Friday, March 3, 2017

The importance of conferences

"Scientific observation then has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment." ~ Maria Montessori

Let's not do this... let's have the bigger picture in mind!
Recently a friend sent me a postcard that had an image of a businessman sitting in a tree, sawing the branch that held him up. I reflected on how conventionally competent and prepared this adult seems. And then, upon closer inspection, it's clear that while he looks ready for the world, he's not prepared for the impact of his actions. (Or, even worse - he doesn't care about the consequences!) 

This visual metaphor led me to reflect on our experience as educators - and at times we feel like we are adults who are dressed like grown ups, look competent and prepared, but we may be sawing off the most important limb of the tree that supports us. 

So, while conventional public education mandates testing and assessment as the measure of student progress, the field of education is still trying to articulate the real meaning and application of high stakes tests. It does feel at times like we are whittling away at the branches of our tree. 

At Great River School, we use student conferences as a time for guides and families to connect deeply about the holistic goals and current success and challenges of students. Older students present their work and host the conference. The time is to not only discuss how the child is doing currently in their work, but where they've come from, where they are going, and what we can expect as the child experiences human development. Elementary students will be interested in exploration, rules, routine and play. Adolescents will be most interested in socialization, risk taking, real impacts, and their place in their peer group and society. The planes of development are predictable, even if in the moment we are experiencing challenges that are acute. 

Test results are not accurate indicators of success in college, in professions, or even in academic success. Holistic reports from teachers who know students - assessments that reflect the ability to persist through challenges - are the best indicators of how a student will fare in higher education or in a profession. (I've cited studies in previous posts about this - feel free to click here if you'd like to peruse references)

The importance of conferences is rooted in respect for the development of the child. We invite adults 
to attend conferences with an attitude of respect, observation, and appreciation. If adults have concerns about current performance or an acute and immediate issue, we would bring that to conferences as a question - or even ideally that adult need for an issue to be addressed would warrant it's own separate meeting to focus on an acute challenge. Conferences are about the bigger picture, and putting our current experience in the context of human development and the student in respect to their work and their community. 

And, while some conferences are simply a measure of numbers - our program is a process of student formation. We expect students to engage in challenges, to experience struggle, and to come out 
Poetry out loud! 
stronger for the experience. We want to hear about the goals a student has for their identity in their life and community - have they tried something challenging? Have they engaged in improving a skill that is a struggle? Have they performed publicly when they were shy, or tried stepping back to let their peers step forward? 
These are the questions we want to explore at conferences - what is the growth edge of a student's experience, and how can we as adults demonstrate that we have belief and faith in the ability of a child to develop, persist, and grow into the person they want to be.

Thank you for joining us in this exploration - and for the privilege of participating as witnesses to the development and growth of your child.