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The Downside of Focusing on Results

Author's note: This blog is on a reduced posting schedule until July 2012, when normal posting will resume. You can subscribe via email to be notified when new posts are added. 

Over the past 20 or so years, we've sharpened our focus on student learning: Formative assessment. Diagnostic assessments. Pre and post tests. Clickers. Reviewing student work in teams. Exit slips. The list goes on. 

Beyond the classroom level, the accountability movement has held schools responsible for how well their students perform on standardized tests. I would argue that all of this has generally been productive, but it's taken away from our emphasis on an equally important aspect of performance: focusing on professional practice. 

Results are not the only thing that matters, because results can be caused by any number of factors. When we adopt a results-only approach to examining teaching and learning, we develop a near-superstitious paradigm, one that operates as if merely talking about data causes improvement in teaching and learning--or worse, that talking about data tells us which practices to change, without examining our current practices. 

While we should maintain our focus on student performance and results, we need to re-emphasize practice, for several reasons. 

First, when we focus on practice, we can concentrate our efforts on the things that are under our control. I may not be able to make all of my students read for 30 minutes a night, but I can make sure my reading lessons are as smoothly run as possible. When all that matters is student achievement, it's easy to blame students when the results don't match our expectations. 

Second, focusing on practice draws attention to whether we are using the right practices, and whether we are carrying out those practices well. These distinct but complementary issues are often ignored when we focus on results alone; instead, we tend to assume that students who aren't doing well simply need more teaching, without considering whether we are providing the right kind of instruction and whether we are providing it well. 

Third, our own practice is something that we can collaborate on and improve through cycles of inquiry. Practice is a nucleation site for professional growth. Working with a group of my colleagues, I can share what I am doing and ask for advice on how to do it better. This isn't possible if we focus only on results and fail to get into the details of how we are conducting our work. 

Why don't we focus more on practice? We know results are the bottom line, so we can't in good conscience say "I did a great job today, even though my students didn't learn anything." But there's more to our reluctance to address our practice. 

I think one reason we tend to focus on results rather than practice is that we assume our practice matches that of our colleagues, and that we're all using "best practice," whatever that may mean. In fact, best practice may mean something quite specific and powerful, but if we never describe and inquire about our actual practice, we'll never find out how close we are to best practice. 

Practice is difficult and expensive to share, whereas results are easy to record and communicate. I can bring my scored tests to a grade-level team meeting, or bring my school's test scores to a district meeting, but it's much harder to capture and communicate the nuance of my practice to my peers or supervisors. Video and peer observations can more directly share classroom practice, but most school schedules don't allow for this type of time-consuming professional development. 

One well-known exception to this trend is the Japanese model of lesson study, which is used occasionally in many schools in the US, and perhaps used consistently in a few. If you know of schools or districts that provide regular opportunities for lesson study, I would love to hear more and perhaps publish a few guest posts on the topic.
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