Thursday, August 12, 2010

Thinking differently... really?

It takes courage to truly think differently. It's our natural human tendency to want to belong to a group; we're social beings after all. We're affected in so many ways as members of the groups we belong to, and some not so good for us or the group. As the pull of the group gains strength, it becomes harder for individuals within it to think differently- enter groupthink.

I used to chuckle a few years ago when it was very popular for teens to dye their hair straw blond, you know, like Eminem did. Every time I casually asked these kids why they did that the response was identical... "I want to be different." A quick peek down the corridor of the local mall on any given day during that time revealed literally hundreds of kids with dyed blond hair. I witnessed the same phenomena during my undergrad studies when the grunge-rock scene was pumping out of Seattle at breakneck speed. A glance through any library on campus revealed dozens, if not hundreds depending on the library, of young people being "individuals" by looking exactly like Kurt Cobain in their tattered dress and knotted-up long hair, not having showered for a few days. I'm going to call this mentality fad-eology; a portmanteau meaning a fad that becomes an ideology for the masses of group-thinkers who jump on the bandwagon. We are undeniably and ironically influenced by groupthink on our quest to be "different."

Although it's easy to understand how groupthink happens, and the examples I mentioned are rather harmless to be sure, groupthink can become complex and rather dangerous. Let's say an original and good idea was the source of whatever concept the group is espousing, and it's spread like wildfire. Over time, and amidst the fervor of the growing group and it's idea, scrutiny toward the idea wanes and members cease to be individuals with their own thoughts and perspectives toward it. They are now "idea-assimilated." I'm not sure the original idea can be considered original and good (different) anymore, (in context meaning open, critical and fluid- not static and closed.)

In education we need open, critical and fluid thinking. When once radical positive ideas become mainstream as a result of groupthink influence, the scrutiny is lost and those who dare defy the inertia of the group's idea are shunned and criticized as non-reformist. Hey, let's face it, when compared to groupthink, sometimes doing things conservatively is the most innovative just because so few are willing to acknowledge within the group that their desire for change has clouded their ability to think independently about the original issue- they become "change-addicts" lost in the fervor of the group and blind to the grassroots seed of the issue needing to evolve.

I accept that I will be criticized for my stance on this. I have seldom been caught in the web of groupthink. I question, therefore I am, and that doesn't sit well among group-thinkers. However, those who are willing to receive my questions and thought contributions objectively as I intend them to be more often than not perceive that my motivation stems from a desire to contribute to the improvement of public education, a cause of great importance requiring careful thought. Public education is too important to be influenced by groupthink. Any move to improve the education system should always and without bias be open to the scrutiny of independent thinkers ready to challenge thought, even if this challenge is dare I say, the unpopular and minority point of view.

So my appeal to educators far and wide is to become more open to scrutiny of ideas, especially fad-eology ideas. We need to think differently and objectively, perhaps even more scientifically about improving education. Twitter is such a great forum for broad conversation, so in the interest of creating open dialog around the need for critical and creative thought within the education reform process, why not use the hashtag #thinkdifferently to promote dialog contrary to fad-eology. One group with a hundred thoughts is better than a group of one hundred with one thought.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Flashpoint change...

I don't believe in the flashpoint approach to change in education. I don't think it works in the long-run and it typically creates inordinate collateral damage.

A little context... I do believe that change happens despite what we do or do not do to effect it. Our world is organic, a living system, and our education world is no different. Trying to stay ahead of change in teaching and learning is akin to pulling an already speeding freight train with a big old chain- it aint easy! All this being said, I also believe that committed educational leaders can positively and pragmatically influence change, but it must be done in a systematic, strategic and tempered manner.

When attempting to influence the education system; to contribute meaningfully to improving the teaching and learning process, we need to ensure that our efforts include careful consideration and responsible forms of leadership. This takes time. Call it slow-boil change. On the contrary, flashpoint change represents the antithesis of the slow-boil. It's quick, turbulent and violent affecting a short term change to be sure, but not one that can be sustained. Like a pot of water that heats up too fast, all we're left with is a big mess after the flashpoint boils over.

I'm confronted with what I feel relatively safe saying is a revolutionary perspective toward change in education on behalf of a good number of my professional colleagues. I have written previously about my views on reform vs revolution. Revolution is most-definitely flashpoint change. Reform in my opinion connotes more of the slow-boil characteristics of sustainable change. A slowly boiling pot of water is controlled, it gets the job done and we're left with a result that we intended- no collateral mess. I can't think of anything within education that is so unacceptable and bad for kids that it requires immediate, violent change. When the issue of change takes on a bigger focus than the reason to change, this is not good. We get all fired up and foaming at the mouth over the need to change, all the while losing sight of why the change was important in the first place. This is when creative dissonance turns to disharmonious dissent and it goes nowhere fast.

I support the mission of public education and believe strongly that we have much to be proud of within our system that ultimately exists in the noblest of causes; to support the healthy development of mind, body and spirit in an ever-changing world. No small task. Each of us as educators must value what we do, advocate our cause and remain committed to the perpetual improvement of the system if we are to ensure that kids continue to benefit from the highest quality teaching and learning. Let's face it- we're all in this together.

I'm a teacher and educational leader who loves what I do.  I regularly reflect on my practise and contribute in many ways to the evolution of the education system. What I refuse to do in the interest of slow-boil effective and sustainable change is dishonor the efforts of my teaching predecessors by implying there are elements of the system that require immediate and violent reversal. We've advanced beyond the need for this approach- grossly unacceptable elements of education past like corporal punishment and segregated schools are no longer reality... the time for revolutionary efforts in education have passed. What contemporary education needs now is the ubiquitous will to change as a reality woven into the very fabric of everything we do. Are there aspects of the system requiring improvement? Undoubtedly... but a reflective, responsible and systematic effort is the only type that will get the job done sustainably and convincingly.

Let's take control of change in education. Let's be reflective and thorough in every decision-making process. Let's work together to control slow-boiling changes within our profession and rise above the reactionary, flashpoint perspective to accept that we are all part of a good and eminent institution that can only get better when we take a tempered approach to change.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Define questions; discover answers...

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing." - Albert Einstein
Traditional school curriculum defines answers and makes up questions. We need curriculum that defines questions and discovers answers... educators need to think differently. This came to me a while back as I was drifting through different Twitter conversations late one night. There is no exhaustive list of what we can know, but we've artificially created many lists of what we apparently need to know. In order to advance our practise beyond teaching to these lists, teachers would do well to revisit the domain of the question... we need to think differently.

I firmly believe that teachers understand the value of questioning, I'm not suggesting otherwise, but I am suggesting an adjustment to our perspective on questioning would improve our ability to practise teaching. The curriculum we establish in each grade is a great example of how we've become a bit controlling and predictable as professionals- we define the list of what kids should know, and then we make up questions to teach to the lists. I believe that we should state curriculum as questions needing to be answered instead of facts needing to be questioned. I envision curriculum statements not as outcomes to be achieved, but as questions to be answered. Making this change would change the culture of learning from a culture of standards that are exhaustive to a culture of standards that are limitless... limitless learning based on true inquiry, not the artificial inquiry we practise now.

Most teachers waste their time by asking questions which are intended to discover what a pupil does not know, whereas the true art of questioning has for its purpose to discover what the pupil knows or is capable of knowing. Albert Einstein
Caveat: I am not an expert. I shudder to think in the context of this post that expertise is even possible. The topic of exceptional teaching and learning is about as fluid a topic that can possibly exist in my humble opinion, and my opinion is what I am stating in this post; take it or leave it. I'm not telling you what to do as educators, or parents for that matter... or even how to do it. I simply want to  strike a chord of thought in you to reflect on as you develop your own perspective toward teaching and learning, and for the record, I don't believe this process ever ends for what parents and teachers should be first and foremost- conscientious learners.

I'm hearing much from my Twitter tribe about "what teaching is," and what defines a good teacher as major elements of the cognitive surplus running wild via the influence of social media. Teachers all have opinions on these points of discussion. We started to form them as undergraduate students in teaching colleges all over the world before we had any clue to an informed position. (As I think back to those days I wonder if it's a good idea to expect pre-service teachers to form a teaching philosophy... maybe it would be better to expose them to the myriad of teaching philosophies that permeate our craft, and let them pick one to start with, then begin to form their own... I digress.)

It seems to me that the entire process of contemporary education depends on what I will call the principle of predetermined principles. The profession of teaching and the process of learning is dependent on what we already claim to know about both entities. I'm not saying this is inherently bad, but it certainly can create some contextual problems as we define good teaching and learning. First-year teachers need a foundation to work from as they enter the profession; they benefit from the principle of predetermined principles as they experiment with different perspectives and ideologies on their way to defining their own. However, if they aren't inclined to question what they're doing and what they're believing constantly, then the context gets diluted. In the worst cases it gets diluted to the point of stagnation. Above all, good teaching and learning MUST include the element of questioning; we have to understand that discovery (learning) is an inquiry-based process, and not something that can have limits placed upon it.

Predetermined principles are important for students too. Humankind has built an incredible base of knowledge over our short history, and we can't discount this as teachers. We know what we know, and that's NOT a bad thing. (I'm growing increasingly disheartened by a stance among educators that appears to want to throw away virtually all previous practise and knowledge as if it were the 'wrong way' of our past to be replaced by the 'right way' of the present.) We need to understand that our past mixed with inquiry in the present will create many 'right' ways to do things in the future.

So here's my contribution to the discussions intending to define teaching and good teachers. (Wow... glad I'm not throwing the baby out with the bathwater on this one- Socrates knew this over two-thousand ago.) Teaching is the art of questioning, and it's not simple. Good teaching is nothing different. To me it's defined by the level of proficiency within the art of questioning one has developed. Even more importantly to me, great teaching is developed through a willingness to question not only our students, but ourselves; what we do and how we do it, everyday.

We grow as teaching artisans by using the Socratic method on ourselves in our reflection and review of our own practise. Don't accept your own comfortable place in teaching. Strive to operate in an environment of creative dissonance if you intend to grow as a learner along with your students.
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