Seasons, Times, and Purposes, III

For me, today is a season and time for family.  After I finish this post, a few essential household tasks, and a quick Google+ Hangout with some friends and colleagues, I’ll be spending the morning with my favorite almost-11-year-old, who has found a Minecraft server for us to explore together.  In the afternoon, after his sister returns from a friend’s birthday party, we’ll do … something or other that doesn’t involve individual screens or virtual conversations.

As much as I cherish my virtual friends, the personal learning networks, and the joyful online communities we build, family and face-to-face friends are also vital.  It’s easy to forget, to take them for granted, to fall into a routine and assume that things will always stay just as they are right now.  It’s easy to defer maintenance on relationships, just as 20th-century factories – and all too many 20th- and 21st-century school districts – defer maintenance on buildings during “tough” budgetary times.  But in relationships as in facilities, deferred maintenance quickly becomes the “new normal” – and everything seems to be just fine until the (literal or metaphorical) roof starts leaking, or the mold appears, or the pipes freeze in the “unexpected” cold.

It’s also easy, too easy, to fall into the factory-model trap of doing what we’ve always done.  Sometimes there’s the “definition of insanity” corollary of expecting different results, but it’s equally foolish to expect the same results when other conditions have changed.  And since every class, every school year, every learner is different, those other conditions are constantly changing.  What worked well a few years ago – something as simple as the “perfect” classroom layout and decoration scheme I’d “perfected” in 2006 – doesn’t work at all today, just like the “perfect” kitchen renovation my friends completed 15 or 20 years ago.  Unlike many school districts, though, my friends had planned for obsolescence, so they’ve recently finished a new kitchen renovation that’s “perfect” for now.  But someday, somebody will be doing another “perfect” renovation in that house.

Responding to yesterday’s post on Google+, Debbie deepens the notion of the “perfect” classroom layout:

I envisioned an empty classroom… students arrive and say “huh?”
The teacher/mentor says something like, “This is the space that we’ll be using to learn about “Subject A” for the next several months. This is our space for our learning. Before we can start the learning we have a couple of big questions to address, as a community. 1) What do we want this space to look like to best support us on our journey of learning? and 2) What exactly is it that we want to learn during our time together? What are your questions, your goals, your interests?”
And from there the community comes together, forming the “Fire of Truth” and avenues of learning around the basic topic of Subject A.

Another Google+ post led me to this remarkable blog post about “intrusive” scaffolding, the kinds of 20th-century teaching structures that intend to make learning easy, but ironically leave you dependent instead.  Mark Sample’s metaphor of training wheels for bicycles really spoke to me as I thought back to my own early bicycle-riding days and those of my own children.  We all struggled to make the transition to real riding, just like Mark’s older son:

What made it so difficult for my older son to learn how to ride a bike? Precisely the thing that was supposed to teach him: training wheels.

The difference between the way my sons learned how to ride a bike was training wheels. My older son used them, and consequently learned how to ride only with difficulty. His younger brother used a balance bike (the Skuutin his case), a small light (often wooden) bike with two wheels and no pedals. As the child glides along, thrust forward by pushing off from the ground, he or she learns how to balance in a gradated way. A slight imbalance might be corrected by simply tipping a toe to the ground, or the child can put both feet on the ground to fully balance the bike. Or anything in between.

With a pedal-less bike you continually self-correct your balance, based on immediate feedback. I’m leaning too much to one side? Oooh, drag my foot a little there. Contrast this with training wheels. There’s no immediate feedback. In fact, there’s no need to balance at all. The training wheels do your balancing for you. Training wheels externalize the hardest part of riding a bike. If you’re a little kid and want to start riding a bike, training wheels are great. If you’re a little kid and want to start to learn how to ride a bike, training wheels will be your greatest obstacle.

The 20th-century dream was to make things easy.  Easy … and standardized.  New … and improved.  As effortless as training wheels.  To be fair, lots of things really are better when they’re easy and standardized – except when  there’s no room to adapt to changing conditions.  When we first moved to The Current House, I ruined several shirts by following my “perfect” (and easy and standardized) approach to laundry … because it hadn’t occurred to me that chlorine bleach plus high-iron-content water equals, well, you either know or don’t need to know.  “Perfect” standardization – like any other “perfect” system – is a recipe for failure if you follow it “perfectly.”

The 20th-century dream!  Responding to Pam’s comment on yesterday’s post, shortly after waking up from a dream myself, I realized something important about dreams.  They’re hard to wake up from … I think we all know that.  But you can’t build community, joyful or otherwise, in a dream-world.  Communities are grounded in reality, real interactions between different people.  Factory-model batch processing of people, standardization of learners and teachers, is just a dream – a happy one for the designers, a nightmare for others.

How, then, do we wake up, face each other, learn from each other, and build joyful learning communities together?

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Published in: on December 28, 2012 at 1:28 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. I’m amazed by the different personalities of each classroom. A few years ago, I issued a Classroom Arrangement Challenge at the beginning of each year (http://wp.me/p1Dq2f-Is). Throughout the year, students come up with classroom improvements during class meetings.

    I think one of the biggest mistakes we teachers make is mistaking standards with standardisation. We can teach to standards and benchmarks in very non-standard ways. In fact, the more we standardise instruction, the greater disservice we do students.


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