Toby Fletcher was a wise coworker of mine at Falls. While we worked together we were both trying to get back in good running shape and each day we would ask each other how our respective runs went. If I ever reported that I ran that morning but it didn’t go very well, he would respond with something like, “Heck, at our age it’s a win if we just walk out the door with our running shoes on.”
Getting in good physical shape, like learning, doesn’t always appear to follow a nice smooth upward curve. But if Fletch was right, and I think he was, then every time you hit the gym in earnest, or every time you open a book in earnest, you are indeed making good progress toward your physical or intellectual well-being.
The point is that it usually only appears that learning takes steps back. The reason it appears so is our misuse of data.
For example, if I ran today and fell short of the time I ran a few days ago I could interpret the data as a step back. (“I’m getting slower!”) But Fletch’s point keeps a better context and focuses on the essential. Will I be in better or worse shape after my run today? Surely better. Certainly better than not running at all. Why? Because exercise is a value. I don’t need daily data to tell me this, and I better not let daily data convince me otherwise. Exercise is a value, period, regardless of how fast or far I am able to run on any given day.
Likewise with learning. My oldest son is just learning to read. It’s pretty slow going, but I’m convinced that taking small, simple words and sounding them out together is a valuable process. If I were a typical data hound like many in education (see Applied Behavior Analysts for the best examples) I might be keeping track of every time my son reads a word correctly so I could see if we are “progressing” or “regressing.” Two days ago he misread a word. Let’s mark it down as another step with no progress, right?
Wrong! It was a great breakthrough! For the first time, on his own, he sounded out the phonemes, and then combined them into a word. He misread the vowel sound, but no matter! He showed an understanding of how to produce sounds from letters on a page and then to combine them to make a meaningful mental unit. The pertinent data is not that he misread the word, but that he sounded it out and combined the letters intentionally.
On a more significant level, the pertinent data is that we simply spent another day working on his reading in a systematic way. Intellectual pursuits of this kind are valuable for many reasons (apart from just learning to read) and can’t be measured by checking a multitude of boxes. Just like, according to Fletch, the pertinent data from my run isn’t so much my time (after all, I’m just trying to get in shape), it’s that I went running at all, because exercise is valuable for many reasons beyond being able to run fast.
There’s more to say about the supposed objectivity of the “data driven instruction” movement in education, but that’s for another post. Until then, let’s see valuable pursuits for what they are and not let impoverished data divorced from essentials and context turn us away from our physical and intellectual health.