Friday, October 21, 2011

Shooting Blindfolded in the Classroom


Suppose I'm a master archer, which I’m not. But just suppose I am, and one day I happen to take a group of people, placed blindfolds on them, and carefully lead them out into a wide, open field. No, this is not a creepy story with a sad ending so stay with me.


Once blindfolded, I hand each a bow and a quiver of arrows. Did I tell you they have never held a bow in their hands let alone shot an arrow? Now you might think handing a group of rookies bows and arrows is potentially dangerous, but these are good students and they mostly listen to my directions. You see, as a master archer I could in fact teach someone how to properly don their quiver and hold a bow, learning the parts of the bow and the arrow by touch, even the all-important understanding of which end of the arrow do they point in the general direction they want it to fly. As a master archer I could, with patience, teach them how to skillfully take an arrow, place it properly in the bow with the nock, draw, use the rest until ready to fire, and loose the arrow when ready.  As a master archer I could even lecture on technical terms such as anchor point, brace height, draw weight, and the various types of bows, giving his blindfolded students the basic facts every archer should know.


But even as a master archer, there’s little I can do to ensure my blindfolded students hit the targets at the other end of the field. You see, they have no idea where the targets are sitting, what the distance is to each target, or what effect wind and other disturbances might have on successfully hitting the target. They can’t, without a ton of luck, hit the target in those conditions.  But they can certainly learn and even practice all of the activities and tasks that it takes to at least get the arrow moving in the general direction, if I’m there to help them.  But if I walk away from the group at any time leaving them on their own, well, you start to see a general picture of what might happen.


Isn’t this what learning is often like in schools? Beginning with the teachers, aren’t they often blindfolded by the absence of complete understanding about the specific curriculum goals they should be using as the basis for learning in their classrooms? Or how about the work they expect their students to perform? Do they know for a fact that what they are asking their students to accomplish is fully aligned with the desired learning outcomes? Or are they loosing their arrows blindfolded?


And then there are the students who typically haven’t had a chance to understand anything about the overarching learning goals in advance, let alone see the intermediate objectives along the way. They are continuously being expected to shoot blindfolded hoping if they pick up enough clues along the way they can get a good grade from the course, despite the fact even students who get high grades probably never really hit the target. But who would know? Everyone’s still wearing a blindfold.


This is a the situation found in most schools and classrooms and it exists for a number of reasons which I prefer not to labor on but to look forward at solutions.  To take off our blindfolds – teacher and students – requires the following:


1.     The teacher has to know the curriculum standard (the target) inside and out and he has to know the initial skill level each of his “archers” are starting out at.

2.     The teacher has to know how the standard is going to be assessed during and at the conclusion of the learning activities, and she has to be certain beyond any reasonable doubt that the assessments actually measure the intended target.

3.     The teacher has to analyze the results from each of these assessments and all student work to determine the accuracy of the instruments and whether his students are firing blindfolded or getting a clearer view of the intended target.

4.     The students, before they are asked to perform any work in the classroom, must understand the overall learning target, the intermediate targets, and how the work they do contributes to hitting the target dead center.

5.     As the students progress, they must have continuous feedback on how they are honing their “archery” skills and are the doing what they need to do to be successful. If not, what do they need to do to improve.

6.     Because the teacher will not always be, students must learn how to self-assess their own individual performance and use that information to make corrections and improve their chances for success in this particular course and for the rest of their lives.


These actions remove the blindfolds from the students as well as the teacher. It requires communication and collaboration – teacher to teacher through professional learning teams sitting down together to examine the curriculum and analyze student work, teacher to student in designing conversations and activities that examine the overall learning goals, and student to student in collaborating together to better understand the work in relationship to the target.


Without these critical conversations, we’ll simply continue loosing our arrows blindfolded. “I shot an arrow in the air, and where it landed I do not care…”

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