Bolting On or Bolting Together?

As the winter storm approached, the “optional teacher workday” quickly turned into “everybody go home now, before the roads get really treacherous.”  By 10:00 yesterday morning, I was safe at home and there was already measurable snow on the ground; by the time the first round of snow stopped yesterday evening, three inches or so were on the ground, though the roads looked mostly clear.  It was a good day to stay home, to make and eat a hearty stew, to watch the snow fall through the window as you sipped hot coffee or tea.  The Dog and I took a short walk or two, and he remembered two important things: (1) he really likes playing in the snow for about ten minutes, and (2) after about ten minutes, he’s tired of snow and wants to come back to the warmth of “his” house and the comfort of “his” sofa, “his” bed, or “his” recliner.  For The Dog, the occasional snow gets bolted on to his regular routine, providing a momentary diversion … but in the end, his routine goes on more or less undisturbed.  As I write, he’s lying on “his” sofa, resting his head comfortably on “his” winter coat that someone left there, looking out through his favorite window to see if any unauthorized bird, squirrel, or leaf will disturb the sanctity of “his” back yard.

And as I watched him yesterday and today, I realized that The Dog’s response to snow isn’t that different from the ways participants in any complex system respond to external change.  It’s intriguing, sometimes disturbing, for a relatively short time, and then the system absorbs the change and life continues pretty much the way it “always” has.

James Paul Gee makes that point powerfully in this interview, which somebody shared with me yesterday on Twitter or Google+.  He blames “standards-based accountability” measures for schools’ unwillingness or inability to foster deeper learning in most students … but when you stop and think about it, “standards-based accountability” is really just the old wine of factory-model thinking in a shiny new bottle.  Factory-model schools “always” give tests, and they “always” sort and rank their students based on test results … so why not sort and rank the factory-schools themselves, and their teachers, with those same test results?  Ms. X and Mr. Y will yell for a while, whine for a bit longer, but in the end they’ll get busy “delivering that curriculum” pretty much the way they “always” did, and their students will score pretty much the way they “always” have.

That’s what happens when you try to bolt things on to a complex system.  “This new initiative will change everything,” trumpet Powers That Be and highly-paid consultants.  “This New Thing is ridiculous,” responds Coach Z, “and besides, I tried it one time years ago, and it didn’t even work.”

Of course, if the whole system changes, that’s a very different story.  If The Dog and I found ourselves outside in the snow for days or weeks on end, he’d be very angry at me for a while, but eventually his instincts would kick in and he’d find ways to survive, even thrive, in that totally different environment.  The maker movement doesn’t attempt to bolt things on to existing factory-structures; it takes stuff, including stuff that factory-model systems discard as “worthless” or “unusable,” and bolts things together to make new, unpredictable, amazing things.  And non-factory schools, and non-school learning environments all over the world?  In them, folks labeled as “bad, lazy kids” and “horrible parents” and “impossible situations” and “awful communities” come together, build joyful communities, and do things that the factory-model system sees as “impossible” too.

But what happens when you try to bolt that on to the factory-system?  What happens if you institute a Maker Club in a factory-model school, or if a teacher or two manages to build a joyful learning community in the midst of a test-score factory?  Sometimes the magic spreads and the factory-paradigm begins to dissolve; sometimes the New Thing is just a temporary diversion, like the snowy bushes that give The Dog his temporary snowy back on a day like today.  And all too often, the New Thing just gets absorbed into the old thing.  How long will it be before some enterprising, well-meaning group develops a National Association of Maker Clubs, with maker-tests and maker-competitions and maker-medals and maker-cords at graduation like all those other student clubs?  And what happens to the joyful learning community created by Ms. R or Mr. S when Ms. R or Mr. S retires or moves on to Somewhere Else?

In the end, it’s all about the joyful community, of course.  And joyful community can emerge anywhere, even in the most unlikely places.  On this snowy day, with more snow and ice to come, I wonder what new insights and discoveries await us all … and I wonder what will happen when things return to “normal” in a few more days.  Will we resume our “normal” routine, like The Dog who was just now rolling happily on “his” floor, oblivious to the snow outside?  Or will we bolt things together in new, unpredictable ways and make something meaningful together?

Published in: on February 12, 2014 at 1:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

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