By Tom White
One of my colleagues asked me organize a football pool. It sounded like fun, so I did it. It didn’t take a lot of effort; I looked up the instructions, pasted them onto a Word document, inserted a 10 x 10 table, printed it out and shared it with friends.
It may or may not have been legal, but boy was it interesting.
First of all, there’s a Common Core Standard – CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.3 – which states, “Follow precisely a multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks.” Even though we haven’t fully switched over to the Common Core yet, you would think most teachers should be able to perform this standard. After all, it basically says that 8th graders should be able to precisely follow written directions.
But I talked to 20 teachers, and with three exceptions, each of my colleagues glanced quickly at the directions and looked right back at me and said, “I don’t get it.” At which point I would explain the procedure and we would have a discussion and they would eventually figure it out, buy a few squares, and I’d be on my way, off to waste someone else’s time.
By the time I was done, I was left to draw one of three conclusions.
Choice number one: I work with idiots. Football pools, after all, are not that complicated. The directions were written in plain language and they consisted of less than three short paragraphs. It’s not asking a lot to have someone read and comprehend three paragraphs. This conclusion would be easy to draw, except for the fact that I know these people. They aren’t dummies. I work with some of the most intelligent and dedicated people on this planet. They’ve all been through college, obviously, and about half of them have master’s degrees. A third of them are National Board Certified. Tempting as it was, I could not conclude that they were too stupid for a football pool.
Choice number two: I work with lazy hypocrites. After all, these people spend their professional lives telling children to do exactly what they themselves wouldn’t do: read and follow written directions. I even joked about this with some of them, “You didn’t even read it! Of course you don’t get it!” This was another tempting conclusion; but one I had to eventually reject. First of all (again) I work with these people and know their character. They are not lazy, and they aren’t hypocrites. Besides that, reading the directions – had they chosen to go that route – would have been far more efficient than engaging in the ensuing conversation which ultimately resulted in their understanding the procedure. Lazy people take the easy way out, but that’s not what my colleagues were doing.
So I was left with choice number three: Given a choice, people prefer to learn by interacting with other people. If the only choice my colleagues had was to read the directions, they could and would have done that. But they had a choice. After all, I was just standing there. Looking at me and saying “I don’t get it” was their way of initiating a conversation in which they could construct a solid understanding of a novel concept.
As I was reflecting on this incident, the implications on my teaching were clear. Yes, we want students to be able to “follow precisely a multistep procedure.” But the scaffolding we use to get them there has to be intentional. If they’re anything like my colleagues, they will want to discuss and interact with that “multistep procedure,” and we need to be ready for that. Ultimately, of course, that scaffolding will have to be pulled away so they’ll be ready to sit down at their computer and ace the SBA. But even as we’re weaning them off our support, we need to keep in mind that interacting with others in order to solve a problem is part of the human condition. And when given a choice, it’s actually the preferred method, and the method used most often in most workplaces. Which means we need to spend at least as much effort developing those skills, even if they aren’t tested.
And by the way, who were those three teachers who didn’t want my help? One was the PE teacher. She’s been running football pools since her college days. The second was our special education teacher, who won a similar pool in a bar three weeks ago.
The third guy is a former lawyer. And he won.