Signals and Messages

In a comment on this Google+ thread from last week, Edward noted that

Erving Goffman many decades ago distinguished between the messages one gives (consciously, intentionally) and the signals one “gives off” (without being aware of such).

I sometimes think: there’s what I teach–then there’s what the students learn. Sometimes what students learn is: ignore what this guy is saying….

It’s an unusual day in These Parts, with school closed because of a Big Winter Storm that may dump significant snow on us in just a few hours.  That’s why this post is coming out a few hours later than usual, and it’s also why I had a chance to connect Edward’s comment with something One Ms. X said the other day.  If you live in places where it always snows or where it never snows, it’s probably hard to imagine the blend of excitement and apprehension that affects folks Around Here when snow is in the forecast … especially a big storm coming, like this one, from the south.  Big storms from the north rarely produce snow here; the snow line tends to stop 30 or 40 miles to our north.  But those big storms from the south?  They’re often the Real Thing.  And they lead to temporary, but important feelings of community as people remember big storms in the past, or as we stand in line at the grocery store, carts laden with bread and milk just in case.  They also shake us out of our comfort zone, if only for a few hours or days.

With school closed this morning, I had time to sleep late; with the snow not yet started, I even had time for a relaxing hot breakfast and a short trip to the grocery store … not for bread and milk, but for a few cleaning supplies and ingredients for a warm, hearty stew I’m planning to make later.  And as I sat eating that hot breakfast, I read Edward’s comment … and as I stood in line to buy those groceries, I started making the connection.

The Big Announcement that school would be closed came mid-afternoon on Monday, just as we’d finished up a set of committee meetings with cryptic or impossible agenda items: ¨data analysis¨ of scores that weren’t available, for example.  Just before the Big Annoucement, One Ms. X had been fretting about how ¨low¨ her current students apparently were, how bad their Big Test Scores would surely be, and how she’d ¨never been taught how¨ to interpret the data about them that filled her neatly-organized notebook.  The reports aren’t beautifully formatted, to be sure, but they seem to contain  a lot of useful information.  The one that puzzled That Ms. X, for example, showed how each student of hers had performed with each Major Curriculum Goal.  It seemed obvious, at least to me, that you’d look at the students’ performance, note any areas of particular strength or weakness, and use the information to make different groups, or to encourage A, who struggles with This Concept, to attend the tutoring session where This Concept will be reviewed.  But apparently it wasn’t obvious at all to That Ms. X … or at least it wasn’t until I suggested it to her.  And she was still scratching her head about how to do such a thing, because That Ms. X thinks of Her Class as a time when she does stuff and students take notes.

Edward’s reference to Goffman’s distinction between messages and signals helped me clarify what’s going on in situations like the one that befuddled That Ms. X.  The structures of factory-model schools send very powerful signals about What To Do, about the expectations for teachers and students and Powers That Be.  Powers are “supposed to” give mandates from On High, teachers are “supposed to” half-heartedly attempt some form of surface compliance with those mandates, and students are “supposed to” be sorted out into categories called really smart, good solid kids, and bad lazy ones.  The signals are so powerful, especially if you’re not consciously aware of them, that conflicting messages seem disturbing, puzzling, or downright upsetting.  That Ms. X “doesn’t know how” to interpret or use diagnostic data about students’ performance because using the data would change her paradigm of what school is “supposed to” be.  “Too much to cover” and “not enough time” are powerful mantras because they keep Ms. X, Mr. Y, and others from seeing students as individuals, from letting go of the factory-paradigm of everybody doing the same thing at the same time, from stepping out into the scary unknown.

But sometimes the scary unknown is unavoidable, like that approaching storm.  Sometimes staying in the comfort zone of What We’ve Always Done is as foolish as not picking up those few groceries, or not making sure there’s gas in the car, or not doing that one load of laundry this morning, just in case the power goes out later today.  If Ms. X stays in her comfort zone of content delivery and excuses, her students will suffer … and Ms. X, though you might not realize it when you meet her, actually does care about each of her students.  “I’m not like Old Ms. F,” she says sadly, “I’m not a miracle-worker like she was.”  But it sounds like she half-wants to be, and with time and encouragement, that half-wanting might just turn into curiosity or  determination … or something.

When you’re building a joyful learning community, you have time and space for the kind of encouragement That Ms. X needs, the kind that U and J needed, but fought for such a long time.  “We’re doing so much better this year!” J said to me Monday afternoon … and she’s right, and I’m glad she noticed.  The power of learning communities is strong, but it takes a while for their consistent signals and messages to outweigh the powerful, subconscious signals that factory-schools keep broadcasting.

I wonder what new signals, messages, and insights await us all today!

Published in: on January 28, 2014 at 4:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

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