The Most Important Thing, III

A little more than a year ago, my then-principal was talking about progress, technology, and change.  He’s recently moved to a new position where he helps, counsels, and supports principals as they work to change their schools’ culture.  But last Fall, he’d realized an important thing: mobile technology isn’t a threat, but an opportunity to make needed changes.  In the early stages of developing our Bring Your Own Device policy, he was more excited than apprehensive.

The whole Technology Committee was excited.  We thought BYOD would provide new opportunities for students, make teachers teach differently, change everything.  And some days, in some classrooms, you do see a change.

But BYOD wasn’t the most important thing.  We made the same mistake most well-meaning educational reformers do.

“Change this one thing,” we thought, “and everything else will change.”

We forgot about the system, about cramming,  about overt and covert resistance.  About Ms. X, Mr. Y, and their factory world view.

“Those bad, lazy students!” said one Ms. X at lunch Wednesday.  She’d just called W’s mother – sweet, intelligent W, who often  has “brain farts” and needs things repeated.  “I am not repeating anything for that bad, lazy child.  And I won’t let her make up the work she didn’t try to do.  You know what causes those ‘brain farts?’  She has her head down on her desk, playing with her phone.  She’ll probably do better now that somebody stole it.”

For Ms. X, compliance is the most important thing.  Compliance with her approach and timeline.  Compliance with the pace of her assembly line.

Ms. X was furious about O, too – gentle, kind, intelligent O, with his unusual area of passion.  If Ms. X even knows about O’s passion,  she must dismiss it as a waste of time that’s distracting him from schoolwork.  “You would not believe how lazy he is!” she exclaimed.  “He won’t even copy things from the board!  He just takes out his phone and takes a picture of the notes!  And I asked him, how are you going to put that into your notebook?  But they’re all like that!  They’re all so bad and lazy this year!”

She was about to say “They’re worse this year than they’ve ever been”– just like she says every year.  But I had to leave and print a makeup-work list for a “bad, lazy” student.  N will be out of school the rest of the week, so she came to me to make sure she wouldn’t get behind.  Just like O used to do.  Just like W.

Bad and lazy?  Or thoughtful, caring, and diligent?  The labels depend on your perspective.

For Ms. X, the process itself – her process – is the goal.  There’s One Right Way to do things – her way.  You copy things from the board, into your notebook, by hand, because … that’s what you do.  And you don’t ask bad, lazy questions about the process; there’s just too much to cover!

O has terrible handwriting, but he wants things to be right.  If he copied those notes by hand, they’d be illegible and error-filled.  O’s  most important thing is different from Ms. X’s, and so is his conceptual world.

Responding on Google+ to yesterday’s post, Maureen used a striking image for the teacher’s work.  “I like to think of this,” she said,

as choreography, the harmonizing of all the ways we teach and facilitate student learning for best effect, a wonderful challenge inherent in the work we do.

N, O, W, and their classmates seek a joyful dance of learning.  But Ms. X doesn’t want to dance – not with bad, lazy students who won’t do things the Right Way?  To be fair, Ms. X has made some changes. Her students can use calculators, and she uses test-bank software that came with the textbook.  She’s started putting notes up with a document camera, too.  “I’m using that technology,” she said proudly.

The Technology Committee half-remembered Ms. X, but we forgot the system that created and sustains her.  We forgot about clinging to the old, familiar ways – and  cramming the “new thing” into the “old thing”

Brendan noted three causes for clinging and cramming:

First is the goal of maintaining the status quo, not to disrupt the system too much, maybe to avoid catastrophic instability, maybe so Powers That Be protect or advance their interests, maybe just to avoid making anyone scream or cry.

Second is the cognitive or epistemic challenge of representing complex phenomena in the human mind — especially the minds of large numbers of people with varied levels of expertise, a mix of beliefs, and completely different motives and interests (which blends back into cause #1.)

Third is the practical requirement to somehow, on a population-level scale, link a given student to a given place in a world where not everyone is the same and not everyone can be the same and not everyone wants to be the same.  Whether this means deciding for them and forcing them into jobs by a ruler, or giving them the information they need to select a path, some kind of sorting is needed — even if it’s cyclical and people can change up the path they go down many times through their life, or creatively mix multiple paths together, or create entirely new paths.

You can build a joyful learning community in a distant, forgotten corner of the teaching factory.  That’s OK because you’re not really challenging the status quo, messing with epistemic frameworks, or upending the sorting system.  But what if that joyful learning community expands into rather than out of the factory? How can a joyful learning community be an opportunity, not a threat, to the status quo?  How can it challenge people’s frameworks without terrifying them?  How can it be seen as improving, not destroying the sorting system?

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Published in: on November 15, 2012 at 11:20 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. Justin,

    Time is the greatest challenge that exists and I wonder if rather than expanding the events in the time we have, what would it be like if we could go the other direction and expand the time beyond the events. Or, how could we reduce the events inside the time we have? I saw an interesting video by some guys at MIT who thought it would be interesting to see what it would look like if instead of trying to travel at the speed of light what would it be like if we looked at what it would look like if the speed of light was slowed down to the speed of us?

    We spend so much time in our work trying to become the speed of light – aspiring to moving faster and faster to cover more distance – that we have become some crazy version of Einstein’s thought experiment. I wonder what we think it would be like to get there – to be able to move at such a pace that we could accomplish everything we set in front of ourselves in our own version of space-time continuum- the teaching, the conversations with kids, parents, peers, the planning, the grading, the gathering together and production of resources needed, the professional learning, the paperwork completed, the communications all returned and the time to eat, exercise, breathe, be a part of family, hang out with friends, do hobbies, take care of the routines of life..

    How long would each day need to be to do all that well? Or how would the structures, culture, routines, expectations of ourselves and that others have for us need to change if we were to go the other direction and reduce the events of our lives so we could accomplish work, play, family and community in a way that was stress free of time limitations? What would we do? What stories would we tell about ourselves then? what do we need to rediscover about the nature of humanity that we’ve lost trying to ride the moonbeams?


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