It’s Not the Grade, It’s the Growth

It's Not the Grade, It's the Growth Visual Not
Image by @andCreative

I (Kelly) hear it in his voice.  A secondary vice principal is looking at achievement data on a screen I cannot see. I am driving while he walks me through the data. He is deflated and can’t figure out where “we” went wrong.  What hadn’t we done? Was it the success criteria, were we not explicit enough about students’ making their thinking visible to use for their answers?

The learning team had one meeting left and this administrator was contemplating scheduling an additional half day with his educators after the Christmas Break as so much seemed undone.  I was frustrated about the data being the end of the line. I didn’t actually know what was going to come to the learning team table. I just knew we hadn’t listened yet. We just had the screen. I didn’t say a word to him before because I was actually sick with worry, but I was determined to wait.

I told him many times before that day. You can’t tell them. You can’t make them and you can’t change them. We only have the conditions.  But there is the panic, the urge to fix, and prove with tangible evidence that all of our efforts had made a difference. The data on the screen was simply reflecting what we had not yet achieved. My perspective was different. The learning and the data had not yet aligned. I was also not accountable to the reporting in the same way.

Within those classrooms and among these educators and students I had seen magic in, what we like to call “the during.”  

The learning had been diverse and the thinking had been deep.  This group of educators had diverse curricular backgrounds and very different ideas about what they wanted their students to think about and why.  They were also requiring very different ways for their students to demonstrate critical thinking and this diversity felt uneven and uncharted. I loved it.  Over all of this, there was still valuing and assessing and holding up our worth against the the shiny product at the end.

A cold morning in December and two hours, four educators and visible critical thinking which needed to be effectively communicated stood between us and lunch.  The administrator, before we began, threw out the offer of an additional meeting after Christmas as an option for next steps. It was received with little enthusiasm.  Had they failed before they had even started?  The two hours flew by, student work, evidence of critical thinking, deep questioning, consideration of multiple perspectives, the use of specific details to prove drawn conclusions…the hits kept coming.  The educators could articulate the conditions they created for students to do the thinking.  That was perhaps the tipping point for the administrator.  I watched him lean in.  He wanted to know more and he questioned the learning as he bounced in his seat.  His educators did not relent.  They had been working an entire semester trying to figure how to hold students in the thinking and set conditions to counter one and done.  

The ‘next steps’ were so damn profound that the administrator stopped typing to listen as he forgot himself.  He and I, on my long car ride, had spoken about the need for feedback during the thinking – not just on the product.  It came, that profound moment when you know that the learning was no longer coming from him or from me but from the educators and the students.

“We need to figure out feedback and we need them to use it – before the end. They need to see the value in it and understand it because this is the only way they are going to move.”  I sat and I watched.  I had barely spoken the entire morning (no small feat) because I knew he had to hear it from them.  

He leaned back.  He looked at me and smiled – a sheepish, humble smile.  

They had awed him.  He wasn’t expecting it.  

What I love about this human is that he is open to what comes.  He may not have been expecting it but he was there waiting.  There is no additional meeting scheduled thereafter.  The final data went in after that meeting – targets, mostly hit, boxes filled in and explained but we decided to attach an addendum of our conversation with the educators as we couldn’t do the learning justice without simply giving more than the boxes required…it had been too juicy and there wasn’t a box for  that.


5 am on a dark winter’s morning  – a quiet time for a loud conversation…

K: I asked permission last night to share this story in the blog, the administrator said, “absolutely, it’s the biggest aha moment I have had in a very long time.”

A: Did he name his so what?  

K: It was the waiting.  The assumptions he made about the student results did not reflect the “during” that was happening in the classroom. I was really quite nervous to ask – in a ‘we are writing a blog’ nervous.  He has worked with me for 18 years – he trusts me and I trust him back. It’s why I really wanted this story to begin the conversation on The Beast.

A: I’m glad he said yes.  What’s our so what?

K: I keep going back to this  – You can’t tell them. You can’t make them and you can’t change them. We only have the conditions.  But there is the panic, the urge to fix, and prove with tangible evidence that all of our efforts had made a difference.  Being capable and curious doesn’t mean you have the right answer.  I think it means you want to learn, figure it out and try again.

we only have conditions

A: He needed to feel stumped by the data in order to be open to their learning and reflect upon his own.  

K:  I love the word stumped – it assumes he is thinking about it  The way he put out the offer of another meeting at the beginning and then asked at the end if “they really thought they needed another” after the morning was simply perfect.  I saw him realize.  I saw it  – the aha.

A: Our biases are our own built in obstacles to learning.  How do you know?  How do you measure when they have learned?  I’ve seen that aha in my students.  I never found a way to make it count for anything other than that moment.  That moment that brought us closer to realizing where we were and where we were headed.

K: I am not sure I knew what I was watching for.

A: We don’t know.  We won’t know.  But I think that the aha moments might count for something.  

K: We need to slow down and pull ourselves back to the learning beside.

A: Then I had a conversation with another colleague.  He and I talked about how it comes back around and around and around.  It reminded me of sketch note I created while listening to Lucy West. She said learning looks like a fractal – a spiral.  He is so patient.  Sooo patient.

K: I think patience is a thing – a big fat thing. You have to wait for it – you cannot ram it. But if you let it go by because you weren’t even looking…

A: Yes. Yes. Learning beside. I just want to know that they left feeling like this is important.  Feeling like they have to do something about it.  Critical thinking, empathy, whatever it is.  I’m wondering if there’s something to them knowing that. It’s inside the learner.  They have to practice the feeling of learning.  They have to know when it’s happening so they can name it.

K: Can you?  I want it all immediately and for everyone else…I am not sure I can name it – I like your word practice a lot.

A: I think it’s the moment you come back around the spiral.  The moment you connect one node to another unexpectedly.

K: It’s not the actual knowing – it’s the moment of growth…Not the whole thing.

A: It’s hard because you have to change your mind.

K: You have to be waiting to. Arms crossed waiting for the answer won’t ever be anything but level 2.

A: We cause the arms crossed from the front of the room in a way because we require compliance in our colonial set of conditioned conditions.  I’m thinking about Sandra Herbst.  She used the word Abdicate.  Step down and risk your own significance.  We have to in order to learn beside.  We have to be there when the aha happens for our learners.

K: THAT IS OUR SO WHAT – waiting for it to come back around and believing we don’t own the learning – patience is part of it but being so damn close you can see the nodes and not miss it is another part. I watched that administrator, he listened to them from inches away.

A: The reporting tool is not patient.  Neither is the system –  Simon Sinek and the little things over a long period of time.  We never wait long enough.  We never stay on the same spiral long enough to see the outcome.  Years of brushing.  

A: How do you design professional learning that gives you tangible results?

K: I am thinking about that word.  What is a tangible result?  I am left unsettled by the words of our colleague from just before Christmas that was in the context of student learning – I believe it applies to professional learning, “If we just look at the result at the end we essentially reduce and discount learning to a mark.”

A:  Learning is so much more than that.

3 thoughts on “It’s Not the Grade, It’s the Growth

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