The Importance of Doing the Laundry: Maintenance Matters

by Kate Roberts, 2017 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

A little while ago, I attended a keynote on the importance of innovation in our schools, classrooms, and nation. It was a rousing speech, and I agreed with all of it. Of course, we need fresh, inspiring ideas to help solve some of our most pernicious problems in education. Of course, we want educators who are able to think in new and creative ways about how to best reach and raise our children. I left energized and rearing to go.

Kate RobertsAs I began to implement these innovative ideas, I hit wall after wall of reality. I didn’t have the resources I needed. I didn’t have the experience to truly teach or guide the new ideas I had, so that when my students had trouble, I was not sure where to go. I still had my old, “un-innovative” curriculum to contend with, plus the assessments that seem unmovable, plus the grading system of my school. My foray into innovation gave me a few days of shiny new practices, but they soon gave way to the gravitational pull of normal.

I was tempted to say, “This just doesn’t work.” (Ok, I did say it.)

I was wrong and, at the same time, right. Many innovative ideas can work – as long as we are able and supported in devoting great amounts of labor to them for the long haul.

Innovation needs maintenance. So does normalcy. In fact, without maintenance, the whole thing (our classrooms, our homes, our world) just falls apart. But there are few keynotes given or books written in praise of the need to carry on and keep things going. There are few PD sessions on the power of grinding away at the same old stuff making sure things are working well enough.

But there should be.

In their Aeon article “Hail the Maintainers,” Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel make a case for the importance of supporting the maintainers in any profession. From the fall of the Iron Curtain to the inequity arising out of Silicon Valley, they point out that while novel ideas are integral to our evolution, these ideas wind up really taking on a very small percentage of the actual work.

Russell and Vinsel argue that the hard (and mundane) work of maintenance opens up the space for innovation to exist:

“…focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going. Despite recurring fantasies about the end of work or the automation of everything, the central fact of our industrial civilization is labour, and most of this work falls far outside the realm of innovation.”

I would argue we do not spend enough time talking about and celebrating the labor of teachers – all the maintenance it takes to get great and innovative ideas up off of the ground and into the world. And we do not spend enough time helping each other to find sustainable ways to practice that maintenance and keep it going.

If innovation requires the essential and mundane work of maintenance, we must carve out ways to support and nurture this unglamorous work. Here are a few ways that we can support the maintenance that takes innovation going:

  1. Consider the systems and structures first.

When an innovative idea comes along, create systems in your classroom to maintain and support that idea, keeping it accountable for you and your students. For example, you go to a workshop on student blogging and expanding their intellectual social network. Great idea. Now, how much class time per week will you devote to this practice and when will that happen? Wednesdays for 20 minutes? Every Friday? Without repetition, innovative ideas will stay flashes in the pan.

Next, ask yourself, where will they do this work? What platform will they use and how will you make sure your kids know how to use it.

Finally, what is the expectation for the outcome? How will you hold them accountable?

When creating a system to maintain innovation, lean on the building blocks of reality:

TIME: When will students practice this innovation and how will they be         reminded?

SPACE: Where will students practice this innovation and how will you know?

MATTER:  (Ok, this is a stretch in the science metaphor) How will the work    take shape, as in, what is the accountable expectation in your classroom.

Without these systems in place, any new idea will be a flash of something promising, yet struggle to take root.

  1. Listen when it feels like too much work.

If you are listening to a speaker or reading a book and begin to feel overwhelmed (like, what is being presented is way too much work for you to actually get up and going), then, honestly, it probably is, at least completely. The answer to innovation cannot be that teachers just take on more and more work into infinity. And yet that is often the implied suggestion behind every professional development session, every new idea, every exhortation to “lift the level of …”

I am not suggesting that you shut down when things feel like too much work. But when you feel like you cannot do it, I am suggesting that you pause, step back, and realize that you will not be able to get everything in place – at least not right now. Ask yourself, “which part of this do I feel like I can tackle right now? Which part feels like it will take some work, but not so much work that my sliver of work/life balance won’t be obliterated?”

This way, you can begin.

  1. Focus on what matters and be willing to let go of the rest.

Innovative ideas can often come packaged in ideals. And yet, as often quoted, perfect is very much the enemy of the good. We can strive to always ask ourselves, “what is truly important about this work? What is the heart of it? Often, when we name what the most important work is, it helps us to set priorities or to simplify the work ahead of us. We can always work on perfecting things, but let’s get the good stuff going first.

When I was in my 20’s, it felt like I was innovating my life. New relationships, new jobs, new cities and friends. But with each new huge life changing experience, I noticed things were falling apart around me. Heaps of dirty clothes piled on the floor. Stacks of bills to be paid. Unreturned phone calls. Before long, the new things  – relationships, jobs and experiences – paled in comparison to the need to maintain. I realized then that the only way I could create this new life for myself was to keep up the day-to-day stuff; this behind-the-scenes maintenance helped me create the headlines in the newspaper of my life.

We can be innovative. But in order to do so we must also maintain.

References

Russell, Andrew and Vinsel, Lee. “Hail the Maintainers.” Aeon.com. https://aeon.co/essays/innovation-is-overvalued-maintenance-often-matters-more. (Accessed August 6th, 2017).

The Lessons of Large Scale Literacy Reform

Guest blog post by Andy Hargreaves, Keynote Speaker at the 2014 Literacy for All Conference and Brennan Chair in Education in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College

Cover of OECD ReportLess than a year ago, I participated with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the OECD who do the PISA tests) to do a review of the educational improvement strategy for Wales. Part of the Welsh strategy was to raise student achievement in literacy and numeracy (math) across the country in a relatively short space of time. Our report advised that the Welsh Government should rethink this strategy. Here’s why.

Large-scale literacy reform has been in vogue in the US and elsewhere for two decades now. It has been one of the driving forces of educational change across the country and many other parts of the world. One of the places it began was in New York District 2 in the mid 1990s. There, the Chancellor of Schools, Anthony Alvarado, and his staff, imposed a literacy program across the whole system, linked to measurable achievement gains, and backed up with detailed new materials and intensive one-on-one in-classroom coaching.

Harvard professor Richard Elmore and his school superintendent coauthor Deanne Burney articulated and applauded the reform design and its impact on results. Diane Ravitch later took some of the edge off the achievement gains by arguing that some of them were a result of gentrification of the community, not of the change strategy. But the more important point is that when the San Diego school district became enamored of the model, and transplanted Alvarado and many of his team members to implement it on the other side of America in a fraction of the timescale, the results were catastrophic. Gains were not sustainable and open warfare broke out between district factions as teachers and principals buckled under impossible high stakes pressure for short-term results. What was the lesson to be learned? Large-scale literacy reform has to be grown gradually. It cannot be imposed impatiently.

Across the Atlantic, England’s Blair Government was also setting about large-scale reform by instituting a national Literacy and Numeracy Stragey (NLNS). The strategy had an extremely tight focus so that many schools abandoned other curriculum priorities to accommodate it, it provided prescribed and paced instructional materials, it exercised relentless surveillance over implementation through the use of coaching and other strategies, and it imposed high stakes consequences for schools that failed to improve.

Architects and admirers of the strategy like Tony Blair’s education adviser, Sir Michael Barber, claimed there were significant gains as a result of the strategy. Critics provided data indicating that the improving trend preceded the implementation of the strategy, they pointed to how the results hit a plateau once the easiest wins had been made (for instance by concentrating on what US scholars call “bubble kids”), and they revealed the existence of huge collateral damage in the form of a narrowed curriculum, loss of classroom creativity and the rise of teaching to the test.

One of the biggest problems was massive teacher burnout and professional disillusionment that led to a crisis of recruitment and retention of high quality teachers. What was the lesson to be learned? Simultaneous imposition of literacy and math reform requires teachers to change all their practice all at once and this is so overwhelming that it threatens the basic capacity of the profession to maintain its quality.

On the US’s northern border, the high performing province of Ontario also took on the strategy of large scale reform but tried to learn from the mistakes that had been made in England that it saw as providing insufficient support and imposing punitive pressure, and in San Diego by taking an off-the-shelf model and implementing it too fast. Inspired by the systemic literacy-oriented change efforts of Peter Hill and Carmel Crevola in the Catholic School system of Melbourne, Australia, Ontario created a literacy and numeracy secretariat that made these areas of change the province’s core priority. It paced the change agenda so that achievement gains would be steady and sustainable rather than spectacular but unstable. It also provided a stronger spirit and much higher levels of support than in England in terms of resources, training, partnership with the teacher unions and an emphasis on school-to-school assistance.

Ontario’s literacy gains of 2-3% or so every year seemed both steady and cumulatively substantial and sustainable. But even its more advanced strategy had its limitations. The literacy gains were not matched by similar gains in math over the whole reform period, and in the past four years, math results have actually fallen. In practice, reformers now acknowledge, the numeracy strategy was not nearly so intensive as the literacy strategy. What is the lesson to be learned? In practice, even Ontario, with all its change knowledge, couldn’t implement wholesale changes in literacy and numeracy together, so one half of the strategy fell by the wayside by default.

Wales introduced its own Literacy and Numeracy Framework in September of 2013. Drawing on the lessons of international reform efforts, the advice of the OECD team on which I served as one of two experts was, in effect, for Wales to have a literacy then numeracy strategy, or vice versa. Here is what our team concluded (OECD 2014, p76):

Effective continuous professional development and implementation of the Literacy and Numeracy Framework may …. require judgments about sequencing. To implement the framework requires teachers to learn three new things: new content in literacy, new content in numeracy, and new pedagogical strategies for effective differentiated teaching in particular. For a primary teacher, these three areas of learning affect all their teaching, almost all of the time, all at once. There is increasing evidence that this is simply too much. For example, in Ontario, the effort to implement the Literacy and Numeracy Strategy in practice meant that while great gains were made in literacy, the other half of the strategy (numeracy) did not get implemented to any great extent and in recent years results in numeracy have actually fallen….. Wales should learn from this experience.

This is a valuable lesson not only for the nation of Wales, but for all nations undertaking system-wide reforms in literacy, or math, or both.

http://www.oecd.org/edu/Improving-schools-in-Wales.pdf

2814615_origAndy Hargreaves is the Brennan Chair in Education in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. His new book with Alan Boyle and Alma Harris is Uplifting Leadership and is published by Wiley.

His sessions at the Literacy for All conference include:

  • Keynote Session: Collective Responsibility For the Success of All Teachers and Students (Grades K–8)
  • Collective Responsibility in Business, Sports, and Education (Grades K–8)
  • Collective Responsibility in Action (Grades K–8)