I was glad to see Wagner emphasize classroom visiting as the key way to evaluate educational excellence. “The important question is ‘What’s going on in classrooms?'” Wagner’s approach is a bit different from my own in this year’s project; whereas I intend to spend days shadowing students, Wagner uses what he calls “learning walks:” several hours visiting 8-10 classes for ten minutes each, and then having reasonable confidence that you will have a representative picture of the school and the learning therein. In doing so, he seeks to “assess what students are being asked to do: the specific skills and knowledge that students are expected to master and the level of intellectual challenge in the lesson.” As noted previously, he is especially interested in questions asked of students and student explanations.
September 5, 2008
He doesn’t find much he likes– 19 out of 20 classrooms disappoint him. Too much teaching to the test, too many disconnected lessons, too frequently disengaged students. Worksheets, memorization, repetitive attention to basic skills, monotony, and note-taking abound. Sometimes students just aren’t working at all.
What he rarely finds is what he is seeking: “teachers who use academic content as a means of teaching students how to communicate, reason, and solve problems.”
What does that look like, to Wagner?
Here is one example, from an Algebra 2 class: The teacher posts a problem on the board, and students are grouped and told that they haven’t seen this type of problem before. They are to solve it, using both algebraic and geometric concepts, in at least 2 different ways, and then, at random, one member of each group will explain the group’s answer. The teacher then circulates, facilitating, never answering a question with an answer but only with another question. Problemsolving, collaboration, initiative, imagination, communication skills are all on display here.
A history assignment or question: Identify and explain the first ten amendments of the Constitution and then write an opinion essay on which one of the Bill of Rights is the most important, using evidence from both history and current events.
An English assignment: Students research an issue of concern to them, summarize the arguments pro and con, write a letter to the editor, and mail it.
Another math class: students work in pairs on two worksheets (sic) which contain twenty examples of four ways to represent mathematical relationships, but out of order. Students puzzle out the relationships, grouping them accordingly.
It is helpful, in a sense, to see that the goodness of good schools is not radically or extremely different from the badness of not-so-good schools. In his model schools, students still do some worksheets, or take notes from a video. At moments, in reading of the exemplary schools, I pause: what is so much better here? But even where a lesson element parallels that of a disappointing lesson, we can recognize differences: there is more difficult problem solving of original challenges; more authentic tasks with real-world relevance; more coherent theme based overarching the individual lessons.
Much of what he likes is familiar from Sizer and Meier– students as workers, teachers as coaches, students demonstrating learning via exhibitions, classrooms and schools marked by strong community and teacher-student relationships.
And much of it is happening already, with some consistency, in good independent high schools, I would like to suggest. An underlying tension in the book is the public-private question. I would say Wagner can’t quite decided what to do with this dynamic of the two school types. The book is focused on public schools, and his disappointing “learning walks” are all at what are, by standardized test scores, the “best” schools in their state. Similarly, all three of his examples of effective schools, which are teaching his called for skills, are at public schools too– but never a conventional mainstream one, all of them alternative charter and experimental ones.
At times, he goes out of his way to point out that he can and does find these same disappointments at independent (private) schools, even very good ones. But, at the same time, it is hard not to see parallels between the charter schools he admires and good independent high schools: small size, strong relationships, and a focus on student learning and “product.”
So what do we take from the subtitle that even the “best schools don’t teach the new survival skills”? My interpretation is that that statement is not inclusive of, not even really intended to be inclusive of, the “best” private schools. I think they do teach them, and I think he thinks they do. As do, he thinks, the “best” alternative and charter public schools. The “best” here he is referring to are, as explained above, large, conventional, popular, mainstream high schools which are high achieving, even the highest achieving, on standardized testing. But it is no political or polite to make too much of this difference, and certainly he doesn’t want independent schools to be too self-satisfied, which they have no reason to be.
Does that mean there are no lessons here for good independent high schools? Of course not. Most of them are not new: go back to your Sizer and emphasize its lessons once again. Be clear about what your school thinks are required 21st century skills, and seriously audit yourself on how well you are teaching them. Provide more time for teacher collaboration and planning, and promote classroom “transparency”– classrooms ought to be much more open to other teachers, administrators, and visitors. Review again and again how class time is used, and how relevant lessons are, and how assessment is happening. Evaluate student motivation, and be serious about your responsibility to engender motivation. Seriously seek to understand how differently today’s digital native students think and process, and respond to it.
More in a future post about Wagner’s thoughts on rigor, testing and evaluation.