Forget the label

A couple of years ago at my school we did an activity that required each staff member to bring in a picture of them self from middle school to display along with the following message, “It’s not about who you were, it’s who you are that determines who you will be.” This activity helped us show our students who we were as children and give them hope for their future. Beyond that, it allowed each of us a chance to take a trip down memory lane by flipping through old photo albums. While I was flipping through one of mine, I stumbled upon a picture I had long ago forgotten about. It was an image of me as a twelve year old boy sitting in a large cardboard box.

I grew up as a Navy brat. Having a father who served in the military meant that my family was asked to relocate often. As a matter of fact I attended sixteen different schools growing up. While we were relocating, so were all of our household goods. I spent a great deal of my childhood packing and unpacking. The image displayed in this forgotten about photograph showed a picture of me soon after making one of our many moves. My family had just moved into a new house and all of my toys and clothes had just been delivered. Looking back on it now, I remember that I had been asked to spend a month surviving with only the items that could fit into one suitcase. On the day this picture was taken, all of my other personal possessions had arrived. All of my toys, clothes, sports equipment, everything. When my parents came in to my room to take this picture with what I assume was a recently unpacked camera they assumed I would be playing in a huge pile of toys, instead they found a pile of my toys sitting on the floor next to me and me seated inside a large box, with a hat on my head turned backwards, and sunglasses on. I had turned one of our packing boxes into a fighter jet and I was the pilot. What the picture did not show was that the next day that same box was converted into a racecar, the day after that it was King Tut’s tomb. That box sparked hours of creative fun. Was that what the designers of that box intended? No way. It was designed to hold personal items for easy shipping. My parents had even taken a permanent marker to the side of it and labeled it Dave’s Toys. I had taken my imagination and turned it into so much more.

So what does this have to do with teaching and learning? This is not an article describing how to work with transient students from military families nor is it an article describing a strategy for utilizing old pictures of yourself. The purpose of this is to describe how the picture I found illustrates what I believe is a great metaphor for what is and is not working in our schools today. In education today, we are constantly looking for the silver bullet to student engagement, student learning, student inquiry, student assessment, etc… We read articles, explore Twitter, and attend conferences in an attempt to hear the trick necessary to increase our bottom line (student achievement). Unfortunately what we often do as a result of all of this learning is place ourselves in a box, slap a label on it, and lose our creativity. We think one initiative, one tool, one pre-packaged/pre-labeled program is going to be the answer. We try to find a script to follow; we forget we have kids to reach, and get frustrated when we don’t get the intended results.

A prime example is the work being done with assessment today. For the past ten years the  terms formative and summative assessment have been used by countless “experts” to describe how we need to evaluate student learning. Often teachers learn about these two formats and try to craft two different types of assessments to fit their varied needs. We are told that teachers must create a formative assessment in order to evaluate teacher effectiveness. We are told teachers must create summative assessments in order to evaluate student learning. We place these assessments into two separate boxes, label them, and use them only for their pre-planned purposes. Don’t get me wrong. Using formative and summative assessments are crucial components of high quality teaching. At my own school we have spent the last four years talking about little else, but what we lose sight of is the fact that the best assessments serve both purposes, not one exclusively. Placing a label on an assessment prior to using the assessment is unnecessarily restricting. Teachers should be able to give an assessment and use it formatively and summatively. The label on the assessment should not be applied until after it has been used. Placing it on prematurely places us in a labeled box. If we label it summative and we do not get the intended results indicating student learning, does this mean a teacher should not adjust his or her instruction? If we label it formative but every kid shows mastery are we not supposed to claim this as evidence of proficiency? A great assessment allows us to use it formatively to evaluate our own instruction AND summatively by assessing student understanding. It is how the task is used, not how it is designed, that yields results.

Assessment is critical. Teachers must be diligent to determine the validity and reliability of an assessment, but that does not mean they must limit themselves to the label. When working on classroom instruction, teachers must not fool themselves into thinking there is only one way for a child to learn. There are countless ways for students to learn, just as there are countless ways for students to show what they have learned. We need to avoid putting our students into boxes that are already labeled. We need to avoid telling students there is only one way to do anything. We need to know how the story of our classroom will unfold, but we may not necessarily know the themes that will emerge.

Great authors understand this. Titles of books are not written before the story is complete. They wait until they have developed an entire plot, then look for a way to synthesize the message. Singers do not determine which songs will be singles or the titles of their albums until the entire record has been crafted. As teachers we need to learn to take our labels off and just go.

I think about my oldest son who likes to play with Lego’s. He has countless sets. He has bricks of every shape and color. When his sets are purchased they always come in a box with directions. He used to follow the directions, assemble the pieces just right, and then…nothing. Once he had followed the manufacturer’s directions, he saw his job as done. He was not asked to be creative, inventive, or investigative. We now buy his Lego’s, toss the directions in the garbage, throw the pieces into a bin with the rest of them, and say “Have fun” and it is up to him to learn, create, and “think outside of the box.”

The kids we are teaching today will  be asked to demonstrate that they understand the world in a way that is much different than we ever had to. Sure they will need to be able to follow directions, but more than that, they will be asked to write directions. They will be asked to identify problems and create solutions. They will all be asked to serve as an engineer in some capacity. They will be asked to design solutions, experiment, trouble shoot, and fail repeatedly.

As teachers, don’t put yourself, or your students, in a labeled box. Of course you need to stay organized, but the only time a box needs a label on it is when items are being moved from one place to another. Once it has arrived, scrub the labels off and let the creativity begin. Don’t force your students to learn the way you learn. Let them learn how to learn. Don’t force them to be assessed using one template. Let them demonstrate understanding by being creative. Help them identify the problems, but let them generate the solutions. Don’t stick to the script when an adlib is necessary. Don’t tell your students to climb out of the box because it was designed for something else. If your students climb in, help them create something that has value. I am so lucky that on that day, thirty some years ago, my parents let my toys sit on the bedroom floor and captured a picture of me playing in an empty box. A box that allowed my creative energies to be utilized. A box that was designed for one purpose, but was repurposed into something that has lasted a lifetime. That box is a great memory. Had it only been used to pack up some old GI Joes, it would have been recycled and forgotten about. Because the label was removed, it instead has become a lasting memory. A memory that has changed the way I parent, the way I teach, and the way I lead. How can you give your students access to an empty, unlabeled box in your school or classroom?

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