22 August 2009

Lumpers and Splitters

In the biology realm, there are two schools of thought when it comes to classification of living things: lumping and splitting. The Lumpers, as the name suggests, like to group organisms into larger clumps based on commonalities...unlike the Splitters, who want to separate everything based on minutiae. The field of taxonomy (classification) is a constant tug-of-war between these schools of thought.

I was thinking about this analogy the other day after having a conversation with an elementary school principal. He was talking about having to go to a workshop on Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in science...and then a couple of weeks later, attending a workshop on Professional Learning Communities in reading. Guess what? It was the same stuff. Why did he need to go to two workshops? And why should he encourage different PLCs for each subject area in his building (when there are only 3 or 4 teachers per grade level as it is)? This was a man in search of some good lumping for his teachers...and I can't say that I blame him.

I'm speaking to other professional development specialists, department of ed reps, administrators, instructional coaches, and everyone else who is outside of the classroom "supporting" those who are inside (yes, I am pointing the finger at myself, too): What are we doing to schools by being Splitters? By assuming that instruction for each subject is so highly specialized that we must provide support for it separately? I admit that content knowledge greatly differs---but good instruction is good instruction. Collaboration tools for teachers are collaboration tools for teachers. It's time to get over the idea that we have some special sauce to apply for a subject area. It's way past time to walk the talk and show schools how integrated we are with our work.

I said some goodbyes this week---farewells to those in science education who are going to continue down that path while I move in a more general direction. I wish them well. I admire and understand their passions and commitments to science ed. I know that they intend good things for kids. I think that I have just reached a point in my thinking where I am struggling to see the point in being a Splitter anymore. I don't see that I can do schools any good by being one of many competing voices for attention---instead, I can provide a more unifying message by modeling integration of these things. It's time to lump.


Dr Pezz said...

I teach in a high school and until everyone shares the responsibilities for students in other content areas, we will work primarily as separate subject areas.

For example, the reading and writing GLEs are written without designating which teachers in the school are primarily responsible for the skills listed. In my school this means Language Arts gets them all despite many of the GLEs being written specifically for other content areas. There is no shared responsibility. Thus, best practices shared regarding specific skills are up to the departments to share among their own.

I also believe this creates the mindset that not everyone is accountable for the learning of students, even so far as the WASL is concerned. "Well, I'm not responsible for reading" is a common refrain (or something akin to it).

While some best practices and teaching approaches are universal, others are quite subject-specific, too. The reaction at my school to a decade of general pedagogical sessions is to request content-specific professional development.

Regardless, without a shared responsibility, I don't see the mindset changing much. (However, I do think many general practices do cross over from subject to subject, just not all of them and these unique aspects should be addressed as well.)

The Science Goddess said...

I think that high school teachers see themselves as different animals because of content specialization. Sadly, this means that they aren't focused on kids and student learning needs.

HS teachers need to get out of their little boxes and go visit other kinds of classrooms: self-contained autism for primary students...music, world languages, art...5th grade regular ed...and so forth. The more you see, the more you realize that good instruction and connection with kids is (a) easily recognizable and (b) is not subject area specific. There are lots of things in common teachers can pick up and use.