Alan Dichter Memoire

The Question

There’s nothing quite like the right question…

Looking back, I can honestly say it was the most powerful question I ever heard asked in a staff meeting; the distilled essence of a probing question.  It took about five years of very hard work to answer it and, in the process, teaching and learning at our school were transformed. Let me tell you about it.

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It was 1991 and “Graduation by Exhibition” was something that many high schools in the Coalition of Essential Schools were tackling.  The staff of our small New York City high school was diligently working on clarifying their expectations for graduation exhibition portfolios.  We’d been at it months. The sheets of newsprint were saved and re-posted at each meeting --“What do we want students to know and be able to do when they graduate, and how will they demonstrate it?”  A fine question, but not THE question. That would come later.

The lists got longer and longer with every session, of course. There were just so many worthy things that couldn’t possibly be left out. One could feel very proud of the group’s work – they basically had it all up there.  Of course no one, not for one minute, actually thought that any student could really know and would be able to do it all well by the time they graduated– it was a wish list and everyone knew it.  Many of the items had been talked about, off and on, for years and nothing much was ever really done about them. I remember asking if the list was “what students needed to know and be able to do in order to graduate” or was a list of “wouldn’t it be nice if…”

But editing the list continued to be difficult, because everything was worthy, despite the fact that everyone could see the totality of skills and content was quite unrealistic.  And we had had no discussion at all about what and how we might need to teach in order to get to many of the things on the “wish” list.  Our discussions so easily and quickly went from energizing to deflating.  What were we really doing here?

And then came THE question. No one actually remembers who asked it, but everyone remembered hearing it:  “Maybe instead of asking ourselves ‘what do students need to know and be able to do in order to graduate,’ we should first ask ourselves, ‘What do students need to know and be able to do to succeed in this school?’”…. A collective pause… “What do students need to know and be able to do to succeed in this school?”… Hmm…  “And let’s assume for a minute that we will have to teach them to do these things (which we can’t assume they already know how to do).” Another pause.  “And let’s also assume we want them to collect and organize evidence from our classes.  Wouldn’t it be worthy to identify a few things we can agree that students need to know and be able to do to succeed in our classes, and then go about teaching them and having them collect evidence?  The students would learn worthy things. We’d learn a great deal also wouldn’t we?  Isn’t that what we should be doing after all?”  Hmm…

The conversation began to accelerate. Energy began to flow again. What do students need to know and be able to do to succeed in this school?  Revise their work!  Yes, indeed.  Do we teach that? Or do we simply ask for it, and the kids who can already do it succeed and those who can’t? Well, we ask them again nicely and give them more time.  And if we intend for it to be more than just making it neat and correcting their spelling, we also need to be clear about exactly what we want, and we need to give them feedback connected clearly to those expectations.  And students will need to know those expectations explicitly. Who could argue against that?  So, what if the ability to revise your work in connection to commonly understood expectations based on various forms of feedback was something we thought our students need to be able to do to succeed in this school?  Well, that means… now we have to teach them to do it and we have to provide the kind of assignments that allow them to produce the evidence we want to see.  It was a classic form of “Understanding by Design”.

You could see the wheels turning.  Oh, my!  So many things will need to change in my class:  fewer essays, if multiple drafts are expected; the students will need to actually be able to use any rubric we devise; my feedback needs to be more precise.  And if we want peer feedback on first drafts, there’s even much more to do.  But I have my own way of doing things and my favorite assignments which the students like, but which may not actually produce much evidence of anything. Hmm…

It became clear that agreeing about what we wanted students to know and be able to do to succeed in our school was in many ways more daunting than agreeing on a list of graduation expectations.  It was all about defining our priorities in teaching, and it forced a discussion which demanded a pedagogical coherence across the school far more powerful than anyone could have predicted.

Over the five subsequent years, the list of “know and be able to do to succeed in the school” grew modestly but thoughtfully.  We didn’t add anything until we felt we had made sufficient progress on what was already on the table – until we were assured that we could teach students to do it and they could in turn produce the evidence --taking notes (a fascinating discussion, since all agreed it had to be more than copying off the board); “close” reading (strategies for  accessing and making meaning of various texts); working intensely in groups; discussion & presentation; independent work; and eventually, numeracy across the curriculum.

In particular, I remember one conversation that happened about two years into the endeavor.  The staff had kept writing samples from a large group of students when they entered the school, and had also collected additional samples from the same students about a year and half later.  And, let me also say that this was a great staff – smart, committed, everything you could possible want.  The room was silent as they looked at the work.  Finally Susan spoke, “I think no one in this room actually thought our students could do this well.  We only thought we had high standards.  We really didn’t.  We had no idea what our students could do if we worked together.”

And we had really just begun.  I learned a great deal about the dynamics of staff setting, and then achieving, high expectations for students.  It’s not just an intellectual exercise. I’ve come to believe that it may have more to do with just how much individual teachers believe in themselves.  It wasn’t until the (very talented) staff got beyond doing great individually and began to work in an interdependent fashion that they were able to actualize some of the more ambitious goals.  Being in each other’s classroom became routine and it became necessary. Our faculty named the approach “Learning to Learn”, a name that meant something powerful to us and which eventually came to permeate every aspect of the school.  The challenge of figuring out the graduation requirements by exhibition ultimately became easier as we found that these simple constructs made it easier for teachers to collaborate in order to help students develop authentic evidence of learning.

Over time the things that had absorbed big chunks of meeting time (planning events, prioritizing this or that, programming and operational decisions, etc.) began to fade away and were handled “off-line.”  The really important work – the work that HAD to be done together—took their place: collaborative problem solving, examining student work, committee work on revising rubrics, learning literacy strategies, etc.  Time was precious and could not be wasted.  Creative scheduling ensured that teams of teachers had planning periods at a common time and staff grew skilled in using their time effectively.

It took those five years before we felt that we finally had a reasonable answer to The Question, and the assurance that it led to authentic students learning.  And in the process we all became better educators than we probably ever imagined we might become.

So, go ahead and try it.  Ask yourselves what your students need to know and be able to do to succeed in your school.  Be prepared for some very difficult conversations.  If you are able to stick with it, things will never quite be the same again.

Alan Dichter


Alan Dichter was Principal of   Satellite Academy in New York, a long-time  CES member school, followed by positions as Director of New School Development, Director of the Executive Leadership Academy, Deputy Superintendent for New Schools and  Leadership Development. He has  also served as Co-Director of National School Reform Faculty at New York  University.  He retired from the NY DOE in 2006.