A few weeks ago, I sat riveted through this TED TALK. And I have been thinking about it ever since. Now, please know that this talk has nothing to do with education. Mostly it is about sand. A photographer speaks about the process he uses to take incredibly close-up pictures of sand. When he zooms in on sand to a level that is beyond microscopic, what he finds is simply incredible. It is gorgeous. It is nothing that you could ever imagine. And the images are mesmerizing.
As he describes the process that he uses in order to put together these awe inspiring images, he explains:
“Now, the way my microscopes work is, normally in a microscope you can see very little at one time, so what you have to do is you have to refocus the microscope, keep taking pictures, and then I have a computer program that puts all those pictures together into one picture so you can see actually what it looks like.”
When you watch the video, you can see exactly what he means. As he zooms in closely on one small piece of the sand, the rest of the image becomes blurry. While one small piece is completely clear, the rest of the actual piece of sand becomes incredibly hard to see. It is not until he uses a computer program that allows him to put all of these tiny images together that he is able to clearly see the image as a whole.
So why has this stuck with me?
As I listened to this man speak, I could not help but think about what we have started to do in the world of education. How we have started to look at our children.
As we become increasingly dependent on data, we seem to be zooming in so closely on one small piece of who a child really is. We look at numbers, often in isolation, and we use them to attempt to understand a whole child. And in the same way that this photographers microscopes and cameras work, when we zoom in too closely and look at just one small piece of a child, then the rest of the child becomes blurry. The rest of the child becomes hard to see. And unless we work to put together these isolated pieces of data, we will completely miss the beauty of the entire child.
When I am in my classroom. When I am teaching my children. When I am making the minute-by-minute instructional decisions that truly matter in my students’ education, rarely am I guided by one isolated number. Rarely does a child’s score on a test inform me of the best instructional moves to make. Rarely does a child’s percentile tell me what that child needs on any given day. Rarely does one number tell me how to help my student. Instead, I find myself constantly putting together tiny pieces of information.
I look at the face of a child during my reading conference and put it together with all that I know that child has been struggling with in the past week and I decide to just listen instead of push today.
I read a response that my student has written about multiple texts that we have been reading and analyzing for bias and I put that together with what I know he struggles with as a writer and I decide to be amazed by his content instead of being appalled by his spelling and grammar.
I see a child smile as he writes and I put that together with how his fourth grade teacher told me he hated writing and I decide to walk over and celebrate with him how far he has come.
I listen to a child tell me that she is still reading the same book that she was reading in September. I put that together with how she runs up to me in the hallway to talk with me about the part of the book she got to last night and I put that together with how I know she is in a reading intervention. And I make the decision to tell her what an incredible reader she has become because she has fallen in love with a book and is sticking with it no matter how long it takes.
If I look at any of these pieces of information in isolation, if I zoom in too closely on just one piece of data, then I allow the rest of the parts of that child to become blurry and I loose the beauty of the entire child. If I look too closely, if I never take the time to put all of these pieces of information together, then I run the risk of doing an incredible disservice to the whole child sitting in front of me.
There are days when I go to meetings and we talk about children as if they can be reduced to one number, one score, one data point. We highlight certain pieces of data and dismiss others. We value data that comes from a machine or from a standardized test that removes the bias of the child’s teacher. We dismiss the data that cannot be boiled down to one number. We look at the data that can be turned into a chart or a graph or a point on a line. We look at all of these isolated pieces of data and then we lose the beauty of the whole child.
These data points. These numbers. They can be so darn seductive. Because they are easy. They are neat. They fit into cells on spreadsheets that can be turned into charts that compare children to each other. They remove all that messy stuff like a child’s home life and a child’s struggles outside of school and a child’s social struggles and the way a child does not perform his best when he knows he is being timed. These numbers have a way of ignoring all of that. And yet these are the numbers we often rely on when making decisions about a child and making decisions about a teacher.
And just like the super up-close images of sand, they are might be prettier to look at, but when we look that closely are we really seeing the sand anymore? When we look this closely at a child, are we really seeing the child anymore?
I am not suggesting that there is no place for numbers or data gathered from standardized tests. However, I am suggesting that as we continue to become overly dependent on data and numbers as teachers, we run the risk of loosing the beauty that can only come when we start to put all of our pieces of information together.
A child is seen so much more clearly when she is looked at as a whole. When the numbers and data are looked at right alongside the observations of a teacher then we get a much more complete understanding of who that child really is. What her strengths are and what her challenges are.
And as teachers, yes, we must get better of keeping track of these observations, of observing the important things, of writing things down so that they can be referred to, of finding ways to really see every single child in our classroom. Because when we do, then we can begin to insist that what we see in the classroom, each and every day, THAT is important data too. That is information that deserves to be examined as closely as the information that is used to create the charts and graphs.
And if we can begin to take our data and our numbers and our classroom observations and the evidence of growth that a child sees in himself, if we can take all of that and put it together, then we have a chance of seeing the whole child clearly. And there is not a single child who exists in this world who does not deserve to be seen clearly and wholly.