Sunday, October 13, 2013

Charlotte Danielson is not evil?

(As long as teachers can still use their intuition)

“Learning to trust your instincts, using your intuitive sense of what's best for you, is paramount for any lasting success. I've trusted the still, small voice of intuition my entire life. And the only time I've made mistakes is when I didn't listen.” – Oprah Winfrey

The other day I just happened to catch an NPR Radiolab piece on “Choice” and being “Overcome by Emotion.” Essentially, the hosts were discussing if we were all completely rational beings, like Spock from Star Trek, would we have an easier time making choices throughout our day. In theory, you think of course, but in reality it’s our emotions and intuition that keep us out of a circle of rationality. When you finally remember your favorite cereal from childhood, you are saved from the endless oblivion of choices in the supermarket aisle.

After sharing a series of interesting stories related to emotion and choice, Jad Abumrad came to the conclusion that, “one way to look at a gut feeling is that its kind of a short-hand average of all of this past wisdom.” (Quote is at 12:30)

Teacher Knowledge
I had a light bulb moment. As teachers, so much of our day is piecing gut feelings together. What separates a good teacher from a bad teacher is strong implicit knowledge of what good teaching looks like and how to implement it. Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan L. Lytle refer to this as “teacher knowledge” in their work on teacher action research. Listening to the NPR piece on the reality of intuition, I was excited that there was neurological evidence to support the notion that what teachers know is particular to teachers and is important in educating children.

But then I thought, “oh, no!” This does not jive with all these “teacher effectiveness” buzzwords I have been hearing lately.

Or does it?

Teacher Effectiveness Confusion
My first experience with the Danielson framework was while working with a student teacher last spring. She came to me concerned about using “low-inference evidence” to support her work with our students who were emergent communicators with multiple disabilities. I immediately thought, “you want evidence of what my students say, only? Hmm, most of them are non-verbal… how’s this going to work?” The student teacher gave an example of grading student papers without knowing who they were, so that you would not be biased. I thought, “great, my students cannot write and definitely do not independently do worksheets.”

This was what I was thinking of as I combed through the New York City’s Department of Education (DOE)’s website for implementing the new teacher evaluation system based on the Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, also known as Advance. (Because everything needs to have its own name in NYC, can’t just be APPR like the rest of New York State.) I was looking for a better understanding and I cross-referenced the DOE’s info with the Danielson Group website and other web resources.

A Danielson Framework Surprise
I have to admit that I have come to the conclusion that Charlotte Danielson may not be as evil as we have been led to believe. It seems that its our state education departments and local school districts in their rush for accountability that may be corrupting the important work of documenting what good teachers know and do.

Shockingly, I have to say that this particular PowerPoint from the NYC DOE was actually quite helpful. I appreciated that their definition of low-inference included what students say AND do. I also got the impression that this was about improving administrators’ practices, as well as teachers. I went looking for evidence that teachers had to be robots teaching to a strict norm, but I only found it on district websites about “norming,” not in Danielson’s actually work, like here.

Teacher Knowledge and Danielson Working Together?
I started thinking: is Danielson’s work finally what we as teachers have been looking for in order to prove our implicit teacher knowledge? I have always felt good teachers should have nothing to fear about being observed; could this be a tool that could confirm that we are effective teachers?

What Low-Inference Really Means
It turns out low-inference does not just mean grading papers without knowing who the students are, but can be something like using a checklist during your lesson to document that students are meeting specific IEP objectives. Low-inference has come to have two meanings in education: low-inference observations of what our students are doing by teachers and administrators and low-inference observations of what teachers are doing by administrators.

Because I am a special education teacher, I initially thought that everything I do is high-inference, such as observing children’s movements and facial expressions and drawing conclusions, and I became defensive. Actually, everything I do in my teaching is a series of low-inference (ie. evidence-based) actions that over time have formed my intuition. This is exactly why experience counts in teaching. As teachers, we need to think about it as taking evidence-based action, which will provide low-inference evidence for administrators. We need to specifically identify the parts of our practice that causes us to form opinions and determine next steps.

To eliminate confusion though, I wished they would have just used a simple phrase like “objective evidence” instead of “low-inference evidence.” The definition of “inference” inherently means, “a conclusion or opinion that is formed because of known facts or evidence.” (Merrian-Webster Dictionary) Conclusion is in the word, and it is confusing as to whether there is supposed to be low conclusions or low evidence. A low “conclusion from evidence” evidence?

Support for Teacher Intuition
Initially, I associated the Danielson framework and teacher evaluations as an attempt to eliminate teacher intuition. Low-inference was another buzzword for rejecting teacher knowledge. But low-inference is about being specific, which I think we as educators really cannot fight. We can no longer simply say that our teacher knowledge is immeasurable, but we need to be sure that the tools that are being developed accurately reflect the murkiness of teaching young minds. We need to let our implicit teacher knowledge shine, by investing the time to understand the Danielson Framework of Teaching and use it to support our profession.

So I leave you with the two questions I have arrived at today:
1.)   Are the Danielson Frameworks of Teaching an accurate way to demonstrate implicit teacher knowledge?
2.)   How can we be sure that the Danielson Frameworks are used accurately given the complexities of teaching students with special needs?

I hope you can help me by sharing how you answer these questions and I will continue to blog as I shape my own answers.

It is time for all teachers to channel our innermost Captain James T. Kirks, because as rational as Spock was, he and the rest of the ship would have been lost without the gutsy Captain James T. Kirk in command.

Sometimes a feeling is all we humans have to go on. – Captain James T. Kirk

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