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Research and Data? Teacher Wisdom? Yes, and…!

In Braiding Sweetgrass (2020), author and professor Robin Wall Kimmerer describes one of her students’ graduate thesis projects. The student was familiar with a disagreement in traditional knowledge about the most sustainable way to harvest sweetgrass.

This student designed her research to determine whether trimming the grass near the ground, as some basket weavers advocated, or pulling up clumps, as others practiced, led to healthier growth in future seasons. Both trains of thought, though, agreed on limiting harvest to about 50 percent of the total sweetgrass available. There would be plots to harvest each way, as well as control areas where no sweetgrass would be harvested.

During her proposal defense, the committee expressed doubts about whether the study had any merit. One committee member said,

Anyone knows that harvesting a plant will damage a population. You’re wasting your time. and I’m afraid I don’t find this whole traditional knowledge thing very convincing” (p. 155-6).

And what did the study show?

That the plots that weren’t harvested were the least healthy. It didn’t matter which harvesting method was used as long as the meadows of sweetgrass were actively harvested. The scientists on her committee were wrong; both threads of traditional wisdom carried the truth.

Evidence-Based Instruction AND Teacher Wisdom-Informed Instruction

My point for education is that we often have this same over-reliance on the scientific method to identify best practices as the student’s sweetgrass committee. If you’re looking for the perfect assessments so that you can adjust instruction to target student needs, consider that examining test data has little or no positive impact on student outcomes

Why?

More research is needed, but the studies suggested an over-focus on identifying student needs without finding the best ways to meet those needs.

In other words, assessment without solid, wise instructional planning isn’t worth the time investment.

What Might Teacher Wisdom Add?

Where are you relying on “science” when teachers already have the wisdom? Where are we investing time and energy and resources to discover things that educator wisdom already can tell us? Are you purchasing assessments or repeatedly giving sample state assessments when your teachers might already have faster, wiser ways that then release more time for planning instruction?

For example, one teacher assessed student basic understanding of fractions concepts by asking,

“On your whiteboards, draw a circle. Divide that circle into two equal parts. Now divide one of those equal parts into two equal parts. Write a fraction to name the value of one of the smallest parts.”

About one-third of his students named it ¼; they understood the key idea that fractions name equal parts. About two-thirds of his students wrote 1/3. They were missing this understanding. He assessed and grouped his students for instruction in less than five minutes.

I am not saying that we should forego data-informed instruction, but rather that we consider the interdependency of sound, objective assessment data and educator wisdom. The big idea each approach shares is helping each student succeed. Let’s get a better balance of deep teacher knowledge and necessary objective data to truly progress toward that goal.

References

Kimmerer, R.W. (2020). Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the TEACHINGS of PLANTS. Milkweed Editions

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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