“It’s all connected, isn’t it?” I’ve been saying that – a lot – over the past several months. And when you stop and think about it, everything is connected, somehow, to everything else. In chaos theory, they talk about the Butterfly Effect – the notion that one butterfly, by flapping its wings, can start a chain of events that leads to a hurricane.
That’s a humbling thought, especially for teachers. Or it should be. The tiniest things – a smile, a kind word, a sympathetic ear, the opposite – make a vast difference in people’s lives.
“But I don’t have time for that nonsense,” whines Ms. X, so immersed in a 20th-century factory paradigm,.”I have too much to cover. Besides, those spoiled, lazy kids need to toughen up. No one will be nice to them in the Real World.” And then, all too often, Ms. X wonders why students she yells at and labels that way – and their “horrible parents” – don’t sympathize with her needs.
“What’s wrong with them?” one Ms. X asked plaintively, years ago. “Don’t they understand there are only so many hours in a day?” That Ms. X frequently complained (yelled and labeled) about what she called the “terrible and inaccurate” grade-reporting software we used back then, though the “inaccuracies” were usually her own data-entry errors. She was upset because someone had dared to ask a question about a grade, to complain because grades weren’t up to date. But would Ms. X “accept late work” from students? Of course not, since “they can’t do things late in the Real World.”
Ms. X had trouble with connections … and irony.
But as I sat down to write the first draft of this post late Sunday afternoon, near the end of my Thanksgiving break, I kept thinking about connections. Obvious ones, like those between Latinate English words and their Latin roots, or between current-day practices and ancient practices that inspired them. Somewhat obvious ones, like those between actions and responses. Less-obvious ones, like those in the pain-punishment cycle or the false missionary complex. Ones I haven’t seen. Ones that no one has seen.
In the end, everything is connected. Painful things, joyful things, “just there” things – all connected in the mysterious tapestry called life.
I’ve been reading Salman Khan’s new book, The One World Schoolhouse, for the past few days. I’m not done yet, but one thing that struck me was how frequently he refers to the interconnections between ideas – which factory-model schools, with their discrete-point objectives and disconnected units, seldom help students see. We’ve talked about connectedness – and how hard it is to represent connections among ideas, even in the infinitely linkable online world – in Google+ threads like this one (about a posting that had annoyed me), this one (about Friday’s post here), this one (about grading), this one (about competency-based learning), and this one (about the Khan book).
Everything is connected. Many colleagues – not Ms. X and Mr. Y, but many thoughtful, caring others – spend hours searching for real-world connections and personal connections to things they teach. But despite this emphasis on connections, students – and teachers – in factory-model schools often feel disconnected. Students see school-based learning itself as disconnected – not just from other learning, but from life.
“It’s just school,” more than one student has said to me over the years. “Why should I care?”
“You have really high standards,” another student said last fall. “You actually expect everybody to learn, not just the good kids.”
C’s comment, just over a year ago, almost broke my heart. She was right: I do “expect everybody to learn.” But when – how – did that become “high standards?” High-stakes standardized testing, according to its proponents, was supposed to make everybody care about expecting everybody to learn. Just like Outcome-Based Education before that, and, for that matter, the recommendations in A Nation At Risk. And countless other curricular innovations, down through the decades – all in vain? At the heart of the factory model is that idea of good kids and bad kids – and, of course, the notion that the school itself sorts good from bad.
It’s all connected – which, I suppose, makes it easier and harder to work for change. Harder, of course, because everything is connected in a complex system. Harder because results are unpredictable in complex systems. But easier, too. When everything is connected, as the wise folks at Walk Out Walk On say, you can “start anywhere, follow it everywhere.”
If you’re reading this post “live,” it’s the first day back after a five-day Thanksgiving break. Cyber Monday, when the online shopping deals roll in. I’ll be talking with my students today about some connections – especially about how we can change the structure of their “big” projects to make closer connections with what they want to think and write about. We’ll be experimenting, too, with different structures for reading Latin, both together and in smaller groups – and with different ways to respond to what we’ve read. Our goal? Not a perfect system, but something that works for now. Perfect systems fail when conditions change, but things that work for now can adapt, can keep working, because they’re connected.
But factory-model systems call for scale, not connections. They call for standardization, not care and community. Is that why factory-model schools, economies, and structures are dying – because scale and standardization can’t adapt to rapid change? Because disconnection is destructive?
I keep asking this question: How can you build and sustain a joyful learning community in the midst of a busy, clattering teaching-testing factory? Is it time to ask a totally different question?