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Looking at Change and Resistance to New Ideas and Practices

I just read an article that was in Educational Leadership from June 2015, The Tug of War Between Change and Resistanceby Michael Murphy.

It reminded me of the professional development that I, along with a colleague, was assigned to implement in a school in NJ.

The issue of resistance to change has been examined for many years but so far, there seems to be no complete solution.

My experience illustrates the tug of war. The school district’s Board President was excited about bringing a new philosophical and curriculum model to their preschool but after visiting the program on a monthly basis for a year and one-half to work with the administrators and the teachers, it occurred to us that the enthusiasm that we had for helping the administrators and teachers was not reciprocal. Murphy quotes Michael Fullan (2007) who discusses the three stages of change, starting with initiation, “the process that leads up to and includes a decision to adopt or proceed with a change” (p.69). This first stage is so important and although the school district said that the teachers agreed to and were excited about the “changes” that we were bringing, our experiences did not match that assertion. So, as Murphy points out, resistance reared “its ugly head” early during the “getting ready” stage (Murphy, p.66).

Were we successful? Partially. Will the changes that the teachers actually accepted and implemented be sustained? Maybe. But, if the change process had been designed more carefully, starting with the initiation stage, perhaps we would have had a more sustained impact. Maybe part of the problem was that the district did not have “skin” in the game – no monetary investment. The funds for most of the professional development came from our college through a grant.

In future blogs, I will continue explore resistance to change and my experiences with it along with my thoughts about other issues in education.

Fullan, M. (2007). The new meaning of educational change (4th ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

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What’s Wrong With Early Childhood Classrooms Today and Why

This week I had an epiphany. 

After working with college teacher education students and visiting many prekindergartens and kindergartens in New Jersey public schools, I began to realize why so many of these classrooms seem to be missing what used to be the hallmarks of good practice for these grade levels – a tug of war between accountability, student assessment, and what the state of New Jersey recognizes as good early childhood educational practices including the recognition that young children do not develop at the same rate across all developmental domains.

I have observed that many early childhood learning centers and schools that include our youngest learners are led by principals and supervisors who are unfamiliar with early childhood development and developmentally appropriate teaching practices for children of these ages or who have forgotten about what these environments should look like as well as what appropriate early childhood teaching strategies are. For the most part, there are no specialized programs to prepare principals for managing and leading schools that have children in prekindergarten through third grade. First broadly circulated through online reports on the New America Foundation website, a major report about principal preparation for schools with early childhood programs was released by the NAESP – National Association of Elementary School Principals- (https://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/leading-pre-k-3-learning-communities-executive-summary.pdf).

So, given my experience with early childhood teaching and environments as well as teacher education, I wondered why teachers and principals are not familiar with New Jersey’s implementation guidelines for prekindergarten and kindergarten, which can be found on the New Jersey Department of Education site (http://www.state.nj.us/education/ece/guide/) as well as why there is no insistence that the written standards and implementation guides are followed.

What I realized and most people have said repeatedly is that kindergarten is the new first grade and prekindergarten is the new kindergarten. The interesting point is that although everyone seems to realize this, no one has really effectively challenged it. Why? What keeps us from doing the right thing for our youngest learners? What is this doing to the education of young children and their feelings of self-efficacy? What happens when children are being taught in ways that are developmentally inappropriate and ignore the variability in children’s development at these ages? Are children deciding that they are not smart and cannot learn at the ripe old age of 5?

We need to go back, take a deep breath, and sit down and read what the NJDOE as well as national education associations, such as NAEYC, have put on their websites pertaining to how young children should be taught and how their environments should be structured to reach the standards that the State has set. We need to have discussions about the conflict between good early childhood practice and the pressure of test scores and teacher evaluation that seem to be pushing early childhood teachers and principals to set up young children for frustration and feelings of failure during their first two years of formal public school education. Let’s rethink our push for big data assessment at the expense of what is actually happening in each classroom. Let’s make sure that everyone who works with young children has enough preparation in early childhood education before they are placed in classrooms with our youngest children.

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Variation in Development of 5 Year Olds

This week I had an experience that confirms to me how variable growth rates are in young children. The dilemma is how do we take account of this in environments where prescribed curriculum is used.

I sat at a table where two kindergarten children were doing Lucy Calkin’ Writing Workshop, which is the first time that I have seen this curriculum used with kindergarteners. They had been learning about how to create “how to” books in sequential steps over several days. This topic had been going on for several days and the students had completed several nicely designed worksheets that reflected the minilessons that had taken place. Each student worked at their own pace but the worksheets were the same across the class.

The two students were at widely different levels in being able to accomplish the task at hand.

Although the teacher was extremely accepting of the varying output of the two students, one of them was working very slowly as he tried to think about how to write out the items he needed for his how to book. He had been absent from school and was a little behind in the process of completing the task as a whole. His first attempt at writing out the words for his list dissatisfied him so he crumpled up the sheet and threw it in the garbage. He was definitely struggling with trying to figure out the sounds for the words that he wanted to write. He apparently had the option to draw pictures of the items but seemed to choose instead to write out the words. The issue was that his level of phonetic awareness was not quite up to the task. As the teacher said, he will know what he wrote if you ask him, he will be able to “read” his list, which is a plus. Unfortunately, if you did not ask him, you would not remotely be able to decipher his list. So, my question is what was this child learning? He was picking up the idea of a “how to” book that explains how to do a particular task but his development at this point seemed to indicate that he was not ready to complete the tasks as they were designed for the class. The entire class had reviewed several tasks such as how to make an apple pie.

The other child was so far advanced in her phonetic awareness and understanding of how words are put together that she even questioned how she had written the word light, which she had written as “lit”. She realized that this did not say “light” so I pointed out to her that there is a “gh” in the middle of the word but it is not heard when you say the word. She was able to incorporate this information and continue with the task.

As the lesson drew to a close, I wondered about how kindergartens are structured and taught today. As the lesson drew to a close, I also wondered about the writing workshop task and how this learning could be differentiated to reflect the developmental differences in language development of the two children and provide a more profitable experience for the little boy who was struggling fiercely to figure out how to write out the words he needed. To do this, does one need to go back to basics about how kindergarten should be structured and review the development of kindergarteners?

Is using Writers Workshop in kindergarten this way appropriate for all? Is there a way to structure the learning in the kindergarten in a way that more closely meets the needs of these two children and all the children? Is this activity an appropriate language activity for the little boy? It did appear to be developmentally appropriate for the little girl.

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Developing Thinking Skills

I have been interested in and following the work at Project Zero for many years. One of the major thinkers there is Ron Ritchhart. Today, sitting at home as it rains and snows, I decided to catch up with some videos that I had earmarked for viewing. I watched on Youtube a presentation that Richard Ritchhart gave, Working Together to Develop Powerful thinkers and Learners. You can view it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSpR-oBx7h8. This video made me say, “Wow”.

The big question in education is really how do we make children’s learning visible so that the child, teachers, and others can “see” it. Can it only be seen through testing? Does the amount of testing we do lead to the development of thinking skills that we say we value so much or does it just lead to smart kids being able to answer preset questions on those tests?

At Project Zero, they have developed “thinking routines” that provide teachers with strategies for a way of “seeing” into children’s thinking. These thinking routines also provide children with strategies for developing awareness of what and how they are thinking – metacognitive awareness.

One quote in the video is from Vygotsky who stated that “Children grow into the cultural life around them”.  Ritchhart gave this quote as part of his definition of acculturation. Another quote that he presented was from Perkins, “Learning is a consequence of thinking”. From these two quotes, he presents what should be happening in classrooms and at home to develop children’s thinking. He asks us to think about what kind of thinking we value. He states that the kind of thinking we should value is the type that is necessary for developing understanding, that we need to create an environment that supports thinking. We must create a group environment where “thinking is actively promoted” in every classroom and with every child as well as the group as a whole. We want this thinking to become routine and embedded in children  – so routine that it leads them to ask thoughtful, good questions automatically and which influences how children process information.

Surprisingly toward the end of his presentation, Richhart presented 9 strategies that he says parents can engage in to support the development of thinking in their children. To me, the list was not just for parents but for teachers. If teachers and parents followed these 9 suggestions, our children would be on their way to becoming independent learners and thinkers. (I have put some of my thoughts in italics.)

  1. Name and notice – noticing and naming the thinking in which your child is engaged.
  2. Develop a growth mindset in your child – focus praise on effort and process rather than their ability. Notice and name exactly what they did to succeed.
  3. Challenge but don’t rescue – don’t jump in and solve problems for your child because it leads to dependence. Ask questions that help them solve difficult problems on their own.
  4. Rather than asking a child what they learned today, ask them if they asked any good questions today.
  5. Focus on learning over the work. Ask your child, “What do you think your teacher wants you to learn from this homework?” This one was really interesting to me. Richhart stated that learning is the goal of any assignment, so the question to ask a child is what the purpose of each homework is. The purpose often gets lost for teachers, children, and parents.
  6. Support your child in arguing effectively and persuasively. Push them to give evidence for their opinion. What I found interesting about this one was research Richhart presented that doing this leads to resilience in children, which gets transferred to the peer culture. Developing this enables a child to more effectively resist peer pressure and less of this at home (a more dogmatic home approach) leads to more susceptibility to peer culture.
  7. Provide time to pursue passions. Provide unstructured time, which leads to self-directed learning.
  8. Make your own thinking visible. Richhart suggests that you talk through your curiosity, decisionmaking processes, and mistakes. The best cooperating teacher that I ever saw working with a student teacher, talked out loud about her thinking about what and how she was teaching and why she was doing what she was doing.
  9. Asking what makes you say that.  Ritchhart says that asking this provides you with a window into the thinking behind the person’s initial response.

Surprisingly, Richhart mentioned a conversation that he had with the CEO of the DOW corporation who said that there are a lot of “smart” kids out there but that many of them cannot solve problems. Learning content is not enough. We need more from schools. Schools have gone too far in seeing testing as the way to improve the outcomes of education but, according to the DOW CEO, we do not need a trade-off between testing and thinking. They need to co-exist

Finally, the most surprising set of remarks from Richhart asked of us, “What do we want children to be like as they grow up? What is left after kids leave school? What stays for the long run?” For me, these are really critical questions with which we, as a society, have to grapple in order to have our children develop as learners and thinkers. If we started there, we would create schools that enable the development of children’s thinking skills.

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Slow Looking – Learning to Observe

I took a book out of the library that was about viewing art but it triggered in me thoughts about “looking into” classrooms, watching and listening to children. The book is, “Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modern Art“, by Michael Findlay. You might be asking now, “What does this have to do with education?” I often connect disparate ideas that at first seem unrelated. Many ideas that I read at the beginning of Findlay’s book triggered connections to teaching and learning. It elicited ideas about how we should be observing classroom phenomena and understanding its meaning. I hope that you see the associations that I did.

Findlay uses the metaphor of “peeling an onion” when viewing art. He points out that our system of education stresses accumulating information at the “expense of experience” (p.15). He asks us to go on a “journey” and discard our “theories, learned behaviors, preconceptions, and props, which manifest themselves as ways to access, understand, and enjoy art . . .” (p.15). Furthermore, Findlay suggests as part of this journey that we “examine those attitudes and opinions and remove them layer by layer until we reach a place of clarity, receptivity, and honest judgment” (p.15).

One of the elements that Findlay mentions as interfering with viewing art with an open mind is what he calls “visual distraction”, the labels under the paintings, the analyses and interpretations in the recorded guided tours, which remain in our heads as we observe (p.27). As teachers, we begin our preparation with both our own experiences and how we interpreted them and which usually go largely unexamined, and when we enter teaching, the culture and practices that are imposed on us, somewhat like the video guided tour. They tell you what your classroom should look like, how you will faithfully follow the script/guide of the mandated curriculum, and often what your classroom environment should look like. And as Finlay states, this is really hard to ignore. It is always in your head. These guidelines and instructions affect how life in the classroom unfolds. For most, they remain largely unexamined. They are not looked at slowly and then peeled like an onion for full understanding. They are unquestioned and unexamined by most teachers.

As Findlay says, children are more in touch with their feelings than most adults and not fearful of expressing them (p. 36). And he expresses what research has shown is the way that most children learn – through play. This is the way children experience and make sense of the world, which leads back to the idea that children need to directly experience the world to learn about it. They must be active and curious, able to ask questions and pursue answers to those questions.

And we as teachers need to set off on a journey to learn to observe deeply what children are doing and what they may be learning from their experiences. We need to unpeel the onion and go deep underneath to be able to provide the best learning experiences that will drive forward each child’s learning. As Ellen Langer, who Findlay references in his book, says “the focus of schooling is usually on goals rather than the process by which they are achieved” (p.39). As he points out, Langer explains we should be capitalizing on a child’s natural, exuberant desire to explore without creating anxiety about success or failure (p.39).

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“Going to Space Where You Can Inspire Change”

George Couros’s post below is a great reminder that if we want to reach people and help push their thinking in new directions, we must begin by going to the spaces where they are most comfortable. “It is not about them coming to you, but you going to them.”

Going to the Spaces Where You Can Inspire Change

“. . . I discuss this in “Innovate Inside the Box“:

“The only way to help move people forward is through building relationships and understanding where their journey begins, not focusing solely on where you want them to be.” From a post by George Couros

The above was in an update email from George Couros that I received. It made me think that we need to change the way we approach people with change and innovation proposals. We must try to try to see their world and how they work through their eyes. We must “see” where they are and with what they struggle. We must start from where they are and work on building relationships with them before we introduce new ways of practice or working.

What struck me is that we cannot start by showing them where you might want them to be at the end of the journey but we must start in their space, going to where they are. “Focusing solely on where [we] want them to be” is an easy way them off from joining us on the journey. We must start inside their space, develop relationships, listen to their thoughts, beliefs, values, struggles, and how they think their practice is working or could be better.

We must remember that we did not reach the place where we want others to be without that journey where we were exposed to new ways of thinking and doing, and then decided to begin our journey to where we wanted to be and where we now want to encourage others to go.