Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Character Clause and Bad School Rules

Tomorrow, the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame will be announcing its newest inductees, paying tribute to those individuals whose lifetime on-field accomplishments have earned them the right to be called all-time greats.  While there are always many long and involved discussions about who is worthy, what makes someone worthy, and so on, this year's discussion is quite different than any that I can recall.  For the first time, there are a significant number of players on the ballot who are known or suspected to have used steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs to improve their performance and perhaps to raise their statistics to Hall of Fame levels.

I am not going to go into all of the arguments for and against any of these players.  Wonderful writers over at si.com and the Sports and Earth blog and just about anywhere else where sportwriters lurk have already hashed, and rehashed, and re-rehashed all of these arguments, and many others, so many times that it amazes me that that have anything left to write.

No, my issue for this time and this blog is what is known as the "character clause".  According to the official voting rules, the voters are to consider "the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played."  While most of that seems fairly logical - basically vote in the best players - many people are getting hung up on what it means to consider a player's "character".  Some argue that steroid users, by definition, have character issues, since they effective cheated (whether or not that it technically true is not my issue here), and thus they should be kept out.  Others argue that the Hall of Fame already includes many people with so-called "character" issues, including racists, scoundrels, drunks, and so on - and so therefore this clause is meaningless.

Interestingly, I have never heard about the character clause being used the other way - as an actual qualifying criteria for the Hall.  No one has ever said that a player (for those familiar, think Dale Murphy or Don Mattingly) has below-Hall of Fame numbers but also was such a wonderful role model for other players or for fans or for the city in which he played that those considerations should compensate for the missing numbers and earn him admission to immortality.  In other words, the character clause is a one-way rule - it can only be punitive but cannot be advantageous.  It exists only to catch people for their misdeeds but not to reward them for their good ones.

As educators, I wonder if we ever fall into a similar trap.  Every school has its rules, and those rules are hopefully aimed at providing a safe and nurturing environment in which children can grow and receive an education.  However, we should ask ourselves if we have rules which do not really benefit the children, but do provide opportunities for those children to get caught and get punished.  Dress codes spring immediately to mind.  My school does have a dress code, but most of our focus on it is enforcing it and dealing with infractions.  Does that make the rule inherently punitive - or do we as a school need to do a better job of explaining why the code exists?  Similarly with cellphone restrictions.  Many school still restrict their use during school, and there is a healthy debate about that point.  However, if the restriction comes solely from a fear of the unknown, or if it comes from a good place but the students see it as primarily a noose around their neck waiting to be tightened, then the rule is not only doomed to be ineffective, but is likely to be a source of ongoing tension between student and faculty.

Take a moment or two to think about it - does your school have any "character clauses"?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Can We Assess Student Engagement?

A young and creative-minded teacher recently sent me the following email:

One of the things that I have been working on this year was creating a more engaged classroom atmosphere. [My Principal] wants me to come up with ways of assessing my ability to engage the students and come up with areas of growth that will lead to sharpening these skills. Aside for observations I have not come up with any other meaningful way to measure my engagement capabilities and level and I need assistance in developing a plan to enhance this skill. 

While I normally aim to respond to such emails within a day or two, this one took me some time.  At times I thought that I had too much to respond, while at other points it seemed like I was not sure if there was a definite and concrete answer to his question.  After roughly a week of pondering, I responded as follows:

Your question is a good one, and a difficult one to answer.  While student engagement is the holy grail (or one of them) of teaching, it is not always easy to know when students are engaged.  The easy way is to use test scores, although we know that that really only gauges their ability to cram in information the night before a test.  Looking at how many students have their hands up during class or otherwise participate is a bit better, although that is difficult to chart during class, and it does not tell us for how much of class those students were actually engaged - for all we know they are spacing out most of the time and then snap to attention for 10 minutes and participate heavily during that time.

It could be that the question is fundamentally flawed.  Perhaps not so much flawed as in need of redirection.  To the extent that the class is focused on the teacher, we are forever searching for the elusive way to quantify and assess engagement.  On the other hand, if we make the class more student-centered, with accompanying measures of accountability, then the students will be engaged in their learning for much of the time, as goofing off will not even result in an appearance of learning (something that spacing out can accomplish).  That is the flaw - are we looking for students to be engaged in the teaching (done by the teacher) or in the learning (done by them)?  I think that the more that we can make the latter our goal, the less we will even have to ask the question in the first place.

Of course, making the shift is in no way simple and takes a lot of work.  My advice to teachers in general is to pick a lesson a week or two away and think about how it can be done in a non-frontal manner.  You would likely need to be ready with support material and a willingness to adjust on the fly (and even to fail once or twice!), but in the long run it is amazing to see how much the kids can do on their own with your guidance.

What are your thoughts on the issue?  Please respond in the comments.