Keeping Things Going

As a rule, The Dog and The Cat are remarkably quiet animals.  He growls or barks sometimes when terrible things are happening – “terrible things” like trucks, lawnmowers, thunderstorms, or squirrels invading “his” yard and universe.  She purrs when she’s happy, mews persistently when she needs things.  But most of the time, especially at night, they’re a silent, comforting presence.

Imagine my surprise at 5:55 when The Cat started mewing loudly.  “What’s wrong?” I asked … which, of course, is a crazy question.  Upset and frustrated, I hurried downstairs to see if she was out of food or water.  No, there was plenty of both.  For a short time I was angry: I hadn’t slept well, and “all I wanted” was another half-hour or so of rest.  I read for a while, looked briefly at my Twitter stream, and soon enough, I was asleep again.

I’m still not sure why The Cat was upset.  But I’m glad she woke me up when she did.  There was this post from Seth Godin about “making things great” now rather than settling for mediocrity and anxiety.  There was this one from Scott McLeod about the danger of building schools and curricula around things that can easily be measured, about limiting your future to the metrics of the present and past.  And most helpful of all, from Robert Bacal, was this 1950 article about planning for – and dealing with – the terrifying, thoroughly innovation of self-service gas stations.

It’s long, and you may not want to read the whole thing.  But what struck me was that the objections (by operators of existing, full-service stations) are almost exactly the same as the ones we “operators” of factory-model schools use against scary new models in our world.  There’s an argument about expertise: how could the poor, uninformed motorist possibly recognize that his (remember, this is 1950 talking) vehicle might need service?  There are arguments about safety: what if gas were to spill, causing explosions and fires? What if people didn’t clean their windshields, obstructing their view of the road and causing accidents?  And of course there were economic arguments about the loss of all those station-attendant jobs.

Sixty years later, the arguments seem ridiculously quaint – unless you spend time in New Jersey or Oregon, you may never have seen a non-self-service gas station in the United States.  But at the time, it seems, they were convincing enough for insurance companies to impose higher rates on the “self-serves” and for states and municipalities to pass laws and ordinances against them.  Only “experts” (Highly-trained gas station attendants?  Really?) could be trusted to operate such complex equipment, to handle such a “highly inflammable liquid.”  The courts agreed.

Why did I need to see that story this morning?  I’m sure there were lots of reasons.  But one was clear right away.  I’ve been spending a lot of time planning and working on changes in another huge, entrenched system where “everybody” knows the constraints, where things have “always” been done a particular way, where change is seen as “dangerous” and terrifying.  Schools “have to” have classrooms, bells, set schedules, textbooks, and “student desks,” just as full-service stations “had to” be located at corners, their pumps parallel to the street. Teachers “have to” be specially trained (let’s hope we’re better trained than the typical actual gas station attendant in 1950!) so that we, too, can dispense a “highly inflammable and dangerous” substance called knowledge and skill into the receptive tanks of waiting students.  And we respond to self-service knowledge and skill just as fearfully as the service-station industry in 1950 responded to self-service pumps.

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about time frames, about what needs to happen in my life and work in the short term, the medium term, the long term.  Back when I was thoroughly enmeshed in the factory-world, I applied those kinds of thinking to planning and preparing for the new school year.  I’d start out with the physical layout and flow of my classroom, then consider the overall flow of course units through the year.  Then I’d drill down to specifics, preparing those Official Weekly Lesson Plans (the ones whose purpose is to be turned in and filed in The Office) and then adjusting them, day by day and second by second, to the real needs of the actual students in the classes.

Or at least the “real needs” as factory-schools train teachers to see them. “The class” is having trouble with this concept, so they “need” an extra review activity.  That group is “off-task,” so they “need” to be cajoled or compelled into “paying attention” and “doing the work.”  Like the service station operators in 1950, I was convinced I was the “expert,” and I “just knew” that panic or chaos would ensue if “non-experts” had “too much” control of the process. But unlike the service-station operators, and unlike Ms. X and Mr. Y, I did at least want to help my students develop expertise.  “My goal as a teacher,” I always said, “is that you’ll learn Latin so well that, eventually, you won’t need me anymore.”

And that worked out, many times, in the medium and long term.  I guess I was training station attendants, or folks who could use the self-service island under supervision, or something.

But what did my students really need from me?  What do motorists really need from a gas station?  What do I really need to do as I move out of the factory-mindset and find other ways to support myself, to live out my passions and calling in a world where nobody needs a Deliverer of Information anymore?  Despite the fears of the service-station owners, a lot more people work in that industry today than did in 1950, and not just because the population has grown.  They just don’t pump very much gas or sell many tires or batteries.  As factory-schooling falls apart in an age of hyper-abundant information, more and more people will probably make money – better money, too – in economic sectors where you help people, especially young people, transform information into knowledge and wisdom.

That will work out, too, in the medium and long term.

But when I look at the short term, I’ve been feeling like the kindly service-station operator who’s trying to convert his old, familiar station into a scary new self-serve.  What about those customers?  Can they really be trusted to pump their own gas, clean their own windows, check their own fluid levels?  And the location? Great for a full-service station, but not for the new model.  A fairly large building, designed and built for a particular set of purposes, is hard to reconfigure for different purposes.  The equipment, the workflow, the staffing, even the decorations – all have to be redesigned, reconfigured, repurposed, or re-imagined from the ground up.  And nobody knows exactly what the end product needs to look like, either.  In 1950, who would have imagined gas pumps at an angle to the street?  Or computer-controlled pumps with a single giant canopy protecting customers from the rain?

The Cat is asleep in one of her favorite resting places, and I don’t want to disturb her.  But when she reappears, I may just give her an extra treat.  On a day when I was struggling with how and even whether to keep going in a new, uncharted direction, it turns out she woke me up at just the right time.  And I’m grateful to you, fellow builders and sustainers of joyful community, because you’ve also kept me awake, alert, and focused on the changes I need to make.

What new insights will we all discover today?

Published in: on August 2, 2013 at 1:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

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