Megaphones, Funnels, and Sweet Spots

If you’ve ever used (or listened to) public-address equipment of any kind, you know it can be hard to find the sweet spot where the volume is just right for the situation.  How many times have we all seen somebody tapping on a microphone, asking “Can you hear me?” How many times have people been too close, which causes interference, or too far away, which makes it hard to hear?

That can even happen with an old-fashioned megaphone, but when you add power and technology … well, you know what can happen.  And what’s true of a megaphone is true, perhaps in reverse, with a funnel.  Funnels have sweet spots, too, especially when it comes to the distance from which you’re pouring things in and the rate at which you pour.

I learned that the hard way, years ago, with some homemade chicken stock.

I started thinking about sweet spots yesterday evening when I “just happened” to read Jackie Gerstein’s blog post “Shouldn’t Education and Learning Be the Same Thing?” and Pernille Ripp’s post about her new teaching context.  Jackie traces the historical development of Schools As They Are and notes the disconnect between school design and natural human learning; Pernille, now surrounded by people who are “crazy like me,” reflects on the importance of a supportive community with shared priorities.  Neither post addresses the idea of the sweet spot directly, but as I read them and thought about them, I could see the connection clearly.

I “just happened” to talk to a Wise Friend yesterday, one of many who have supported me as I’ve looked for my own sweet spot.  It turns out that she’s looking for her sweet spot, too: after years and years of teaching, she’s contemplating retirement and wondering what to do and where to do it and when to make the Big Change.  “Pray for wisdom and timing,” she asked me; “pray for strength on the road,” I asked her.

Meanwhile, another teacher-friend complained about “the madness of it all.”  It seems that Powers That Be at Some Low-Performing School, desperate to do something to make a difference, think they can fix the problem by requiring their “tested area” teachers to write lesson plans together and do the same thing at the same time.  “That,” said yet another Wise Friend, “is crazy.  If you take the old failed curriculum and do the same thing with it, you’ll just continue to fail.”  And yet, if I were one of those Powers That Be, and if I believed in (or just hadn’t ever really thought about) what Richard Elmore calls the hierarchical individual approach to learning, might I be tempted to do something similar?  “Make them collaborate,” I might think.  “Make them work on it together, and maybe that will help.”

And maybe it would … if Those Teachers in That School could find an alternative to the Same Old Same Old.  But it’s hard to do that, hard to find the sweet spot, when you feel interference from all sides.  There’s the interference of the Same Old Same Old, which “used to work,” as Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y has told me, “back in the good old days when teachers were revered.”  There’s the interference of uncertainty, of Big Changes Threatened and budgetary problems assured.  And of course there’s the interference of those well-meaning, equally terrified Powers That Be, desperately trying to find something to Move Those Scores and prevent Something Much Worse from happening.  In their desperation, they reach for old, familiar forms of how and what: factory-style techniques of management and control that are “supposed to” work because … well, because they “used to work,” we firmly believe, “back in the good old days.”

What would really work, I think, would be for Those Teachers and their Powers That Be to take the time to discover (or maybe rediscover) their why.  Why plan those lessons together?  To share ideas, because a community of practice tends to generate higher-quality ideas than the same people would in isolation.  Why would you need better ideas?  Because the old ones clearly aren’t working.  Why is that important?  Because, after all, you probably didn’t become a teacher in order to yell at “bad, lazy kids” and complain about “awful parents” and “those administrators.”  Because you probably became a teacher … because you liked working with young people, or because you liked explaining things and helping people understand.

But in the absence of that shared why, it’s hard to find the sweet spot.  And without that sweet spot, you just try random forms of how and what: the Shiny New Program from That One Workshop, the Cool New Technological Tool you read about Over There.  And without a why to connect them to, those programs and tools won’t be very effective … because you can’t really measure effectiveness unless you have a why to measure it against.

I’m thinking about Ms. M’s students, and I’m amazed by the joyful learning community that has formed around helping them.  But how can we, the members of that community, communicate the why to them clearly?  In the absence of why, as Don pointed out Monday on Google+, “your materials will just become a new kind of packet to be completed.”  Just like the desperate teachers at That One School, those students without a why would probably follow the process without getting the results.  They might even learn some Latin along the way, but would they form a joyful learning community?  Would they build meaningful things together?  And would they remember what they learned after The Test had come and gone?

When you find the why and the sweet spot, the megaphone and funnel are powerful tools; otherwise, they’re a distraction at best, a source of pain at worst.  I wonder what other new insights and discoveries await in the busy days to come!


Published in: on August 21, 2014 at 1:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

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