Thursday, November 20, 2008

On Education: One

I’ve been out of the classroom now for five months. I’m still involved in education, as a curriculum supervisor, administrator, and all-purpose utility player, but it’s still a little weird for me to wake up, after 39 years of being a classroom teacher, and begin my day knowing that I’m NOT going to be interacting with a group of students somewhere during the day. I’m driving forward, and the territory ahead looks broad and formidable and worthy of my complete attention, but I do tend to keep glancing back in the rear view mirror, watching my teaching career become smaller and more distant. So I thought that over the next couple of posts I’d try to string together some words that might capture some fraction of what I feel to be true to my experience as a teacher and my sense of what is at stake in the classroom. I’m going to try consciously to avoid going after this in a pre-planned or pre-programmed way. If I were to attempt to frame a Grand Theory of Everything Educational, I’d either be too daunted to start, or too likely to get bogged down in Chapter 74, if not in Chapter 2. Instead, I’m going to set my sights lower. I just want to write a paragraph or two each day about something that seems true to me. If I get lucky, maybe on some days I’ll hit on an idea that will sustain me in a more elaborated disquisition. I’m fully aware that some of what I am going to wind up writing will probably be predictable and ultimately un-enlightening. But hey, ya gotta start somewhere.


Today a former student dropped by my office and we got to talking about his college applications and about his possible majors and about what he might expect to happen once he gets to college. I told him the story about what happened when my oldest son was accepted to college, and we got a letter from the school congratulating us on his acceptance, but cautioning us not to make the assumption, as proud parents, that our plans for him, or his plans for himself, would now be realized. The average student at that school, it was pointed out, changes his major at least four times. And, in point of fact, that turned out to be literally true in my son’s case. The field he eventually got a degree in, economics, was a field he hadn’t even considered when he was thinking about college. He had thought he wanted to be an engineer. He only wound up majoring in econ because there was a core course in macroeconomics that he was required to take, and it so happened that the course lit him up and his professor wound up taking an interest in him that opened some doors that at the start of school he had not even known were there.

So what’s the point? The point, to bend an old axiom, might be stated as “Education is what happens when you’re making other plans.” As a student, you need to be open to the possibility that where you thought you were going is not where you wind up, and that that is, in fact, a very good thing. (It’s a lot like writing, actually. For years I have told my students that if you start out knowing what you want to write and you write it and it comes out exactly the way you planned, you’ve probably got a mediocre piece of writing on your hands. The trick is to surprise yourself, to write your way into what you don’t know. The testimony of writers is surprisingly consistent on this. Robert Frost: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Donald Barthelme: “The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.” E.L Doctorow: “Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go. ... Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Andre Dubus: “I don't know what characters are going to do. I have to work to discover the character, and I do that by becoming the character and experiencing that life. If I say that I know exactly what a character is going to do, then I've killed that character. The character has to surprise you, the way you should have a sincere conversation, not a rehearsed one. If you plan everything, it isn't a conversation.” And so on and so on and so on.)

This element of indeterminacy and unpredictability seems to me to be at the heart what makes for an interesting classroom. It’s at the heart of the problem I have always had with content-based courses and competency-based assessments that assume that everyone needs to do and learn the same things. It’s not that content isn’t important or that basic skills are not basic. It’s just that, ultimately, they're not that interesting; they're not what I value most as a learner or as a teacher. What I value, and what I hope I have found ways to help students to value and understand, is the search, the exploration, the element of surprise.

1 comment:

myour said...

I love your insights on indeterminacy and unpredictability. Some of my best lessons come together on the way to school--or during a lesson that's already under way.