Find the Right Inch

It’s that time of year when almost any outdoor activity during the work week requires an additional accessory – a headlamp.

Last night, when I paused for my beagle to grab a drink at the water’s edge, we could see a ribbon of light on the horizon as the sun faded for the day.

2013 10 29 sliver of light

I live in a part of northern Ontario where every day, something grabs my attention and makes me just stop and gaze in awe at its beauty. As I stared at this sliver of light,  the interplay of colour along it was so complex as the sun set, it captivated me.

My focus on such a tiny, intriguing part of the sky reminded me of the work by Stephen Katz on “finding the right inch”.  He reminds us that thinking ‘big’,  and creating blanket, one-size-fits-all, mile-wide inch-deep school improvement goals is not  the right approach.  Finding the real problem, and going deep with a meaningful solution, is far more effective.  But first you have to find the real problem, the urgent learning need.

Last year I had the opportunity to work with Robert Dunn and Stephen Katz on a Case Management Project.

Student attendance at our school was a huge concern, and school-wide efforts had not been effective.  Instead of trying to solve the problem for everyone at once, we focussed on learning deeply about three truant students, then addressed the reasons why they were not attending.

We learned that the reasons for non-attendance were vastly different for each student.  No blanket school effort would ever work for these adolescents.  It was only by digging deep into individual situations that allowed us to begin to fully understand their needs and respond accordingly.  It helped us to deepen our understanding of the complexities of the issue of non-attendance.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to work with educators who were looking at how we teach math in our schools.  They worked on solving a problem, posed by the presenter, that students in grade 9 might encounter in a math course.  The thinking and reflections were very revealing.

One teacher reverted immediately to the “formula” he memorized when he was in high school.  When that didn’t work well (because the numbers were not “friendly” for calculations without a calculator), he really didn’t have any other strategies to go to – except to hunt for a calculator.

Others in the room used a variety of strategies – proportion tables, lowest term fractions, sharing ideas and working with a partner.  When we debriefed the exercise, I was surprised by how many different strategies people had used, and how sharing their thinking helped us to consider many approaches to the same problem.  Our understanding grew as we spent more time listening to each other.

The teacher who used the formula told me that he was always “good” in math in school, and he continued to believe he was “good at math”.  In reality, he suggested that he was actually good at memorizing formulas and at knowing what numbers to plug into them.

How often do we give people a false sense of competence when we just scratch the surface of topics, and then make them write a test?

How many people get left behind in this system that focuses on teaching (rather than learning) and the length of the semester (to achieve a credit)?

Math is not a performance activity. Focusing on performance (test scores) takes the focus away from what it really is, an opportunity for learning.

Instead, when we take the time to go deep, to focus, to slow down, and to observe carefully, we create the conditions that allow for real learning to happen.

2013 02 28 sunrise in red rock

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