challenging, yes, but all the more important.
So here it is in a nutshell: transitioning to SBL is not easy. We will screw up and say things we don’t really mean, we will try strategies that flop and waste time, we will have moments when we don’t know how to answer a question (maybe even in front of parents at Open House), and we will probably need to be more honest with ourselves and our students than we ever have been. And just like we tell our students, we need to tell ourselves it's okay, that learning isn't easy. But it's better than the alternative.