If you’d asked me a week or two ago about my plans for this past weekend, I would have listed several possibilities … but driving 120 miles each way to attend a funeral would not have been on the list. Still, on Saturday, there was nowhere else I could possibly be than at the funeral of the remarkable, inspirational David Morgan. While our paths only crossed a few times face-to-face, I had a tremendous admiration for his academic work and his commitment to Latin as a real language, for real communication. His Latin Lexicon is a frequent resource, too, both for me and for my students, as we create unlikely but delightful stories about things the Romans never knew. And since so many mutual friends in the Northeast were snowed in by Winter Storm Nemo – but I was able to travel, and it was a beautiful, sunny February day here in North Carolina – the sense of obligation was tempered by my sense of adventure.
I’m so glad I was able to go. The funeral was beautiful, a real tribute to a beautiful mind and a beautiful soul. There was a joyful gathering afterwards, full of friends paying tribute to David’s life and work. So many names I’ve known for years are now faces and voices and stories … and I was able to pass on some much-needed virtual hugs from friends in Boston, too. By 7:30 or so, though, I was ready for the long drive home. It was a quiet, reflective time as I passed through parts of south central and southeastern North Carolina that I’ve known and loved for years, places where the need for joyful learning community is large. Places where the factories closed decades ago – places where the factories never really opened at all. Places still full of hope – but places, too often, filled with despair and resignation. too. Places where “everything” the factory model knows has been tried … and tried again, and tried yet again with a different label.
And I realized something important on that drive.
Some time ago, I watched Charles Leadbeater’s TED talk from 2010 about “Education Innovation in the Slums.”
It’s long, but you should see it … and if you don’t have time for the whole thing, you should watch the way he classifies attempts to improve education starting around 14:40. He uses a simple matrix with two columns called Formal and Informal, two rows called Sustaining and Disruptive … and the way he classifies things (which you must see and hear for yourself!) may just shift your paradigms and crystalize your understandings the way it did for me. With Leadbeater’s matrix as a lens, I can classify all sorts of educational innovations – or potential innovations – and I can even see why some highly-touted ones (that fall in the Sustaining Formal quadrant) “succeed” and “fail” simultaneously. I woke up Sunday morning with Leadbeater’s matrix on my mind, and by mid-afternoon I had reconstructed two or three conference presentations I’ll be making in the next few months. I’m scared – but also excited – to apply this new set of understandings to my daily work with students and colleagues.
The 20th-century paradigm enshrined formal learning, and factory-model schools are designed to sustain particular types of formal learning – the kinds that “require” lectures, worksheets, textbooks, tests, and all the other things we think of when we hear the word school. Schools, as we’ve designed them, still do a great job – an outstanding job, even – of presenting certain types of declarative knowledge and sorting students according to how well they acquire that knowledge, given a limited time and relatively limited forms of instruction and practice. When we say “schools are broken,” we don’t mean they’re failing to present information or to sort students; we mean that presenting and sorting aren’t the primary functions we want schools to perform. But if we aren’t careful, the solutions we develop (scripted curricula, more frequent testing, various pre-packaged “interventions” for students who don’t acquire the knowledge in the desired time frame) will be formal sustaining ones – solutions that make the system better at the existing ends of presenting and sorting, the ends that we now want to replace.
Joyful learning community is disruptive to the presenting-and-sorting model, but it crosses over the categories of formal and informal. It occupies the bottom row of Leadbeater’s chart at a time when so much attention is devoted to the top left quadrant. A joyful learning community can develop in a formal educational structure like a school – on our best days, my classes build one, and even when we fall short, we still aspire to build one – but can equally well be found in informal settings like my Monday evening book group or the five of us who gathered around that table Saturday evening, laughing together, remembering David, talking about everything from the changes in Latin pronunciation over the ages to a politically-charged reading of the winds that appear in the storm sequence in Aeneid Book I. Joyful learning community presupposes some shared knowledge, skills, and understandings, but participants build and acquire the knowledge for the sake of the community – and for the sake of each other – not “for the test” or “for the quiz” or “in case the Powers That Be come and do an inspection.” If I know something and you don’t – or if you know something and I don’t – we share our understandings, not because someone is making us – and not just because it’s in a curriculum document somewhere – but because we all benefit, because “the smartest person in the room is the room.”
How will we work together to build that smart room this week? How will we build it in places where the factories never worked – and in places where factories never were, and where they’ve been closed for living memory? How will we build it, sustain it, wherever we are?