By Beth Hamilton, Director, The Learner First USA.
I recently stepped away from the schoolhouse after 20 years in education that encompassed roles as a teacher, instructional coach, and, for the last 10 years, an elementary school principal. A lot happens in 20 years, professionally and personally, and in my time of reflection these past couple months, I have developed a clearer view of successes and growth areas not only for me as an educator, but for education as a whole.
In education, you hear a lot about the “pendulum” that swings back and forth, from one side to the other. Each side represents different ways of thinking regarding teaching and learning, which are all backed by research, expertise, and numerous examples of success. Over 20 years that pendulum swung back and forth—in BIG swoops—on everything from pedagogical practices and theories to curriculum, standards, and assessment. Education in our world seems to continue to swing back and forth, latching on to the newest research or “best practice” that is popularized, and the traditional way of schooling is the fall back when everyone gets tired, doesn’t see results fast enough, or wants to return to a familiar way of working. However, what is the constant here—what remains at the center? It’s the students. The teachers. The families. The schools and districts. Why is it that we, in education, keep swinging on that pendulum, trying one new thing after another and, in our continuous movement, often swinging right past what—who—really matters? As we fall further and further out of synch with our center, it’s no wonder we continue to miss the mark for our students.
As I reflect on the many successes over my 20 years, I also reflect on the ways in which I could have been better—taught better, learned better, led better, and listened better. But what stands out the most is my resounding pull, in the past five years I spent as a building leader, to take that pendulum and everything it stands for and flip it upside down—no more swinging, just the center. I recently listened to a podcast episode from EduChange, one of the first they did with guest John Hattie (2017). At one point he stated that when he goes into a school and meets with school leaders or teachers, he asks, “What is in your basket of goods?” I equate this to flipping that pendulum upside down. Dump out your basket. What “goods” are inside? The central, most important aspect of your community are your students, their families, your teachers, and all the people who want them to thrive. Beyond that, I bet there are programs, materials, practices, theories, and opinions all screaming, “I am the way to success for your students, teachers, and leaders.” But are they?
See, this is where I stopped (literally, while on a walk) and pondered. In my 20 years, I have seen a lot of leaders and teachers who are good at what they do. They teach, inspire, build relationships, develop systems, create structures, and the list goes on. What I can’t tell you is what one single theory, thought, study, practice, or way made it work. Why? Because, as uncovered through reflecting on my own practice, in the words of John Hattie, and over and over throughout my years in schools, education is not something to be solved in a single way. If it were, we wouldn’t still have students struggling each and every day in classrooms across the world. We wouldn’t have teachers overworked and burnt out. We wouldn’t have leaders who have so many things being thrown at them that they fall for the “shiny object” and get into implementation overload. We wouldn’t have to ponder these questions while walking.
So, what should we be doing? Start out by stopping the swing of the pendulum. Then, dump out your basket of goods. It’s not about getting rid of everything, and it’s not like you can’t add in anything new. It’s about looking at what you have—your people, their strengths, their needs, your policies, the culture of your building—and then acting in a way that puts your learners first, that understands who they are and what they need to succeed. Talk and collaborate with other teachers, leaders, students, and community members to see what you have, and what you value, as a community. Because what works for you may not be what you used last year, and it may not be a single strategy or resource. It all depends on what your students need and want—right now.
We can’t simply pick a strategy at random and say “Yep, I’ll try this.” We have to take the time and effort to diagnose what is needed. This is the step that is often overlooked. It involves taking time to look at the capabilities in your district and school, and at your own capabilities, too. It is about asking the community what their strengths are, what success means to them, and what they need. And, most importantly, it is about getting to know your students on a deeper level. This goes beyond academic assessments of knowledge. Knowledge is important, it just isn’t everything. As John Hattie stated, “We can’t get rid of knowledge tests… we have to add to them.” Learning and growing mean supporting students as a “whole child,” as an individual with their own wants, needs, passions, and starting points. Who they are (self-understanding), who they have relationships with and how they interact with others and the world (connections), their strengths and growth areas and how they learn (competency), in addition to learning and creating new knowledge—it all comes together to help learners succeed.
Supporting learners in each of these areas means really getting to know students, their families, and their strengths and needs, and then designing learning to meet those needs. There is no one right way to do it, but there are great resources, expertise, and support for diving in. You may already have some of these tools in your basket of goods. In addition, adding a few new goods to the basket to better serve each student to learn and grow in a meaningful and fulfilling way is something we all, as educators, will do at some point as well. Or, maybe you want support to dump out your basket of goods, unpack them, and then organize them in a new and more purposeful way. This process—the process of diving into what we already know and have, learning and collaborating with others, and centering students in an intentional way—brings meaning and fulfillment to educators, too!
We call this process Contributive Learning. It is not another shiny object to take in, or a program that overlooks who you are as a community, but instead a framework for focusing and enhancing all your strengths and successes and examining how you can continue to grow so that ALL students and staff are engaged in meaningful and fulfilling learning each day. It is not “another thing to implement,” but instead a deep dive into your community of learners and the capabilities of those in it for deeper learning, ensuring that education does not continue to swing back and forth beyond control, but instead stops in the center, in clear sight of your learners, where your basket of goods can be closely examined in light of how it can support each individual to find success, meaning, and fulfillment. We cannot continue to “look to the future” in education—that will never get us anywhere. We have our basket of goods, now let’s dump it out, get to know who we are, and get working!