Friday, July 30, 2010

What is success? And, how important are outcomes?

In my work I spend about 25% of my time supervising undergraduate peer mentors.  Peer mentors support students in their transition to the university, connect them with university resources, and become sounding boards for new college students as they learn how to learn.  Not suprisingly, these peer mentors are largely high-achieving, highly engaged students who do the sorts of deep learning that we wish happened for every college student.  

I meet with these peer mentors every other week to hear about their work with students, discuss challenges they face, and support them in their development.  One of the most frequent things I hear in these 30 minute conversations is "I'm not really sure if I'm making a difference" or "my students don't respond to me."  Essentially, the question these peer mentors ask is "Am I doing a good job?" and "How will I know?"

Those are fair questions, questions we have all likely asked at one point or another.  As a very young and very inexperienced high school soccer coach, I asked this question after almost every game we played (especially after losses).  Any time we lost I found myself in a dilemma:  I believed I was a good coach and that I worked hard to prepare my players for matches, so what did it mean when we lost?  Was the fact that the opposing team had scored one more goal that we did evidence that I wasn't successful?  These sorts of questions weighed more heavily on my mind when we lost 4 out of our last 5 games of the season after going undefeated up until that point.  Teachers face the same sorts of questions when they work hard to help students learn, but are then faced with test scores that are deemed unacceptable or below par.  

There was a time when I viewed teacher performance in very black and white terms:  If they can't get test scores up, then they don't deserve to be in the classroom.  I've softened my stance over the last couple of years and I'm not really sure anymore.  I don't know that I have a very good definition of what success is for teachers, peer mentors, or coaches.  My biggest question is how much attention we should pay to outcomes (i.e. test scores, pass rates, win-loss percentages, etc.).  There is definitely a place for measurment and assessment.  We live in a world that values numbers and percentages.  We like to count, sort, and rank things.  We believe that doing so gives us a basis to make accurate objective decsions about quality.  What's more, in an economy where resources are sparse, numbers matter a great deal.  But, when our work (and hearts) are wrapped up in helping human beings grow, learn, or change, a purely outcomes-based focus can be incredibly discouraging at those times when the people we work with "underperform."  

This post has really been a long and inarticulate way of asking how we can know when we're doing a good job as educators.  I still think that there are some key outcomes that we need to pay attention to, but some other possible indicators of success might be

1.  Effort, preparation, and thougtfulness.  While we can't control what learners do or how they respond to our invitations to grow, there are some important things that are in our control.  Preparation and intentionality seem to fit here.  Teachers and coaches should work tirelessly to be well prepared and to design learning experiences that meet learners where they are and that help move them towards meaningful learning goals.  

2.  Using feedback to improve.  While outcomes and measurements may not be the sole indicator of success, an educator has a responsibility to use feedback to refine the way they teach.  "Failure" (in the form of unsatisfactory outcomes) isn't failure if you use it to get better and change the way you do things.  

3.  Grit and persistence.  How we respond to challenges seems to be an important part of success.  While persistence in and of itself may not constitute success, there is a fair amount of evidence that the gritty, never-give-up attitude when sustained over time, does lead to success.  What' more, initial "failure" or low-performance provides nice opportunities for learning and reflection, and can be a foundation for eventual success (see this post on the virtue of being terrible, including painful footage of Charles Barkeley's golf swing).  

4.  Relationships.  I have always believed that learning is an inherently social pursuit and that relationships matter a great deal.  So, one indicator of an educator's success is the personal relationships they are cultivating with learners.  If a peer mentor has good relationships with their students (or even most of their students), I always take that as a sign that something useful is happening.  Likewise, the fact that my soccer players seemed to respect me and valued our relationship, gave me comfort after losses when I was questioning my value as a coach.  

As I finish this list I realize that this is touch-feely stuff.  I'm also willing to admit that there is danger in defining success in this way because of the slippery slope it can present (e.g. "Who cares if none of my students passed the class, they like me and I worked hard, so I am a success.").  So, how should we define success as educators?  And, how much attention should we pay to outcomes?

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