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May 25, 2012

Lost in transmission

What people tell you directly is always different from how others would relate that message. Any important and somewhat complex message you receive indirectly, through a third person, is bound to be incorrect. This is especially true when the subject matter is not neutral, when the conveyer has an agenda or an interest, or is under stress. Basically, one should never completely believe anyone representing a third person’s opinion. With two people in between, I often cannot recognize my initial message if it comes back to me. Many times, people to whom I convey what someone told me they said have the same reaction. 

Why is this? - Certainly not because people lie. In fact, very few people lie. There are not many good natural liars, and the ability to lie flawlessly usually speaks of neurosis or mental problems. For a regular person, it is very difficult to lie effectively, and takes an enormous effort and incredible memory. Because information is shared so freely and so often, a deliberate lie will come to surface, with embarrassing consequences. We all know that.

Nor do people often misrepresent other’s words intentionally. This happens more often than direct lies, but it still cannot account for the amount of errors in transmission. But any informational transaction involves an act of interpretation. And that act is not neutral to what we want, what we afraid of, and what we already know and believe. You will literally hear what you hear differently depending on who is speaking, and what opinion you have of the speaker. If you built a theory of the other person that deems his or her incompetent, and that person reports on a problem, you will automatically assume it is his or her own fault. If you do not trust the other person’s intentions, almost anything she or he says will be perceived - and transmitted to others – as deceitful or ill-intentioned.

It also depends on what you want from this interaction. For example, if you ask for a permission, and the answer is “no”, your mind will go into a process of looking for a ways of not hearing the “no,” and finding any possible “maybe’s.” Let it go for a while, and the subconscious mind will do the trick by literally re-arranging your memories of the conversation. And of course, the transmitter almost never says “no” in a way that leaves no room for interpretation. It would be impolite and offensive. So the room for more interpretation is always there.

The speakers are also attuned to what the receiver of the message hopes to hear. So we all edit our message just a little to please whoever is the listener right now. Therefore the same exact message conveyed to another person will sound slightly different. We have the instant editing machine in our brain that will alter our words an instance they leave the mouth.

There are many of these small corrections, which accumulate over the number of transmissions, and which actually become larger with the passage of time, as we rearrange and re-organize our memories. None of us can remember verbatim what the other person had said, so we need to re-tell the story in our own words; this very act introduces more errors. Thus a message “but this is the kind of reasoning the Nazi were using to justify their policies” becomes “oh, she compared you to the Nazi.”

We all need to avoid indirect transmissions of sensitive messages to the extent possible. “Why don’t you ask him?” or “It is better if she explains this to you” are phrases we should use more often. When in doubt, go to the source, and verify. And never act on a message you did not receive directly from the sender. “He said, she said” is a red alert cue. A n utterance that begins with one of these qualifiers can never be trusted for anything other than simple, factual messages. In conflict, always hear both or all sides directly. It is not easy to achieve, but there is little choice.

May 18, 2012

Blind leading the blind

One place where the “blind leading the blind” system works well is anonymous peer review. Introduced first in 1665 by Hendy Oldenburg, the editor of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, this remarkably successful invention advanced the quality of scholarship. It is partly responsible for the establishment of the scientific method and the rise of the European civilization. I know the Russian academic scene fairly well; it can boast both talent and ideas, but no true blind peer review process. This little deficiency has very large consequences. The Russian educational discourse is much more arbitrary, much more ego-driven than the English-speaking one. It takes much longer for good ideas to rise to the top; it breads corruption and discourages truthfulness. Both junk and good scholarship can be found both in Russia and in the West, of course, but I can assure you, the proportions are very different. The anonymous peer review provides a significant nudge, over time shaping the academic discourse. It has its drawbacks in the times of paradigm shifts, but no one argues that its overall effects are negative or insignificant.

When I review a paper, don’t know who wrote it, so I am not beholden to assumptions, biases, and expectations. The judgment is between me and the Truth. I never know if it is a he or she, a high school student or a distinguished silverback. When I was younger, peer review-inspired rejections seemed to me arbitrary and unfair (I did not feel that way about reviewers who liked my work). With age, I came to treasure those anonymous interactions, even when they end in rejection. When we do not know each other, the Truth can be indeed invited to the table. I don’t care if the author’s feelings get hurt, and won’t pay a price of souring relationships with him. We always lie and flatter those next to us because we are constantly working on reinforcing good relationships. Those seem more important than the abstract truth. We can only be truly honest with strangers. Honesty and friendship are incompatible, contrary to the naïve belief in the opposite. Relationships get in a way of being truthful – they have to! People with very deep connections (“real friends”) can sometimes afford to tell the truth on important matters, but it is rather an exception than the rule.

I have written about the need for blind peer review in teaching. As many of you know, some of us have been working on Syllabus, the first journal to publish peer-reviewed syllabi (hopefully, the first issue will appear in June). The more I think about it, the more I like the idea. Why don’t we blindly review many more things - syllabi, assignments, tests, assessment instruments, rubrics, reports, tenure and promotion materials? We do need honest, unbiased, anonymous feedback from people we can trust.

In teaching, we need to know our students, their stories, their needs and strength to guide them. And yet we also need a moment of truth when someone who we know is competent, but also removed, dispassionate, and nameless, tells us how we both did. Did the student really learned what I hoped to teach her? Or am I projecting my own pride, my insecurities, and my own time investment onto him? I worked so hard, and poor thing, she worked so hard, - it just got to be an A. I would like to pass the ultimate judgment of his competence onto someone else – the next class’ instructor, a future employer, or an independent testing company. Does my involvement make me blind to her weaknesses? Of course, it does. We are biased because we are human. We cannot be trusted with evaluating our own work.

Nor do we compete with each other. For example, when a group of faculty redesigns curriculum, there is never a competing team whose final project may actually be selected, not yours. You are always, automatically producing the best work! You’re on the winning team from the start! is this healthy? Would a little competition make us a more creative, more demanding of each other, and less likely to succumb to groupthink? Private businesses are at least subjected to the discipline of the market – those who care too much about being nice to each other at the expense of truth – those will go belly up, eventually. But we are not in that world. What will compel us to tell the truth rather than always being nice to each other? We do need to think of a way to erect a barrier between our relationships and our professional judgment.

May 10, 2012

Prying into practice

My week began with a visit to Mike Convery, the Superintendent of Coventry Public Schools. His is one of the most interesting districts in the State, and here is what I learned this time. The district has developed a functioning RTI-based system they call SWAT: School Work Armed with Timer. I know, a silly acronym, but just wait to hear what this us. I also suspect the silly name is intentional – to bring the whole conversation about data use and RTI closer home somewhat.

Three released teachers (which they call the RTI PD coordinators) – go around schools and assess student progress three times a year. Each student may get up to 15 scores in different areas of reading, math, etc. This is already somewhat revolutionary, for assessment has always been in the hands of instructors. It always struck me as odd, because of the inherent conflict of interest. To my knowledge, only the Western Governors University and Coventry Public Schools have actually done something about it; not without a struggle. A software system called RTImDirect is fed the data, and it produces color-coded lists of students which identify the specific risks they may have. Then principals and teachers hold the grade-level data meetings (yes, they are in the contract!) where they figure out strategies to bring targeted children up to speed. Coventry is already a few years into the implementation of this, so the initial conversations about whether or not this whole thing is right or wrong are over. Mike says that the influence of targeted interventions is so obvious that it became completely undeniable. It took them a while from merely paying lip service to differentiated instruction to actually believing it can work.

My worry is how to insinuate our students into those conversations. How do we get our students into some of the best work that is being done in the State and outside? How can we teach them to be the teachers or tomorrow, not of yesterday? We do send students out to schools – a lot. Moreover, most programs try to select cooperating teachers carefully, including personality matching. On the other hand, there are not many places in the state where one can witness a mature conversation about formative assessment. We make so much emphasis on learning the craft and art of teaching that those other activities are relatively easy to miss. Teacher training is not about the quantity of field experiences. The game has now shifted into providing much focused, targeted field experiences, where we are sure students see exactly what we want them to see, and link it directly to what they have learned in class. It is also true about all education – the density of learning can and should be higher, not its extent. We all are used to use the length of learning (credit hour, contact hours) with its results. The assumption served us well for many years, but no longer does.

Consider practicalities. Coventry is 30 minutes away. SWAT days happen three times a year; the grade-level data meetings – more often, but still easy to miss. They will probably balk at 50 RIC students hanging around, even if we could bring them. And yet we need to be actively prying into practice – not all practice, the best practice, the still rare practice. Teaching changes faster than we can keep up with it. But our ultimate goal should be that our recent graduates can fit in quickly into any advanced district, and can become agents of change in any school that is behind. With all of our faculty experiences, in schools, it is very difficult to count on the past. Many us when we were classroom teachers have not experienced anything like the Coventry-style data conversations. None of us lived through the new teacher evaluation system. We rely heavily on cooperating teachers, who are in classrooms right now, but as I said, not all of them are working at a district where something cutting-edge is going on. Our students get a lot of wisdom, but not always skills needed tomorrow. It is just very difficult for us all to keep up with the field that is so dynamic, and I am not convinced it is a worthy goal. After all, we have different jobs,, and have to keep up with our own research literature. We’re not classroom teachers.

So we need to see the best kinds of practice. And I don’t mean just Coventry; this was more of an example. Many districts and schools are doing many other cool things I’d love our students to see, and I know we cannot replicate in-house. I’d love them all to get the Restorative Practices training by Julia Steiny. It would be fantastic to send them all to some of the best PASA youth groups. I would love every one of them to spend a day in Blackstone Valley or in the Learning Community charter schools. It would really be great to get our students through the series of PD that RIDE is rolling out throughout the State. What I would love the best is for us to have a way of collecting and sharing these kinds of gems, and a way for our students to access them.

If I had a lot of money, I would send a camera crew to film all the gems we can find; not the You-tube random stuff, but something we know and can weave back into our coursework. Or I wish a college instructor could flip a switch and see the actual SWAT process going on in real time, and then have a class of students ask questions – just for 15 minutes, so we’re not too intrusive. But this is not just a dream – we can do it now, with existing technologies. I have to admit, it is still fairly expensive on the human side – to have someone drive, film, edit; to have someone coordinate the schedules, talk to both parties. Then the gems should be incorporated into existing courses, work their way into assignments, earn points… I don’t have a good solution; this is just an invitation to discussion. How do we pry into practice, how do we look deeper than just field experiences?

May 4, 2012

The Sowing Season

This year is still winding down, with its ceremonies, with the Pomp and Circumstance, with faculty tired over grading, and red-eyed students storming the computer lab. It is the best time in our calendar, when we look at our graduates and think: - it was all worth it, every minute of it. We read their papers and think – at least sometimes – well, I did not waste my time on this one; look at how much she is grown. I keep coming back to the running list of our projects, and try to discern what we have learned; which ones failed and why, which ones worked, and why. My mind wonders into the next year immediately. What can be realistically achieved? What should we push for, even though the chances are not clear? Remember, in certain kinds of work learning from it is more important than whether the actual goal is accomplished. And finally, what do we absolutely have to clean up, resolve, and get over with? I started to build another list for the next year; this time a little more manageable (people complained that the 11/12 list was hard to navigate; it is absolutely correct). Of course, I always invite others to contribute, knowing perfectly well this is the worst of time for most faculty and chairs to help out. Their seasons are not exactly like mine.

I love this part of my job – planning, imagining, and trying to see the future. And yes, I know I have written about it last August; called it the planting season. Oh, well, how unoriginal, repeating myself. But in August I was worried about the risks; this time I am reflecting on the joys of planning, so there.

The big picture is fairly clear. In the next year, we need to continue reshaping our programs to make them more competitive, more unique, and more applicable. We will keep pushing off-campus offerings, and perhaps investigate hybrid or online programs. To do that, we must continue to innovate – small and big. We should find ways of expanding our various partnerships throughout the state. Another big goal for us is to improve the quality of experiences for our students, staff and faculty. So, those are the goals – it is fairly simple to come up with them. Now, what specific, manageable projects can we turn them into? Who is going to do them? How and when things should be moving? Who can watch over them, help and nudge, ask and offer help? That’s the puzzle we will be playing in this office over the summer. We also need t allow for contingencies, for something unexpected – good or bad – to happen. So some reserve capacity should be around, and that does not mean “OK, I can do this over the weekend.” It is especially interesting to find synergies – ways in which separate projects can sometimes benefit each other.

But in a way, each of us should do something like that. Every faculty member should have a realistic plan. These are things I will be doing, and these are things I am going to say “No” to. The nature of contemporary work changes –from just doing it, it shifts more and more to thinking about how, when, and with whom to do it. So we start with a common template, which should also have the right links. Do you want to try to help ? If many people contribute just a little bit, we all gain something.