If they’re on schedule, which almost all of them are, the participants in that Online Professional Development class I teach have just finished a unit about assessment techniques. They read about (and try out) a whole bunch of things, other than paper-and-pencil tests, that teachers can use to find out (and help their students find out) how they’re doing before, during, and after a lesson. Over the years, it’s been a high point in the course for many, and this year seems to be no exception. Whether they’re veteran teachers or eager beginners, everyone tends to find something immediately practical and useful.
But one response to the question about using portfolios in the unit really surprised me this year. “We have data notebooks at my school,” said Ms. K, “and we use them to track things like attendance and scores on different assessments along the way.” Nothing unusual so far. “But portfolios would be different,” she said, “because the kids don’t get to see the data notebooks.”
To put it mildly, I was floored. Here’s a pretty typical description of how data notebooks are “supposed” to work. The whole purpose, of course, is to involve students, to help them be “coproducers of their learning,” in the words of the folks from Montgomery County, as they collect and reflect on the information in the notebooks. And yet Ms. K’s school, doubtless with the best of intentions, has made them a teacher thing … and while I deliberately haven’t looked to see where Ms. K teachers or what kinds of scores That Particular School tends to produce, I have a suspicion that things won’t quite work out as well as their Relevant Powers had hoped. And if that happens, shaming and blaming will probably follow, as the Powers blame “bad, lazy teachers” and the teachers blame “bad, lazy students” and “horrible parents who just don’t care.”
But if you try to put on the factory-school lenses for a moment, I suppose secret data notebooks make sense from that perspective. After all, the data collection process is really important, and so are the action plans you make based on the data. Since the scores “belong to” Ms. K and her colleagues, who better to collect the data and make the plans than them? “You know how our kids are,” people often say with the best of intentions at such times. “They just can’t handle those kinds of things, so we have to do it for them, don’t we?”
You have to admire the factory-paradigm. It’s powerful and long-lasting, and from the inside, it seems internally consistent. Ms. L, a friend who works regularly as a substitute teacher, tells of “teachers sitting there doing the work for kids” in the sincere belief that their students are incapable. “Just give me a worksheet,” begged K when she was in the Latin Family a few years ago, “and tell me what to put on it. I know I’ll do well on the test if you just do that.” And two decades ago, Coach Z was furious because “some kid” and “some awful parent” had asked to see the student’s grade on a particular test. “That’s none of their business!” stormed Coach, as fifteen or twenty colleagues around a lunch table nodded approvingly.
And from the factory-paradigm, it all makes sense. After all, the purpose of schools in the factory model is to make test scores, or perhaps to make the knowledge that’s reflected in those scores. If you own the results, and you should, then you need to own the process that generates those results, too. Everything from secret data notebooks to standardized lesson delivery makes sense, then, as long as you buy into the notion that schools own both the process and results of learning.
But as soon as you step outside, even for a moment, the folly of it all becomes clear. Learners aren’t coproducers of their learning; they’re the primary producers, and we teachers and Powers That Be are coproducers and facilitators at best, even if we give compelling lectures or write and implement world-class lesson plans. And if learners own the results, then they obviously own the process, too.
And in fact, despite what factory-school true believers want to believe, learners do own the process and own the results even in the most “rigorous” factory environments. “I’m not doing this,” says V, “and you can’t make me.” V may be subjected to all the pain-punishment cycles the factory-model school can devise, but in the end only V can “make” V do That Thing, or not. V might “get a bad grade” or fail the class, “get kicked out” or drop out voluntarily, but V took ownership of the process and the results. “I won’t turn in those assignments,” said one V two decades ago, “because your policy says I fail automatically for missing too many days. Why should I do those assignments when I’m going to fail anyway?”
One challenge for a joyful learning community is to learn how to handle the openness. When the learners themselves, individually and collectively, own both the process and the results, things feel very different from the atmosphere of charged secrecy that often pervades factory-model schools. “This is on a needs-to-know basis,” we like to say, “and They (whoever They are at the moment) don’t need to know.” A learning community can choose to keep secrets, of course, and sometimes it will decide that it needs to. But the choice is made openly, and the ownership of both the choices and the secrets themselves is shared.
With Midterm Exams today and tomorrow, and with our Major Assessment process standing in stark contrast with the secret process and secret results of factory-style assessment, I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues, and I hope the Latin Family has, too. I wonder what new insights and discoveries await us all!