Over the weekend, I “just happened” to need some groceries, and I “just happened” to run into my former student H – now Dr. H; he just finished a Ph.D. program in a Highly Technical Subject and has taken a job teaching at the Local Community College. We talked for a while about teaching and learning, about his life journey over the past few years – and since I’d just come from a gathering with a number of teachers who had known him as a high-school student, I started thinking about progress and change and growth, and about the labels factory-schools and teachers put on our students. “Smart but strange” is one, and I’m sure it was applied to Dr. H a time or two.
It’s hard for folks with a fixed mindset to measure progress, to see growth and change – and one big reason is that, if you really embrace that fixed mindset, you don’t actually believe in growth or change as a possibility for people. There are times when “it is what it is” is helpful wisdom, but “he is what he is?” “She is what she is?” It’s one thing to be honest and clear about the current state of a person, but it’s something else entirely to assume that they will be what they currently are. Change happens, growth happens, and the Dr. H I talked with on Saturday – the Dr. H who’s discovered and embraced his love of teaching and of his Particular Subject – is a very different person from Young H, whom I knew two decades ago. When you talk to him, you can see the progress, the growth, the change – but you can also see that the essence of Dr. H today was there in Young H, just waiting to emerge when the time was right.
I’m grateful for the deep roots I’ve developed in These Parts, grateful for the opportunity to catch up with former students like H. Grateful, too, for the conversation with L’s mom a few hours earlier – L, who also discovered his calling, has pursued it with excellence, and has a wonderful family including the smiling little boy (who looks just like L in so many ways) who was with Grandma when we saw each other.
Progress, growth, and change. Deep roots … and the opportunity to uproot yourself when that’s what you need to do. All are vital parts of joyful learning communities.
But how do you go about measuring progress? How do you help others see growth and change over time? It’s good to ponder those questions during Exam Week, when schools obviously focus on measuring … but what exactly are we measuring? Ms. X and Mr. Y are waiting for Those Scores to come back from Monday’s testing, but what will they look for on the score report? Unless the reports have changed significantly, which is always possible, there will be a raw score, a converted percentage (which gets Keyed In to the New Student Information System), and an achievement level, and if you dig a bit, and look at individual reports for each student, you can get a breakdown of how A, B, C, and the rest of your students performed on each particular objective or sub-skill.
But that’s not what Ms. X and Mr. Y are interested in – at least not this week. They just want Those Scores, so they can Key Them In. If the scores are high, they’ll celebrate what they personally did; if low, they’ll blame the “bad, lazy kids” for “not learning what I taught them.” Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y over the years has blamed the “bad, unfair tests” or the “hard curriculum” or “those kids’ teachers in middle school.” Or parents. Or the Internet. Or cell phones and video games.
Blame. Depending on what you measure and why you measure it, blame is either really important or completely irrelevant. If you’re measuring “student learning” the factory-way, creating some artificial standard and assuming that everyone should be exactly there at exactly this time, then blame is almost inevitable. Why didn’t Y and Z get there on schedule? Ms. X blames Y and Z; Y and Z, if asked, blame Ms. X and The School; and on and on it goes in a toxic game of passing the blame. But if you measure organic progress, there’s no room for blame at all. If you mark your child’s height on a wall chart or a door frame every year, it’s not about blaming someone; it’s about celebrating their accomplishments. When we did our Individual Oral Responses yesterday in the big Latin I class, I lost count of the number of times we could celebrate growth in proficiency. “N, can you feel the difference from last month?” I asked, and she smiled, and she said she could. “Is it feeling like words and phrases instead of isolated words?” I asked a few times, and it was – and I suppose I could have blamed those students for being stuck at Novice Mid proficiency when they’re “supposed to be” approaching Novice High as readers. But why? The progress they’ve made is important and real, the growth and change obvious to everyone including them.
As we work to build and sustain joyful learning communities in the midst of – or outside of – those seemingly monolithic factory-schooling structures, measuring progress is helpful in several ways. If the Big Existing Players value a given measurement, it’s great to be able to beat them at their own game, to get comparable (or better) results by a different method. But measuring progress can also be important for learners and teachers; it’s easy to get caught up in our daily work, to focus on today and tomorrow, and to forget about how far we’ve come since last week, last month, or a year ago.
I wonder what evidence of progress, growth, and change we’ll all discover today!