Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Distracted Intentions

Ask parents what they want for their children and you'll get a chorus of answers that sound eerily similar - happy, confident, productive, respectful, helpful, empathetic, just, accountable, kind... this list is hardly controversial.

The What is easy.

It's How we are going to achieve these lofty goals that causes controversy and divisiveness.

Teachers and parents are good people. Sure there is a handful of baddies, but they are certainly in the minority. For the most part, adults are good souls with the best of intentions.

Despite these good intentions, we are sometimes woefully misinformed and susceptible to distractions.

Peter Bergman warns us to not get distracted by our plans:

Every once in a while there happens to be a trail that travels in the same direction we're traveling so we follow it. It makes for easy walking.

But a dangerous thing happens when we follow a trail: we stop paying attention to the environment. Since the trail is so easy to follow, we allow our minds to wander and neglect to observe where we are.

Then we forge ahead, moving with speed and purpose, right to the point where we look up and realize, like I did that day, that the environment around us is no longer recognizable. Our focus blinded us.

This is not just a hiking thing.

When schools cut recess for academics - our focus blurs.

When teachers give up on the weakest students to help the bubble kids - our focus dissipates.

When parents bribe students to learn - our focus crumbles.

When whole teaching staffs are fired - our focus rots.

There's a lot wrong with education deform - no wonder people like Sir Ken Robinson talk less about the need for evolution and more about revolution.


  1. I like the trail metaphor. I don't think I entirely agree. I suppose that is largely the weakness of analogies. Trails usually follow the geography rather than cut across them like a Roman road or our modern interstates. National initiatives in the States like Race to the Top seem good examples of that. Trails are well traveled because they make sense. Following a trail, you see other paths braiding in and out as people seek better paths to follow or make detours to interesting points. Interstates rush past the points of interest in their hurry to move large numbers of people to predetermined destinations. I've always followed trails. There is no rush, you can stop to look at the geography, you can detour easily. Moving through the brambles, fighting the undergrowth drains energy and leads easily to misdirection or deflection from your goal. It leads to circular motion too. You can be a trail-blazer though. Create a path for others to follow. When you do that, you are discovering the contours of an unfamiliar geography.

  2. Alan, I don't have anything against the trail or plan itself. We need trails. We need plans. But I do have a problem with people who call themselves outdoorsman simply because they can follow a trail. In otherwords, I have a problem with a person who calls themself a teacher simply because they can teach the way they were taught.

    I guess what I'm really critical of is mindless acceptance of a path or plan. We do far too many harmful things in school that need serious rethinking.

  3. Yep we are just playing with metaphors here. I agree we need to break free of unreflected traditional ruts. We owe young people that. When I think of the challenges you have raised, the one I feel most committed to is the abolition of grading. We need a better paradigm for student progress. The rest makes me a more critically reflective teacher, perhaps a little braver in the classroom, ready to risk again; but the dreamer in me is also a pragmatist. We will not meet or most cherished goals within contemporary educational frameworks and we offer society no practical plan to accomplish our reforms. As I said this afternoon in a comment, what can we expect in the way of authentic, democratic, student-centered learning, from an institution that herds desperate groups of immature people into tiny spaces with finite resources for half a day ten months of the year? Whatever it is, it will inevitably look like a huge compromise.

  4. "we allow our minds to wander and neglect to observe where we are."

    It's woods for the trees stuff isn't it? It's less about whether or not you take a path (or interstate) and more about whether or not you stop to reflect on where the road is leading you. Are you headed in the right direction? Do you need to loosen the machete from your belt and hack a new trail? (Ken Robinson would).

    More though-provoking stuff from the both of you. I really enjoy following your stuff.


    Mike aka The Thinkabouter

  5. Gentlemen,

    This is a really tough (and important) conversation. I don't know about the metaphors so I won't act like I'm following them closely.

    Joe brings up a great point that we should be very wary of plans especially when they become overly elaborate ones.

    At the same time, there are points in our lives where we need plans. When we face obstacles or points that can lead us down a path of destruction, then a plan can keep us on track. A death in the family, the loss of a friend, or a bad encounter with drugs or alcohol.

    I guess what I am saying is we need to be everything you are both talking about. We need to flexible and understand that paths are detrimental to kids, but they can also provide structure during our most uncertain and tumultuous moments.

    I know this isn't really the direction that Joe's original post was leading, but I think it's something we need to be mindful of.

    Time and place are everything. Context must drive our decisions. The only guarantees in life are death and taxes.

    Hopefully this makes sense to more than just me. lol

  6. Joe might speak for himself, but I think he was clear that the danger of familiar paths - familiar teaching strategies from our own educations - is they support unreflected teaching. If you are reconstructing your methodology, freeing yourself from a priori assumptions that young people are irresponsible, anarchistic, incompetent learners requiring micro-management and manipulation, then I think you will also become a more reflective person. Trail blazing takes thought.

    My blogging and commenting tends to abstractions. I suppose this is because it takes effort to build the context of my teaching and in no small measure because I am cautious about story telling (oh the stories I have to tell too!). My comments above are shadowed by the current state of my classroom and methodology. I am feeling very much like a risk-taker at the moment and if failure is a part of growth then I am likely growing robustly.

    This morning I discovered I have an intern for the fall. My last intern was prior to my decade in administration, some 15 years ago. That is a huge responsibility and it comes at just the moment when I am rediscovering and refining some differentiated methodologies. I am bringing someone into my risk-taking and that gives me pause.

    I am replacing my rows of traditional desks with tables and chairs. I preferred more flexible flat-topped desks. They would be safe. I could shift them from groups to rows. I decided I needed to make a total commitment to a studio classroom and keep the temptation at bay. I'm trying to make the commitment to differentiated and connected learning.

    The long weekend was not so nice, Joe can attest to that. It rained prodigiously around here and Tuesday morning brought more ugly weather. The students did not go outside at all and had no gym (art became very athletic). They were not all their responsible best. My attempt to introduce a daily planning log for my grade fives while the grade fours were involved with an independent station did not go very well. That happens; it helps explain why my comments turned to the problematic structure of public school classrooms. I had twenty-two people and not everyone was buying into autonomous learning. Centers generally work better than that. I wonder if it is a full moon? I forgot to check.

  7. I'm all for plans. Meaningful plans. Thoughtful plans. Mindful plans.

    But we need to constantly think and rethink these plans. After all, let's not kid ourselves... plans are guesses. We really don't know. We aren't fortunet tellers or mind readers.

    Yes, we should look ahead and make plans.

    But I've seen plans be mindless dictators... the plan literally is its own downfall.

    I have a hard time working with people who have these elaborate plans and refuse to think enough to realize when they must diverge from that well-traveled path.

    Plans for the sake of plans has become the norm - hence, education plans that are multi-yeared. Yes look ahead is important but at what cost? I would hope we have the courage to break our own plans when it makes good sense to do so.

    I've seen plans as a farmer. As a teacher. As a financier... For every plan I've seen, I've seen a plan that must be changed, and rightfully so.

  8. While I agree with many of the thoughts shared, I am saddened and frustrated that once again, the bright, gifted students are neglected. Teachers owe it to all students to grow their abilities, not solely concentrate on those who are not proficient to the detriment of those who are.


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