I'm Still Looking for Learning
Imagine this exchange between a teacher and an administrator:
Teacher: “I’d like to bring a speaker into my class.”
Administrator: “How much?”
Teacher: “How much learning will take place?”
Administrator: “No, how much will it cost?”
Administrator: “Sorry, but not a chance. We can’t spend that kind of money on someone who will have a minor impact on a small number of students. I’m sorry, but it’s just not cost effective.”
This response makes sense. We all know that there are far more effective ways to spend $10,000. And we know that bringing in a speaker or a consultant for a short amount of time is not going to drastically change student learning.
But here’s education’s little secret: we do in fact spend this kind of money frequently on educational experts, and it rarely leads to significant student or teacher learning.
You don't believe me? Take a look at these two headlines from The Washington Post and The Hechinger Report.
You still don't believe me?
How about a personal anecdote then.
Two weeks ago we hosted the annual AASSA conference at our school here in Lima, Peru. It was titled "Looking for Learning" and around 200 teachers and administrators throughout South America spent thousands of dollars to fly to Peru and paid hundreds of dollars to attend the conference. And this doesn't even account for the substitute teachers needed back at their schools or the lost learning time in their classes. All of which would be justified if the return on investment for student learning turns out to be substantial.
But I'm worried that it won't be.
Sure, most of us take away an idea here or a new strategy there, but what are we doing to tackle some of the biggest problems in education? Because the real tragedy about education conferences is that they rarely transform pedagogy or the systems at our schools in noticeable ways.
The conferences usually kick off with someone like Will Richardson giving an impassioned keynote about how utterly backwards schools are. So he implores us to change. He sites the most current research on neuroscience and learning, and we all nod in impotent complacency. We agree that kids should be given more autonomy over their learning, that learning should be more interdisciplinary, that grades are impeding intrinsic exploration, and that we shouldn’t separate kids by age groups all day, every day. If we're crazy, we even take notes.
Then, once he's done and we're all fired up about how education needs to be completely overhauled, we head to any one of a hundred different workshops that often have no connection to the conference's main theme. The workshops are more about being practical, about making little tweaks in our instruction. And so we go and learn how to turn a WWII essay into a WWII recipe book.
Finally, at the end of the conference, we congregate one last time to be reminded that the biggest problems in education aren't going to be solved with small solutions. No, we need to completely re-imagine school.
We then leave the conference compelled to create important changes. We're excited — not about the tweaks — but about the possible transformations in how real learning can happen. This lasts about a week or two, and then, without even realizing it, we're sucked back into the grading, the content coverage, and the school system that we passionately poked holes in only a couple weeks before.
This is followed by a period of frustration. We might even write a blog post about the lack of real outcomes from the conference and how much money was spent. But then we'll say to ourselves, "No, I'm not going to be some negative, jaded teacher. Besides it wasn't a total waste of money, right? There was some great networking going on, I got to see a new city, and if I get tired of grading WWII essays, I can at least have kids make recipes!"
We go on summer break, we come back rejuvenated to start a new school year, and everything pretty much remains the same as the cycle repeats itself year in and year out.
Oh, with one exciting change. The location of next year's conference? Who wants to go to Rio!?