Looking for Learning; Looking for Teaching

Some years ago a school I then worked at adopted a program called Looking for Learning developed by a consultancy in England. Two of the principles at the heart of the program were that pedagogy must focus on the learning that is occurring and that the best people to evaluate teachers are their peers. There were many reasons to admire this program, including the lucid, jargon-free presentations of Mr. Martin Skelton, but one of them requires some explanation.

The program took the long view: slowly slowly catchee monkey. We teachers had two monkeys to catch. One was to learn to recognize learning when it occurred in a classroom, and the other was to trust each other enough to give and take praise and criticism honestly and helpfully. Tricky monkeys.

Recognizing learning takes more than one might think at first. To suggest why, consider typical classroom visits by administrators. They take a seat in the back of the classroom, watching what the teacher does and taking notes. If they favor the method of record-keeping called “scripting,” they are so busy writing that they hardly even look at the teacher. Consider by contrast the evaluation that an old established high school of my acquaintance gives to applicants for teaching positions there. Short-listed applicants are required to teach a lesson. Two observers, an administrator and a teacher, attend. One of them watches the teacher, and the other watches the students. Afterwards they discuss what the teacher did and how well students were learning as evidenced by their behavior in class. They jointly arrived at a hiring recommendation, which the headmaster typically accepted.

Now let us go back to the monkey. During the first two years, what did the teachers at my school learn from Mr. Skelton and his associates about looking for learning? Almost nothing: instead, and more important, they learned how to trust one another, an ability they needed to cultivate first. They—we—did so by adopting a teacher-driven improvement plan and then seeing it through without the oversight of any school administrator. Of course the ostensible object of the plan was to improve the school, but the hidden objective was to bring the faculty over a period of years to the position of being able to work trustfully and productively together. What we teachers did not know at the time was that Mr. Skelton was also working with the administrators and encouraging (or developing) their ability to trust teachers to evaluate. They showed their learning by accepting our plan and, later, when we started reviewing each other, by letting it proceed without hindrance.

The result was a system of teachers’ watching one other and their students, of sizing up what was happening in the classroom, and of making recommendations. In short, it was what we sometimes called “formative evaluation.” As the best formative evaluations always do, these at their best combined the essential ingredients of trust, judgment, and finesse.

Finesse! Or, as Professor Barzun has it, “perpetual discretion,” the ability always to make and use fine distinctions and to size up situations flexibly and accurately. How different in approach, process and effect from sizing a teacher up by using a value-added learning equation. It admits fine differences and distinctions. It is human and humane. It produces more than the three results OK, not OK, and fired. I think that “judgment” has turned into a dirty word in education partly because people have talked themselves into feeling exempt from judgment and partly because they have experienced judgments made according to unclear, arbitrary, or unfair principles. And trust is the great enabler that binds the other two.

It was therefore encouraging and gratifying to find trust building up at my school during the operation of the first part of our program, and it is encouraging to know that it is identified as an essential ingredient in Finland and the Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools. Two qualities of the Montgomery County program that stood out for me were the parity of teachers and administrators in the Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) panel they have and the emphasis they place on having developed the trust needed to make the panel work—a seemingly Finnish degree of trust, but grown and developed on American shores. As in our school’s program, trust took some years to develop in Montgomery County.

How much is that trust worth to Montgomery County? Though I hope they consider it priceless, it can be valued at $12,000,000—the amount the schools rejected from the federal RAce to the Top (RAT) program. To accept it, they would have had to abandon trust, finesse, and judgment, adopting instead a scheme of teacher evaluation based on value-added learning as assessed by test scores and formulas. Dr. Jerry Weast, the Superintendent of the Montgomery Country Public Schools, said, “We don’t believe the tests are reliable. You don’t want to turn your system into a test factory.”

You don’t want to turn your schools into any kind of factory, including a test factory. You don’t want to produce your teachers as if at a tool and die shop. You don’t want teachers graded by an on-off switch. Rather, you want to have schools characterized by the qualities constitutive of Looking for Learning and Peer Assistance and Review: trust, finesse, and judgment.


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