This Tweet really struck me when I read it Wednesday afternoon. And then it showed up again this morning. A quick Twitter search for “protecting the past” led to this Harvard Business Review piece about how existing players in every industry resist innovation and the entry of new competitors. And then I saw this Tweet:
The article links to Jay Greene’s blog post about why top-down, mandated, “permanent” reforms in all areas paradoxically fail when they appear to succeed quickly. Take a look at Greene’s follow-up post, about alternatives to top-down mandates, too.
As I read and reflected, I kept thinking about what you see … because what you see flows from what you believe and what you value, and then all those things influence how you react and what you do. Ms. X looks at her students and sees some “bad, lazy ones” and a few “good students” because Ms. X believes in transmitting information and values compliance with directions. So she praises and rewards the “good ones” and labels or ignores the “bad, lazy ones,” and she focuses her efforts on transmitting just enough information to ensure success on the Great Big Scary State Tests. She’s protecting the past, and if she had “enough time” to talk things through, she’d probably agree. “We have to get them ready for college and a nice, safe job,” Ms. X sometimes says, and there’s “not enough time” and “too much to cover” for the conversation about whether those jobs still exist and whether College At All Costs is a good investment, at eighteen, for every single student.
With factory-trained eyes, Ms. X and Mr. Y see examples and defects when they look at their students. “E is a pretty good kid,” they’ll say, “but she has a bad attitude and a smart mouth sometimes.” Is it telling that smart, at least in this context, means disrespectful to Ms. X and Mr. Y? “B is just so lazy,” they’ll say, “but he could probably do it if Those Parents stopped coddling him so much.” Never mind B’s almost-crippling anxiety; never mind the struggles Those Parents go through daily. Ms. X and Mr. Y are just sure that they’ve categorized B properly, and once he’s categorized, that settles everything.
Ms. X and Mr. Y may complain about being categorized and labeled from the outside, usually by folks who “just don’t understand how hard it is.” But how different are those Outside Folks from Ms. X, Mr. Y, and the rest of us who categorize and label on the “inside?” Ms. X and Mr. Y don’t want forced rankings of teachers or schools, and they object to simple measures of their complex work. And yet, every single day, Ms. X and Mr. Y rank and sort their students, using simple measures like multiple-choice tests to reduce the complexity of learning to A Number. Jay Greene uses the word technocrats for folks who try to impose simple, singular, top-down solutions on complex problems; I wonder if Ms. X and Mr. Y realize how technocratic their world view can be!
Meanwhile, down the hall, what do the Relevant Powers see when they have time to “visit” classes for formal or informal observations? What do Greater Powers Yet see from their very different perspective? Do they see a past worth protecting, a future worth embracing, or some combination of the two? “The thing about education,” someone said to me last week, “is that we’re always trying new things and getting rid of old things before we know the new things are going to work.” And that’s true on the micro-level of techniques and programs and shiny new toys, but on the macro-level, that constant churn of new things on the periphery neatly disguises the lack of change at the core. Ms. X uses “the publisher’s PowerPoints” these days instead of “the overheads that come with the book,” but she’s still showing (and probably reading) somebody else’s words and expecting the “bad, lazy ones” to write them down verbatim. “Do you know what Those Kids tried to do?” One Ms. X asked after just such a session. “They wanted to take a picture of the PowerPoint with their phones instead of taking my notes!” And of course Ms. X forbade Such Nonsense … because the purpose of the lecture is to produce the notes, and how can Ms. X possibly grade those notebooks if the information resides in a digital photo instead? “It’s not like it used to be,” says Another Ms. X angrily. “Things were different ten or fifteen years ago.” And ten or fifteen years ago, when we had similar conversations, That Ms. X was muttering angrily about how much better things were … ten or fifteen years before that.
Protecting the past … or protecting the future?
I just realized I’m not sure what protecting the future looks or sounds like in a factory-school setting. Maybe it looks like a joyful learning community, but I’m not sure. Instead of seeing examples and deficits, do you see individuals with patterns of strengths and weaknesses? Instead of a fixed mindset about categories and labels, do you embrace a growth mindset about learning from struggles and improving over time? What do you value instead of, or more than, conformity and following the procedures? How do your reactions and behaviors differ from those of a Ms. X or Mr. Y? And can the vicious cycle of labels, low expectations, and extrinsic rewards really be transformed into a virtuous cycle of something else? What can replace the mantra of “treating them all the same” in order to be “fair to everybody,” a mantra that Many A Local Power firmly embraces?
On this last weekday of Spring Break, I seem to have more questions than answers! I wonder what we’ll all see in the days and weeks to come, and I wonder what new insights and discoveries await.