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Volume VI Issue II

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Collective Wisdom

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


In this fast-paced world, we are constantly bombarded with information, advice, suggestions, new ideas, or mandates. Because our minds are filled with day-to-day responsibilities and often minute-to-minute decisions, we may not take the time to think about the things we hear or read. But, sometimes there are ideas which cause us to pause for a moment, perhaps repeat the words in our heads, or even write down the words we just heard. They become the ideas we come back to and make us nod our heads affirmatively because they make sense. They also become the notions or concepts we not only want to remember, but act on or share with others because these impressions just might make a difference in teacher performance and/or student motivation and achievement.

I keep a log of these beliefs and opinions under the title of Collective Wisdom. I return to the log regularly, add some new ideas, or delete others which do not seem to have the same significance as when I first wrote them down. In this edition of Just for the ASKing!, I want to share some of the entries in my log with the hope that their thoughts will be meaningful for readers.

Learning Is Not a Contest with Winners and Losers

Some educators use assessment results to separate students into categories. Many students achieve at an acceptable rate; these are the kids who “get it.” Other students are designated as academically unsuccessful or in need of special services. Often these students are placed in smaller classes where the emphasis is on drill and practice and where stimulating academic learning opportunities are non-existent. In extreme cases, some students are “discarded” because “school just isn’t for them.” There is little or no attempt to modify teaching methods or to meet the needs of diverse learners. No one overtly uses the terms “winners” or “losers,” but the reality is that some schools are structured to meet the needs of the students who are more academically inclined. Author and Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews adds another dimension to the situation when he writes, “These days, those of us interested in schools…are not sure if we believe in teaching or sorting. Is it best to strain ourselves and our children trying to raise everyone to a higher academic level, or does it make more sense to prepare each child for a life in which he or she will be comfortable? The people I admire in our schools want to be teachers. Sorting, they say, is a new form of the old racism but subtler and in some ways harder to resist.”

Implications for Our Practice
It seems disquieting that the misdirected practice of using data to sort students might still be a common practice in some schools. In the current educational climate with the emphasis on accountability, we have learned to use data to provide timely feedback to students so they can improve their performance and achieve the learning goals set forth for them. As dedicated professionals, we should be asking ourselves, “Is there another way to support this student?” as opposed to “There is nothing more that I can do.” Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, founders of Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), a network of 66 schools in 19 states with student populations comprised of primarily black and Hispanic students from poverty are realizing impressive results. Noting such results, Jay Mathews concludes, “That leaves it up to the rest of us, at a point in history so full of unrealized potential, to urge all our children to try harder rather than pat them on the head and say they are fine where they are.”

Knowing and Knowing How Are Two Different Things 

This statement, made by Dylan William who is deputy director of the Institute of Education in London, reminded me of educators I have known who have a firm grasp on the standards they are responsible for teaching but who are unclear about the best way to bring those standards to life in a meaningful way for students. Teachers are often able to articulate their understanding of content but they do not have the repertoire of teaching strategies to translate their knowledge into exciting and purposeful learning experiences for their students.

Implications for Our Practice
Job-embedded staff development has been shown to be a powerful format to help teachers move from simply knowing to knowing how. Peer-to-peer conversations in collaborative sessions can make a significant difference in lesson development and instructional delivery. Dr. William further elaborates on his distinction between knowing and knowing how when he concludes that “teacher learning communities appear to be the most effective practical method for changing day-to-day teaching practices.” When teachers share best practices, they expand their repertoires of possible ways to teach, and students can learn more.

Launch a Pre-Emptive Strike

I thought this phrase was an interesting perspective in the discussion of remediating students. Doug Reeves, founder of The Leadership and Learning Center, used the phrase as he made his case for early intervention for struggling students as opposed to waiting for them to falter or fail which is a common practice among educators. Many districts have both formal and informal remediation programs in order to get students up to speed. Is the practice of remediation the most sensible approach to promote student achievement?

Implications for Our Practice
It has been said that in education, we always seem to find time to remediate failing students but we struggle to find the time to do it right the first time. Through careful planning and using pre-assessment data we should determine the gaps in students’ skills or knowledge and address these learning needs ahead of time before they struggle and begin to fail. Using pre-assessment data and a task analysis, we can plan learning experiences more purposefully to meet all students’ needs. We should also be using on-going formative assessment data as tools to determine how to intervene with students throughout the instructional process. No student likes to be singled out and be told to report to a remediation session. As well, the alternative of attempting to provide remediation for students in after school sessions when they are tired and unable to concentrate often results in frustration for both adults and students.

It Is Important to Build a Strong Foundation

I recently read about a 101-floor landmark skyscraper named Taipei 101 which is the world’s tallest completed skyscraper. Located in Taiwan, the building is 1,667 feet tall. To some it seems preposterous that architects and urban planners would erect such a building in a place susceptible to strong winds, earthquakes, and typhoons. However, the engineers knew how important it was to lay a strong foundation that would enable the building to withstand the forces of nature. The building design features a foundation reinforced by 380 piles driven 262 feet into the bedrock to support the structure. The edifice combines height with strength and flexibility.

Implications for Our Practice
An integral part of the learning process in school is to build a strong foundation for learning when children are very young. During these early years, children must master the building blocks that will lead to more sophisticated learning as they progress through their schooling. When children fail to learn basic skills and knowledge at an early age, or when they have gaps or missed opportunities during these early stages, they may very likely struggle, become discouraged, or lose interest in their learning. The importance of this strong foundation for learning cannot be minimized. Nor can the work of exceptional teachers who work with children during the pre-school and early elementary grades. Much like the Taipei 101, the foundation in learning will give students the strength and flexibility to grapple with and subsequently master new learning as they grow older.

Do What You Have to Do So You Can Do What You Want to Do

I once saw a television clip of actor Denzel Washington speaking with a group of high school students. As he reflected on his past educational experience, he advised the young people to “do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do.” His purpose in sharing this insight was to have the teenagers understand that often in life you may be required to do things that may not be particularly exciting or do not make sense at the moment. He pointed out that he developed a strong sense of personal discipline and built a solid work ethic when he was young that enabled him to complete his formal education. He was then able to explore career options and eventually enjoy a very successful and satisfying career as an actor, something he wanted to do.

Implications for Our Practice
As educators, perhaps we have heard students complain that an assignment is boring or ask the question, “When am I going to use this in the real world?” Our focus as teachers is to build a solid knowledge base along with a set of skills that will pay off for our students in the world beyond school. Our students are often short-sighted; they think in the present and have difficulty thinking long-term. We want our students to learn to be tenacious, to persevere, and to look beyond the present. Denzel Washington’s comment seemed to resonate with the students as he energized them to talk about what they envisioned in their futures. Perhaps his reasoning may help adults to motivate students to think long range and keep the faith that their hard work will pay off one day when they are able to explore a personal passion.

Everything Seemed Outlandish and Impossible at One Time

This statement reminded me of the importance of off-the-wall ideas. “That’ll never work” or “What a terrible idea” are often responses to out-of-the-box thinking. Many people are quick to conclude that such suggestions have no viability or even possibility of being successful. But, as we all know, many of the most important discoveries and innovations that are commonplace began as ideas that many thought of as unreasonable or impossible to achieve.

Implications for Our Practice
The statement above reminded me of how important it is to keep an open mind, to respect the thinking of others, and to listen carefully to alternative suggestions. The classroom in the school is synonymous with the laboratory in scientific research. When one experiment does not bring the desired results in the laboratory, the researcher is quick to try an alternative approach. Educators refer to the practice of classroom experimentation as action research. It must be remembered that the concepts of multiple intelligences, differentiation of instruction, the use of educational technology, data driven decision making, an active, student-centered classroom and professional learning communities were once mere suggestions that began with the words, “What if…”

If You Are Going to Doubt Something, Doubt Your Limits

This quote is attributed to writer Don Ward. I first saw it on a card over four years ago. I purchased the card and return to it often as a reminder of how we should view ourselves and the message we must send to our students.

Implications for Our Practice
As we work with our students, we must provide growth-producing feedback, encouragement, and legitimate praise for their effective efforts. We must recognize their creativity and, as often as possible, catch them trying. Bernard Weiner’s Attribution Theory states that we need to help students analyze the effectiveness of their efforts and adjust accordingly rather than having them believe that they are somehow limited in what they can accomplish.

It has become such a regular part of my professional life to keep a log of ideas that inspire and motivate me and share those ideas with the hope that they will influence and stimulate others. All of us can use an infusion of wisdom in our lives.


Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Collective Wisdom.” Just for the ASKing! February 2009. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2009 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.