Einstein’s Theory of Understandability – SCN Encourager 10/4/2013

I have good news and bad news for you today.

The good news: Einstein never actually proposed a Theory of Understandability.

The bad news: Someone else actually did.

The bad news: Three college professors wrote a thesis describing “understandability as the proxy for quality of process models and the focus of its relations.”

The good news: Einstein said that if you can’t explain something to a six-year old, you don’t understand it… so we can totally ignore the two previous “bad news” references. The professors can hardly explain things to each other.

The bad news: For some people (like Chris Brogan, who told me this in Portland, ME) how we report out student learning in our schools fails any reasonable “understandability” test.

And is a fact we shouldn’t ignore.

Chris Brogan and many other young parents today struggle with interpreting the learning progress of their children.

Not that they doubt that teaching and learning is occurring.

That’s not the issue.

They just know that, based on the communications we provide them, they would have difficulty explaining the current grading & assessment systems used in their schools to a 66 year-old, let alone a 6 year-old.

The value of a Quick Guide

A few nights ago I heard a presentation at a community event given by the executive director of a local non-profit.

Screen Shot 2013-10-03 at 3.45.55 PMBert Jara leads our region’s “Destination Education” program, which is instrumental in ensuring that the majority of our high schoolers (and their parents) are guided and encouraged all along their journey to earn a diploma, pursue higher education, and fulfill the dream of a successful career.

Bert spoke with other organizational leaders that evening in conjunction with a new collaborative effort in our area to coordinate resources and support for students all the way from pre-school to college and career.

Bert was the one who sparked my thinking about Einstein, student achievement, and our school report cards… and for including these in today’s Encourager.

Blame him. Not me.

I’m the guy who just wants to sit back and watch the Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings, remember?

I don’t go out of my way to look for trouble.

Screen Shot 2013-10-03 at 4.00.06 PMBut Bert said something I won’t soon forget.

Bert said that he never would’ve finished high school (and gone on to complete college) had it not been for his dad expecting him to do well in school and making sure he regularly asked the school counselor for assistance.

Bert’s dad only had a third grade education. He was a farm worker in California, where the entire Jara family grew up.

Bert’s dad didn’t understand the formal education ladder – but he knew one had to exist – and he expected Bert to seek out all of information and explanations necessary to get it all figured out step-by-step.

Bert’s dad had absolutely no clue about the school’s instructional methods or its best practices, but according to Bert, his dad “sure knew what those letter grades on a report card meant.”

“My dad was like a hawk,” said Bert. “Every time it was report card time, my dad would note the classes where I didn’t get A’s or B’s. And believe me, it wasn’t pleasant for awhile until I raised those grades up to an A or B.”

Bert then said this.

“My dad did not know the school curriculum, my teachers, or have any real idea about the educational process… but he sure knew the difference between an A and an F… and that was enough to keep me on track.”


As a school communicator, Bert’s now causing me to wonder if we are committed to communicating student learning to parents in its simplest, most understandable form.

I’d like to think so. But I can’t say this with certainty.

I’m probably flubbing the dub here.

If we want parents to engage and support the work we do in our schools, we must ask ourselves if we are covering every base.

You know, I’ve been a school district’s communications coordinator for 17 years and have never been on a report card committee or part of a survey which reached out to parents to ask them if we were providing information about their child’s progress that was both understandable and helpful in discussions at home.

But there are a lot of parties I’m never invited to – so I’m good.

Who’s looking for more work, anyway?

The weekend’s about here. Let’s enjoy it.

Tom Page, SCN
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