Saturday, March 24, 2018

Tip Before the Election: Avoid Dumbbell Theories

A Dumbbell Theory pits two seemingly opposite ideas against each other, without considering that both can exist. This is also known as a false dichotomy or either-or fallacy.

We have a bunch of those in the field of education:

The problem with this type of thinking is that it prevents us from considering a combination of approaches that may turn out to be a better solution than just focusing on one. In reality, many of these seemingly competing strategies can co-exist. In fact, not only do they co-exist, but they also enhance each other.

Academic Curriculum versus Social-Emotional Curriculum

There is often the valid concern that dedicating too much classroom to social-emotional will detract from time spent on academics. But, not surprisingly, school climate is associated with academic performance. If students are not distracted by anxiety, frustration, hunger, conflict, etc., then they are less able to concentrate on learning. I believe that if students' other needs are addressed, then academic instruction will be more efficiently received by students. Of course, there needs to be a balance, and attention needs to be paid simultaneously to both.

Restorative Practices versus Consequences

These also can co-exist, although sometimes they overlap. What this can look like is this (based on my current understanding of Restorative Practices):
  • Student does something seriously wrong
  • Student gets suspended
  • Upon return, student may participate in a Restorative Circle to be offered an opportunity to make amends. Those affected also have an opportunity to share their viewpoints as well. The way I think of it is that a student who has been suspended may feel unwanted upon return and have trouble re-integrating into the community, leading to additional hostility. They then have less of a "stake" in contributing positively to a community that has rejected them. This can lead to more bad behavior, and more suspensions, until the student self-extracts him/herself from the community. Restorative Practices give the student an opportunity to restore the relationship that was injured so that he/she (and all involved) can continue without additional hostility. 
This could also look like this:
  • Student does something to hurt the feelings of another child
  • The student has a conversation with the other child so that both sides can discuss what can be done to repair the relationship. This allows for more opportunities to recognize the real-life consequences of their behavior as well as developing empathy for others.
Here is a video created by the group that developed Restorative Practices:

Common Core versus Academic Rigor

This is a huge can of worms. There are, indeed, many mechanisms by which the Common Core initiative can lead to lack of academic rigor:
  • Teaching to the test instead of teaching critical thinking
  • Too much time dedicated to test prep (in one school I worked at, they spent 40% of classroom time on test prep rather than teaching)
  • Teacher evaluations based solely on test scores, and other incentives to teaching to the test
  • Not understanding the big picture or vision of the CCLS
  • Overly-rigid implementation of the CCLS, without paying attention to learning outcomes
But it doesn't have to be this way. The Common Core Learning Standards--while not perfect--are a the latest attempt at naming the skills and behaviors needed to become good problem solvers and critical thinkers.

One has to interpret them with the end result in mind (i.e. problem solving and critical thinking), along with research-based best practices. This understanding helps shape the way we implement the CCLS. It makes the difference between running through the list of topics in a perfunctory manner and recognizing how the topics interconnect and support student development.

Valerie Samn's Answers to Common Questions

I am running for the New Rochelle Board of Education in 2018. This year is an especially challenging time with many crucial decisions to...