From the Blog

Chickens Under the Desk: Simple Ways of Solving Complex Problems

by Don Weafer 

My twin brother once said, “Don’t talk to me about proficiency when I’ve got kids under the desks pretending to be chickens.” I hold his warning close when I work with teachers because it captures the struggle of educational transformation as well as anything I’ve heard. When great ideas encounter chickens, the chickens usually win.

At the heart of the chicken problem is complexity. As any teacher knows, a single classroom of twenty-five students is a complex system, and any problem in that system is therefore also complex and seems to beg for complex solutions. In order for my brother to reach the outcomes he wanted for his students, he needed strong reading and math programs and the ability to differentiate for multiple levels of student readiness. But he also needed to know how to get the chickens out from under the desks and engaged with those programs. And maybe he needed to know if something had happened at home to that child that made being a chicken under a desk feel like the safest thing to be that day.

But maybe we don’t need a complex solution just because we’re facing a complex problem. A complex solution asks a teacher to become an expert in differentiation, social and emotional learning, and new academic standards—all at the same time. Perhaps a more effective strategy is to ask a teacher to first focus on the simple: to become adept at a single high-leverage move, test what happens with students, and then share successes.

Here are some examples of simple moves to impact complex problems:

  • Create or assemble your rubric first, then design the assessment while intentionally asking yourself, “Am I creating opportunities for students to demonstrate the highest level of skill in each indicator?”
  • Unpack academic rubrics with students. When teachers show students good work and invite them to describe that work in their own words, rubrics become learning tools rather than grading guides.
  • Change your gradebook. A colleague of mine shifted the categories of her gradebook from types of work, like tests and essays, to skills, like narrative writing. That shift drove profound changes in her practice.
  • Identify, commit to, and use a common tool or strategy across a content area team or within a grade level team across content areas. Students who see the same skill taught in the same way are more likely to transfer their learning across content areas.
  • Change where and how your school interacts with parents. Parents who harbor bad memories from school or who can’t travel might engage more fully at neutral locations near where they live.
  • Pick one strategy to let students know you see and care about them individually each day. Your students will remember that you cared about them long after they’ve forgotten the details of what they learned with you.
None of these practices, of course, solve complex problems alone without a system for adult learning that identifies successes, shares and scales them up, and coheres them into a larger school culture, but they help teachers feel that problems are solvable and that change can be positive instead of threatening. Under these conditions, I’m confident someone will figure out the chickens.