Why did you choose to make this a parable?
We wanted to do something inspirational for teachers, and we thought that if we used a parable, it would be easy to connect with. We also wanted to create a safe way for teachers to reflect on their practices. Teachers often feel that all of the reform is flowing down on them―accountability, new standards, teacher performance, and increasing regulation. And the world around them is changing rapidly. Students are different. Classrooms are globally diverse. And increasingly more is being required of teachers. They’re social workers, mentors, and in some cases, parent figures. Teachers can feel, understandably, fatigued and stressed. Most of the professional development systems haven’t equipped teachers with what they need to make their jobs easier. When we were creating this book, we wanted help make sense of the changes. We wanted to honor the work teachers are doing and also shine a light that we really need to shift our pedagogical practices to reflect world shifts. To me, that makes more sense than saying, “We need to do it because standards are telling us to.”
You wrote, The old economy classroom was “manufacturing-centric.” This model had its purpose when manufacturing jobs were plentiful. The classroom learning environment was good at producing the skills workers needed for mass production or assembly-line jobs. We’ve not been a manufacturing-centric economy since the 1960s. In 2004, manufacturing jobs only made up 9% of the economy. Why do you think new teachers are still being taught to instruct in the same ways as when manufacturing was king?
Just because it’s what everybody knows. It’s not wrong. It’s the limit of our vision for instruction. When you’re a new teacher, direct instruction is the easiest way to be the authority figure. Most of the time when I get a group of educators together and ask what makes an effective teacher, typically I hear answers like, “Someone who holds the students’ attention and can explain content well.” That’s an old model. It’s the teacher-centered classroom that doesn’t reflect the world anymore. In WWII, companies were hierarchical. Today, organizations are relatively flat, and employees are expected to be self-directed and to form teams that solve problems, all without much structure. That’s what kids will face professionally in the future. We need to prepare them for that.
You also say, Employees need the soft skills, or interpersonal skills, for success in this new economy, where they are often confronted with challenging projects that require fluid and complex problem solving, persistence in the face of difficult tasks, and less direction from superiors. Outside of preparing students for a more global and inclusive work environment, how do you see these new soft skills changing our society at large?
I believe the soft skills are what often give an upwardly mobile, higher-earning individual an edge. These individuals have the ability to really think strategically, problem solve, and communicate well with others. Those qualities become career accelerators. When you talk to leaders, they are selecting the next generation of people to groom into leadership. People who possess these soft skills can get results through motivating and working with others.
You write that it makes little sense to teach academic standards developed for a new economy in a classroom learning environment that reflects the old economy. What is the most productive way to tackle this issue and where do administrators come into the equation?
Administrators also need to read the book because if their visions for instruction are traditional, they’ll walk by an orderly classroom where the teacher’s voice is all that’s heard and they’ll instinctively think, that teacher is in control; kids are listening; learning is going on. The reality is, we have compliance going on. Administrators can walk by a classroom where the teacher is trying to get the kids to soar, and students are in groups debating, they’re loud, and they’re arguing about content. Maybe one student created a sub-team and they’re working on a problem, and it’s organized in a sense, but somewhat chaotic. A principal who is not calibrated can easily walk in that classroom and say, “Hey! Get your kids under control.” But the kids were engaged in learning. The best thing a principal can do is create a culture of safety and support so teachers can start making this transition.
What role do you see technology playing in developing classrooms that reflect the new work world?
We’ve seen this transformation happen with virtually no technology because it’s just how students love to learn. In a very traditional classroom, there can be lots of technology, but what we see are very traditional applications that augment a teacher-centered classroom. The students are at computers, but they’re not creating anything. Teachers are just walking them through lessons as though the lessons are a direct-instruction teacher on software. We want to see kids use technology to research, to create and present, to investigate. Technology shouldn’t be an extension of a traditional classroom.
The examples you give in the book of how an inclusive classroom operates seem to be great formulas for students who are outgoing and who get top grades. How do shy and disadvantaged children fare in team learning environments?
We’ve observed classrooms that have made this shift, and interestingly enough, the best benefits have been for students who don’t historically perform well. I and a team of educators, along with a principal, observed a fourth-grade classroom. The students were pushing back on other learners, making them have their text evidence to support their claims and generate their hypotheses. When we left, the principal told us it was an inclusion classroom. We were surprised because we couldn’t tell. There were some students who were high on the autism spectrum and ELL students. In a traditional classroom, ELL students don’t get to practice oral language development because primarily the teacher is talking, not the student. When the student goes home, the native language is spoken, so learning is slowed. But the classes where students learn in groups where they’re elaborating, questioning, examining, reasoning, and creating together as teams, and the teacher has structured it to make sure it’s done respectfully, it’s almost like immersion. They are doing higher-order thinking with the content and teaching each other. These learning accelerators close the learning gap by having the classrooms mimic the real world.
You wrote, Failing is inherent in complex learning. How can teachers help students (and themselves) see that it’s okay to fail while trying something new?
We say true failure is actually when we stop short of our goal, not when we fail on our way to our goal. Just because it didn’t work the way we intended doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it; we do it again and again. We absolutely see a great cross-section of teachers having success with this. A great cross-section of students from very low socioeconomic situations such as generational poverty and gang neighborhoods make this transition and blossom alongside academically talented students who also thrive when put in mixed groups.
You talk a lot about student learning teams. How does a teacher decide which students should work together, and when will the teacher know there is a successful student learning team that benefits all students?
It takes a little bit of time to get a team to gel. It’s like a sports team—their first audition is a bit awkward. It’s the same in the classroom. You have to stay with it and learn from it.
This is why the PLC is particularly good. We developed this book to be used in a community. It can be used alone, but it’s more powerful with a grade-level team or a content team where they’re all reading and practicing this together, including the principal. My book is an easy read, but it has a deep rubric. SOAR (Students Opportunity for Achieving Rigor) is a student evidence rubric. It’s not a teacher observation rubric, and it would be an error to use it that way. It is meant to be a tool for teachers to self-assess where the classroom culture environment is, then use that rubric in specific areas that they may want to experiment with. They should take one or two areas at a time and try to move the current environment to one that is more student-led with rigor.
How can teachers successfully implement the SOAR rubric?
Some people can embrace inquiry, while others may want to do project-based learning, but the reality is it’s more loose and creative than that. The non-negotiable is that we have to grant autonomy to kids to practice critical thinking in student-led teams, and the teacher has to figure out the pathway to do that. To help in that process, my book has a website with free resources created by teachers who’ve made this transition. There are also people sharing tips and struggles as they’re making this transition.