Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Getting the Kids out of the Pool/ Blindspots

What are your unquestioned practices? What are the things so ingrained (rightly or wrongly) that you can't even see them?

I'll share an example. For many years, I have directed a robust summer camp program. More than a decade ago, our outdoor pool was replaced by an indoor one. Over the years as new cohorts of campers moved through the camp, fewer and fewer campers swam during the afternoon free swim period. Yet we still sent them to the pool. We created extra duties for counselors to watch the kids who weren't swimming. We started ad hoc football and kickball games in the field adjacent to the pool for the kids were weren't swimming. We never questioned our basic practice that from 1-2:30 was swimming time. Finally, last summer, I proposed changing our schedule and this change was perceived as a big deal, I mean we were really proud of ourselves. For decades, afternoons meant swimming.

Now, no longer do campers have to go down to the pool area at this time. Why didn't I think of this half a decade sooner? Inertia is partly it. But more basic was that I had a blind spot towards this unquestioned practice that was no longer working; the most obvious solution never crossed my mind. Instead of changing the fundamental problem, I tinkered around its edges looking for solutions.

It is hard to see one's own blind spots. But it is not impossible. I take a personal inventory (almost) every day. I adopted this practice nearly 5 years ago. Because of this, it is harder for me to fool myself. In my professional life, I have a big and likely inflated ego about my teaching which lets me fool myself. I'm working hard to promptly admit when I am wrong. I think I am getting better at looking at myself honestly and critically. This at least lets me see opportunities for change when I am not actively fooling myself.

Be intentional
This look at oneself and one's practices has to be intentional. I make time to do it every day. Like an individual, an institution has to look at itself honestly and critically and OFTEN. I do think my school really is trying to update its mission and practices for 2016, but we are doing it right now because we are up for accreditation. We are trying to be honest and we are trying to be self-critical. But we have a hard time at looking at some basic assumptions maybe because we don't look at ourselves often enough.


  • My school has used the same report card for 40 years. What are the assumptions we make about grading?
  • Why are so many of our tests full of "what" questions? What are the assumptions we make about tests?
  • Why do we continue to emphasize summative assessment at the expense of other tools? Why are our assessments always given at the end, and not during when the information could inform instruction?
  • Why do we group students of the same size and age together most of the day instead of grouping by interest and/or ability? Surely we do this because this is how it has been done since the 19th century. It is just what school looks like. 
  • Why is learning chunked into 40 minute periods? 

This is hardly an exhaustive list, but these questions are unasked and thus unanswered.  Traditions and institutional memory lead to tremendously powerful inertia.

Other blind spots? The people trying to fix and change schools and the people who are comfortable with the status quo likely were all very good at school themselves. It worked for them. This leads to all sorts of unquestioned assumptions and blind sports.

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