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Educational Issues and Answers: Leaders Associates Meeting

Teaching children to join the “human conversation” is at the heart of the work of the BYU-Public School Partnership (BYU-PSP). In a literal sense, conversations cultivate a rich environment for democracy. To eventually participate in a democracy children must learn to think critically and evaluate information that is presented to them and then articulate their ideas to others. With these concepts as their foundation, participants of the recent BYU-PSP Leaders Associates meetings discussed the local response to President Obama’s speech to the nation’s school age children.

Twice each year Leaders Associates brings together the administrators of eight BYU colleges and five Utah school districts –the groups that make up the BYU-Public School Partnership. During these meetings, associates explore education's big questions, discussing how to apply and implement the ideas in their collective and individual educational responsibilities. The recent gathering included several presentations geared around the theme “Ensuring Every Student Learns.”

In commenting on the local response to President Obama’s recent speech to school age children, Wasatch School District Superintendent Terry Shoemaker talked about the pressure from his community both to support students viewing President Obama’s speech, and to censure student viewing. “It was a fascinating experience,” said Shoemaker. Ray Morgan, assistant superintendent for Provo School District said he was surprised by the parents’ fears that their children might hear different ideas than what is felt in the home.

Broadening the topic, Barry Graff, Alpine administrator of K-12 educational services and schools, noted that if students are to become contributors to the human conversation they need to understand history. “All conversations come back and bear on the human condition,” said Graff. Scott Ferrin, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Foundations at the McKay School added that the topic of joining the human conversation requires a discussion on speaking and learning English.

John Rosenberg, dean of the College of Humanities moderated the discussion, often referring to the article “Agenda for Education in a Democracy” by Gary D. Fenstermacher. Rosenberg also quoted Secretary of Education Arne Duncan saying, “Education is the civil rights issue of our time.” Noting that the Partnership and its foundational principals of renewal and democracy have provided a common foundation for discussing important educational issues, Rosenberg explained that from his own participation he has learned to “look down the road” and also to “approach his work with urgency.” He connected the contradiction to a notable maxim to “always hasten slowly.” He concluded, “In that paradox I think we have the essence of the last 16 years of the Leaders Associates program and what it has taught me.”

Accountability and Accreditation

The United States has a unique education context, in that 34% of its 18-24 year old population is enrolled in post-secondary education. This compares with 22% for the United Kingdom and 15% for China. The U.S. also has the longest running government funded and mandated public education system. After stating these statistics, Gerrit W. Gong, assistant to the president at BYU, used three questions to develop his presentation during Leaders Associates: How is a school like a hospital? How will we show we are better five years from now? And, was Napoleon’s march a compelling quantified narrative?

When asked how a school and a hospital are alike, participants expressed that some schools are more successful than others, that there are differentiated tasks and positions in both institutions, and that the administration and work of a school and hospital are performed by different teams. Schools and hospitals differ in that symptoms and treatments dealt with in hospitals are standardized; patients are not required to go to the hospital especially not a specific hospital; and most patients don’t tell their doctor how to operate.

The discussion finished with a statement about similarities. “I think the practice of being a teacher is both like and not like [being a medical professional],” said Gong.” “Content and pedagogy are needed to be an effective teacher as well as good clinical experience.”

Addressing the second question on how to be better in five years, Gong said, “find measures that matter.” He added that standards must be set and be rigorous, effective teachers need to be recruited and trained, low performing schools must be turned around, and the education system must collect data that track progress toward goals. “Find the stories you want to tell and then pick the measures that will illustrate your story,” advised Gong.

Transitioning to his third question, Gong showed a statistical graphic of Napoleon’s famous march. In a glance, the casual observer could learn that Napoleon’s journey of conquest came with a huge human price even for his army. He began his war with 442,000 men. By the time he reached Moscow he had 100,000 men. When he returned to his homeland, Napoleon had only 10,000 in his army. Gong hypothesized that the narrative educators are compelled to tell is opposite. He suggested that the story of quality education begins with a few committed educators “and grows over time.”

Asking his audience to document their school’s narrative, Gong concluded by stressing the need for individuality. “Every narrative for every school and district should be a little bit different,” said Gong.

Choose to Learn

Russell Osguthorpe, the director of BYU’s Center for Teaching and Learning, led a discussion that considered the emotional side of teaching and learning. To begin, he showed a video of his 2-year-old granddaughter learning to buckle a belt on her booster chair. After several minutes and some difficulty, but with loving encouragement from her family, she was finally able to perform the task. Upon being successful, the child excitedly announced over and over “I can do it!”

Participants observed that the child’s learning was relevant for several reasons: it related to her own life, she was given patient encouragement, the task was a challenge to her age and development, and her accomplishment was celebrated. Osguthorpe lamented that often learners don’t receive this same support in formal education.

Osguthorpe and his wife, Lolly, recently published the book, Choose to Learn: Teaching for Success Every Day. In this book they discuss the impetuses of teaching and learning, listing the “three Ds of success” as (1) desire to learn, (2) a decision to do something, and (3) determination. “As a person follows the three Ds, a person’s expectation grows. The whole process become cyclic,” said Osguthorpe.

From another perspective, good educators, explained Osguthorpe, powerfully invite students to learn, and then confirm each student’s efforts and ultimate success. After stating that agency and love are the most important elements of teaching, he questioned, “What kinds of things do we need to change in our practice, our pedagogy, our leadership, that would lead to better outcomes?”

Leaders Associates participants engaged in several more discussions centered on the meeting’s theme of student-centered learning. The group will convene again next January. To learn more about this program please visit this website, or contact Tiffany Hall, director over professional development within the Center for the Improvement of Teacher Education and Schooling at or by calling 801-422-8388.

To view many of the articles and PowerPoint presentations used by the presenters, please visit here.

2 November 2009