Individuals … or Examples?

When you look at a group of people, do you see individuals, or do you see examples of more general types?  I’m not sure how I would have answered that question twenty, fifteen, or even ten years ago, but I know I see individuals now.  I’m pretty sure Ms. X, Mr. Y, and some Powers That Be that I know see examples instead … and I think that difference in perception powerfully influences our practices and our perspectives.

Of course Ms. X, Mr. Y, and Those Powers want to be seen as individuals themselves!  “I hate it when They talk down to Us like that,” One Ms. X said of a Former Power who, to be perfectly honest, sometimes did use a particular tone of voice when addressing “bad, lazy” teachers … a tone of voice which That Ms. X’s students would have recognized quite well because they heard it daily from her.  Like That Ms. X, the Former Power looked at groups and saw examples: the “bright, hard-working girls” over there, the “gamer guys” over here, the “troublemakers that you need to deal with and make an example out of” in this corner.  As I think of That Power’s successes and frustrations over several years, it strikes me that they’re both related to that seeing of examples rather than individuals.  The more that students, teachers, families, or anything else conformed to That Power’s general types, the more success there appeared to be; the more they diverged, the more they failed to fit one of That Power’s general types, the more frustrating it was for everybody.

That Power liked me personally, but found me puzzling because I didn’t fit any general types.  And it’s taken me quite a few years to figure that out … because even when I do see examples of general types, I always remember that the general types are less real than the individuals.  For That Power, I think they were more real.

I realize this post could easily turn into a meditation on the Allegory of the Cave, but that’s not the direction I want to go today.  It’s been a long, sometimes difficult week, but the intermediate branch of the Latin Family had an amazing breakthrough yesterday.  And I don’t think it would have been possible if I’d seen examples of “bad, lazy ones” or “loud, popular kids” or “quiet gamer guys” or other labels and categories when I was planning out the week.  “We’re feeling stuck, some of us,” I thought on Sunday afternoon, “because we always work with the same people and hear the same voices.  How can we mix things up in a safe, but challenging way?”  I’d just started reading Richard Sheridan’s book Joy Inc., and I was struck by his very brief early reference to the way that his company structures its work.  Their programmers work in pairs, but they rotate regularly.  “Let’s try that,” I said, “on a smaller scale.  Let’s form random pairs, keep them together for four or five minutes, and then rotate to new pairs.”

N, J, and the others, the ones who are often dismissed as “bad and lazy” or “loud and rude,” loved it.  “I sort-of know C,” one of them said, “because I have another class with him, but he’s really cool and interesting!”  Even K, D, and E, who would love to sit quietly and listen most of the time, were willing to rotate and read.  Something really powerful happened Wednesday morning, and I know it couldn’t have happened if I’d seen N, J, K, D, E, and the others as examples of categories.  What new discoveries and breakthroughs can we make as we get to know those individuals more deeply … and as they trust their teachers and their learning communities enough to let themselves be more deeply known?

And is it possible, within the outward structures of factory-model schools, to infuse a new paradigm of seeing individuals?  If you asked Ms. X or Mr. Y, what would they say they see?  Or would they even understand the question?  I got an invitation to a Special Thing that a Great Power Indeed wants to try out this spring … a Special Training on how to use Google Drive to “harvest evidence” of students’ performance on Particular Measures.  The Great Power and the Outside Trainer who developed the Special Training … did they take the time to find out how much prior knowledge of Google Drive their participants have?  No; they clearly saw examples of a type, made an assumption, and started there, though to their credit they did include a place for folks to self-report their prior experiences with the tool.  “Just punish those bad, lazy kids for being tardy,” was the message at That Meeting Monday afternoon, “and they’ll certainly start coming to class on time.”  Look at all the assumptions about general types and examples hidden behind that seemingly simple statement … and realize that the “bell clock” has been malfunctioning so much that “school time” and “regular time” are two or three minutes off from each other!

As a busy day begins, I’m wondering how to take this insight to the individuals I work with, rather than to the examples of a type that I don’t actually see.  And I wonder what other new insights and discoveries await in the hours and days to come!

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Published in: on April 10, 2014 at 10:48 am  Leave a Comment  

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