Happy, Messy, Trying Harder, New Year!

As we enter the New Year, there is a lot being written about what to expect from 2017, and the uncertainties that it will hold. Given my own personal and professional changes that are coming, and those that are inevitable in the transition for Granadino, I can only begin to try to guess what this year will hold.  Things are definitely uncertain. But regardless of what is coming for all of us personally, there is little doubt that we are at a point in the history of education in which change is desperately needed.

As Will Richardson writes: “The systems and structures we employ to deliver education were not born of the technological, cultural, and societal contexts that exist today. Trying to “improve” them, even in a moment of huge uncertainty, is folly.”  We need to change and replace them.  He goes on to talk about how, driven by standardized testing, we have been working (wrongly) to make education “more efficient” as opposed to making it “more effective.”  It is an interesting distinction and, given that the recent PISA scores that were released in December will have everyone anxious, I think it is important to consider this distinction.  Is it better to be efficient, or effective?

I think the answer depends on how we define the goal of education and learning.

Efficiency is an industrial concept.   Make the product as quickly and correctly and for as little money as possible in a way that can be easily measured and monitored.  It is a concept that ensures that things get done, and done well in a way that guarantees conformity.  It is a 19th century concept that continues to pervade our schools and our thinking.  Think of the ICFES, or SABER, or SAT, or TOEFL, or PISA tests.  If we want good little test takers then the most efficient way to get them there would be to teach to the tests, remove anything in the process that is extraneous to the test, and only offer activities and experiences to our students that clearly connect to the test.  There are schools that do this.  They are very good at it.  They are very efficient.  They turn out good little test takers.

Now, I love data, but learning should be so much more than simple test outcomes.  It should be about thinking, and dreaming, and creativity, and creation, and problem solving, and communication skills, and playing and working together.  It should be about helping students develop the skills, abilities, and attitudes they need to be passionately successful in the real world, not simply good on a test.  It should be more complex and messier than a simple test. Alfie Kohn in his “12 Education Guidelines” warns that standardized tests measure what is least important in learning. He proposes that “Thinking is messy; deep thinking is really messy” and so for schools to be truly effective, they should be a little bit messy too;  much messier than any test can measure or curriculum can define.  Effective learning comes from moments of messiness and uncertainty.

In our schools, I think that messy is inevitable right now. So much is changing, and we are trying to adjust to a world in which information is everywhere, technology is second nature to our children, communication is instantaneous, and virtually anyone can create things of complexity and value.   Schools and teachers are facing demands that they change, even while the industrial, test based model is gasping its (hopefully) last breaths and trying to hold on to and hold back our schools. It is getting messy. And if we want to continue to truly evolve in how we guide our students in their learning, and break out of the old industrial mold and into something new, we may have to simply enjoy things being just a little bit messy for a while as messy leads to creativity and innovation.  We need to strive to be effective rather than simply efficient.

As President Obama said in his farewell address, if we want positive change, quite simply, “We have to try harder” regardless of how messy and uncertain things may be this coming year.  And we definitely have to become comfortable with the messy uncertainties that we are facing in the coming year.

So my wish for all of you?  Have a Happy, Messy, Trying Harder, New Year!

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