The School Game

I think I first became aware of the school game in middle school, though I was certainly playing it long before that. Do what the teacher expects of you. Don’t cause trouble. Complete the work that’s given to you. It doesn’t have to be your best work, but it has to be on time and “good enough” for the grade you want. Do your homework, or, at least, most of it, most of the time, in the classes where the teacher checks. Get grades good enough to keep your teachers and parents happy, and to get you into a good college. In college, get reasonably good grades that will lead to a respectable degree. Use the degree to get a good job. A good job is a job with regular weekday hours, where you don’t get dirty and the work is mentally challenging instead of physically challenging.

3156285617_26dbd2a6db[1]I played the game pretty well, so I was labeled “smart.” I got into a good school and got my degree. Then, I got a job, went to grad school, and got very good at the school game. Now I make pretty good money and work pretty good hours. I don’t have to shower when I get home from work, and I’m not physically sore when I get up in the morning. I’m living happily ever after.

But playing the school game has very little to do with learning anything. I have to admit that, throughout my education career, I really didn’t think very much about learning. I didn’t care if the subjects were particularly engaging or relevant. Tell me what I have to do. Give me a list of requirements to get the grade I want. That’s as far as my meta-cognition goes.

Along the way, I did learn a few things. I learned how to write in high school, partly due to teachers who saw something in my freshman and sophomore work that I, frankly, still do not see. I learned about logic, thanks to a teacher who threw a unit on the subject into an algebra class. I learned about frames of reference and points of view and primary sources from a brave but tenured teacher who refused to follow the textbook in his history class. I learned that there are multiple versions of truth, and how to analyze a person’s motivation when assessing the credibility of his account. Later, I learned to make connections between seemingly disparate subjects. I learned that environmental issues and social justice and cultural tradition can play important roles in educational technology and online communities and the future of education.  While playing the school game, I managed to actually learn a few things along the way, even if it was by accident.

The school game is why open-ended experiences are so frustrating for students. A teacher in a MOOC can’t tell you what you have to do to be successful in the course. It’s YOUR journey. You have define your own success. Many project based learning activities allow students a wide latitude in demonstrating their learning. Often, they’re lost without specific guidelines. How many words do you want? How many slides? How many bullet points? Schools thrive on the familiarity of the game.

Public education is playing a different version of the school game right now. Common Core is standardizing what we’re teaching in American public schools, and PARCC and other consortia are designing assessments to measure whether students are learning those standards. This part is good. While I believe there should be some local decision-making in the curricular process, it’s wise to standardize the core curriculum, rather than having dozens of states or thousands of schools working in parallel to establish what are essentially the same guidelines. It’s also clear to me that we have to have common, valid assessments to measure what students have learned. Those assessments have to accurately determine whether a student has met the standards. We tend to go off the rails a bit here, because the tests don’t necessarily match the standards. But in theory, they should.

And in that theory, when the test measures the learning that we value, the most efficient way to teach the curriculum is to prepare students to excel on the test. Again, we’re assuming the test measures the learning we value, and that’s a big assumption. But if it does, teaching to the test is a good thing, because it actually teaches the learning goals we set out to achieve.

What happens when students don’t achieve? Well, lots of things happen. There are interventions, both formal and informal, that are attempted by the school. Parents and mentors and tutors are involved. Remediation and focused interventions are implemented. In some (not all) cases, it’s merely a matter of getting the student to take more interest in the school game.

And if the student still doesn’t achieve? Well, if that happens a lot, with many different students, something is wrong. If the failing students all have the same teacher, it may indicate a problem in the classroom. If they’re all in the same school, it may indicate a larger school-wide problem or a culture that does not promote or value high academic achievement.

In other words, the school, or the teacher, is not playing the school game. We’re quickly reaching the point where bad things are going to happen when the school stops playing the game. Teachers are going to be labeled “ineffective.” They’ll lose their jobs and be unemployable. Schools will receive more oversight, an accountability nightmare that makes improvement more difficult. Parents will be given more options to take their children — and the money that their children bring to the school district — to private entities. These private schools may or may not be playing the same game, but from what we’ve seen so far, the rules are very different.

How do we keep this from happening? We play the game. We embrace the game. We focus our schools on getting our students to perform as well on the tests as they possibly can. We’ll be the success stories. Our teachers will be outstanding. All of our children will be above average. We’ll be on time and under budget. We just have to stop focusing so much on things that aren’t being measured.

Sure. We can continue to argue for a better system. We can lobby for more inquiry, problem solving, digital literacy, collaboration, appreciation of global cultures, development of communication skills, and more practice with innovative thinking. We can argue that we need more control over what’s being taught in our schools. We can argue for the A in STEM to make it STEAM. We can talk about educating the whole child and building character and making patriotic American citizens Under God.

But right now, we need to play the game.

Photo credit: Mike_fleming on Flickr.

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Legends or Leaders

One of the more recent Thanksgiving traditions is the playing of The Game. The Ohio State / Michigan rivalry is one of the strongest in college football. On 22 occasions since 1935, the winner of this game has been crowned the Big Ten Conference champion. On 18 occasions, the winner won a national championship. The winner went to the Rose Bowl 34 times. At both schools, coaches are judged largely on how they perform in this game.

With the re-alignment of the Big Ten Conference in 2011, this game moved a week later. With the addition of Nebraska (and, in 2014, Rutgers and Maryland), the conference was divided into two divisions, Legends and Leaders. A conference championship game was added the first week of December. The season was expanded to 13 weeks. That puts the last game of the regular season on the fourth Saturday of November — Thanksgiving weekend.

Overall, Michigan leads the series 58-44. Michigan won the first game in 1897. In fact, Ohio State didn’t win until the 16th meeting of the two teams in 1919. In the first 25 games, Michigan was 19-4-2. Their dominance of the rivalry was legendary.

The last dozen years have been tough on the Wolverines, though. They’ve only won twice since Jim Tressel took over as the Buckeyes’ head coach in 2001. Ohio State has outscored Michigan 305-226 (not counting the vacated 2010 game). In the same time period, they’ve won the Big Ten Conference six times, been ranked among the top ten college football teams seven times, and had an overall record of 112-28. Clearly, any way you look at it, the Buckeyes are leaders in college football.

It’s fitting, then, that the Michigan Wolverines are in the Legends division of the Big Ten Conference, while the Ohio State Buckeyes are in the Leaders division. Both teams fit those names pretty well.

But who would you rather be? Admittedly, I’m a bit biased. But lately, it’s been a lot more fun being a Buckeye. I could draw parallels to the Cleveland Browns — clearly a “Legend” team that has been anything but a leader over the last 20 years — but we’ll stick with the college football metaphor. Or, better yet, let’s move away from football entirely.

I work for a school district that has “legend” written all over it. Their motto is “where fine education is a heritage.” They pride themselves in the tradition of excellence established by the schools. Their students have been recognized by the National Merit program for 55 consecutive years. In the 13 years that we’ve had school district report cards in Ohio, they’ve missed only one point, and have never failed to achieve the highest rating available. This is an outstanding school district by any measure that’s ever been thrown at it.

But are they leaders?

Sometimes I wonder if past success is a hindrance to future performance. We have proven methods for producing quality students. Why do we need to change? Our students get into great schools. They have tremendous success when they leave us.

All right. Sure. We don’t have a lot of project-based learning. And maybe our assessments are geared toward the “remembering” level of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy. But we use technology. A lot. It provides reading and math and science instruction at the elementary levels. It helps with math facts and phonemic awareness. It’s used in a number of places in our response to intervention model. Plus, the students are learning about technology along the way, right? In fact, this year we’re using netbooks in 23 classrooms instead of textbooks. That opens up a whole new world of possibilities. And don’t even get me started on all the cool things we’re doing with iPads.

And what about those 21st century skills you keep talking about? We’ve been doing that for years. Problem solving? Sure. We do that. We give our students all kinds of problems. Collaboration? We’ve had our students working in groups for generations now. They work together on lots of projects. Communication skills? We turn out some very good writers. And our students are not strangers to oral presentations (with PowerPoint, I might add). And there’s plenty of time for our students to express their creativity in our fine and performing arts programs at all grade levels. We have it covered. Really.

Sure. Portfolios don’t play a huge role in our students’ lives. And we don’t really do much with inquiry. But we’re flipping our classrooms, so the teachers aren’t lecturing so much (at least in school). Some teachers are using Moodle to organize student work. We’re using professional learning communities to give our teachers — our professional educators — the time and the freedom to collaborate around better student learning.

How could anyone argue that we’re not leaders?

One of the problems with the legend status is that you have to maintain it. It’s not exceptional that our students do well. It’s expected. After 55 years, if we don’t have a National Merit recognized student, something must be wrong. If our gymnastics team doesn’t win a state title for the tenth consecutive year, someone must have dropped the ball. If the College Board doesn’t recognize us for outstanding Advanced Placement performance, we must be slipping.

I said a decade ago that innovation will not happen in this school district until the test scores go down. That’s not entirely true. We’ve done some innovative things, and have followed others’ best practices. But most of that effort has been focused on student performance on the measures that make us legend. There’s been little effort in becoming leaders.

We’re approaching a crossroads though. With the introduction of common core and the new evaluation system for teachers, the game is changing. Our schools will be challenged to develop higher order thinking skills like analysis, synthesis, and creation. The high stakes tests will be less about recall of information and more about how students can combine ideas to create new things and solve real problems. Teachers will undergo a change in professional practice, developing their own learning communities and restructuring assessment to maximize student growth. This is going to happen everywhere. But the leaders will get there first.

We can be among them, if the legend doesn’t get in the way.

Photo credit: Photobucket.