Friday, March 24, 2017

Using a Quick Fix in Education is Like Putting a Band-Aid on a Crumbling Wall

As new, but important, initiatives are rolled out in schools there are bound to be bumpy patches. It can be tempting during these difficult moments to apply a quick fix and move on. Here are some examples of situations in which this is common:

  • A small number of students are struggling to complete a new element of a learning task, so the teacher completes it for them for the sake of moving on to the next lesson.
  • A teacher is not yet comfortable with a digital platform – such as GSuite – and an administrator permits him to turn in evaluation evidence on paper despite an existing paperless policy.

To be clear, I am not referring to accommodations that students with learning difficulties need in order to have a level playing field. I'm referring to quick fixes that make things easier, but do not help learning happen.

These quick fix/Band-Aid reactions might ease stress temporarily, but they will not help the learner develop a necessary skill or master essential content in the long run. It doesn't solve the problem, it simply puts it off. The problem will bust through the proverbial Band-Aid and will be even more challenging to solve later.

Sustainable Change

Principles of sustainable change can help both classroom teachers and school administrators avoid Band-Aids.

Relationships
Michael Fullan advises creating social opportunities for learning:
Creating and sharing knowledge is central to effective leadership. Information, of which we have a glut, only becomes knowledge through a social process. For this reason, relationships and professional learning communities are essential.
If learners are not given opportunities to learn with and from their peers, either in the classroom as students or in professional situations as colleagues, school leaders cannot expect system-wide change to occur. Instead of completing the task for the learner or permitting the learner to fall back on outdated skills, provide more opportunities to learn from and with peers in order to accomplish the learning goal. Strength comes from the combined skills and efforts of the group.

Humility
Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink tell the story of how meaningful change is patient and seeks to get to the root of the problem:
Talisman Park High School's principal reacted to a newly mandated 10th grade literacy test—which students would have to pass to graduate—by trying to shield his experienced staff from time-consuming test-related activities. He decided that the most expedient way to get good results was to concentrate on boosting the achievement of students who were likely to fall just below the passing grade. Although the strategy made the school's immediate scores look good, other students who really needed help with literacy were cast by the wayside. 
Meanwhile, the principal of neighboring, more ethnically diverse Wayvern High School responded to the mandated test by concentrating on improving literacy for all students in the long run. Teachers worked together to audit and improve their literacy practices and, with the help of parents and the community, focused for an entire month on improving literacy learning for everyone. The first-year results were not dramatic. But by the second year, the school scored above the district mean, and by the third, the school had become the district's number-two performer—well ahead of privileged Talisman Park, which had opted for the quick fix.
Based on these experiences, and others in the article, meaningful change requires educators to embrace humility. Both teachers and administrators must utilize their strengths and actively seek to study and improve on their weaknesses. Investigating the source of structural weakness is the only way to plan repairs that will be solid and lasting.

While quick fixes can be tempting to ease discomfort immediately, educators are better serving their learners if they embrace that discomfort, take the time to investigate it's true cause, and develop solutions that are more long lasting. We need to rebuild the wall instead of patching it. We need to look for cures instead of Band-Aids. Our learners deserve sustainable change.