Wednesday, June 16, 2021

"Whatever You Focus on Grows"

As an educator, I've never involved myself in assessing the kids, or rather, I've never engaged in systematic assessments like progress reports or standardized testing or grades. I've done a few parent-teacher conferences, but only upon request, and only in an effort to shift the focus back on to what makes this or that child unique and wonderful.

School-ish people ask, "But then how do you know the children are learning?" Because I'm with them every day, I answer. Because I observe them and play with them and help them. Because I know them.

"But how do you know what they're learning?" That's a trick question, of course, because implied is this hubristic notion that anyone can know what another person is learning, and that all those reports, tests and report cards reflect something real. At best, these so-called "assessment tools" show us how well a child has learned the lessons of schooling, which is to repeat certain things back to a teacher in a certain format at a certain time, a habit of memorization, of rote, that is really only valuable in school, not in life, and which we can only call "learning" in the loosest sense of that term. 

As for actually knowing what someone has learned, that's an impossibility, especially when considering young children, who themselves, might not yet know what they've learned or what they are in the process of learning, let alone articulate it. The closest anyone can come to knowing what another person has learned, is to be with them every day, observing, playing, and helping them. Then, perhaps, you can make a guess, but it can't be considered anything more than that -- a guess.

But the biggest reason I don't play the assessment game (and it's a game that is fraught with all of societies problems, like racism and sexism, not to mention the whims of an individual assessor's prejudices) is that more often than not it's an all-out hunt for deficits. And as Director of the Educational Leadership Project, author, and presenter at the upcoming Teacher Tom's Play Summit tells us, "Whatever you focus on grows."

Wendy is one of New Zealand's leading advocates for a truly humanistic assessment and documentation approach called Learning Stories, a method that has been widely adopted across New Zealand's early childhood sector. Wendy tells me that Learning Stories are about recognizing "the power of every piece of documentation you write. Documentation follows you. If someone wrote something nasty about you or incredibly deficit . . . and then sent it off to another employer, how would you feel?" The focus of Learning Stories is on looking for the best and finding the best in each child. As Wendy says, "We know that's transformative. We know that, actually, when you start writing about that child in a different way, and you keep reading the stories and rereading the stories" what you focus on is going to grow.

Learning Stories are celebrations of young children. Unlike our deficit-focused methods of documentation, which tend to be periodic and fragmented, Learning Stories are an ongoing process. They don't live in filing cabinets, but rather in the classroom where educators, parents, grandparents, and the children themselves can turn to them again and again, adding to them, reminding themselves of what makes this child a unique and special human being. Whatever you focus on grows, and what grows from Learning Stories is a blueprint for supporting children to achieve their highest potential, which should be, in the end, the goal of all education.

I recently found my first grade report card in the bottom of a box in my storage room, a dead piece of assessment that remains dead to this day. Wendy, however, tells me of children, families, and educators who treasure and celebrate the Learning Stories of children, how they go home with the children, and how these stories will be shared with these children's own grandchildren, becoming a part of family legend and lore.

This reading and rereading and the sharing of Learning Stories far and wide is a key feature of this method, according to Wendy. "They're not just pretty stories to be left on a shelf. I mean, why would you spend all this time building these powerful stories if you weren't going to see them as a central part of your curriculum . . . and to use them in a way that builds the identity of this child as a learner?"

Perhaps the most harmful aspect of modern schooling is this focus on a child's deficits. It is a lens that distorts the child in the eyes of not only themselves, but all the most important adults in their lives, as their teachers and parents, out of fear, continuously focus on what's wrong with a child rather than finding what's right and magnifying that.

What we focus on grows, and what grows out of deficit will, by definition be disappointing and puny. But when we tend the soil of what is best about a child, or anyone for that matter, that's when we will release them to achieve their highest potential, which is, in the end, the purpose of education.


To watch my entire interview with Wendy, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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