A Penny for My Thoughts

Reform is a term that progressives hold dear and many of its recipients often reject. Why the tension? I just look to any major problem in my own life and know that the solutions are never easy; trying to achieve consensus about potential solutions is often an emotional endeavor. Does the debate about affordable health care ring a bell? 

The path and consequences of change are neither predictable nor comfortable. Yes, we know that change is inevitable, but we also know that change is not easy—especially when it is being imposed. My boss, Jim Mahoney is fond of saying, “That which is imposed is often opposed”.

I often hear that the formative instructional practices (FIP) work my colleagues and I have been trying to help educators implement is another imposed education reform. I want to address that concern by offering one thought about pennies and one idea about juice.

Shiny Pennies
Formative instructional practices are the ways teachers know—deeply know—where their students are in their learning. Students and parents know where students are in their learning too. To do this, teachers need to be crystal clear about what the learning intentions are, what they look like when mastered, and how they will collect evidence to determine if mastery is being achieved. If these skills are new ideas, then FIP is more than a ‘reform initiative.’ It is, and has always been, about fundamentally rethinking one’s approach and beliefs regarding student learning.

I remind you that FIP is not new—we have been working on these strategies since the 1970s. It is simply about sound instruction, assessment design, and the use of both. If it is new to you, it may be because the ‘innovations’ of our time have washed over some not-very-sexy foundations of teaching and learning. It is like buying the newest smartphone without having strong communication skills or buying a Cadillac without having developed driving skills. We get swept up in the wave of new ideas and drawn in to the allure of a shiny new penny—its brilliance takes the attention away from what is really important. We all do this; we become impressed easily by catchy titles and new promises like “5 Easy Steps to Classroom Nirvana,” Teaching for Dummies,” or “Teach Like a Bandit” (these aren’t real titles, that I know of, but you know what I mean).

Admittedly, FIP may be a catchy title too, appearing to be new because we have taken from the foundations of sound instructional and assessment design; we bundled it, named it, and described it as a system. The message we are trying to impart is that FIP can be applied to enhance practices school-wide, regardless of our new content standards – or the next iteration. It will not matter if we blend, mix, shake, or bake learning. It doesn’t matter if you teach high school or preschool. It doesn’t matter if you teach math or physical education. The constructs inherent in FIP are always going to be the same. Effective teaching always requires that teachers help students better own their learning—to know where they are now, where they are going, and how they can close any gap that exists. Averting the glare of shiny pennies can and will help us stay focused on high-quality instruction and classroom assessment.

Fresh Orange Juice.
When debating whether or not to focus on something challenging, a colleague of mine asks the question “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” When we are trying out new practices, they rarely come easy. But when we commit to doing new practices well and see discernable changes in the very students who we have been trying to engage, the juice certainly becomes worth the squeeze. The trick is positive practice—trying something, recruiting, and receiving support through effective feedback to do it well enough to take hold. Feedback can come from peers, mentors, school leaders or students. After pouring over study after study for his book about high voltage research-based strategies, Visible Learning, John Hattie points out that feedback is fundamental to all learning.

So, to make the juice worth the squeeze, start with several squeezers (peers) who, together, take a few oranges (FIP) and squeeze them well. Then, enjoy the fruits of that labor and continue to squeeze. Remember that these oranges are nothing new—they may be old, but they are just as valuable, if not more—just like worn pennies!