Just tell me what to do

Paula's famous listsThere's a time and a place for most everything.

When my wife announces, "I can't stand living in squalor, we need to clean this house now!" I tend to respond by saying, "Just tell me what to do". I say this not because I don't care about our house but it's clear who manages it. I'm more of a high ranking employee (I think I may be inflating my position). I fine with that. I don't want her job. I'll contribute but don't want to expend much energy in the decision making process. While she might like me to be more invested, she realized a long time ago it's not likely to change.

Being involved with an abundance of initiatives, teachers in my school division often have the same response as we implement change. There are times when I can't blame them. Their plates are full and they are trying manage their lives and their classrooms. However I believe it suggests, like my attitude towards my household, they don't have much interest in owning the change. I'd be the first to admit that in many cases, these changes don't welcome their ownership. It is thrust upon them without much consultation. When they are asked for their input, it may be that they aren't trusting of the process given their past experiences. Yet many times when clear opportunities present themselves for teachers take charge of their learning, they retreat.

I'm part of a team that is working hard to model and develop partnerships with teachers. We recognize that in many cases we not only do not have the capacity to create the resources and supports for learning but also recognize the expertise we have amongst our teachers.  Many do take up the charge and flourish and relish the opportunity to co-create. We're smack dab in the middle of a curriculum renewal. This curriculum represents a major shift from the past. Fewer outcomes, bigger ideas and more latitude for teachers to teach and students to learn. While that might appeal to some, for others it raises questions like, what resources do I use? How do I assess? Where do I find the time to develop all the curricula? All important questions that are best answered collectively. As support people, we don't have all the answers, nor should we. Teachers have great expertise and should have their voices heard as we implement these changes. Yet many disagree and would be preferred to be told what and even how to teach.

While there remains some disagreement as to who is responsible for curriculum design, the larger question for me remains, at what point do we no longer accept the response of "just tell me what to do" in all areas of education?

This is a direct parallel to what happens each day in classrooms. Typically the higher achieving students are very happy to be told what to do because they have developed skills in giving teachers what they want. They're good at it and can remain a non-committed learner and have success as defined by high grades. The moment we ask students to take charge of their learning, it suggests a level of commitment, engagement and discomfort that many aren't willing to accept. Asking students what they want to learn and how they want to learn it is a shift of major proportions. I'm not suggesting we fully adopt a system where authority and guidance have no place but at present, there is very little opportunity for students to take control and charge of their learning.  I'm not sure we're ready to move in that direction  until we can get teachers to begin to own their learning as well.

If you're reading this blog, you're likely someone who already takes charge of your learning and you choose what to read and absorb. You likely rarely say, "just tell me what to do" on the big issues of your job. Compliance isn't always a bad thing and there are many occasions, when we just are as invested as others and just want to get the job done without a lot of discussion or analysis. But the shift to personalized learning, if indeed you see or believe that shift, demands students and teachers to take charge. That might be the biggest challenge of all.

So when is it okay to be told what to do and when do we suggest, and even demand learners (teachers and students) to own their learning? This is hard question no doubt and I relish your thoughts.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by shareski

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  • Scott

    I think it is OK to be tell someone what to do when they aren't doing their job (i.e. giving the students the breadth and depth of skills necessary). Some teachers in my building "squat" in a particular literary period, showing lots of videos, not all of which are connected to the content being taught. Then they complain about how little time they have to cover the content. In this case, they need to be told what they should or shouldn't be doing.
     

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  • Debbie

    Of course it's more complicated than "just tell me what to do," whether you're talking about shared housework or an education.  Partnership is preferable, especially in the higher grades.  During my time as an undergrad and graduate student, I was a very motivated learner.  I was a great researcher.  I discovered, however, that if I didn't much care for a topic, that I would just go through the motions. 
    As a medievalist, I could have researched Chaucer all day and come up with endless theories as to the marriage arguments made by the Wife of Bath and the Clerk.  I couldn't must the same enthusiasm for the Victorian Lit class I took my final semester of my Master's program.  My professor ended up assigning me a paper topic.  I ended up taking my only incomplete in my entire college career.  The paper I wrote thoroughly dissatisfied my professor.  Very lackluster, to say the least. 
    Fast forward years later to my marriage.  My husband is a world changer.  He's well read on a variety of subjects.  He's a deep thinker with a tremendous ability to integrate many divergent concepts.  For years he has tried to engage me in ideas that are important to him.  And, for years, he met with my resistance.  Many things factored into this.  Part of it was what do I have to give up?   Was I joining something or was I giving up part of myself?  One of the things that happened along the way was a shift to more openness and transperancy.  On account of that, I feel more at ease offering what I am willing to do or invest in, and I don't feel as much as if things are being asked of me, or, worse yet, demanded of me.   
    The same when is true when discussing housework.  If I am making clear requests and moving forward on my own, the more likely my husband is wanting to be solicitous of me and ask me what I would like him to do.  Sometimes things can feel overwhelming, but when you break it down it's much easier to negotiate.  Similarly it may be possible that if we engage, not as teacher and student, but as a team, that more learning happens.  Can't be all on the student or all on the teacher.  Otherwise mountain of clutter or mountain of learning makes no matter.  Nothing will get done, and people will remain entrenched.  Doesn't necessarily take a lot of discussion, but it does require openness and desire to stay engaged. 
     
     

  • Don't get me started on this Dean 🙁

    • Go for it. I’m talking about teachers, they ought to be able to talk back.

  • Dan Agins

    Ironically, we teachers get upset when students don't think on their own. We tend to complain about spoon feedind them all of the time. We need to look in the mirror a bit more, I suppose.

  • I find much truth in what I read this morning; thank you for voicing these thoughts/ideas/questions.  In our small school district we are also working on a deeper level of engagement and commitment from our students and staff.  One of the ways we are attempting to do this is by providing teachers time to design this type of work for their students.  Teachers are given 1 or 2 days to design units where the learner is central to the process. The process is built upon beginning with student voice – who are our learners and how do they want to learn and demonstrate that learning?  We learn this by asking the students! We then design their learning by matching activities/lessons/products to them.  This thought process comes from our ongoing work with Dr. Phil Schlechty and his senior associates at the Schlechty Center (www.schlechtycenter.org).  They have a fantastic animation (The Way Things Are, The Way Things Should Be) on their website that really talks about the role of students/teachers in school's today and what it should be like if our school's were run as learning organizations vs bureacracies.  I highly recommend viewing it!
    Thanks again Dean for getting this conversation started today :).
    Elaine Smith
    http://www.twitter.com/fifewow

  • I think that for some students, "tell me what to do" may be related to their sense of self-efficacy. They want to do well and please the teacher, so maybe they want reassurance that they are doing the right thing.
    Maybe the same thing is happening with teachers? Teachers want to do their job well and enhance their students learning as much as possible. They still have those time restrictions that you talk about, though, so quite often they want (in my experience) some solid, concrete ideas about what to do in their classroom. Theories about PLNs and constructivist pedagogies are great, but what can I do with my class tomorrow that is going to make them learn better. (Aside – it would be nice if that were rephrased as making our students "better learners" instead of "learning better", but I would bet that most teachers would phrase it the former way rather than the latter).
    As for the domestic situation, I can sympathize. My theory is that the difference has to do with male versus female task oriented group dynamics. My observation is that women want to have task assignment handled in a more consensual way with all members of the group involved in choosing their jobs. Men work more hierarchically – there's one quarterback on the team (however he might be chosen) and the rest do the job assigned to them. I know I'm biased but I think our way is better at getting the job done quickly. 

  • I know that I'm guilty of sometimes having the mentality of "Just tell me what to do". We all are, but nothing innovative would ever be done if we all waited to be told what to do. 
    I do agree with Rob that students and teachers (and employees and spouses and our children) often take an attitude of tell me what to do because we want to be liked or want to avoid conflict. I wonder if this is part of what Ken Robinson was talking about when he said that society tells us that it's always wrong to make a mistake.
    We should be teaching our students how to comfortably make some of their own decisions about their learning, and we should be practicing in our own learning as well. 

  •  
    “[Some teachers] don't have much interest in owning the change. I'd be the first to admit that in many cases, these changes don't welcome their ownership. It is thrust upon them without much consultation. When they are asked for their input, it may be that they aren't trusting of the process given their past experiences. Yet many times when clear opportunities present themselves for teachers take charge of their learning, they retreat.”
     
     
    I have to speak to my own experience and not generalize to my colleagues. I began teaching pretty much the point when the Saskatchewan Minister of Education initiated a general review of education in Saskatchewan. The result of that review was a report entitled Directions (1984). What followed as a new Core Curriculum. Core Curriculum was designed to provide all Saskatchewan students with an education that stressed the teaching of conceptual knowledge and basic skills/abilities, and introduced an expanded range of new skills, abilities and processes to the curriculum. The major components of Core Curriculum are the Required Areas of Study and the Common Essential Learnings. Provision in Core Curriculum was made for Locally Determined Options to meet needs at the local level and the Adaptive Dimension (an almost mystical phrase that tripped off the tongue lightly when you needed to justify virtually any divergence). The Adaptive dimension provided opportunities for teachers to meet the diverse needs of all students. Saskatchewan Education established policy that provided a mandate for including material in its curricula on Indian and Métis People, and Gender Equity, implement resource-based teaching and learning, and incorporate the Common Essential Learnings (C.E.L.s) into instruction (from the Social Studies 9 curriculum guide). School PLUS was introduced in 2001 and now we have the continuous improvement framework, assessment for learning, professional learning communities, and a new curriculum implementation that strike me as oddly reminiscent of the curriculums written prior to the big push in 1984. You have to know that I have overlooked something on this summary.
    I was an agent of change in many of these implementations and argued passionately for some. I was never at the inception of these curriculum changes but I do recall that most were responses to careful consultation. Never-the-less they had the flavour of top down change during implementation. While all this was going on we all had our personal growth projects. In the 1980s, mine were independent learning contracts and gifted programs. It was action research without the slightly bitter flavouring of SMART goals and Tweet-like accountability forms (the spaces require you to summarize in 140 characters or less). I spoke of this in an earlier response I think. At their best, my projects are needs based and inevitably compete with mandated goals. I don’t retreat, but multitasking does fragment me.
    This curriculum represents a major shift from the past. Fewer outcomes, bigger ideas and more latitude for teachers to teach and students to learn… Teachers have great expertise and should have their voices heard as we implement these changes. Yet many disagree and would be preferred to be told what and even how to teach.”
    I think this response reflects the complexity of curriculum and the difficulties we now have establishing expertise in curriculum areas. I had a remarkable run of fifteen years teaching English Language Arts and Social Studies from grades seven through twelve. Administration and subsequent reassignments has led to curriculum changes every two years. There are times I need someone to hand it to me. The bloated Core Curriculum documents with their Activity Guides were a response to this need and we tend to forget that the spare curriculums of my childhood were bolstered by textbooks and teacher’s guides, and that quite frankly differentiated learning and assessment for learning were not real expectations. My wife Lory will probably beat me to death with this laptop, but there are times when my principal role seems to be guessing her intentions in a conversation. I simply suspend offering opinions and ask her what she wants. There are “big ideas” out there and effective methodologies to implement them. Affecting change may require some direct instruction. Frankly, if it was obvious or easy, we would be doing it already.
    “The moment we ask students to take charge of their learning, it suggests a level of commitment, engagement and discomfort that many aren't willing to accept. Asking students what they want to learn and how they want to learn it is a shift of major proportions. I'm not suggesting we fully adopt a system where authority and guidance have no place but at present, there is very little opportunity for students to take control and charge of their learning.  I'm not sure we're ready to move in that direction until we can get teachers to begin to own their learning as well.”
    Dean’s right, we are nowhere close to asking students what they want to learn or how they want to learn it. That observation holds true from kindergarten all the way to graduate school. Along with the competing interests of personal finance and family, my failure to complete my Master’s thesis might best be attributed to a lack of SMART goals (If you are unfamiliar with that acronym then it is simply another example of our fragmented discourse.).  I would turn the problem around. We will not be able to get the students to take control of their learning until we understand the barriers that exist to teachers in taking control of their learning. When we can reduce these poorly addressed barriers to change we might step forward. I think we continue to gloss over the paradox here.  We want students to own the learning but we don’t want them to own the goals. We set the goals and despite rhetoric to the contrary, we measure the outcomes. We want them to co-opt our goals and acquiesce to our methodology within our strict time frame and geography. I do housework in the Stange home. My wife is pretty pleased with me because I know exactly how she wants it done. 

  • At the start of the year I gave my Year 4 students some goals for quality learning and one of these was “take charge”. Throughout the year I sought opportunities to hand over more control to students. I noticed that even when choice was given, students generally stuck together and made the same choices. There were, however, a few who stepped out and took a different route. I think that as teachers we are responsible for setting high expectations and providing some sort of guidelines for what this looks like, leaving room for choice when it comes to the specifics. As my husband often tells me: “Tell me what to do or how to do it but not both!”

  •  I wish my husband, said "just tell me what to do" when those urges come over me!

  • You know, Dean, the real barrier in my eyes is that us accomplished-teacher-types still don't believe all y'all working outside the classroom when you say that you want to engage us in meaningful tasks.  We've been burned time and again, investing tons of energy and effort in providing feedback and developing new directions only to be told at some point in the process that what we're imagining just isn't possible that we know better than to dream. 
    We've seen countless situations where district leaders with real organizational power have taken over and scrapped plans that we believe in.  We've seen countless situations where critics of the systems we design—whether they are parents or outside organizations with agendas—have made enough noise that school leaders backtrack on ideas that we implement.  We've seen countless situations where we've been invited to the table only to find out that those in charge are just looking for us to rubber stamp their decisions.
    So we're skeptics—and rightfully so—whenever well-intentioned leaders try to engage us, and that's a challenge that those of you working beyond the classroom need to embrace.  You need to prove to us time and again that you value our input and that you're looking for a real conversation with us before we'll begin to reinvest.  Once we see that you'll support our decisions even when they don't align with any predetermined outcomes, we'll feel empowered enough to participate in a meaningful way. 
    Until then, we'll continue to weigh the costs of doing business against the potential for rewarding professional experiences—-and in most cases, we'll sit on the sidelines.  There just isn't enough trust in most circumstances to convince us that y'all really care about what we have to say. 
    Any of this make sense? 
    Bill
    PS:  Know that I don't doubt your intentions.  I've read enough Dean Shareski pieces that I'd be on board in your district in no time.  I believe in you.
    It's the broader system that I doubt.  There aren't a whole lot of Deans making decisions in our schools.

  • Deborah Meier keeps reminding me of a Ted Sizer phrase: Education should teach students how to "use their minds well." I can think of no better way to strengthen our job market, our non-profits, and our democracy than to develop people who can use their minds well.
    I would venture to say that teachers and administrators have to model this as we instill it in our students. This means ownership, from the ground up, of every contributing factor to public education. Teachers must take ownership of state and federal policy through activism, we have to take ownership of funding and spending policy on a district level, we have to take ownership of our school missions and visions. We also need to own all the particulars that accompany education: standards, objectives, instruction, learning, assessment, success, failure, remediation, enrichment, professional development, innovation, celebration and community outreach.
    For too long, teachers have abdicated responsibility to others. Some things, however, cannot not be outsourced: starting a business, shaping a democracy, loving others, and education.

  • "…at what point do we no longer accept the response of "just tell me what to do" in all areas of education?"  Perhaps the turning point will be when we no longer mistake "just tell me what to do" as being synonymous with "yes, I support the latest initiative"?  I know a fair number of teachers who succeed nicely by playing the "I'm on board!" game rather than raise a stink.  They're seen as team players in stark contrast with the pessimists. 

    Does that make any sense?

  • Nancy Jackson

    As to teachers not "owning the change," I think one of my administrators summed it up pretty well when he said, "We want you to feel like you have input into this decision."  To which I replied, "That is the problem, you want us to feel like we have input, but you don't really want to give us any real decision making ability."

  • I don't think there is nearly enough ownership of learning in schools. Reading your post made me think about thinking. In many classrooms, students aren't asked to think, they aren't expected to think and they aren't taught to think. I teach art and photography and the learning environment in my classroom does demand that students take ownership of their learning and think for themselves and alongside others.
    I love making students think. In my classroom there is very rarely one correct answer or one way to do something. Suggestions are made and techniques or processes are demonstrated (usually by senior students as much as by me) but very rarely is anyone told what to do. Choice is everywhere and thnking is absolutely necessary.
    As far as my ownership of my teaching, I love the openness of the visual arts curriculum. I can bend it and shape it to fit my students as needed. I often wonder what I'll do when I go back to being an elementary classroom teacher (my beginnings as a teacher and a place I hope to return to in a few years) because I'll have to work with the specific learning outcomes associated with math and science. I used to like those because I felt they were easier to teach, now I'm not so sure.
    Just a few thoughts. Thanks for making me think…

  • Scott M

    Unfortunately, administration and management tends to swing between the extremes of this issue.  Either the employees are entirely responsible and given no guidance, or they must follow rigid practices with no deviation.
    I think the key is to establish minimum, specific expectations first.  This satisfies the "just tell me what to do" part of everyone's personality.  But then you offer additional levels of responsibility above that that are entirely optional
    By giving people a structure that they can fall back upon, you offer two things:
    1. Its a safety net.  People know that , no matter what, if they at least get these things done, then they are at least meeting their job requirements.
    2. It's a starting point.  People can be more creative if they aren't using up all their energy just figuring out what to do on a daily basis.