Treating the Symptoms, V

Thursday morning, as I was walking into the school-district office building where my World Language Curriculum Team meeting would be held, I ran into an old friend who now works there.  After a bit of small talk, she asked how things were going with the curriculum development process, and we started talking about the common exams that the group was working on today.

And I heard myself say something that bothered me.  Something like this:

“You know, the sad truth is that assessment drives instruction.  The only way to make some teachers do what they’re supposed to do is to develop a common exam like this.”

And then we headed to our respective meetings … and I heard so many stories about Ms. X (and Sra. X) who stubbornly cling to the textbook, the workbook, the multiple-choice grammar test, the “culture day” with food and games unrelated to authentic products, practices, or perspectives of any culture.  In the context, the mindset, of the factory-model school, I was sadly right: the “only way” to “make” Sra. X do something different is to terrify her with pain-punishment cycle tools.  That will work … exactly as well as Sra. X’s threats work on her “bad, lazy students.”

The authors of the No Child Left Behind Act applied to factory-model schools the very tools that factory-model schools have applied to generations of students: setting a (new and improved!) standard, sorting and ranking against the standard, rewards for those that “exceed,” pain-punishment tools for those that “need improvement.”  The Race to the Top program, for all its surface-level differences, is built on the same paradigm:  new (and improved!) standards, sorting and ranking against them, rewards, pain-punishment tools.  Identify the symptoms, assume they’re the problem, reward those who don’t have them, punish those who do, reluctantly (when compelled) develop a “special” program for the “special” ones who just can’t improve.  That’s what factory-model schools do, and I find it ironic that folks complain when our own tools are used against us.

Ms. X, as I’ve noted before, doesn’t usually have a sense of irony.

Our series of meetings has aimed for real, significant innovation in the district’s World Language curricula.  And we really intend to measure proficiency through authentic assessment when we develop our common set of proficiency exams.  But just below the surface – even just below my surface – lurks the factory notion that new (improved!) standards, sorting, ranking, rewards, and pain-punishment will “work” to change behaviors and attitudes.

I guess I’m glad I do have a sense of irony.

In the factory mindset, Dr. Q, whom I described in yesterday’s post, was “right” in his quest to change attitudes by “making” teachers change their behaviors.  He could “make” Ms. X, Coach Y, and their colleagues turn in lesson plans, and he could read and comment on all of them.  But of course he couldn’t be in every class, every day, to see what they actually did. He could “make” teachers “sweep the halls” for tardy students and bring them to a central location for pain-punishment processing – but he couldn’t make Coach Y, assigned to log those tardy students’ names, actually do so.  He could fire Coach Y, reprimand Ms. X, work 18- rather than 16-hour days.  But he couldn’t really change the behaviors, except when he was personally around to check.  And the attitudes remained stubbornly unchanged.  “This too,” said one of my coworkers back then, “shall pass.  I’m just going to close my door and teach.”  And of course Dr. Q left that school, as highly effective principals – which he was – eventually do.  Ms. X, the new Coach Y, and their colleagues attended the farewell reception, said nice things, secretly rejoiced, and waited out his successor’s new (improved!) plans just like before.

And Sra. X – and Mme. X and Magistra X, if we had any (I wouldn’t categorize any of my Latin colleagues as a Ms. X) – will probably look at the new tests and curricula, shrug her slumped shoulders, and whine about how “they” don’t understand what “we” face in the “real world” of Sra. X’s classroom.  “Those students!” she’ll probably say, as generations have before.  “They are bad and lazy and disrespectful, and they won’t even copy Exercise B from the textbook or conjugate the verbs!  How can They expect those kids to do the impossible?”

As Brendan pointed out on Google+,

Dr. Q’s idea that behavior changes attitudes has its limits.  Even the idea that attitudes change behavior is based on a habit-based model of the psyche.  There’s more to cognition — and without a more sophisticated mental model for how people’s minds work (in context), the factory model dynamics will remain.

For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is based on identifying and changing the automatic thoughts that drive feelings, which in turn reinforce those often dysfunctional thoughts.  CBT is often effective at treating depression, anxiety, and panic disorder.  Basically, it addresses attitudes, but through looking at how habits of thought reinforce them and have feedback loops with feelings that reinforce those dysfunctional thoughts.  Again, though, this is only part of the puzzle, as it doesn’t tend to address external behavior in context.

I wonder if CBT is a good model for the mental and emotional work that’s necessary when you’re walking out (or preparing to walk out) from dysfunctional institutions and walking on to build something new.  Not a perfect model, that false dream of the 20th-century factory, but one that’s good enough to start with.

As we move to create alternatives to 20th-century structures, or to rebuild those creaky old structures to accommodate new realities, how should we go about rebuilding our own thought patterns?  How do we make sure the factory-model paradigms are identified – that their symptoms and causes are identified and treated – before we accidentally infect the new structures with the old disease?

Published in: on December 7, 2012 at 11:20 am  Leave a Comment  

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