#ncte12: when they came for us, they came with standards

There’s really no better way to silence us teachers (apart from the crippling, self-imposed professional norm of not admitting to our students and parents that have an opinion on anything) than to give us thousands of standards.

When a teacher is busy delivering content and designing lessons to appease political appointees, there is precious little time to reflect either on personal practice or the state of the profession.

Whereas other professional bodies use standards to create an open space for divergent, but successful practices in identifying and solving problems by working from ambiguity to certainty, education uses standards to close and delimit possible teacher and student behaviors in learning spaces so that we begin with a routinely unexamined assumption of certainty – that all students exposed to all standards will pass the test.

Our question is seldom, “How does this human, individual student best learn according to biology and affinity? Our question is most often, “Why isn’t this student learning the way we want him to?” We have standards and a system of implementing them that support our own most narrow, idiosyncratic, and privileged views of learning.

We spend an awful lot of time on that second question that we could better spend on the first if we allowed ourselves our own, truly scientific and experiential opinions and habits of inquiry about teaching and learning. Too often, we adopt the stance of the system – and although we can be critical of the system, once we adopt its stances, we somehow refuse to be critical of ourselves. Take the idea of common assessment. Objectively, we know that common assessments are silly. Baseball cards do not list touchdowns. Viral videos don’t receive letter grades from YouTube. Shoes don’t come with miles-per-calorie ratings.

Nevertheless, we use the standards we have and untold human-hours to craft, purchase, implement, and analyze the results of countless common assessments per year.

To build a system of public education that fulfills kids’ needs, we need to abandon the standards that are designed to silence us and our kids. We need to stop channeling our lives and theirs into the coffers of testing and bureaucracy – into learning as state-sponsored advertising and consumerism.

We do not need content standards that command us what to teach; we need professional standards that support us in approaching each child as a cherished human being and a delightful ambiguity.

They have already come for us with standards, but we are boxed in not by jail, but by our own compliance with a system that many of us simultaneously deride, embrace, and replicate.

Few of us are satisfied; few know what to do. There is not any one thing, lesson, action, or speech that will give us back our voices and agency in teaching and learning – except for ourselves. We all teach on a continuum of satisfaction with our profession.

I invite every one – teachers, students, and parents alike – who is, on the whole, dissatisfied with how our schools work – to take just one step forward toward a more open, just, and joyful classroom next week.

Each tiny success (and sometimes they will seem infinitesimal compared to a test score or letter grade because of our induction to schooling) will open up another possibility. Letting that kid read a book she chose might lead to letting two kids write what they want might lead to five kids coding informational text instead of typing it in a word processor. Giving time to look out the window might lead to outdoor play might lead to more outdoor lessons. Letting kids write about something someone made that seems cool to them might lead to letting kids write about something they built outside school might lead to letting kids build stuff in school to write about whenever they want.

Complementary to this incremental approach in opening the classroom is sharing ownership over teaching and learning with kids. As we see what happens when kids are given the freedom to learn (instead of the command to learn this), we’ll find new ways to work alongside our students so that they teach us what kind of work is possible in our classrooms. Sometimes in opening the classroom, kids will need us as expert guides to find resources or strategies to complete work that matters to them; sometimes we will need kids’ expert help to understand how they want to connect their affinities to the practices we can teach them. We cannot be – and we do not have to be – the single expert or authority in our rooms so long as we let ourselves switch between teacher and learner.

We cannot overthrow the system overnight; we can change what we do as people in the system according to our will, wiggle room, and will to find that wiggle room. We can share our struggles and successes as public intellectuals and build a netwrok of approaches to local practice resistant to onerous, misguided, and woefully applied standardization. Standardized tests are distractions from learning how to help ourselves and others through creativity, critical thinking, and making solutions real.

It will be hard; we will make compromises with the system that make us sad and angry with ourselves, but because the work is daunting does not mean it is impossible. Because the work is daunting does not mean that working and learning alongside students in an open classroom cannot be joyful.

If this sounds ridiculous to you, it is probably not time to begin this work. You are always welcome to join it.

If this sounds problematic to you, it may be time to question.

If this sounds right to you, please join us in building #openschools alongside our students.

This year at #ncte12, we listened to the chipper and charming Sir Ken deliver “The Element.” We laughed; we applauded. Our challenge now is to examine sincerely our own readiness to co-create, physically build, and work in a passion-driven classroom – a classroom governed by students’ needs, not ours. A classroom driven by authentic work, not standardized testing. A classroom dedicated equally to all the people in it – and to their mutual and inviolate agency and authority – , not to the test results that come out of it.