I’ve been spending some selfish learning time recently. Today my wife and I took some time to drive over to the ocean, to walk, and to watch the beauty of the moving water in our local inlet. A beautiful way to spend a very hot day.
As you may recall, I’ve been participating for a while now in a virtual community focusing on school change, Modern Learners. It continues to be a fascinating and engaging learning experience for me. Recently, the group’s community manager has begun to add a monthly focus topic. For July, the group explored the importance of devoting time to our own refreshment, health, and re-creation. This month’s topic deals with the importance of relationship building in the learning process (for adults as well as students) and the ways in which relationships can be fostered. This has been a topic of consistent interest to me.
Earlier today, I opened today’s post by Jan Resseger. She titled it, “How We Define Teaching Makes All the Difference”. I hope you’ll read it. It’s magnificent. It offers a stark and disturbing picture of the costs of the culture of efficiency that has dominated the educational experiences of our educators and children since the publication of A Nation At Risk.
Jan introduces her piece with a reference to a Philip Roth novel, I Married a Communist. In the book, the main character, Mr Ringold, is by most standards a model teacher. Ringold teaches children from his neighborhood. He understands them, He cares about them. He cares what they read and insists that they think about what they read. He is in relationship with his students.
Jan includes a brief excerpt from the book as told by Nathan, one of his students…
Mr. Ringold had stepped over to where the books had tumbled from the basket onto the pavement at the foot of the stoop and was looking at their spines to see what I was reading. Half the books were about baseball… and the other half were about American history. One is about the life of Tom Paine.
“‘You know what the genius of Paine was?’ Mr. Ringold asked me. ‘It was the genius of all those men. Jefferson. Madison. Know what it was.?’”
“‘No,’ I said.”
“‘You do know what it was,’ he said.”
“To defy the English.”
“A lot of people did that. No. It was to articulate the cause in English. The revolution was totally improvised, totally disorganized. Isn’t that the sense you get from this book, Nathan? Well, these guys had to find a language for their revolution. To find the words for a great purpose.”…
In Ringold, Roth offers a definition of teaching… the challenging of oneself and one’s students to develop probing intellectual habits. No doubt Ringold hasn’t had many conversations with today’s education “reformers”.
Jan continues to expand on the notion of “defining teaching” with the writings of Larry Cuban, professor emeritus at Stanford University. He offers a picture quite different from that offered by Roth. He doesn’t speak of relationships or intellectual habits. Cuban describes instead the “wave of accountability:
The current donor and business-led resurgence of a ‘modern cult of efficiency,’ or the application of scientific management to business can be seen at a host of companies and in U.S. schools… Turn now to schooling. The… focus on student outcomes can be seen in the standards, testing, and accountability movement launched over three decades ago…. Determining which teachers are productive, i.e., ‘effective,’ using students’ test scores has occurred in many states and big city districts. Such outcome measures should not shock anyone familiar with the spreading influence of the business model (e.g. earning profits, market share, and return on investment) upon schooling. Policymakers’ concerns over inefficiency in sorting effective from ineffective teachers… led to an embrace of an economic model of providing incentives to increase organizational productivity and efficiency… Faster and better teaching through new technologies producing improved student outcomes in less time and money….
Jan then continues with words from Arne Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of Education…
Technology can play a huge role in increasing educational productivity, but not just as an add-on for a high-tech reproduction of current practice. Again, we need to change the underlying processes to leverage the capabilities of technology. The military calls it a force multiplier. Better use of online learning, virtual schools, and other smart uses of technology is not so much about replacing educational roles as it is about giving each person the tools they need to be more successful—reducing wasted time, energy, and money. By far, the best strategyfor boosting productivity(italics mine) is to leverage transformational change in the educational system to improve outcomes for children. To do so, requires a fundamental rethinking of the structure and delivery of education in the United States.
A fascinating dichotomy… developing probing intellectual habits vs. boosting productivity.
To those of us engaged in rethinking learning and the ways in which a focus on learning can move us beyond the process of boosting productivity, Duncan’s educational reform is a dead story. It has cost us the development of probing intellectual habits. It has cost teachers and students the time and intentionality needed to see the expansive possibilities of our students. It has fostered fear. It has disrupted the kinds of caring, trusting relationships that make it possible students and teachers to take risks inherent in moving beyond the simple recall of facts.
In contrast to the standards, assessment, evaluation cycle which so clearly defines the past thirty years or so of “educational reform”, Jan offers the writing of Mike Rose, an education professor at UCLA. She shares a quote from a piece offered by Rose…
“’ The thing I love about Ms. Marovich,’ says Helen of her technology instructor, ‘is hat she looks at you, she sees the finished product.’ What a remarkable kind of seeing Helen describes: An act of perception that envisions growth and that helps make that growth possible.
Over the past several years I have been interviewing a wide range of people, from students in high school and community college to professions…about experiences in or out of school that had a transformative effect on their education, that changed the way they thought about school and what school could enable them to do with their lives… (The students noted that some) teachers seem to operate with an expansive sense of human ability and are particularly alert to signs of that ability, signs that might be faint or blurred by societal biases or by a student’s reticence or distracting behavior – or that the student him or herself might barely comprehend… We don’t hear a lot about this powerfully humane element of teaching, for so much current discussion of teacher education and development is focused elsewhere: from creating measures of effectiveness to mastering district or state curriculum frameworks.
In a new movie, Eighth Grade, director Bo Burnham addresses an issue untouched by the reform, boost productivity, efforts…the issue of learning how to be. This is an issue that confronts each and every one of us as children and, even sometimes as adults. In an interview with Julie Beck for The Atlantic, Burnham discusses his exploration of how one student is feeling her way “through the dark forest of middle school social life”. For the main character, Kayla, the scenery keeps changing. How should she act in the classroom, at a classmate’s party, at the mall with friends, on the internet? It seems critical that we consider the possibility that the support that Kayla needs to successfully navigate this time, lies more with the connections she makes with caring, supportive adults than in the mastery of Algebra II.
In his book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, Charles Eisenstein speaks about stories… Stories of Our People, Stories of Separation, and of stories that have died. He speaks of connections, of practicing empathy, of building relationships, of writing new stories. The story of educational reform is, for many of us, dead. For others it is dying. For educators, in whatever role we are at the moment, can we continue, Nero-like, to “fiddle” while the kids who need us burn in fires of ideologically-driven reform “solutions” ?
It’s time for a much better story. Are we willing to write it? Or will allow the next story to be written by the next version of Arne Duncan?