Someone recently asked me this question: Education is a constantly changing field.  In the midst of so many changes and new ideas, how do you keep your passion for teaching alive?

Phenomenal question.  How does one keep a passion for teaching alive, especially in our current climate?

It’s hard.  It really is sometimes.  We live in a standards-based era where we are entirely focused on the outcome of teaching and learning.  We’re hardly focused on the process, on the strategy, on the blood, sweat, and tears that go into every lesson and every teachable moment.  Frequently, the outcome of all of that hard work is not what we envisioned.  Even if that outcome is satisfactory, when we set goals in out mind, idealize them, and watch them not fully come to fruition, there is no alternative but to feel disappointed, even if it is in the least.  It is never 100% of the students that reach the target; never–and I mean never–are we able to please everyone.

As teachers, we always feel like we are disappointing or failing someone, even if it is only one of our kids.  Our dream is for all to succeed, all to meet expectations, for every student to leave our classrooms perfectly prepared for the next grade.  But this is almost always not the reality.

And I think this startling reality of imperfection is why it is so hard to maintain that passion after a certain amount of time.  After a while, the guilt, the could-haves, and the have-nots chip away at your store of energy, making it hard to maintain that passion, and causing you to question why you got into this in the first place.

Screen Shot 2014-01-16 at 2.19.49 PMThe Problem with Standards-Based Teaching

Don’t get me wrong, I think that standards-based teaching, learning, and assessment have very strong places in the classroom.  In fact, I would say it is extremely unwise, as an educator, to ignore the standards and the reasons for the creation of grade-level standards within classrooms, partially because we would be doing our children a disservice by not preparing them with these essential skills, but also because there is a scientific side to teaching.  There is a side that has been empirically proven to be effective in helping kids learn.

On the other hand, there is a danger in making standards-based teaching, learning, and assessment an absolute in education.  Teachers who take this too far (and I know this because I was one of them) create a regimented and segmented series of learning experiences, not nearly as conducive to a rich and authentic learning experience as one might think they are.

In my second year of teaching, I began using proficiency scales, an assessment tool meant to help bring a concrete and quantitative rating to abstract skills by equating sequential qualitative assessment criteria with numbers on a scale (0-4).  I began using these in an effort to help give my students an experience that fused the curriculum, assessment, and instruction by setting goals and laying a foundation for each unit of instruction.

I went a little crazy, though, I’ll admit, and I had proficiency scales for almost everything, even the smallest of targets.  Not only did I find it hard to keep up with each of these minute targets, but it was not entirely helping me achieve the vision that I had for my learners.  I envisioned a classroom where students were inquisitive, self-directed, and able to assess by themselves using the tools. However, the sheer number of assessment scales made it virtually impossible for students (and me) to keep track of all of this data.

Furthermore, while the scales were making the assessment data more objective, they were not promoting inquiry and fostering student self-assessment.  Really, all of this focus on the outcome and the goal was taking away the joy of the process of learning. I still use proficiency scales now because I see the value in them, but my perspective on teaching, learning, and assessment in this standards-based era is gradually changing with every unit I plan.

A Solution for Standards-Based Grading

Note that these scales to which I have been referring are called “proficiency scales.”  They are meant to determine achievement. When I think back to my ideal philosophy of what teaching and learning should be, and when I reflect on the principles that John Dewey set for us when building the philosophical infrastructure for education in a democratic society, the idea of “proficiency scale” is rather counterintuitive.

Now, I’m not saying to cease the use of proficiency scales, standards, or assessments based on standards in the classroom.  Let me be clear on that.  While I believe in the ideals of teaching, I also believe in the research that shows what works in a classroom.  However, I believe that this research can be readily applied in a number of ways.  After all, it’s never fully the tool itself that impacts instruction; instead, it is the tool combined with the teachers’ and learners’ use of the tool that makes it effective or ineffective.

When I think about how I really use “proficiency scales,” it is more to emphasize the learning process and make it transparent for children.  It’s not meant to rate and categorize.  It is meant to make the process tangible to students, help them see a series of skills, and provide activities to help them reach higher and higher.  Of course, in a perfect world, helping all students to reach the same standard would be ideal, and for that reason, I still believe that stating a grade-level expectation is helpful.  On the other hand, I don’t think that grade-level expectation should be the absolute.  For this reason, perhaps the term “proficiency scale” should be changed to “process scale.”

After all, our ultimate vision for our students is to understand the process of learning, so that they may apply these processes in their futures–so that they may become “lifelong learners.”  However, with our current practices, this would imply that we are not actually fostering a love of lifelong learning; in fact, this term lifelong learner is, in a sense, becoming euphemistic for it’s true meaning–ready for college and for a job.  While I want my students to be ready for this impending future that lay before them, I also want them to truly love learning, and I think we can achieve that by emphasizing success in the process, rather than emphasizing a win-or-lose mentality in the product.

Process Over Product

Check out this video from Alan Watts.  He sums it up very nicely.  The goal of teaching and learning is not only to get to the end, and his musical composition metaphor is perfectly indicative of that.  If this was the case in music, and if this was the case in school, we’d reward the students who reached the standards first.  In fact, that is, in a way, what we do now.  We reward the kids who get to the standard first, and we move them onto the next series of standards, which is most certainly where the “mile-wide, inch-deep” curriculum of the late 20th and early 21st centuries originated.  Sound familiar?  It should, because this is already what we do with the NWEA-MAP test. Instead of rewarding speed and achievement, we should focus on deepening each of these standards, taking students to more complex mental processes, and rewarding the intensity of the process as opposed to the height of achievement.

The implications of this charge are grand and ideal.  I’m well aware.  But if we truly want to foster innovation and creation in order to keep our country moving forward, we very intently need to look at the way we are teaching, assessing, and learning alongside our children.  Only then will our dreams for our children, our passions for what we do, and the education of this country manifest themselves realistically.

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