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Are We Open to Finding Answers?

Before you read this, read Bill Ferriter’s great recent blog, Are We Asking the Right Questions?  He is spot on about the dangers of focusing too much on “right answers” when asking questions about what is and isn’t working in schools. “Why did this student answer this question wrong?” is a far different question than “Can this student use what we’ve taught to innovate in some way?” Bill points out,

Phrases like “what would happen if” and “why should we believe in” that play a regular role in the language of innovators and entrepreneurs are replaced with phrases like “do you know how to” and “what do you remember about” which do nothing more than emphasize the skills required to find the right answers to someone else’s questions.

As an outside consultant, I’m often struck by how reluctant or even afraid professional learning communities can be to raise, and then seek answers to, questions involving anything but instruction and testing these days, even when finding answers might improve student outcomes. !

One math team, for example, had set a worthy goal of teaching students to persevere. They sent the students home with an open-ended problem, different from the assignments they usually got, that could be solved in many ways.  The students were told, “We’re more interested in how you approach the problem and how hard you try rather than whether you get the right answer tonight. Show your work. if you really get stuck, bring in what you have. You won’t be graded down for not completing it.”

What happened? PARENTS did the problem. TUTORS did the problem. How did we know? The handwriting changed. Or, students were asked to explain their method and admitted, “I have no idea how Dad did this.”

I raised the question, “How do we get parents to stop taking over?” The teachers looked at me as if I was from another planet. “Oh, we can’t do anything about the parents. They correct everything so their kids can get straight A’s.” Emphatically, they told me in many ways that their hands were tied.

Because I firmly believe that The Answer to How is Yes, as Peter Block aptly titled his wonderful book on making things happen, I listed positive actions they could take:

  • Hold a class meeting, involving students in composing a communication to parents on the best ways to help with homework
  • Stop grading homework, emphasizing to parents that the grade will result from deep understanding–which comes from students persevering
  • Keep examples of homework obviously done by parents to show at open houses the next year, with commentary on how this interferes with classroom goals and student learning
  • Get the principal involved with a letter home to parents

While yes, I usually adhere to the cognitive coaching principles of letting teachers and teams unearth their own solutions, I find that if they have moved to a state of learned helplessness–“Whatever we do, things won’t change…”–I need to jump-start them to give them hope that they might find an answer.

I’m only too aware that with the number of questions teachers need to answer, it’s easy to ignore questions that seem on the surface to be answered best by “NO!” But we first need to ask, “Is ‘Yes!’ the answer our students need? If so, let’s start searching for possibilities.”

Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

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