(This article appeared in Education Week July 14, 2010)
Recently I observed a group of high-powered principals vigorously engaged in a serious, district-wide improvement plan. The leaders at the table, some relatively new, a few long timers who managed to tough it out during a recent superintendent transition, were having a moment of truth as they reflected on the past year. “This is like when you turn over in bed in the morning, and there’s your partner. No makeup, no toothbrush, no mouthwash. It is what it is,” said a member of the teaching and learning team from the central office, setting up the discussion.
Because there was a fair degree of trust in the room, principals started laying it on the line. They talked about their sense of unfairness at being asked to change their ways of doing business. “I resented you guys, because you were treating us like we were broken. We didn’t see ourselves as broken,” said one principal.
“I really didn’t understand what you were doing, I couldn’t see the plan you had in your heads for how we were supposed to do the work in our buildings,” offered another leader.
But mostly, principals expressed their deep sense of uneasiness, and plain lack of comfort with the new thing they were being asked to do as instructional leaders: to look closely at instruction in classrooms, while it was actually going on, and offer fine grained, non-evaluative feedback to teachers on how to make learning more powerful for students.
“I’m used to being a building manager. Being an instructional leader is very confusing to me,” one principal said, jumping in.
“Being out in classes, I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be seeing. Oh my gosh I’m supposed to know what I’m seeing. I just don’t feel confident. We’re focusing on students now. I’m not trained to do that. I feel like a blank slate.”
“It’s new. I’m trying to do it all. Gathering evidence around instruction is a different way of assessing. I couldn’t identify instruction. I don’t know how to do that.”
Hearing accomplished principals talk this way, so honestly and expressive of their real truth–was a breakthrough, a moment of transformation. In the world they came from, being in classrooms meant ten minutes twice a year, in which you checked off “whether the bulletin boards were neat,” and “whether kids were raising their hands,” as one principal said. “I’m an administrator with a Blackberry. Good students comply. Where I’m from is that I get rewarded for keeping order and calm, and producing test scores.” And the new world of instructional leadership is saying, “Where you’re from is too limited a vision. Where is the student from?”
In the old paradigm, students were almost like pieces of furniture: something to be sanded, filed and nailed, to be crafted, but not real individuals in the room, co-creating meaning around the work of learning. What these brave principals were saying was that it was not natural, not intuitively obvious for them to bend down and talk to students at their desks, to ask them what they were doing right now, why they were doing it, and to try to understand how this engaged them as a learners (or not). Moving away from the teacher as the center of the action, to the subtle, sometimes contradictory, evidence-based world of the student as knower, was hard. It wasn’t comfortable. They didn’t like it.
It was important.
There is huge, truly significant sea change afoot in the institution of schooling. Much the transformational reform work of the past couple of decades, from readers’ and writers’ workshop, to schools for all kinds of minds, to instructional rounds, the explosion of technology that cracks open learning, to fMRIs that tell us what students’ brains looks like when they are taking multiple choice tests, is trending in the same direction: putting student learning at the center of the institution. How do kids construct meaning around that writing prompt? How do students understand school when they are asked to complete worksheets for 6 hours a day? What does it mean to a child when she is not allowed to Tweet someone to ask them a question in class? Who has authority in thinking when a teacher relies on a textbook as the source of knowledge in the classroom throughout the course of year? These were all questions the principals were pondering, some said, for the first time in their professional lives.
If you are willing to consider the proposition that the institution of school, as it has been constructed in America, has largely evolved to serve the economic, social, and biorhythmic needs of adults, then putting student learning experiences–the intricate, complex and paradoxical work of learning–at the center of the institution, is nothing short of a revolution. It is a Galilean upending, knocking the geocentric adult out of the center of the universe and placing students at the heart of it. The factory model must be dismantled, widgets must be interviewed. Students become the sun, and the source of energy from which light and meaning flow. It turns the conventional paradigm of school upside down; it changes the orbital path of the institution, and dramatically alters the specific gravity of classrooms.
For many years my outlier work has been listening to students talk about creating meaning around learning within the institution of school–checking out my assumptions, making sure I circle back to talk with students to see if I got it right, querying them about whether what I think they said is what they actually meant. (When in school always carry a notebook; write fast; wear stretchy pants; have snacks.) Students are glad to talk to me, although at first surprised, because adults so rarely ask them about their experiences of learning in school. (Initially, they wonder if you are for real.) Asking students what they are learning, and how they are learning, and listening to them, in as much detail as possible, is always a reminder of how much they know about the game of school. Powerfully, with precision, what students tell me most often is how bored they are, how underchallenged they are, how deadened by school routines they are, and how infrequently they are enlivened by their work.
So when teachers and administrators complain that students are bored in school, unmotivated and underperforming, I say, “Can you really blame them?” If you were asked to do what they do, wouldn’t you be bored? Have you sat with them at their desks and done what they are asked to do?
The principals around the table filled me with hope. Schools will only get better when adults become trained to see the institution from the perspective of students, and to value and honor that perspective as equally important to their own. There is an acculturation and training function to schools, of course, a passing on of values, beliefs and images, but students are active co-constructors of those meanings, whether adults acknowledge this or not. Our work now is to formalize this co-construction, to move our attention towards the student and his or her experiences of school, and school learning. “I don’t know how to do this,” the principals said.
We know that great learners begin by being unafraid, unafraid to express what they don’t understand. These courageous principals were facing these new challenges of instructional leadership by saying, “I’m willing, but I don’t know how.”
How do we change the paradigms of schooling, so that student experiences of learning are at the center of our work? We practice doing it.
We all need practice. Let’s begin?
 For a brilliant description of the complex the work of “seeing” in the classroom is, see Nuthall, G. (2001). “The cultural myths and realities of teaching and learning,” Jean Herbison Lecture, University of Canterbury, December 2001.