Every few years, some Powers That Be in the Local School District realize there’s a need for a common language for teachers and administrators to use in discussing their work. That’s not just true in These Parts; it’s a predictable cycle that factory-model education shares with lots of other factory-model organizations. Twenty years ago it was the cognitive domain of Bloom’s Taxonomy, the old version where Evaluation was above Synthesis; I remember an Experienced Trainer with a helpful acronym to remember the levels in order. Then came the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy, where Creating is above Evaluating; somewhere along the line, some of our Local Schools had a flirtation with the cognitive system of Robert Marzano’s New Taxonomy. The new-new thing, it seems, will be Norman Webb’s work with Depth of Knowledge. It’s interesting to contemplate the beginning of a new cycle at this time of endings and beginnings.
The Depth of Knowledge terms showed up on a Special Sheet that Powers That Be were to use on Learning Walks through Various Schools this spring. The idea was simple and reasonable enough: a trained observer, given ten or fifteen minutes to observe students and teachers at work in a classroom, should be able to tell whether the focus is simply on recall of information (Webb’s lowest level), on skills and concepts, on strategic thinking, or on extended thinking. Predictably, after a series of such Learning Walks, it seems the Relevant Powers discovered a distressing amount of focus on the recall level. There was a Series of Meetings, I’m told, and the decision was made to include training on Webb’s work in professional-development sessions next school year.
Perhaps a shiny new PowerPoint will finally convince Ms. X and Mr. Y to abandon their recall-focused ways and embrace higher-level learning. The previous edition of the shiny new PowerPoint didn’t work, and neither did the overhead-projector slides twenty years ago … but maybe the newest new PowerPoint will work! A Relevant Power at a meeting the other day was hopeful, but not necessarily optimistic. “Maybe, when they see how it affects Their Evaluation, they’ll start to change,” said That Power, hoping that the Shiny New Curriculum and the Higher-Level Tests and the Shiny New Evaluation System for teachers will bring about change.
A few years ago, some Previous Powers had similar hopes for a school-wide training on the Habits of Mind. More recently, the work of the folks at A Connected School was going to change the interactions between teachers and students. Two decades ago, the Kagan model of cooperative learning was finally going to shake Ms. X, Mr. Y, and the others out of their reliance on lectures, overhead-projector slides, and worksheets. A Relevant Power firmly believes that the Fairly New Curriculum for World Languages will finally force Ms. X and Mr. Y to stop grading notebooks and start assessing students’ proficiency with the language.
And these are all excellent programs; if you read back over older entries here, you’ll see how each of them has influenced my work with the Latin Family and with the Tres Columnae Project itself. But can a Shiny New Program, especially one with a Shiny New PowerPoint and maybe even an Outside Expert, live or on video, bring structural change to a highly complex system?
I suppose it might … if Ms. X and Mr. Y hadn’t been around for a while and developed a sense of how Shiny New Initiatives “always” work in such a system. Attempts to “keep Those Kids working till the Very Last Day” might work, too, if Those Kids hadn’t already been in Many A School where the last day of testing marked the last day of effort and everybody knew that. That’s the problem, but also the beauty, of highly complex systems: they resist change, and they tend to absorb simple (or simplistic) change efforts. Ms. X and Mr. Y will put up the shiny new posters and discard the old dusty posters from the Previous Initiative … or they might put up both sets, or part of one set and part of another, because “it’s so confusing” and “They didn’t give good directions” and “I always put that poster right there.” The shiny new language will show up on Official Forms, but Ms. X and Mr. Y are pretty sure it will be replaced by newer new language in a few years.
“How will this actually help?” asked a colleague at the Recent Meeting. “I mean, I’m not trying to be disrespectful or anything,” she said, “but Those Teachers are overwhelmed. How will this help them?”
Of course, Those Teachers are always overwhelmed … because in the culture of factory-model schools, you’re supposed to be overwhelmed and too busy and far behind because that’s how you show you Really Care about what you’re doing. Shiny new language and shiny new programs, even the ones designed to make people’s lives easier, get absorbed into that pattern of thought and repurposed as additional ways to be overwhelmed, too busy, and far behind. I’d like to believe (and I still do believe) that a joyful learning community can change the patterns, but it’s hard work because those patterns, while toxic, are so comfortable and familiar. “It’s still working out OK for me,” says Ms. X, “so why change?”
On this last day for students, a time when endings and beginnings are on everybody’s mind, I wonder what new discoveries await. I wonder what we’ll learn as our joyful learning communities disperse, and I wonder what new communities will form in the days and weeks to come.