The Girl has aged out, and she’s busy with other things. But The Boy still loves the summer program at the Local Theater. As I waited for him yesterday, I “just happened” to meet Mr. T, there to pick up his granddaughter. We talked about logistics and the history of the theater, about people we both knew. And then, we started talking about a shared concern: the deep divisions and the ugly political rhetoric in today’s political landscape. We found common ground and joyful community while sitting on that bench.
Mr. T is a bit older than I am, but we both come from times and places when you memorized the Preamble to the Constitution. And I had “just happened” to think about those familiar words from a new perspective.
A more perfect Union. When I memorized the Preamble … and when the Schoolhouse Rock version was ubiquitous on Saturday morning television … I wasn’t that aware of the “less perfect Union” under the Articles of Confederation. That’s a period of American history that The Textbook glossed over … and even though Younger Me was fascinated by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin’s work in the 1780’s, I didn’t really think about the political structure in which they worked. That’s probably because the biographies I read, like The Textbook, focused on what had worked pretty well (Adams and Franklin) rather than what hadn’t worked (the “weak and underfunded” Continental Congress).
As I thought about the Preamble a few days ago, it struck me that in the face of obvious imperfection, the writers of the Constitution didn’t aim for perfect. They aimed for more perfect, and maybe that’s the key to the lasting success of their document and their government.
Mr. T and I talked a lot about perfect and more perfect, and we agreed that the difference is subtle, but crucial. Perfect is a destination. You’re either perfect or imperfect … and if you’re still imperfect, does it really matter how close you got? One Ms. X was in tears a few months ago. She had spent so many hours trying to write perfect lesson plans, only to receive critical feedback on the Shiny New Rubric from Powers That Be. When she showed me the feedback, it was clear that Ms. X had done quite a few things well. But she couldn’t see that; she could only see the negatives and imperfections. “I’ve never gotten a bad comment before,” she whimpered.
The quest for Perfect, as defined by Somebody Powerful, turns you into a pleaser. When you seek good comments and gold stars and high grades and That Certificate of Achievement, you focus on meet Their definition of “best.” Ownership and agency fade; compliance and task completion rule. In the terminology of the learning theories framework that Richard Elmore uses in his HarvardX course “Leaders of Learning,” perfect enshrines a hierarchical individual model of learning and living, one where They (the experts) designed the One Right Process for Us (the novices) to follow, and each novice had better follow it … and keep your eyes on your own paper, you “bad, lazy one” … or else!
If you haven’t guessed, the hierarchical individual quadrant was the least appealing to me in the preliminary “Modes of Learning” assessment in that course.
More perfect, on the other hand, is a process. You still have a set of criteria you aim to reach, but critical feedback is a helpful tool, not a discouraging final judgment. More perfect could certainly be defined by Them, the experts, in a hierarchical manner, but it could also be defined by All of Us, the community, in a distributed way. More perfect can be an individual pursuit or a collective community endeavor … and the more diverse the community, the more likely you are to get more perfect when you reach consensus.
As I’m writing this post at the Local Bookstore, there’s a group of teachers working on Planning Curriculum in the corner. I’m trying not to listen, but teacher voices are loud. It seems they’re busy planning the One Right Process for a Particular Project, and I just heard a dispute about how many bullet points and forcing them to practice, a dispute that led to a lengthy conversation about note cards and summarizing and critical thinking and lots and lots of Current Buzzwords. But under those surface disputes, it’s pretty clear that they all agree on a hierarchical individual learning model. They’re the Experts, and they’ll be making those (potentially “bad and lazy”) Novices follow the One Right Standardized Process. It’s just a question of choosing the One Right Tool (PowerPoint or Prezi) and the right number of points for each element to be worth, of deciding on exactly what “they have to do” to get those points.
After all, points are a motivator, aren’t they? And We, the Experts “have to” motivate Them, the Novices, because … They are so unmotivated. And bad. And lazy. Right?
But I don’t live in that world anymore … if I ever did. In the joyful learning community world, things happen like the email I “just happened” to get from J a couple of weeks ago. “I made a little flashcard program,” she wrote, “to help me study vocabulary for the AP Exam,” and she sent me a link to it because it might help somebody else, too. Things happen like the half-formed idea for an alternative history game that turned into a culminating project (and a continuing project) for K, K, and their friends. K, K, and J know the power of more perfect, of building meaningful things with and for a joyful learning community. And that’s where I want and need to spend my time too.
So what are the next steps on my journey toward more perfect? And what other insights and discoveries await us on our journeys?