The One Right Answer?

On Tuesday I heard from a friend who sometimes has a puzzling, apparently exercise-induced set of symptoms, including headache and sinus pain on just one side of the head.  We exchanged brief messages about possible causes and solutions.  Could it be related to changes in temperature and humidity, like the headaches and coughs I sometimes get in rapidly-changing weather?  Is there such a thing as an exercise-induced migraine?  What key circumstances trigger the symptoms?  And then, much to my surprise, I found myself with an almost blinding headache and sinus pain on just the left side of my head as I was leaving school Tuesday afternoon.  Coffee helped, both to drink for the caffeine and to hold to my head in lieu of a hot compress, and I was feeling fine by late afternoon.  But I don’t think caffeine and heat help my friend.

While my head was still aching, I heard from another friend, and as we talked, we saw an underlying theme to several topics we’d discussed:  the tendency of factory-model schools (and other hierarchies) to seek the one right answer and scale it up.  “Why do so many schools in Your Parts use semester-block schedules rather than alternating-day blocks?” my friend asked.  There are lots of reasons, to be sure, but one not-infrequent argument we heard Back In The Day, when Powers Now Departed were advocating for the change, is that it prevents fights in troubled schools because there are fewer passing times during the day.  My friend, who has lived in urban areas and taught in urban schools, was unimpressed.  “That’s ridiculous!” was the response, and then we talked about other attempts to seek and scale one right answer even when it should be obvious that there’s not just one .

Sometime last fall, the Local School District had a gathering where particularly “effective teachers,” as measured by “their” standardized test scores, shared the strategies that had “contributed to” or “caused” those high scores.  To be fair, the Relevant Powers used value-added growth scores rather than just high scores, so these were teachers whose work was actually correlated with increased student scores.  Ms. X attended, and so did a Power Or Two that I know.  Ms. X was upset after the gathering because she felt that there was an “exclusive club” who shared ideas with each other, but not with “the rest of us.”  It’s been a while, but if I remember correctly, Ms. X felt that They (the Relevant Powers) should “make those people share with everybody else” so that everybody else’s scores would rise, too.  And One Power, impressed with the fact that many of these teachers used interactive notebooks with their students, has been trying to persuade everybody to have interactive notebooks, because that will surely increase everybody’s test scores … even though there isn’t a test in the subject area over which That Power has oversight.

One right answer, just waiting to be sought, found, and scaled.  It’s a beautiful dream; in fact, it’s the twentieth-century factory dream when you stop and think about it.  And in their comments on the Google+ thread about yesterday’s post, both Joseph and Debbie made powerful connections between that one right answer notion and the perfectionism and micromanagement I’ve been thinking about this week.  If you haven’t seen Joseph’s related blog post from last summer, I’d highly recommend it.

But the biggest problem with that dream of one scalable right answer is that, most of the time, there isn’t one.  There are many, and they’re contextual, and what solves the problem in this situation might exacerbate it in another.  Heat and caffeine help my sinus- and stress-induced headaches, but heat and caffeine are the worst possible treatment for other types of headaches.  Interactive notebooks, used for their stated purpose of encouraging creativity and deepening engagement, are a wonderful tool in the hands of teachers who love and choose them, but if Ms. X and Mr. Y were ordered and required to “use them,” the results would likely be marginal.  Block scheduling works well when teachers use the longer class periods for hands-on activities, creative work, and deeper discussions, but Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y will use a 90-minute block for a 45 minutes of lecture and 45 of textbook problems or worksheet packets.  Relevant Powers, knowing that well-planned lessons increase students’ engagement as well as Those All-Important Test Scores, require Ms. X and Mr. Y to write more-detailed lesson plans, but you can’t mandate engagement or creativity.  A Power reads an article about how student dress codes might be correlated with increased achievement or improved school climate, and within a few months Some Ms. X or Mr. Y is caught up in endless disputes about “appropriate” earrings, necklaces, or skirt lengths.  Read Twitter chats among educators, and you’ll see requests for “the” way to do things all the time.

One scalable right answer, the great factory-dream, turns into a nightmare when the answer takes on a life of its own, when it’s more important than the original question, or when the original question is forgotten in the rush to scale and implement.  That’s a natural tendency in every human institution, but joyful learning communities can be on guard, and they can address the question-answer disconnects more quickly and more easily than a hierarchy can.  I think that’s why N, U, and their friends are starting to do so much better, why they’re suddenly beginning to notice whole-group activities and ask others to be quiet then.  N, U, C, and T, in particular, have “always” experienced Ms. X’s class structures, where being quiet is the purpose rather than a tool in certain circumstances.  It’s been hard for them to make the paradigm shift … harder still, of course, because there isn’t one right answer or one right approach.  But that’s a powerful lesson they can take with them into the future.

I wonder what other powerful lessons and discoveries await us all today!

Published in: on March 5, 2014 at 11:43 am  Leave a Comment  

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