Competition and Education

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My wife and I attended our first track meet of the year last night. The rain and overall cruddy weather did not sway the student athletes and coaches from completing the events. Our son participated in a team relay, high jump, and shot put. Tomorrow, our daughter will be playing soccer. Another sports season has begun!

I was also an athlete during my school days. I find many benefits with these types of extracurriculars. Speaking for myself, I learned how to be a part of a team, the importance of practice, and how to lose honorably and to win gracefully.

The thrill of competition can be a motivating factor for self-improvement. But it can also come with a cost. Namely, that there is at least one “loser” in every event. We can give out all the participation trophies and ribbons we want, but it does not hide the fact that at least for one day, one person or team was deemed better than another.

As teachers and leaders, we strive to ensure that all students are successful in their learning journeys. There should not be any losers. This belief is spelled out (literally) at every level in education, from the “Every Student Succeeds Act” to a district’s mission and vision to a classroom compact.

And yet our beliefs are not always realized in our actions in schools. For example, academic awards and student recognitions explicitly highlight those who were successful while also tacitly listing those who were not.

I understand there is room for debate on these issues. But I don’t think sports and academics are equivalent experiences. Kids choose to play soccer and track. Education is compulsory. Students and families don’t have a lot of choice in these matters.

So is it possible to harness the motivation of competition and redirect it positively in the world of learning? I say yes: when the student is in competition with himself or herself. They see the purpose and relevance of their learning; they have clear criteria for success; they receive actionable feedback that can help them improve; they are provided opportunities to apply what they’ve learned in an authentic performance task for a real audience. The outcome is someone who not only knows how to learn but also wants to learn more in the future.

How should we measure success in schools?

When I arrived at my current school as principal, one of the first ideas we implemented was a schoolwide writing assessment. At that time, writing was taught once a week as part of a life skill block. My thinking was, if we assess it more formally, then student writing will improve because teachers will see it as a priority and start to teach it more frequently.

And at first, the approach seemed to work. Shortly after announcing the schoolwide writing assessment, one teacher came up to me and asked, “So writing is a focus for the building now?” I was noncommittal in my response but I did not exactly correct her thinking.

The heightened sense of writing as a priority eventually gave way to reality. Specifically, while writing instruction was happening more frequently in classrooms due in part to dedicated professional development, the actual assessment results did not reveal a lot of helpful information. Our leadership spent a whole day in the fall and in the spring calibrating the rubric with samples, assessing writing pieces with partners, and then adding students’ scores to the spreadsheet. For all of this work, we couldn’t make heads or tails if students were collectively growing as writers.

This experience has led me to ask some hard questions. Why is it so hard to measure student success in complex tasks such as writing? Related, why are we as teachers often the only ones who should be making a determination of success? If students should be a part of the assessment process, can the task itself be used for more than just measurement, such as motivating students to learn? 

Defining Success

The dictionary defines success as “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose”. So knowing what the aim is along with the purpose for our work seems important for students and teachers. Mindless assessment practices should be called into question, but not without a clear understanding of success in the broader sense of the word.

In their article “What Do We Measure and Why? Questions About the Uses of Measurement“, Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers address the general culture of organizations and our infatuation with numbers. They note a disconnect between what is being measured and what the goals are of the group, along with how people move the organization toward these goals. 

“The desire to be good managers has compelled many people to become earnest students of management. But are measures and numbers the right pursuit? Do the right measures make for better managers? Do they make for a stellar organization?”

For our challenge, it felt (to me at least) that we were scoring our students’ writing in order to have a valid and reliable way of measuring their abilities. The result was a collective effort that was misaligned with greater goals.

  • There was misalignment between who was scoring the writing and who wrote it. For me, there was little context as I read and responded to each piece. For example, were they excited about the topic? If not, why not? Could the kids also present their work for an authentic audience? I wanted to pull each student aside to ask him or her more questions about their process that led them to what they produced.
  • There was misalignment between what was being taught and what was being assessed. Just because we had a common rubric did not mean the success criteria were clear for everyone in the school. Part of this issue is with rubrics themselves; they are lengthy and often too generic to use as a teaching tool. 
  • There was misalignment between our school’s mission and vision and how we were trying to realize these big goals.We were using simple instruments to give us information about complex work. Yes, kids had to respond to a task that had the potential to encourage students to write. But writing is more than words on paper. There is research involved, peer feedback and revision, and time to simply think, activities not a part of a writing assessment. 

Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers have also observed cognitive dissonance between the necessary actions people should take to realize an organization’s vision and how leaders choose to evaluate success due to a group’s actions.

“We believe that these behaviors are never produced by measurement. They are performance capabilities that emerge as people feel connected to their work and to each other. They are capacities that emerge as colleagues develop a shared sense of what they hope to create together, and as they operate in an environment where everyone feels welcome to contribute to that shared hope. Each of these qualities and behaviors-commitment, focus, teamwork, learning, quality–is a choice that people make. Depending on how connected they feel to the organization or team, they choose to pay attention, to take responsibility, to innovate, to learn and share their learnings. People can’t be punished or paid into these behaviors. Either they are contributed or withheld by individuals as they choose whether and how they will work with us.”

Described in this way, assessment is framed as an essential part of the learning journey toward success. The qualities of a community of learners should be embedded in the mission and vision of a school. Pulling these qualities out so they are understandable by all requires a description of success along with more authentic approaches for developing assessments that allow students to make their learning and thinking visible to all.

Engaging in this work is not necessarily more difficult. As Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers note about organizations that make assessment work for them, “their process was creative, experimental, and the measures they developed were often non-traditional.” It may instead require a shift in how we view success for all students, especially from their points of view. Maybe the word “measure” is itself too basic a label for what we are trying to really do: help students see themselves as genuinely successful and know how they arrived at this point. 

Writing and the Gift of Time

I made a goal for myself in February: to write a book proposal for submission to a publisher to-be-determined (topic: building a culture of literacy). Knowing what was expected of a proposal – an outline, a description of the work, and at least one chapter written – I could generally project out how much writing I would have to do between the 1st and the 28th.

Part of the plan was to write every day, around 350 words. That didn’t happen. A few days I had lots of time and motivation, and I wrote well over 1000 words. Other days, I didn’t feel like writing. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood or I had other priorities to take care of. Most days I persevered and put something down on paper. And there were a few days where I didn’t write at all.

My experience reminded me of what Patricia Polacco shared in her interview with three of our 5th graders during a recent author visit at our school. They asked her about her writing process.

I’d love to tell you I am a dedicated writer, but I’m not. I’ll do anything not to work.

She laughed and then expanded on this answer, explaining why she needs to motivated to be an effective writer.

I don’t believe in sitting down and forcing yourself to write when the words aren’t here.” (refers to herself) “If the fire isn’t in your belly, the words are going to show it. The words are going to be lifeless. The motivation has got to be there.

Patricia goes on to share the story of Jerome, a student at another school she visited. Jerome stared at his pencil for the majority of a writing period. Patricia later found out that Jerome wrote an eight-page essay on all the wonderful uses of a pencil.

As I think about my February project, I reflect on Patricia’s words. If I wasn’t feeling it, I didn’t force it. Instead, I would read excellent literature, hang with family, or simply give my mind a break. I did eventually get there because I gave myself the time, I did not rush myself, and I found joy in the process.

As we think about our own learning environments, how have we (or might we) shift toward a culture that is conducive for authentic literacy experiences, within the constraints of public education? How might these two worlds be compatible? Please share in the comments.

Building a Literacy Culture: Fostering Trust Through Beliefs and Commitments

In the midst of my third year in my “new” school, I feel fortunate that I can reflect on my past experiences as a building principal in one elementary while leading a literacy initiative right now in my current building.

We started at Mineral Point by delving into the foundations of literacy instruction: the reading-writing connection. We are moving forward, feeling more comfortable with our pace and expectations regarding what to try and apply in our classrooms. Some might want to move forward more quickly than others, which seems common in schools.

This is a challenge as a building principal/literacy leader:  What is the right pace in which to move an entire school toward a culture where every student is expected to become an independent reader and writer?

Answer: there is no right way. Many pathways can get you to the same destination. Yet it starts with trust, defined by Dr. Anthony Muhammad as “feeling confident in another person’s ability to follow through on a commitment.” People feel safer in these types of conditions to innovate.

To move toward a literacy culture as a whole faculty, trust has to be cultivated. Trust is founded on various elements of which many are tacit and hard to see. Two concrete ways to build trust is through examination of a school’s beliefs and an agreed-upon set of professional commitments. Beliefs and commitments are commonly-held agreements about what we think and how we act. They are the foundation on which a culture sits upon when ensuring that all students are successful readers and writers. Beliefs and commitments are rudders that guide our work toward our goals.

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I’ve written about examining literacy beliefs before; you can read about two recent experiences here and here. Regarding collective commitments, you can find this culture-building activity in Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work (Solution Tree, 2016). I also shared about our school’s collective commitments on my school blog.

School leaders need to be able to determine when a school is struggling with its culture, such as when teachers are feeling too much stress while implementing new practices. I rely on our instructional leadership team members plus other staff to help discern how faculty is feeling about our work. I am not a mind reader. We have to rely on others’ perceptions regarding professional learning. This dialogue can be improved when we have concrete statements about what we believe and how we will conduct ourselves in accordance with these beliefs. They are words we live by.