Friday, July 11, 2008

Isolation should be a thing of the past

Reading David Mccullough's fine book The Great Bridge I've come to learn about some amazing feats of engineering of the late 19th century. Washington Roebling, the chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge needed to bury two mammoth towers on each side of the East River and to do this, he used pneumatic caissons. This technology was in its infancy at that time, but there was another engineer, James Eads who was using the same strategy while building a bridge over the Mississippi at St. Louis. The caissons, pictured above were a hollow structure that was lowered to the bottom of the river, then filled with compressed air to drive the water out and allow the laborers to dig deeper into the waterway's floor. The problem that was soon found out on Eads' project is that workers began to get sick from their exposure to the compressed air. Some even died. They were suffering from what later would be termed "The Bends". What's interesting is that Roebling visited Eads' site before starting on his project and was aware of the problems he was facing, but because of fierce competition, pride, and distances not easily overcome, the men did not share notes and details about their experiences. This isolation exacerbated the problem and led to far more suffering than necessary. When I picture these workers far below the surface, working in isolation in these stuffy enclosures, I think about teachers and schools. Traditionally, teachers and schools have been just as isolated as these laborers, but in today's environment, that isolation is no longer necessary. Because of modern tools (video tape, Internet to name just two) we can learn about each others' successes and failures and all improve because of it. The problem is that too many of us are satisfied to wallow in our lonely state for a host of reasons. When we struggle with students who aren't learning, we should eagerly seek out teachers and schools who have had breakthroughs with similar students. Or, we can learn the hard way and the slow way and lose a few more kids in the process.


dcowart said...

I really liked your post. You should look into lesson study, which is a philosophy used in Japan. It is a very collaborative way to look at instruction. Essentially a group of teachers create a lesson or unit together. They are sure to include school improvement, standardized test, and state standards data when planning their instruction. Then one teacher teaches while the others observe the lesson. The observation focuses on the learning and teaching. It is not evaluative of the teacher’s individual skills, rather they focus on the content of the lesson and its effectiveness with student learning. Then the teachers meet to discuss the lesson and how they can make improvements to improve learning. Final the lesson is taught again by another teacher in a different class. They meet again to discuss the lesson and how the changes impacted the learning. Then they evaluate the whole lesson study process. I did this in my school with 4th and 5th grade teachers, and it was very powerful. There was heated debate but the PD was the best I have ever seen. It forced the teachers to open the doors to their rooms and to discuss what works and what doesn't work in a safe environment. By the way, as the school administrator I facilitated the process, but stayed clear of their meetings and did not sit in on the observations.

danw said...

@dcowart Thanks for the thoughts. I really like the sound of lesson study and I'll definitely do a little research and try and incorporate those ideas into our practice. What a great way to focus on improving practice in a collaborative manner.