The Most Important Thing, I

“I don’t get it,” M and U said to me on Friday – sweet, intelligent M and U, who wait till the last possible minute to complete every project, then always do a perfectly adequate job.  M and U, who want to “finish their work” quickly so they can pursue their deeper passion of reading what they want to read.

“Why are we having a Pep Rally this afternoon?  Normally there would be, like, the Powder Puff game or something – but that got postponed.  So why exactly are we having a Pep Rally today?”

Because … it’s on the schedule?  Because … we always have one at the end of Spirit Week?  Because … someone thought it would be nice to have a shortened last-period class on a Friday afternoon?

“I’m really not sure,” I said.  “I’m sure there is a reason, but I don’t know what it is.  And I do see your point.”

Factory-model schools are terrible at communicating the purpose of things we ask students to do.  Perhaps that’s because the original purpose of factory-model schooling was to prepare workers for 20th-century factories … places where the ordinary worker didn’t need to know the purpose.  Somebody knows, but that somebody is “way above our pay grade.”  Our job, our role, as production workers is … to produce.


In 1920, 1930, 1940, and 1950, factory-model schools – and the factories they emulated –  were instruments of prosperity and hope for our industrializing nation.  There was a need for unquestioning producers.  We still needed them  – not as many, but some – in 1960, 1970, even 1980.

How many, if any, do we need today?

Factory-model schools are still trying – really hardto mass-produce unquestioning producers.  But we’re also trying – really hard – to develop 21st-century learners with higher-order thinking skills, to end poverty, to raise test scores, and (in the wake of the recession) to personalize and differentiate learning experiences in significantly larger classes.

Which of those goals is the most important thing?  And what happens if goals conflict with each other?

We don’t have that discussion – because the institution is structured around unquestioning production.  So we school people try our hardest to be good, diligent, unquestioning producers … even when our production goals conflict with each other.  Even when our “raw material” and “suppliers” are skeptical.  Even when no one seems to know what the “product” really is.

Even when no one wants the “product” anymore.

Joe Bower quotes this Vanity Fair article, whose author says factory-model schooling

 is a dress-up box of good intentions, swivel-eyed utopianism, cruel competition, guilt, snobbery, wish fulfillment, special pleading, government intervention, bureaucracy, and social engineering. And no one is smart enough now to understand how we can stop it.

What an image!  If you’ve ever had a dress-up box, you know they’re always disorganized … no matter how hard you try.  It “takes forever” to find that one thing you wanted … but with a dress-up box, with unstructured play, the delay and searching are part of the fun.

It’s a lot less fun when everything is serious.  And factory-model schools are serious places.  “Let’s get serious now,” said one Ms. X. “We have a lot to cover today, and that test is going to be hard.”

A former principal of mine, now long retired, used to talk about “one of the most important things we do here at school.”  He applied the phrase to truly important things (like fire drills and other safety-related things) and less important, but still significant things.  But even he never specified the most important thing we do at school.

Was that because no one really knows what it is?

I’m sure Ms. X, Mr. Y, and their counterparts were furious by the end of last week. There had been interruptions and students out of dress code!  There had even been schedule changes and confusion!  I can only imagine the complaints: “Those bad, lazy, horrible children!  They didn’t even dress up the way they were supposed to! And they’re distracted!  It’s worse than those cell phones and tablets and things!” Or “Those thoughtless administrators! Don’t they know I have teaching to do today? How can we take the Chapter 9 Test on Friday if we get interrupted this way?  And what about my lesson plans?  My beautiful lesson plans are ruined!!”

What’s the most important thing?  Following that lesson plan?  Writing the plan?  Turning it in? Or deciding on the most important learning for that group of students, that day, and making sure that thing happens?

What if the students need more time – or less time – than you planned?  “That’s too bad,” said one Ms. X, “they need to come to tutoring.  I have too much to cover for that kind of nonsense.”

In the factory model, the plan is sometimes more important than the actuality?  “She’s an excellent teacher,” a friend said 20 years ago about Ms. K, who wasn’t.  “She writes really good lesson plans. But the kids don’t pay attention.  I just don’t understand why they’re so bad and disrespectful to her.  I mean, those are some really good lesson plans.  I don’t think mine are that good.”  And a former principal complained, “Ms. Such-and-So is a terrible teacher! She wasn’t even following her lesson plan when I went to observe her!  She had one, but she wasn’t even following it!”

What does it mean to be a good teacher – or a good student?  Following the plan … or developing one?  Answering the questions … or asking them?  Producing the specified results … or learning how to set and meet standards yourself?  How can you ask the vital questions in an institution designed for unquestioning production?  And how can you build a joyful learning community – which surely requires deep, thoughtful conversation – in an environment designed to simulate the assembly line?

Published in: on November 13, 2012 at 11:07 am  Leave a Comment  

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