Flashy or Foundational?

“Teaching is not about us being brilliant; it is about students being brilliant.” 
Tom Newkirk

Recently, my good friend Tony Sinanis posted the following question via Facebook:

“Something I've been thinking about... Are we more focused on the pockets of "great things" happening (the flashy/trendy/sexy things) & possibly losing sight of the fact that certain foundational practices aren't solidified? If that's a reality, I think progress won't become a sustainable norm in our schools. Thoughts?”

This caught my eye at an ironic time as I had been pondering the very same thing. My own short answer? Yes we are. And, No it won’t. In fact, if we only focus on--as Tony calls them--the flashy/trendy/sexy things, and in mere pockets, no less, while subordinating in importance foundational practices, we are doomed, methinks, to a future in which the pesky, inevitable education pendulum swings all the way over to a “back to basics” focus.

via: https://goo.gl/McBcyH
via: https://goo.gl/5JkdwB
My second thought was to suggest that this is yet another example of an “and” rather than an “or,” meaning we need to continue to explore the flashy/trendy/sexy while also making sure we are attending to the foundational. In other words, we need both. Then, in another moment of serendipity, I came across a blog post by another respected friend, Dean Shareski, titled, aptly enough: “When the Answer is Both.”

Dean suggests that simply saying it’s “both” is a bit of a copout, the kind of thing we say to please everyone. It may be partially true but it can also be an unsatisfying answer and one that lacks direction. Instead, we should determine what we think should be the focus, then emphasize and lead with what matters most. Good advice, and worth considering when choosing between the Foundational or the Flashy in Tony’s scenario.

Although I currently serve in one of the most innovative (“flashy”) districts with which I am familiar, I still think we need to lead with and emphasize the foundational. If we lead with the foundational, we can get to the flashy. On the other hand, I worry that if we lead with flashy, we may never get to foundational and we will be forced, at some point, to retreat all the way back to basics, which is a direction in which I am loathe to journey.

What, then, are some of the “foundational” things we must lead with and aim for in order to ensure we we are poised to implement “flashy” ways of achieving our goals? Here are five possible foundational non-negotiables worth considering:

  • We must still focus on safe learning environments. Our first priority is student safety, including physical safety of course, but also social and emotional safety. If we fail to promote risk taking or fail to protect students from adverse consequences for initial failures, they will never feel safe with the flashy/trendy/sexy ideas we want to try in our classrooms. How are we ensuring that our kids will feel comfortable taking chances?
  • We must still focus on learning. Anytime we implement a flashy new tech gizmo, we must have a purposeful learning goal in mind. What will students know and be able to do as a
  • We must still focus on results. I know of nary an educator who entered the profession because they were passionate about standardized tests. I am no exception. Still, we must hold ourselves accountable for ensuring that our students are growing and learning. Are our students demonstrating growth?
  • We must still focus on professional collaboration. If we do not carve out time to share ideas and resources, observe each other teaching and leading, and look at student work together, we will never move from pockets of excellence to networks of excellence. Are we identifying bright spots that are currently working and replicating these?
  • Finally, we must focus on eliminating old practices when we agree to adopt new ones that are better. Anthony McConnell, an outstanding principal in our district, suggests that one of the easiest ways to innovate is to simply cease and desist with non-innovative practices. As but one example, many “innovative” schools still rely on “traditional” grading and reporting practices. No matter how flashy/trendy/sexy our instructional practices and tools, I suspect we will never be truly innovative if we try to marry those practices and tools with a traditional, centuries-old grading system. When we adopt new ideas that we determine are not only new, but better, are we also concomitantly doing away with the older ways of doing things that are now inferior?

Ultimately, as Tom Newkirk suggests above, our profession is not 
about us being brilliant (or “flashy”). In fact, some of the most

amazing lessons I have observed recently involved a teacher rarely speaking nor actively leading the learning. Instead, teaching is about our students being brilliant, with us ensuring that the environments (and “foundations”) we create and the plans we intentionally design allow our students to create, collaborate, communicate, think critically, and invest in their own learning. In the end, what is “flashy/trendy/sexy” is not what teachers are saying or doing, but what students are actually learning and to what extent they are growing. I fear that too often we focus on the cool things we are doing and the cool activities we are designing instead of leading with the learning. Leading with the “foundational” (learning targets, sound pedagogy, and results) while still emphasizing the “flashy” (innovation, experimentation, and technology) is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

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