"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Monday, March 18, 2013

Taking a bat to TLWBAT

Insight often takes its time.
Quick, name a significant skill you have acquired in 48 minutes or, better yet, 40 minutes.  What's the matter, can't think of one?  Yeah, me neither.

Aftter the earliest grades, we teachers are, by and large, playing the long game.  Often teaching can be like a tossing a rock into a deep dark abyss and waiting to see when that distant "plash" can be heard. 

How many of us knew our teachers were complete idiots when we were in school, only to realize ten years later that we had learned something really important, something we were grateful to have learned?  (And how many times have you tried to reach out to that teacher?  Did you get a satisfactory response?  Me neither.  It's a sad fact that we will never be as important to our teachers as our teachers were to us.)

I suppose there are times in, say, math class, that a high school teacher can teach a certain specific operation which can be practiced a few times, and because that operation has few potential variables, it can be considered "mastered" within a single class period.  But most of the time, the application of that operation will need to be learned over a period of time, and integrated among other operations.  For teachers of literacy, it can be even more complex.  The great essayist E.B. White admitted that, 40 years after his time under the tutelage of Professor Strunk that he was only batting .500 with regard to omitting the "needless" words, "the fact that."  If E.B. White only got it right half the time after writing for The New Yorker for over 30 years, how is a high school student going to "master" a skill in 40 or 48 minutes?

So what's the problem?  Admit that things take time and get on with it! 

The problem is the way most teachers are required to report how they plan their lessons.  The plan for every day includes a space in which the teacher must specify what "The Learner Will Be Able To" do when the lessons is complete.  TLWBAT.  (When I started it was SWBAT, which is easier to pronounce, but evidently the Student  became The Learner while I wasn't looking.*  This is educational progress.)  The only honest choice here is to admit the lie to yourself and make the honest explanation.  No, the learner won't be able to do that when 3rd period is over on Wednesday.  But a few weeks from now, after some consistent practice, the learner should at least admit -- perhaps under duress -- that the learner ought to be able to do that by now.  Because other than grades or cookies, what is the incentive to practice an important but dull skill which demands steady application?  Yes, we'd like it to have an inherent incentive, but often that's just not going to happen.  Do you know a way to make mastering punctuation of quotes inherently engaging?    If you can't should we skip it?  No, we learn it because it is a small part of the inherently self-motivating task of making oneself understood by other people

There are a lot of moving parts involved in reading and writing well -- especially writing.  It is hard to assess whether those parts have been truly assimilated and meshed well together until a great many steps have been combined and practiced and practiced.  And mastery -- well, if E.B. White didn't get it after 40 years, what can we expect for our students?

The fact is, this daily mastery model does not comport with the science of how people learn.  There are long periods of confusion or mental dullness, followed by flashes of insight.  It is rarely a slow, steady progress.  We teachers just have to keep in there, pitching steadily, waiting patiently for the Great Cosmic A-Ha.

Teachers understand and accept the value of metrics.  We gauge our students by them, and the most honest among us gauge our teaching by our students' metrics.  But many deep, complex important things we teach are not really susceptible to hard-and-fast numeric measurements.  We can test you on whether you know the plot of Macbeth.  We can even ask you to identify themes and discuss how Shakespeare works them out.  But can you really quantify for me the level of cunning when Macbeth tells his wife "False face must hide what false heart doth know"?  Can we test how deep into the bowels of hell Lady Macbeth reaches to intercede with Hecate himself to "unsex me here"?  Can we measure how deeply you register Macbeth's existential despair as he spits out the words, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?" 

None of this desire to measure is fatal to learning. But why, administrators, why do you impose the necessity of a silly lie upon us, and then judge us on our failure to achieve a phony metric?

Ultimately, we are dealing with the indefinable, the unutterable, the ineffable, the -- literally -- unmeasurable.

And the end of that learning journey may be years and years from now.

So can we at least put some qualifiers on our TLWBATs?  Or spread them out over days and weeks?  Or do something to make them honest aspirations, rather than industrial-model evasions?
* At least "SWBAT" can be sort-of pronounced -- "SwƏ- bat."  But TLWBAT is unprounceable.  You can invert a couple of letters and get "Twill-bat," but that's cheating.

UPDATE:  My friend Keith Peterson suggests I adopt the phrase "The Ideal Learner Will Be Able To", yielding the slightly-more-pronounceable TILWBAT.  Still not sure exactly what to do with the W, but I think it's an improvement.

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