Changing the Design

As I was getting ready to meet my friend for lunch yesterday, I realized I’d need to stop somewhere and pick up a sandwich or some other lunch ingredients.  It had been a busy weekend, and while there’s plenty of food in the house, there really wasn’t anything you’d want to eat for a picnic lunch … especially if your picnic lunch involved driving for a while, as mine did.

As I drove to Raleigh, pondering matters as weighty as the future of factory-schooling and as minor as what I’d do about lunch, I “just happened” to hear an NPR piece about The World Peace Game.  John’s students, I thought, are so lucky … and so is he!  For most fourth-graders (and former fourth-graders) I’ve known in the last ten years, their school experience was all about Preparing For the Test.  And when upper-elementary teachers and middle-school teachers take the online professional development course from me, they’re usually certain that their students will “have difficulty” with complex, abstract problems.

My brain was spinning when Iwhen I got to Raleigh, partly from thinking about the game and partly because I was hungry.  So I stopped for a bagel sandwich at a little shopping center not far from the park where we’d be meeting.  As I stood in line, I checked my email … and a friend had sent me this.

Please click on that last link and at least skim the article.  It was so important, so necessary for me to read that I shared it on Google+  and even on Facebook.  And I had  three long, important conversations about it between noon and bedtime yesterday.

The sick system that sucks people in – and keeps them sucked in – with busyness, exhaustion, emotional involvement, and intermittent rewards.  First I thought of unsuccessful, painful personal relationships … and then I thought of the two decades I’ve spent working in factory-model schools.  It was good to start thinking about these things in a beautiful place, in the open air, on a beautiful day, with a friend who’s on a similar journey.  When I saw B at the ACL Institute in June, she said she’d “gone rogue,” leaving her factory-model teaching job to spend an undefined amount of time traveling around the country, staying with friends, working on a project she’s passionate about.

It’s easier, I remember thinking half-resentfully, when you’re young and single.  But it isn’t.  The seductive call of busyness and exhaustion can ensnare anyone, old or young.  If teaching is a calling, it’s hard not to move from healthy caring to unhealthy emotional enmeshment, especially when the structures you work in  encourage enmeshment.  B had gone on vacation to visit friends, but hoped they wouldn’t bother her too much while she did the schoolwork she “had to” do.  Feeling like she was losing her life – and gaining nothing in return – she decided to walked away from the toxicity. And instead of the condemnation she feared, friends and family universally supported her.

We talked about that, and about my journey and my fears, in the shade of a beautiful old tree, as children splashed in the nearby fountain and, in the other direction, families and groups of friends enjoyed paddle boats on the lake.  It was a rare summer day – not too hot, not too humid, no midday thunderstorms – and we sat and talked for two hours.  The sunlight, the shade, the happy children, someone on the same journey … all combined to help me, slowly but surely, peel off layers of emotional entanglement.  “I owe it,” I kept thinking and saying … to whom?  To Powers That Be, for whom I’m a budget line at most?  To my younger self, who saw forty or fifty years in a classroom as the only possible expression of my calling? To long-retired principals who “gave me a chance” by hiring me?

To Coasters and Students who’d rather have Ms. X and her packet of worksheets?

To Learners who will continue to learn whether I’m there or not?

To Ms. X and Mr. Y?

I’ve “always” worked in schools where, at the beginning of the year, you get “a gift from the administration” … and the purpose of the “gifts” is to set a tone for the upcoming year.  Special staff shirts … which “everybody” should (or must) wear  on Fridays.  Bags or briefcases … because “good” and loyal teachers “have to” Take Work Home.  One time, oddly, large drinking glasses with a summer theme, because “everybody” knows that Summer Vacation is the best part of teaching.  And at least three times, Something related to the starfish poem:   a pin, a bookmark,  a pencil cup, each decorated with a starfish and quote.

When I was younger – more fully enmeshed in the factory-school paradigm I’ve come to recognize as a sick system – such trinkets inspired me.  “Dr. Q must really care!” I thought.  “He got these bookmarks for everyone!  And since he, too, works endless, horrible hours, I too shall work tirelessly against impossible odds!”  But Dr. Q had a massive heart attack a few years after he left That School; mutual friends tell me that, when he recovered, he stopped  working 18-20 hours a day, six days a week.  So much for the starfish!

When the odds are impossible, there’s something wrong with the system … or at least with your perceptions.  Do starfish even need to be thrown back?  Do you do more damage to them by touching them than by leaving them alonee?  Those Important questions don’t matter if starfish-saving is an “inspirational” metaphor … and year after year, the starfish were always presented as a brand new, exciting discovery.  “I just found this poem, and it’s so inspirational!”

Before I sat down to write this post, I watched the video lectures for Week 2 of the Design Thinking Action Lab MOOC I’m participating in.  We’re focusing on empathizing with those affected by a challenge and defining problems clearly, and to that end we watched this pitch video from a student design contest.  The student designers have identified an important problem on more than one level: when over half of the people are “doing it wrong,” failing to comply with a mission-critical protocol whose importance they understand, that’s not a “people problem.”  It’s a system problem, a design problem.

But factory-school structures quickly label vast numbers of students, teachers, administrators, even neighborhoods and cities as “failing.”  Their solution?  Work harder, “save” as many starfish as you can … and someday, if only we can get X, Y, or Z, things will get better.

sick system, in other words.  How to cure it?

The Design Thinking model in the Action Lab course calls for ideation, prototyping, and testing as you move from problem to solution.  So, builders and sustainers of joyful community, please help me with the next steps.  Have we formulated a clear and complete problem statement?  What other ideas might we generate for solutions?  And how can we rapidly build a prototype and start testing it out?

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Published in: on July 30, 2013 at 1:20 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] relationship or a workplace, you might just be caught in the kind of toxic system I wrote about in yesterday’s post, or if it’s physical pain you might have a chronic, debilitating disease that hasn’t […]


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