I once heard an analogy that teaching is a lot like being a doctor…if the doctor had to diagnose and treat 25 patients all at the same time. It’s cute and helps drive home the point that the work of teachers is complex as they tackle the daily challenges of meeting the needs of many students simultaneously. However, this analogy hits too close to home as it reflects a shift in the profession I’ve been noticing over the past few years. The role of a teacher really has become more like being a doctor, and that bothers me.
These days, education is driven by capital D Data. Data, Data, Data. And why? Because like a doctor, we want to diagnose what’s wrong and help fix it.
And that’s where the problem lies. We presume illness.
This post from Tracy Zager exemplifies my concern. In the post, she recounts the diagnostic test her daughters each had to take on the very first day of 2nd and 4th grade.
Welcome to the new school year!
Unfortunately, nowadays teachers feel pressured to collect as much Data as possible as soon as possible so they can diagnose the illness and begin treatment right away. Does that really need to be our focus on day one? Or even day 2, 3, 4, or 5? As Tracy says in her post,
“On day one, I really don’t care if my students know the vocabulary word for a five-sided polygon, can tell time to the half hour, and can calculate perimeter accurately. I’d much rather know how they attack a worthy problem, how they work with one another, and how they feel about the subject of mathematics. I am much more interested in the mathematical practice standards than the content standards in the fall.”
The concern Tracy shares dovetails with the message Ken Williams gave in his keynote back in July at CAMT 2017. The overall talk was about disrupting the status quo with regards to labeling and limiting students. This message jumped out at me during his talk:
And yet this is exactly the kind of experience Tracy shared in her blog post! Ken Williams challenges this practice and the limits it places on our students:
When we presume there’s an illness – a problem with a student or group of students – then we’re setting our expectations about what we’re going to find. If we train ourselves to seek out faults and deficiencies, then that’s what we’re going to get good at finding.
Here’s what I’d love for us to presume instead. To quote Andrew Gael, let’s presume competence. Presume that when our kids walk in the door on the first day of school, they have funds of knowledge to draw on and the ability to learn even more. As we get to know our students, we’ll observe variation – it’s natural – and once we’re aware of what those variations are for individual students we can start brainstorming ways to accommodate to ensure each and every student can continue to have access to the learning in our classrooms.
When we presume competence, we aren’t looking for illness, we’re looking for strength. We’re sending important messages to our students from day one that we value who they are and who they can become as they journey with us through the school year.