Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Owning the Room: A Different Look at Teacher Preparation

(originally published at www.catapultlearning.com)

I’ve been writing and speaking recently about an idea I’m calling, “Teaching for the Stretch,” which is all about engaging students in “conceptual play” to help them reach higher and deeper levels of understanding. Part of this approach involves asking students more open-ended, speculative questions. As I’ve been speaking with teachers and principals, I’ve heard them express some fear that truly open-ended questions will pull classroom discourse far off topic and away from the lesson as planned. In many schools, we demand that teachers write lessons according to a particular format and turn in their plans every week. How can we now tell them to ask “why,” and “how,” and “what do you think,” and “how do you know” questions that may not have a simple or single answer—much less the kinds of “what if we looked at it another way” questions that I’ve been advocating? Aren’t we just opening the door to chaos, disorder, and the Death of the Plan?
Well…possibly. But I think we can open the door a little, just to get some fresh air, without inviting chaos in for dinner. We’ve given teachers-in-training many strategies for classroom management, but I think we’ve shortchanged them on a crucial piece of the puzzle, which has to do with managing discourse.

Whether we’re talking about a traditional, direct-instruction model or something more open and inquiry-based, the teacher is the overall manager of the time and space set aside for instruction, and instruction is a living, breathing, shared experience. It’s not just a delivery of information; It’s a conversation—an exploration. In some ways, it’s a performance, and no performance, even a monologue, is purely monologue. We’re always talking to someone. Someone has been invited into the room, and someone else is there to create an experience for them. Whatever happens in that room, it’s being done for the benefit of the audience.

We often talk as if our time was the precious commodity, as if students were creating obstacles to what we were trying to accomplish. That mindset suggests (whether consciously or not) that students owe us their attention, and that when they become distracted, it’s an insult to us. But what if we thought about their time as being more important? Our students are legally mandated to attend our classes, but they can certainly absent themselves mentally if they’re not engaged. What if we acted as though their attention was a gift that we had to earn? What if we thought about classroom management the way an actor or a stand-up comic thinks about their time on stage? I’m not saying we have to entertain and amuse students every second of the day. Learning is difficult, and we shouldn’t have to pretend that it isn’t. It’s work. But the teacher still needs to “own the room,” as a performer might say—not for her own ego gratification, but to be able to shape and manage the experience for the benefit of the audience.

How do actors or other performers learn how to “own a room?” For a start, they learn how to use their voices and bodies to purpose and effect. An actor spends years getting voice and movement training to help her embody a wide range of characters and emotions. A comic learns when to stand still, when to prowl the stage, and how to use his voice and his microphone to create all sorts of vocal effects. He learns through long, hard experience that a whisper is funnier, or that a pause makes the laugh bigger. Even trial lawyers learn that during direct examination, they should stand to the side and let the witness talk to the jury, but that during cross examination, they should stand between the witness and the jury, so that their questions and commentary become the filter through which the jury hears the witness’ testimony. It’s subtle, but it matters. It shapes the audience’s experience.
Veteran teachers pick up similar techniques—when to get quiet and when to raise their voices; when to move around the room and when to stand still—but by and large, we make teachers learn these things on the job, haphazardly, and we don’t give any guarantees that they’ll learn them at all. They are not part of the curriculum; they’re just things you pick up along the way, if you’re lucky. And that’s a shame. We sometimes say that everything a child does in a classroom is data, but it works the other way around, as well. The way a teacher dresses, speaks, and moves speaks volumes to children, and all of those things can either support or undermine the academic work the teacher is trying to do.
Imagine if part of a teacher’s training included the purposeful and strategic use of voice, movement, and body language. Imagine if novice teachers learned techniques for holding their student “audience” in the palm of their hands and earning their attention and engagement. Imagine if teachers could approach a class period as a shared performance, a carefully and purposefully shaped period of time that has a beginning, middle, and satisfying conclusion. That’s what our best teachers do already. If the skills are similar to those learned by actors and trial lawyers, why can’t we “bottle” that stuff and teach our cadets how to do it?
There’s another crucial skill that speaks directly to the “teaching for the stretch” idea, the need to breathe air into a lesson to allow for questioning that probes and pushes a student’s learning. I’m talking about the skill of improvisation. Veteran performers know that every night holds the potential for a hundred disasters. They learn how to roll with the punches and keep the show moving. Athletes know that diagrams drawn in the locker room are lovely ideas that can be scuttled by reality in a split second. They know how important it is to be able to analyze a dynamic situation quickly and take the appropriate action. Teachers need the same set of skills, but again, we do not teach them explicitly. And we should. No matter how perfect and well-crafted a lesson plan may be, reality has a way of throwing curve balls at you, and if you can’t hit them…or duck…you’re in trouble.
How does this relate to stretch and conceptual play? I think it has to do with the kinds of questions we ask and the kinds of answers we expect. If our lesson plans set us up to ask only closed, fact-oriented questions, we can estimate lesson time fairly efficiently. We throw out the question, we hunt for who has the right answer, and we move on. But if we’re more interested in the wrong answers and what they tell us about the way students are thinking, it’s very hard to know how long that kind of exploration may take, or where a more open-ended question might take us. If you don’t know what kind of answer you’re going to get—or what kinds of questions students might ask of you—then you need to be prepared to change gears and respond. Refusing to respond (to a genuine question) just because it takes you off track betrays a lack of respect for students. It shows them that your time and your plan are more important than their needs, which I think we can all agree is a little bit backwards.
So how can we help teachers be prepared for the curve balls and know how to respond to them? This is where training in improvisation can come in handy.
A recent blog post from Mindshift talks about the power of improvisation for students, saying that “improv chips away at mental barriers that block creative thinking…and rewards spontaneous, intuitive responses.” But it’s important for teachers, too. As they say, “It also reminds teachers that listening and responding to students, and adapting to their needs, is more educational than obeying a rigid teaching plan.”
Improvisation teaches a wide variety of strategies for being in the moment and being available to respond to whatever gets thrown at you. Some of the techniques you learn include Agree and Add, which is also known as Yes, And.  We’re often trained to say No when we get thrown a curve ball—or, at most, Yes, But:  “Yes, that’s an interesting point, but that’s not what we’re talking about today.”  Improv teaches you to listen to and then accept the things that get thrown at you--and then build upon them. It gives respect to the thrower of curve balls (or, to be kinder, the student questioner) and takes seriously what they have offered. It teaches us to avoid rejecting the things we haven’t planned for, just because we didn’t plan for them—to accept them and find a way to use them in our teaching. It teaches you to be ever on the lookout for the “teachable moment,” and then make the most of it.
Improv teaches you to explore, together with your partner, whatever you’ve found—to dig into it and ask questions about it. What’s in there? How does it work? What else does it lead to? These are all terrifying questions to a teacher who is trying to re-route a student away from a tangential question and back to the main idea. But if we believe that tangential lines of thought are often where students become truly engaged—and that those tangential questions can reveal how a student is thinking (or mis-thinking) about the core lesson material—then we need to have strategies for dealing legitimately, not dismissively with them. Every one of them can be a teachable moment if we know how to make use of them—if we’re ready to change our plan and engage with the moment we’ve been given.
Every great athlete and soldier knows that all plans are provisional; that reality intrudes in surprising ways. We know it, too. So why don’t we meet the challenge head-on and help our teachers-in-training build the skills they’ll need to deal with the crazy curve-balls that will absolutely, without question, get tossed at them?
As the old Yiddish expression tells us, “Man plans; God laughs.” If we know that the universe is liable to laugh at our best planning, maybe we can learn to laugh along with it.

 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Can We Get There From Here? From Rhetoric to Real Discussion about the Common Core State Standards


(first published at www.catapultlearning.com)

It seems like the Common Core State Standards have devolved into yet another opportunity for the citizens of our great nation to call each other idiots. We have one bloc of people who feel that the standards present a rare, historic chance to bring some cohesion, unity, and rigor to our country’s education system, and another bloc of people who feel that the standards present a dangerous intrusion of federal power into what should be a locally controlled effort. That’s fine; this is an important issue, and a healthy debate is a good thing. Unfortunately, we’re not having a healthy debate.
In the “pro” bloc, opponents are considered paranoid, conspiracy-drenched anti-intellectuals. In the “anti” bloc, the initiative is increasingly referred to as “ObamaCore,” and its supporters are referred to as anti-American socialists or “unaccountable corporate interests,” depending who you talk to. The fiery rhetoric takes on a life of its own, completely detached from the thing it’s referring to, a set of documents which very few of the yakkers on either side have actually read. Predictably, our elected leaders stand firmly and proudly on the banana-peel of public opinion, changing their minds as soon as they sense that their constituents have changed theirs.

I am firmly in the “pro” camp, as anyone who has read my blog posts will know. But I don’t want to be blind or blinkered about it—I want to make sure my good feelings about the standards are justified by the facts, as best I can figure them out. So I’m trying, whenever I can, to engage with opposing arguments, to understand where they come from and what merit they might have. If I wanted to be snarky, I could say that this is exactly the approach to evidence-based argumentation that the Common Core State Standards is trying to encourage. But let’s not go there.

Let’s go here instead.  Valerie Strauss, the education writer for the Washington Post, shares an open letter written to President Obama by a literacy consultant in an urban high school, complaining about the new, Common-Core-aligned tests that her daughter is taking (from which the president’s daughters, who attend a non-public school, are exempt). The woman is from Massachusetts, a state that had, pre-Common-Core, some of the toughest academic standards and strongest test results in the country. If anyone could afford to have a “who needs the Common Core?” attitude, it was the good people from Massachusetts. And yet, they adopted the new standards and are now engaged in implementing the tests.

The author of the letter to Obama has some serious reservations about the test her 7th grade daughter has had to take, especially after hearing her daughter say things like, ““These are such weird questions,” “this test is crazy,” “this is a stupid, impossible test,” and, “this question just is a stupid awful question. It makes no sense.”
Now, let’s unpack these comments a little bit. Weird and crazy? Absolutely. These tests are radically different from what we endured as students, or even what this 7th grader was used to taking. Besides being computer-driven, with many technology-enhanced questions that require things like dragging-and-dropping, clicking on objects or pieces of text, and drawing things like lines on graphs, they also include some very challenging, perhaps exhausting, multi-part questions. The author’s daughter calls her test, “really complicated, hard, and unclear,” and I’m willing to take her at her word.

The question here is: does all of that make the test stupid, awful, and impossible? Or is the test simply new and challenging? Let’s say the standards are implemented successfully and peacefully over the next few years. In five or ten years, would a 7th grader react to this test the way the author’s daughter did? Or would she be used to that level of rigor and those particular academic demands? This is a reading and writing test. The material assessed is not material students learn in a single year. These are skills that develop gradually, incrementally, through all the years of schooling. And that has not been the case, for this year’s crop of 7th graders. The expectations built into these standards are different from the expectations that were originally set for today’s middle and high school students.
So is the problem the test itself, or the fact that these students were not ready for the test—could not have been ready for the test? I think the real question, which the author does not raise, is this: is it fair to assess students on material that they have not been fully exposed to? Should we only be implementing these new tests with students who have had the full and correct preparation for them? That would mean giving the tests only to students who started Kindergarten under the new regime.

Which is fairer—to excuse older students from the assessments, or to effectively remove any sense of accountability for implementing the standards for students over the age of six…which is what excusing them from the tests will do? The standards have been with us since 2010. Many teachers and administrators chose not to think about them until the tests came on line this year. This should have been Year 5 of implementation. In too many places, it’s actually Year 1. People should rise to a new challenge without having to take a test to measure compliance and performance. Certainly. Unfortunately, we don’t live on Planet Should.
To understand the anger fueling the people opposing the standards, we need to pull a few things apart that are too often mashed together. There is a difference between the standards and the tests. You can be angry about one—and protest against it—without throwing away the other. Perhaps a more thoughtful approach to implementing the assessments could have protected the standards from being attacked. Perhaps. But there is also a difference between the standards and the way they have been rolled out and implemented. You can admire the standards—as I do—and still think the rollout has been poorly planned, poorly communicated, and poorly executed.

Frederick Hess has written a thoughtful history of the writing and implementation of the standards, and manages to separate the Thing Itself from How the Thing Was Done. He is able to show what is good and important about the standards while criticizing the top-down, condescending, and thoughtless way in which the standards were introduced into the world. Writing from a fairly conservative point of view, he is able to distance himself from the extremist fringes of the CCSS-haters while showing why those people feel the way they do, and what real things may have ignited their fear and paranoia. For those of us who support the standards and have trouble understanding the haters, it’s a sobering and important read.
As Hess points out, and former Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, drives home, education policy that is crafted and implemented with little or no participation from front-line practitioners is doomed to failure. When policy and practice don’t talk to each other—when technocrats and administrators (whether at the school level or in Washington) think they know what teachers need to do without ever consulting them—there is little chance that the policy is going to be practicable…or that the practitioners will sign on to support it.

I still support the standards, and I think their adoption—with a committed, thoughtful implementation—would be a good thing for our teachers and our students. But I don’t know if we can get there from here. I honestly don’t. I don’t know whether we’re capable of having the kinds of discussions—and arguments—we need. And it is precisely our inability to argue this issue well that makes me the saddest. To me, the heart and soul of these standards—in literacy and in mathematics—is an acknowledgement that the things of this world are complex and multifaceted, and that real analysis and critical thinking are needed to understand important issues and solve important problems. But that’s not where we seem to be, right now. We seem to be mired in a world of black and white, good vs. evil, a world where received wisdom from charismatic sources exempts us from having to analyze facts on our own.
It would be a shame to think that we’re incapable of having the rational, evidence-based discussion needed to implement these standards precisely because we weren’t raised with the skills embedded in those standards.

Yeah, I went there. I’m sorry.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Little Things Speak Loudly

It may seem churlish to criticize a children’s movie—and one coming out at Christmas, no less—for its political stance—but our cultural products do speak volumes about us and the way we see the world. I took my children to see the remake of “Annie” over the New Year’s weekend, and apart from aesthetic criticisms (of which I definitely had a few), I found its point of view about wealth and the social contract very interesting. I’m going to make reference to particular plot points below, so if you fear spoilers, leave now.

Several reviewers have already pointed out that the original Daddy Warbucks character, as envisioned by cartoonist Harold Gray, was a hardcore, free-market capitalist who often voiced his opposition to Franklin Roosevelt and the social policies of the New Deal. Viewers whose knowledge of Little Orphan Annie comes solely from the Broadway musical of the 1970s and the subsequent movie versions may find this surprising, as Warbucks evolved (or mutated) to have a close relationship and alliance with Roosevelt—politics and private industry working hand-in-hand to help the poor. That was definitely not Gray’s vision. His Warbucks believed that the wealthy’s responsibility to society was to simply provide jobs to people.

The newest take on the role, played by Jaime Foxx and now called William Stacks, has much more in common with the original Warbucks than with his later, more liberalized version. He is a cell phone magnate whose single interest is in growing his business. He’s running for mayor of New York City but doesn’t seem to have any platform or agenda beyond increasing his own visibility to help his company broaden its reach.  Early in the film, you might say to yourself (as I did), “What a perfect set-up for what’s coming. He’ll come in contact with Annie, learn about the suffering of others, and discover his true mission in life.” In fact, his lack of actual platform is mentioned so many times, early in the film, that it seemed clear to me that this is where the movie was headed. Add to that his discovery that Annie is illiterate, and that many children in the city fall through the cracks and get passed along in school without learning what they need to learn, and the stage is set perfectly. Stacks will start to think about his relationship and responsibility to the society around him. He’ll become the Education Candidate. He’ll make that his political mission, and that is what will lead him to electoral victory.

Except that’s not what happens. Not at all. Stacks does learn a lesson about selfishness and love, but it leads him to drop out of the race entirely, and let the diehard liberal candidate (amusingly named after the original cartoonist) take the election. Stacks does come out of the story caring about children’s literacy, and it leads him to open a children’s literacy center (although this only happens in the closing credits; up till then, his focus is solely on helping Annie). So he’s a good guy, and he uses some of his money to help others. He’s a good guy in the way the Koch brothers are good guys: if you leapfrog over how they make their money and don’t question why some people should have quite so much money while other have nothing, then you have to acknowledge that they spend some of their money philanthropically, and good for them for doing so. It’s the liberal politician’s job to deal with social policy; the rich man goes back to making money.

What’s interesting is that the underlying system is NEVER questioned, even for a second. Will Stacks is a billionaire because he works hard. He even gets a nice song about making the most of his opportunities. But Annie and the other foster kids live in abusive squalor…why? No reason is given, beyond the fact that their particular foster mother is a selfish wreck. Personal responsibility and accountability are great things to focus on, and they cross the political aisle (though conservatives like to pretend that liberals don’t care about personal responsibility), but they’re not the full story. Why is the foster care system underfunded? Why are the office bureaucrats dour and grim and unhelpful (until one of them gets to rub up against Great Wealth, after which she becomes charming)? How is a bright child like Annie allowed to move through school without learning how to read? The screenwriters go the trouble of pointing out that Annie isn’t alone—that there are many kids who suffer the same problem—but it doesn’t focus any attention on the systemic problems that lead to this result, or suggest that there are structural problems that lead to this result, or suggest that there may be other ways of structuring things. All they offer is the rich man riding in on the white horse to save the day. Thank god there’s a rich guy who can fund a literacy center to make up for our shitty schools, they say. What isn’t said, but is definitely implied, is that shitty schools are just a fact of life…for some people. The poor you will always have with you. And in a world where nothing is causative beyond personal responsibility, or its lack, the other thing that’s implied is that anyone who is poor has only themselves to blame for it. They didn’t make the most of their opportunities, like Will Stacks did.

The message throughout seems to be that society must depend on the wealthy for pretty much everything—not only for jobs, but also for whatever assistance is needed to better our lives. So thank God for the rich. They do not have any responsibility to fix the system—to make it more equitable, to make it more functional. They do not have any responsibility to limit what they take, to make sure others have what they need. Each person is a free agent, and each person is 100% responsible for his or her life circumstances. There is nothing else at play, holding people back or limiting their opportunities. Therefore, the only responsibility of the rich man is to get rich and stay rich, so that they can “save” whatever they deem worthy of saving, out of the goodness of their hearts. They are the lords and the rest of us are serfs, and you’d better thank your lucky stars you have a lord on hand to take care of things.

I don’t mean to mock. This is a real political point of view, held by many people in this country—now and in times past. I think it’s surprising how clearly and internally consistently this point of view is illustrated and defended throughout the movie, especially considering how excessively liberal Hollywood is accused of being. The DVD of the movie ought to be every conservative’s favorite stocking-stuffer, next Christmas.

However, I do think it’s important to identify the point of view and see it for what it is. It’s very easy to take the happy ending as given, and swallow the happy medicine with the spoonful of sugar it’s delivered with. But I think it’s all right to think about it, too, and question it—to have a dialogue with the movie (as with any piece of art and culture). If we happen not to agree with its point of view, I think it’s right and proper to challenge it, especially with older children who are seeing the movie with us. Every movie creates a world, and every fictional world gives us the opportunity to learn something about the real world. We should make the most of our opportunities.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Which Side Are You On?


One of the saddest things I’ve seen during the recent horrors in Ferguson, Staten Island, and Brooklyn has been the speed with which people have been taking sides and accusing whoever disagrees with them of destroying America. Saner voices try to remind us that there are no sides—that we’re all in this together, and that we just need to understand each other and work things out. But the more I watch, the more I wonder if the first part of the statement is true. Maybe there are two sides to what’s going on, but in a different way than most people are thinking.

I used to love Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that the arc of the moral universe was long, but that it bent towards justice. I liked being reminded to take the long view, and I liked the sense of historical inevitability. But now I’m not so sure I buy it. I think the moral universe may actually be in a perpetual state of tug-of-war. We have within us the desire for justice and tolerance, the ability to make our communities more fair and peaceful. But we also have within us the desire to compete, to dominate, and to vanquish—and we’re definitely capable of ruling by force and separating ourselves from the weak and the defeated by walls and laws and armed guards. We can go either way, depending on the mood of the times. We can be ruled by hope and justice, or we can be ruled by fear and hatred. And one being ascendant, in any given period of time, doesn’t mean the other isn’t lying somewhere in our hearts, latent, ready to be re-born. This means that any ground we win in the battle for social justice is ground that can be lost. Just because we secure a victory in one generation doesn’t mean the problem has vanished. The problem is always there, under the surface, like a cancer that’s in remission but not gone.

I remember traveling in the Czech Republic in 1993 and seeing freshly-painted graffiti showing a Star of David with a gallows hanging from it—anti-Semitic hatred on display in a country that had barely known a Jew in 50 years. You could feel that weird, irrational, hatred under the surface, always—always looking for a reason to push back to the surface. Even here, it seems like there’s an instance every month of some idiot, somewhere, drawing swastikas into team logos, or creating shirts that look like concentration camp uniforms, or using some racial epithet or caricature to criticize the president, or calling a new vodka and stout cocktail, “Apartheid.” I don’t think it’s just thoughtlessness, or tactlessness, or historical amnesia. It’s nastier than that. It’s this ugly little, lizard brain voice saying, “Is it okay to hate them again, yet? Is it okay to put them in their place?” That voice needs to get beaten down whenever it whispers to us. We can’t ever assume we’re “beyond that.”

Likewise, I don’t think it’s just historical ignorance that drives some people toward wanting a repeat of the massive inequalities of the Gilded Age. It would be easy to think that millions of voters are simply dupes of power brokers like the Koch brothers, but I don’t think the reality is that easy, or that our fellow citizens are that stupid. No, I think it’s the pull of the tug-of-war—the message that life should be ferocious and competitive and brutal, because that’s all we deserve—a world where might makes right, and weakness deserves nothing but contempt. It’s that strange, visceral feeling of satisfaction when you get to respond to your own oppression by stepping on the neck of someone even lower on the ladder than you. It’s that weird, exhilarating feeling of relief when you decide you can give up trying be noble, because there’s no point in even trying. Camus talks about this in The Fall, when he describes the horror of having a drowning stranger call out to you for help—and the wonderful feeling of relief that comes when you find a way to talk yourself out of having to be responsible for saving his life.

It’s an abdication of responsibility that lies at the heart of all of this, I think. We can’t fix racism. We can’t fix poverty. We can’t change the world. So we decide who belongs inside and who belongs outside, we lock the door tight, and to hell with whoever is left out in the cold. Really—to hell with them. Fuck them. They’re not my problem.

I think we can see this at work in the way some people are responding to the new Senate report on torture. We see it the way people seem to be embracing the militarization of the police. Bad things are happening to some ill-defined them out there, but they’re not my problem. And the more that some people try to make the claim that those suffering people are our problem, the angrier the abdicators get. We don’t want to know. Do whatever you have to do to keep the peace—just leave me alone: that’s the new social contract.

There is something deeply disturbing about a free country so rapturously embracing images and ideas that smack of fascism—but it’s hardly new. Erich Fromm identified the strain back in 1941, in his book, Escape from Freedom. He saw that freedom and accountability could be terrifying and isolating for some people, and that authoritarianism had its comforts. Just because we’ve moved from feudalism to democracy doesn’t mean that democracy is a given. The desire to be ruled is still in our blood.

And maybe those are the real tugs-of-war we live with, day to day—the conflicts between the burdens of freedom and its gifts, and the dangers of authoritarianism and its gifts. When the drowning man calls to us in the nighttime and no one can see whether we act heroically or slink away…what will we do?

The fight ahead is not between the police union and the mayor. It’s not between minority citizens and white police officers. It’s not even between the 99% and the 1%. We are all in this together. We have to be in this together.  The real fight—the eternal fight—is against the cancer that’s always ready to wake up.  Camus (again) made it clear in The Plague that the disease is not neutral; when it wakes up, you always have to take a side. You’re either for the plague or against the plague. If you do nothing to fight it, then you’re for it.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Every System is Perfect

(originally published at www.catapultlearning.com)

 


"A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect."    W.E.B. Du Bois

They say the political system in our country is broken because it produces nothing but partisan bickering and legislative gridlock. They say our tax system is broken because it demands too much (or too little) from Group X and spends too much (or too little) on Cause Z. They say our education system is broken because…well, for all sorts of reasons, depending on who’s talking. Educators are addicted to faddish reforms, or educators are hopelessly resistant to change. Whichever side you pick, the headline is the same: the system is broken.

We used to see ourselves as a country of engineers and tinkerers, mechanics and inventors, and yet we can’t seem to fix the systems we complain about. Why is that? Have we become hopelessly inept?  During World War II, we had the ever-resourceful, wisecracking rabbit, Bugs Bunny, as our cartoon icon. He could outsmart any foe and solve any problem. Now we have the hapless dunderdead, Homer Simpson. Does that really reflect who we have become?

I don’t think so. We are still a resourceful, inventive, curious nation, eager to try new things and tinker with the old. I think our problem is that we’re trying to fix things that aren’t technically broken. Our systems work fine. In fact, our systems are perfect.  

I know that sounds impossible. Allow me to explain.

What’s in a Name?


Some definitions of the word “system” include:

·         An assemblage or combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole;

·         Any assemblage order of correlated members;

·         A coordinated body of methods or a scheme or plan of procedure; organizational scheme;

·         Any formulated, regular, or special method or plan of procedure

Common to all of these definitions is the idea of a coming-together of disparate parts or pieces into something sensible and whole. A system is not a random lump; the pieces are combined, correlated, coordinated, and arranged for some purpose. Whoever or whatever does the combining or coordinating has a plan in mind. A system is built to do something. That’s what makes it a system.

Our bodies are composed of a variety of systems which have developed over thousands of years. We have a skeletal system, a nervous system, a pulmonary system, a cardiovascular system, and a digestive system. Each is made up of different elements that work together to perform steps of a complex task. Genetic mutation and environmental pressure have shaped and changed these systems to do exactly what they currently do, for better or for worse.

We like to think that our human-created systems, like schools and governments, are born of more precise planning, engineering, and construction, but they have evolved over time, just like our biological systems. Sometimes, we may feel as though time and pressure have warped what we have built beyond recognition. But however clumsy and jerry-rigged our systems may appear to us, they do still perform a function. They lead to a particular result. And if they deliver that result in a consistent and reliable and predictable fashion, we can’t really call them broken. They work. They work quite well. They have become efficient machines for producing…whatever it is they produce.

Machines Define Themselves


Case in point: if our Congress is now a place where compromise has become impossible and compromisers have become unelectable, then Congress has clearly become a system that produces gridlock. That is what the machine does. If it produces gridlock in a consistent and reliable and predictable fashion, then it’s an efficient gridlock machine—maybe even a perfect one.

We claim we don’t want the gridlock and intransigence that Congress is mired in, but is that true? The environmental pressures that have mutated the system haven’t come from famine, or war, or an ice age. They’ve come from us. Everything we’ve done to tinker with this system over the years has deepened the inability for representatives to compromise with each other. We’ve done that. In my lifetime, we’ve gotten gridlock down to a science. If we don’t like the result, why have we adapted the machine to be so good at delivering it? Are we just stupid? Or are we not being honest with ourselves about what we want?

Sometimes our problems with systems don’t come from the evolutionary adaptations, but from the original designs. Our public school system has been changed and tinkered with relentlessly over the years, but the machine still adheres closely to the original blueprint. We often forget what the machine was meant to produce. Our schools were developed, based on a model imported from Prussia, to process immigrants into citizens and citizens into workers, to drive the new, industrial economy. Our school system was built to be our country’s E Pluribus Unum machine: take the Many and turn them into the One. Take the children of the loud, chaotic rabble and teach them how to sit still at a desk, all in a row, and speak only when called upon by the teacher. Free spirits, both real and fictional (hello, Tom Sawyer) have always identified school as the enemy of freedom, and they haven’t been completely wrong about that. Freedom was never the point of school. Induction into adult society—specifically the 19th and 20th century industrial economy—was the point. And it has delivered a fairly predictable, consistent product—so much so that a major issue of the Civil Rights Movement was ensuring that all children be allowed to participate in the system and emerge from it on a par with their peers, regardless of color.  

Now, we can complain that our schools don’t do enough to develop critical thinking, personal autonomy, and creative expression. We can complain that they don’t help teachers differentiate and personalize instruction to meet the individual needs of an increasingly diverse student body. We can complain that they should be laboratories of scientific innovation, or that they should focus on creation of authentic products rather than the mastery of standardized tests. We can even complain that the kinds of workers we need today require a different kind of processing machine. All of these things may be true and important and wonderful, but the complaints live firmly in the world of “should.”  Our schools, by and large, do not do these things, because that’s not what they were built to do.

Of course we get outliers from time to time—exceptional students, iconoclastic teachers, trailblazing schools. Every bell curve has its outliers. But the anomalies do not define the machine; the core product does. And the core product has been sameness for many years--well behaved, employable sameness. The machine has been quite effective at churning out that product. The problem is not that the system is broken. In fact, the system seems pretty indestructible.

Fixing the Washing Machine


So here is the challenge. We have to decide what we want, and then assess whether the system we have is the right system for delivering the end-product we desire. That’s what we need to do, but it’s not what we tend to do. We tend to start with the system that’s already in place, assuming it’s a permanent, necessary part of our lives. It’s always been there; it’s always going to be there. It’s inescapable. And so we try to wrangle and mangle the system into new shapes to meet our changing needs.

With some systems, that’s a sensible course of action. Some systems can accommodate change better than others. The United States Constitution has a built-in process for revision and updating, which is one of the reasons it continues to serve us. If Congress as it currently functions is not serving our needs, there are mechanisms for fixing it. We do not need to break it and create something different. All we need to do is agree on what we want. If that is more than we’re capable of doing, it’s a reflection on us, not the system. The system’s intransigence reflects our ambivalence.

That may be what’s happening in our public education system, as well. Perhaps it is wonderfully open to change, and we simply can’t agree on what we want to do with it. If that is the case, then our challenge is finding consensus…which would be a serious challenge, given our recent experience with adopting the Common Core State Standards.

But I think there’s another problem, beyond consensus. Some systems are just not well-designed for change, and when we try to monkey around with them, our adaptations can create more havoc than good. Even if we have universal agreement on how we want to change a system, we may find that the original, historical design is now so divorced from our needs that it can’t serve as a useful platform anymore. The base of the structure remains unchanged, but we tinker with everything built on top of it, until the entire structure becomes patchwork-y and unstable. And when the structure of “reform” finally collapses, it’s the solid base—the original design—that remains. You can’t change the top if you don’t change the bottom. That’s what I think is happening in our schools.

Here’s a perhaps-clumsy analogy. The washing machine is a simple and straightforward machine. We know what it’s good for, and what it can do. But if you need a dryer instead, do you take your washing machine apart and try to turn it into that dryer—something it was never meant to be and is ill-equipped to be? Or do you go out and buy what you need?  I think even Homer Simpson would know which choice was more logical.

It’s not rocket science. A system built to do X will always want to do X. It’s good at doing X. It’s happy doing X. The more you try to pull it away from its original function, the ricketier and more unstable it becomes. Sometimes, starting from scratch just makes more sense. Why spend your life fighting against something’s primary essence and definition?   

Is American public education becoming one of these monsters? I wonder. Can we take the traditional school house and school schedule, subdivided into discrete rooms and discrete class periods, each in a particular place, run by a particular teacher, designed for the particular purposes we discussed above, and transform it into a place of individualized and collaborative, project-based and mastery-based learning? We’re certainly trying our hardest. Sometimes we even succeed. But let’s be fair: it’s not what the system was built for, and there will always be a tension between what it was designed to do and what we’re trying to make it do. The way the school is built makes it easy to separate students and separate subjects and use class time to do one thing at a time, driven by the teacher who stands at the head of the room and performs for her audience. It is a perfect system for doing that. We can force it to do other things, but it’s always going to be a challenging. It’s always going to be an uncomfortable fit.  We will always—always—have to place ourselves between our reforms and the system’s original function, holding the reversion-to-form at bay with brute strength.

Rabbit Season


I don’t believe the only way to effect change is to live in that eternal tension—keeping systems from doing what they were designed to do. I think if you need a clothes dryer, you should go out and get a clothes dryer. And if the machine you need doesn’t exit, then maybe you should build one. Starting from scratch isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

What if we could start from scratch? What if we could build a school that reliably, consistently, and predictably produced the kinds of young adults we say we need in the brave new world of the 21st Century?  What would such a place look like? How would it function? If we could (just for a moment) forget about the systems we’ve inherited, the buildings we’re stuck with, and the behaviors we assume are inevitable—if we could pretend that we were inventing the idea of School from Day 1—tabula rasa—what would we dream up?

Bugs Bunny used to stare down the barrel of a shotgun, stick his finger in the hole, and say, “What’s up, Doc?” And either his adversary pulled the trigger and had the gun blow up in his own face, or the sheer audacity of Bugs standing up to him made him stand down and lower his weapon. Bugs wasn’t just smarter than everyone around him. He was also courageous, optimistic, and—even when facing the shotgun barrel—good-humored. That’s why our fighter pilots used to paint his picture on their planes.

I say it’s time to start channeling Bugs again. I say it’s time to stop reacting to everything that’s wrong with a hopeless slap on the forehead and a Simpson-esque cry of, “D’oh!” What defined this country in its infancy was a refusal to accept the inheritance of history as inevitable—an insistence on re-looking, re-thinking, and re-forming all systems to create a truly new world. Whatever the problems before us, I believe we can figure out how to answer the question, “What would it take…?” But first we have to ask, “What if…?”