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Radical Simplicity

By Kevin Bartlett
Radical Simplicity

(Photo source: Common Ground Collaborative)

...or the painful discovery of the blindingly obvious... 

From the 4th century BC onwards, gatherings of learned alchemists expended a great deal of time and energy trying to turn base metal into gold. It didn’t work. Fast forward to tomorrow, and gatherings of learned individuals expend a great deal of time and energy trying to turn base metal into gold. The difference is that we don’t call it alchemy. We call it school. The similarity is that it doesn’t work. 

Take “teacher evaluation systems.” We can scour the factory floor for the broken shards of industrial models and try to re-combine them into golden solutions. It doesn’t work. A qualifier here, “it doesn’t work” if we believe that our primary purpose is improving learning. If you don’t believe me, ask a room full of teachers or a conference full of experienced leaders. We can mix “walk-throughs” (or “drive bys” to give them their more common name among teachers) in any combination we like. We can throw in the bizarre number of teaching standards that non-teaching “experts” promote. We can have teachers write multiple personal goals, or “letters to Santa” as I’ve come to think of them. We can hold pre-during-after conversations with teachers. We can throw all this in a pot and whisper incantations over the mixture...the contents will never become gold. 

Why not? Here are a few generalizations about many current approaches: 

  • They don’t start with the “why” of learning impact, they start with the “what” of teacher behaviors. 
  • Even if they purport to look for learning, few schools have collectively defined the learning process simply and clearly enough to drive the teaching process; so we don’t know what we’re looking for, or looking at.
  • They are based on the flawed belief that a few people can control a larger number of people into quality. Quality is everyone’s responsibility. 
  • The language betrays the true belief. “Supervision” is the language of the factory, not the language of learning. 
  • The “standards” are imposed on teachers, not developed with them; so the systems have little credibility. 
  • The “supervisors” can’t always model the desired behaviors...and teachers know that. 
  • We try to look for too many things. 

I could go on, but it feels embarrassingly like overkill and sounds increasingly negative. Besides, it’s easy to criticize the status quo, and ultimately unhelpful. To be more positive and useful, let’s look at systems that do work, for certain, right now, in real schools. 

Our only goal is to improve student learning by informing teacher practice. We have a certain amount of time and energy available to us to address that challenge. We need to spend them efficiently and effectively. If we want to get better at something we have to learn to get better at it. Each teacher can learn to get better if they want to, but a handful of “supervisors” can’t make them. So, we don’t need teacher evaluation systems. We need professional learning systems.

Note: There are teachers who should not be teachers. We need to deal with that separately, as quickly, fairly, and painlessly as our legal context allows, and not through protracted attempts to change non-teachers into teachers. Alchemy doesn’t work there either. 

If we want to improve the teaching process, we need to start by defining the learning process. The Common Ground Collaborative has defined the learning process as follows, "Learning is the process of the consolidation and extension of conceptual understanding, competency, and character," or the three Cs of learning.

(Photo source: Common Ground Collaborative)

The why behind this definition is that it provides our core, shared purpose to develop learning experts with deep conceptual understanding of ideas that matter, high levels of competency in key skills, and strong positive moral character. The three Cs personified. 

Critically, each of those three Cs is supported by a simple three-stage pedagogy.

  • We focus on those pedagogies. We explain them, we model them, we support them with aligned tools, we set up feedback systems to build capacity with regard to them. 
  • We agree on one annual collective, high impact goal for all of us with different ways to get there. 
  • We build leadership capacity deep into the organization so that all teams are led and supported towards the goal. 
  • We regularly share struggles and successes, and we share a definition of “good” feedback: timely, specific, actionable, used by all learning stakeholders. 
  • We avoid fads, distractions, buzz words, silver bullets. 
  • When (not if) we eventually succeed, we all celebrate together. 
  • Then we do the next thing, the one with the biggest learning impact for the most learners. 

(Photo source: Common Ground Collaborative)

There’s more, but that’s the heart of it, and it works. Shared, systemic, and simple. Radically simple. 

Kevin Bartlett is the founding director of the Common Ground Collaborative

[email protected]


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