I was never good at accepting “because I said so,” as an explanation. As a child, when this was the reasoning for why I should do something, it typically resulted in arguments or lack of compliance on my part. I always wanted to know why something was expected and how it was best for me in the long run. After five years as a teacher, I even got a minor in Special Education with my diagnostician certification because I couldn’t just accept someone telling me why some students qualified for services and others didn’t. I needed to know why. As a result of my loathing for this particular combination of four words, I have made it a point to never say them as a parent or an educator.
When I began teaching, I was content to give my students a mathematical formula for volume so they could plug in numbers to find the answer. It was all I knew to do. However, after attending a training based on the work of Marilyn Burns, I found that my students were so much more successful using inquiry-based learning where they were given boxes of all different sizes to fill with cubes. Not only did they discover the formula for volume, they owned it. Now they were not determining the volume of containers because I said so, they were doing it because they completely understood what, why, and how.
Recently, I realized how passionately I feel about the ineffectiveness of these words as a leadership justification. This year, as we were really delving into our teaching habits and routines, it became time to discuss a “best practice” that teachers had already implemented…posting learning objectives. Yes, I know this is best practice, but I never required this of my teachers . Many did it because someone had previously told them to do so. Some knew it was a check on our walk through documents, so they did so. Others attended training for English Language Learners and where told there to do so. The problem I had with this is that while posting learning objectives is a “best practice” and there is research to support the benefit of doing it, when teachers post objectives out of compliance, is it really any different from giving students a formula so that they can plug in numbers without understanding why or how they get the answer?
I knew it was time to discuss the issue of learning objectives but I resolved that teachers in my building would not do this out of compliance to leadership. If they were going to post the learning objectives, I wanted it to benefit students, not out of efforts to please the principal. I wanted my teachers to own the purpose of posting objectives, just as my previous students had owned using mathematical formulas.
For the past two years we had been on a journey to explore strategies of raising the higher level thinking abilities of our students. We had done this by dissecting the state standards, writing questions aligned to the proper rigor level, and implementing mental models for our students to help them transfer knowledge and develop schema. This year I explained that we were going to begin to explore how to raise the level of thinking of our students through writing objectives that integrated process skills with content standards to make sure that our learning in the classroom was dually-coded.
Almost instantly I heard the collective groan. I knew it was because they already had a negative perspective of this practice as something they had done out of compliance and not truly the purpose intended. We practiced with “manipulatives” that I had created so that they could easily lay out process skills to see which ones were the best fit for the content. As I walked around, some teams were getting the process more easily, while others struggled. I even had one of my more independently thinking teachers become quite uptight at even the mention of suggesting that they do something “mandated”. As we closed the activity, I assured teachers that I wasn’t requiring anything, but that we would continue to explore this practice and how it could benefit our students during the time allotted for our professional learning communities.
We have just finished our first round of PLC meetings and continued our conversations of posting learning objectives. As teachers expressed their anxiety, I have continued to tell them that this is not a required practice. I had one brave teacher share out that she had posted for years. However, she acknowledged that she had never referred to them in her lesson. I asked how much time she spent each day creating the objectives and writing them on the board, to which she replied a couple of minutes. Interestingly enough, if someone spends 2 minutes a day creating and posting objectives, that is just over six hours a year spent on a task that didn’t give any educational value. Six hours of time that could have been spent on something more valuable if we weren’t going to mention them during the lesson anyway.
I think that this is where we miss the boat in education. Someone somewhere attempts to get higher achievement for their students and discovers a strategy that works. That person explains the strategy to others and some research to prove its benefit. Good, right? Yes, right up until the point that we begin giving teachers the formula without letting them discover it for themselves. All to often, we mandate best practice and teachers do it out of compliance and not truly understanding the value. Teachers are typically a very compliant group of people. We want to please and we want to do it right, especially if student success is at stake so we go through the motions and hope it the next silver bullet will work.
I think it’s time to take a different approach. I’ve been in education long enough to see the pendulum swings of pedagogy. From what I have observed, often it is more about a teacher’s ability to “sell” the learning than it is about any particular strategy. Be it phonics, whole language, or balanced literacy, if the teacher believes in it and can effectively use it, students learn. Certainly, we need to use research-based best practice. However, if we are going to mandate its use by everyone in school, in a district, or in a state, we need to take the time to set up the learning opportunity for teachers to discover its value and relevance so that they have a deep enough understanding of what, why and how that they can effectively implement what we are asking them to do. Remember, my students didn’t invent the formula for volume, but they discovered it for themselves and they had more buy in for its use.
As we end September, we are continuing to learn, explore, and discuss this strategy of posting learning objectives. I bring in a variety of formats and resources for them to investigate. We practice writing objectives together. Slowly, I see teachers adopting a practice that is best for them. They know what they need to do, how to do, and most importantly why. Because of that, they post objectives for their students, not for me. It makes me think about a time when my oldest son was very little. He once responded to someone who told him not to ask so many questions with “I only ask why because I need to know.” I think too often we have squashed questions out of our learners to the point they just do it and no longer ask. If we truly want to develop thinkers and problem solvers, we have to create and encourage “why?” Our students deserve more than teaching practices based upon “because I said so”.
Below is a great resource from Simon Senek on why it is important to explain the importance of “why” (and it’s not because I said so!)