Today, I had the pleasure of attending the Annual Lesson Study Conference, hosted by Dr. Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy in Chicago. Among the many activities for the day was an observation of a research lesson, conducted by a young 7th grade math teacher by the name of Aaron.
Tirelessly, for the better part of an hour, he worked diligently with a group of almost 30 students, engaging in a problem-solving task intended to help students grapple with combining like terms in an algebraic expression. And while his rapport with his class was excellent and while I also learned a great deal about using problem-solving tasks to teach algebra concepts, I took something away that was quite possibly more powerful than specifics about pedagogy and classroom management.
For those of you who are not familiar with Lesson Study, it’s a pretty rigorous approach to job-embedded professional development. A group of teachers plans a research lesson, taking weeks to identify objectives, research the lesson, and put together a plan that accounts for potential student misconceptions and teaching moments. But that’s not all that makes it rigorous. The feedback is, perhaps, the most rigorous part of the lesson itself. Over 100 teachers were in the room today while Aaron taught, not to mention some of the brightest minds in Lesson Study and modern mathematics education.
It’s no less than exhausting to put yourself out there in front of a group of people like that–and then to receive critical feedback in front of that same group of people. I know because I’ve done it before. It takes a great deal of humility and vulnerability, which was explicitly called out at the end of Aaron’s lesson.
“We can think about these issues,” the final commenter mentioned when referring to some of Aaron’s critical feedback, “because Aaron was able to put his practice out there.”
And that’s when it occurred to me. While Aaron was an exemplary educator, it wasn’t necessarily just his practice, his rapport with his students, or his knowledge of the content that made him so outstanding. It was, instead, his willingness to be vulnerable with his practice, to make mistakes in front of his peers, and to exude a gracious humility that allowed a room of over 100 other educators to learn along with him.
A Drought of Vulnerability
Our schools are, too often, deserts of shame, lacking space for any sort of vulnerability. How did this happen? I’m sure there are lots of contributing factors, but I believe it to be a response to the movements of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. We can look back to the mid 1980s, when an era of standardization was jumpstarted by “A Nation at Risk,” inciting fear in the education community. It prompted us to raise the stakes for standardized tests in an effort to compete with other world powers, and as a result, it planted the seeds for a culture of fear and shame that is ubiquitous in schools across the country.
Likewise, the most recent personalized learning movement is also rooted in this same fear and lack of vulnerability. While, at first glance, the personalized learning movement seems like a wise response to an era of standardization, it is more similar to the standardized era than one might think.The standardization and personalization movements share an obsession with controlling and predicting student outcomes–and to a fault. Personalized learning too often connotes technology-driven individualization, where children are plodding through curricula, albeit at their own pace, but still for the purpose raising scores on standardized assessments. It has become but a more complex version of the standardized, industrial model for education that attempts to control and predict the outcomes, pathways, and processes by which our children learn.
Brené Brown shares this very idea–that controlling and predicting chips away at vulnerability and proliferates shame–in her now famous TED talk on vulnerability.
I could not believe I had pledged allegiance to research, where our job — you know, the definition of research is to control and predict, to study phenomena, for the explicit reason to control and predict. And now my mission to control and predict had turned up the answer that the way to live is with vulnerability and to stop controlling and predicting.
She’s referring to how she set out to study shame and vulnerability. She wanted to control, predict, and “beat” it, she says. But as she continued to dig deeper and deeper, the research became clearer and clearer: the only way to let go of shame and fear was to live whole-heartedly and vulnerably.
It was a paradox. And we find ourselves in this paradox in modern education, too. Our intentions to control and predict student outcomes have only taken us steps backwards. We now try to standardize practice, punish teachers for coloring outside the lines, and penalize students for taking risks and making mistakes in our classrooms. It’s created a culture of fear and shame which has compounded for years now.
It is for this reason that today was such a breath of fresh air–to see an educator get up in front of a group of people and be applauded for his imperfections. Why? Because we all got to learn something from them.
Striving for Imperfection
The fact of the matter is this: no teacher will ever be perfect. In order to live, teach, and learn whole-heartedly in our schools, it’s important we embrace the gifts these imperfections bring us, so that we can engage in a process of continuous innovation and reinvention.
Don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean we ignore data all together. We’ve just gone too far with it. Using data in the classroom is extremely effective, and to a certain extent we should be using what we know about assessment to positively affect student learning. But there’s a point where it has diminishing returns. When structures for data collection begin to chip away at agency and negatively affect the culture, morale, and practice in a school, we have a responsibility to make a change.
In my opinion, that change starts with vulnerability. It starts with creating a space where young teachers like Aaron grow their careers in spaces where vulnerability, risk-taking, and mistake-making are not only expected, but applauded. It starts with building a culture where students expect teachers to look at their work and learn from them about what needs to be taught next. The best part is, it doesn’t have to come from an administrative initiative or mandate. It can, in fact, start with a individual teacher who is courageous enough to get up in front of his peers all for the purpose of helping a community of teachers learn and grow.