Defining what’s important

I've just finished four days of learning and forming relationships at the AESA Annual Conference held in Tampa, Florida. It has been a great opportunity to engage with over a thousand educators from all over the US who are providing in very similar services to education as we are at CORE in New Zealand. 

There's lots still to process and bring together as I reflect on what I've learned, partucularly the stimulating keynote presentations, each providing messages that were both inspirational and aspirational, connecting with the passion and commitment of everyone in the room for their work in supporting schools, teachers and students. 

 Marcia Tate delivered a top notch presentation highlighting strategies we can use to connect with learners, modelling everything she was talking about in explicit and understandable ways – including the use of humour, story telling, scaffolding, music etc.

Rob Mancebelli's presentation was a well-argued case for 21st century learning, highlighting the imperatives for change and providing practical illustrations of how to achieve this.

Manny Scott used his personal life story to connect with us emotionally, and engage with us intellectually, and to emphasise the significance of an effective teacher in the lives of young learners. 

While the tone of these keynotes helped flavour much of my experience of the conference, the 'other side' of what is the current reality in the US system wasn't far beneath the surface in most presentations – specifically the focus on Common Core (standards) and moves to link teacher performance with student achievement

The trades hall at the conference was packed with companies offering online solutions to monitor and manage student achievement in relation to the standards in the Common Core, automated teacher evaluation processes, accountability and performance software (for teachers and students), and content providers who have 'packaged' learning into bite-sized amounts to be 'delivered' to students via the latest online learning systems, designed specifically to monitor and evaluate student engagement and achievement. 

The apparent 'discord' between the aspirational messages of the keynotes and the pragmatic requirements of the current reality posed a tension for me that I felt throughout the conference.

At the heart of the dilemma here is the challenge for educators to define what is important, and to ensure then that the system and all of the support mechanisms involved work together to help achieve this. Here is where I strike competing philosophies – on the one hand, the narrowing of curriculum to those things deemed to be important (and measurable), and on the other, a broader view of developing the whole child with skills, knowledge and competencies that will enable them to participate fully in the world of the 21st Century. 

In his keynote, Rob Mancebelli referred to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) position statement on 21st Century literacies, which states that 21st century readers and writers will need to:

  • Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
  • Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
  • Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments multiple streams of simultaneous information

As aspriational (and necessary) as these things are, they aren't the sorts of things that get reported on in most standards-based assessments, as they're not the sorts of things that can easily be measured using multi-choice tests or other summative forms of assessment. I'm not going to argue that we don't need to keep a close eye on the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy, but we can't afford to make that our only focus in education. We have to look beyond 'the basics' and 'skills' level competencies – as a recent NYT article reminded me, Skills don't pay the bills any longer, highlighting the importance of critical thinking and problem solving in the modern workplace.

I'm sure I'll get time to reflect on this some more as I prepare to fly back home to NZ where the situation isn't terribly much different – it's just that we don't have the legislation in place to make this all a requirement – yet!

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