What is Growth?

Albert Einstein Memorial Statue by Jeff Kubina

Not everything that can be counted counts,
and not everything that counts can be counted.
- Albert Einstein

I was in a meeting a couple of weeks ago and my assistant superintendent presented what she thought was the essential question for educators... "What is Growth?"  What a great question!  In fact, this is totally my kind of question; I think about this kind of stuff all the time. Over the past couple of weeks I've kept this question in mind as I've gone about my day, jotting down my thoughts in notebooks and on scraps of paper.  I'm going to try to make sense of these musings now.

What is Growth?
Perhaps the logical place to start the discussion is with a definition of growth.  The dictionary definition of growth is perfectly applicable to education but I wanted something simpler so, for me, growth is verifiable progress toward a goal.

Measuring Growth
The verifiable part is important to me.  A person or an organization must be able to provide evidence of growth.  However, this evidence does not need to be quantifiable, in fact, the best evidence of growth will probably be a mixture of quantitative data and qualitative observations. 

For example, let's say you have a fitness goal.  How would you measure growth toward this goal (i.e. how will you know what you are doing is successful?). You could use quantitative measures to collect a variety of data - like tracking your weight, distances you've run, and your heart rate.  But you should also pay attention to qualitative measures like how you look, how you feel, and what sort of feedback you are receiving from others (ex. "have you lost weight?").  In other words, a combination of the two measures will provide you with a more complete picture of your growth (or lack of growth... which is also a telling indicator). 

What I'm saying is that you should not rely on one indicator or methodology to keep track of growth.  You should strive to gather and utilize a variety of data to generate the most complete understanding of what is going on and use this to dictate needed changes.  When we talk about the problems currently plaguing education in the United States, I personally believe that our emphasis on quantitative measures of growth over a more balanced form of assessment is a significant part of the problem.  If what we think is important  can be only be measured quantitatively than I'm worried because how we measure growth will ultimately define what we teach and how we teach (and there are lots of concepts that I think are important that can't be measure quantitatively... ideas such as critical thinking, creativity, customer service, work ethic, etc.)

What Should We Measure?
How do you know you are growing if you don't know what to measure or what variables are important? What if you don't measure anything?  Determining what growth indicators to keep track of, and how to keep track of them, is a pretty important first step.  Again, what we feel is important and what we are attempting to measure should be in sync.  If we say we value critical thinking skills but don't measure growth in a student's critical thinking skills, do we really value it?  I believe that we should be measuring growth on academic skills and "softer" skills, like workplace readiness skills (or the so-called "21st century skills"). 

How we measure growth is ultimately what defines what matters.  If we measure growth with data gathered from standardized tests than we are essentially saying the content on those tests is what matters.  I don't have a problem with gathering data using tests, they provide some valuable insight.  However, we are missing a lot by emphasizing this growth indicator over all others.

Own Your Growth
I firmly believe that students (and teachers) need to have ownership in their own growth.  This means that students need to have a certain amount of autonomy on how they measure and document their own growth... wherever this growth happens - inside or outside (especially outside?) of school.   And boy, how students (and teachers) can document their growth.  Never before have we had so many different ways to document and keep track of our learning.  We can use twitter, write a blog post, make a youtube video, take a digital picture, and so much more.  Students can very easily create a living portfolio where they can see where they have been and formulate a vision of where they are headed*.  And this portfolio can be live for the world to see and comment on, providing feedback, insight, encouragement and more... it's pretty amazing. We can document growth in a way that we never really could before and so much of this can be done with a mobile device, so we can document our growth while we are experiencing it.

The Future of Education Reform
With all the discussions going on about what is wrong with education in America, perhaps this is the essential question that needs to drive our reform efforts.  I know this for sure, teachers need to be intimately involved with the answer to the "what is growth" question.  It can't be a top down process spear-headed by politicians, pundits, and textbook companies. Teachers need to have a seat at the table... students too.

To Be Continued...
I will continue to think about this question.  I'm really curious what other people think about growth too.  I have no doubt that my beliefs will evolve and change as I talk with other educators about growth.  I certainly feel good about getting something down in writing, though.

Questions I Still Have
Why are we so infatuated with quantitative measures?
How do you measure growth on qualitative variables like creativity or self-reliance?
How do I measure growth as it relates to my job duties (how do I know if teachers are growing in their use of technology-fueled teaching & learning)?
Why would you only want a handful of growth indicators? (which is what we seem to have today)

 

*For example, I'll be able to look back on this blog post in a year and reflect.  Do I still believe what I wrote?  How has my thinking changed?  What caused the changes?  I can then write another post...