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Are Either/Ors Slowing You Down?

“Beware the Either/Ors” is as important a consideration for school reform as “What will best help students learn?”

Last week, Annie Murphy Paul’s blog Why Kids Should Learn Cursive (and Math Facts, and Word Roots) got a lot of attention. She cites some excellent reasons and points to

…a raft of recent studies supporting the effectiveness of “old school” methods like memorizing math facts, reading aloud, practicing handwriting, and teaching argumentation (activities that once went by the names drill, recitation, penmanship and rhetoric). While the education world is all abuzz about so-called “21st-century skills” like collaboration, problem solving, and critical thinking, this research suggests that we might do well to add a strong dose of the 19th-century to our children’s schooling.

Note she says Add these old methods rather than use Only the old methods.

Too often, we in have acted as if  it’s either/or: Either we continue an old practice OR we adopt the new one. But in truth, often we need Both/AND. Sticking to Either/Or  when we need And is like locking an idea in prison. We lose the best of what we were trying to gain.

Hence beware the dread Either/Or. It’s rather like a monster that destroys any hope of the progress we’re trying to make! Maybe personifying it as The Eitheror would help us remember its dangers.

Think of the mistakes we’ve made in the name of Eitheror. Paul calls attention to some of the worst:

[list type=”check”]
  • It isn’t either math facts or using “progressive” methods. Children find it easier to explore multiple strategies to solve problems such as, “What’s the dimensions of the largest rabbit pen the farmer can make with 36 feet of fencing?” if they know their math facts.
  • It isn’t either phonics instruction or whole language. “Balanced literacy” approaches incorporate the best features of each.
  • It isn’t either direct instruction or inquiry. “Guided inquiry” both engages students in exploration and results in specific learning goals. It takes far more planning than planning a lecture, as the teacher structures tasks, prompts prior knowledge, and makes use of carefully constructed teacher moves and summaries.
  • It isn’t whole-class instruction or small group collaboration
  • It isn’t reading silently or reading aloud.
[/list]

That list incorporates many of the significant swings in education policies over the last decades. Before we jettison a practice with either/or thinking, let’s pause and think.

What if, as in the examples above, it’s both/and?

Have you helped your team think both/and? How? Let us know!

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Jane Kise

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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