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Teaching and Learning Is a Contract

Last week I wrote about failure, a word that perpetuates fear and insecurity for students who may sincerely want to learn. Borrowing from my own writing in The Education Kids Deserve, I suggested last week that the only way a student should conceivably be able to fail is if they choose to. The shift I advocate, from standardized, bell curve, instruction of a group of students moving, instead, toward a personalized educational experience, must be accompanied by a clear message offered to each child. It is this: “The only way you can fail in this class is if you don’t try.” The fear, the obstacle to learning that coming up short represents, must be eliminated from our instructional practices.

Based on my experience, I can generalize two primary reasons that a student might choose to fail, to make a conscious decision to uncouple from the instructional contract. First, there may be something going on in the student’s personal biography, his or her story outside of school, that places the idea of learning well down the list of their personal priorities. I have known many, way too many, students who face horrific distractions: homelessness, poverty, medical issues, depression and anxiety, incarcerated parents, abuse of all kinds, neglect. These unfortunate realities cross all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities and require appropriate “just-in-time” supports and interventions before true learning can happen.

The second reason that a student might elect to fail comes full circle back to the importance of students being able to find their educational experience relevant. Some of the reasons for this lack of relevancy may be systemic.

  • As a student of a specific racial minority, I don’t see people who look like me in my school or in the books and materials that we are required to read and study.

  • As a student living in poverty, what do I know of post-secondary opportunities, and why would I care to know, if no one in my personal community has had that experience?

  • I am not a morning person. Having to be in school, all “bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready to learn” at 7:45 AM does not work for me. And, you want me to be at the bus stop at 6:08? No way!

  • There aren’t any classes that I’m really interested in taking.

  • My dad and his brothers - none of them finished high school. Why should I?

The potential list of systemic reasons that students might elect to fail, due to a lack of finding personal relevance or meaning, is easily extensive. Many of the reasons fall beyond the sphere of influence of the educators within school buildings and need to be acknowledged and addressed elsewhere. Some of the possible solutions, like flexible scheduling, curricular choice and materials selection, and opportunities for meaningful non-instructional guidance rest squarely at the feet of district level decision makers. That said, school leaders and classroom teachers have tremendous opportunities to support students in the construction of meaning that they find relevant, either personally or through the lens of real-world scenarios. Teachers can get students involved in constructing inquiry investigations that are focused on the questions that the students ask, questions that are important to them as products of their curiosity. An extension of developing cross-disciplinary connections is their personalization as learners engage in solving problems or resolving dilemmas. By focusing less on compliance and standardization, and focusing more on creativity, innovation and personalization of the learning experience, we can make learning relevant. We can and we must.

Alfie Kohn tweeted something last week that is germane to this discussion. “With what educators call "class participation," as with most things, we need to look at motives, not just behavior. Does it reflect genuine engagement (wondering aloud) or is it just an effort to impress the teacher? (Hint: If it's being graded, it's almost certainly the latter.)”

Traditionally, we have seen the tasks of teaching and learning to be rather mono-directional. But, to accomplish what I’ve just described, it can’t be that way any longer. To adequately serve the personalized needs of the 21st century learner, these cannot be commonplace :

“I’ll talk, you listen.”

“I’ll direct, you follow.”

“I’ll prescribe, you fulfill.”

“I’ll assign, you comply.”

These lopsided and outdated notions must give way to a shared enterprise, a push-pull experience that fully engages both the learner and the teacher, clearing the way for “wondering aloud.” Teaching and learning (notice the deliberate emphasis of the word “and”) requires an explicit contract between teacher and student, a contract that simply states: “I’ll do my very best. You do your very best. Together, we will both succeed.” Effective teaching cannot occur absent the commitment of the learner to give it their best effort. And meaningful learning will not occur if the teacher is not willing to be on top of their game everyday and to share in the responsibility, the accountability, of this joint enterprise. When we look at teaching and learning this way, it becomes inherently personal and, I believe, a win-win for everyone.

“I’ll do my very best. You do your very best. Together, we will both succeed.”

The shared accountability of this approach is problematic for some educators. With regularity, I would bring student achievement data to my teaching staff for them to examine for any observable trends or patterns. I had high levels of trust, respect and affection for my teachers. However, I was frequently disappointed and perplexed by their reaction when I would ask: “Are there any instructional implications suggested by this data?” Rarely, did they identify any professional practices or appear to care about considering their involvement in the reported outcomes. It was clear that they saw the information as student data only, and they could readily identify student shortcomings as reasons for what was in front of them. Homework completion, attendance patterns, engagement in class . . . a fairly lengthy and predictable list of “if only” responses would unfold. It became clear that many of my teachers were unable, or unwilling, to see themselves and their practices in the data. I pushed against this on numerous occasions, at sizable risk to the relationships I had with, and within, my faculty. Only one thing was clear. Professional adults, like the children or adolescents they serve, personalize anything that they perceive as criticism or that might hint at some failure. Rather than learn from whatever shortcomings or areas of improvement the data might suggest, they would prefer to hold it at arms length with an invisible, but palpable, “not me” disclaimer attached.

No one, whether young or old, wants to be perceived as having failed. However, absent the condition where a student makes no attempt to learn, academic failure is a shared outcome of the shared enterprise of teaching and learning.

Let me state that again: absent the condition where a student makes no attempt to learn, academic failure is a shared outcome of the shared enterprise of teaching and learning.

The contract I advocate is both simple and profound. It requires a willingness to act, and the courage to be vulnerable to the outcomes and to shared accountability. It demands that teachers abandon the safety and security of their podiums or desks. Instead, it mandates pulling along side a student who may be struggling with a concept, or can’t quite seem to identify an entry point that makes sense for him or her, or maybe is just having a tough day. It offers the rich opportunity for personalization to be the rule rather than the exception.

“So, what could we do now, together? How can I help you? How can you help me? Remember, we both have a contract to fulfill.”

I’ll do my very best. You do your very best. Together, we will both succeed.


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