Sunday, September 23, 2012

Not as We Think They Are, But Rather as They Connect

Utopia (January 2012, M.a. Reilly)
"All things are bound together. All things connect." Chief Seattle
I. Un-situated Wholes

Understanding how things connect is the most important shift in learning I am undertaking.  I used to spend a considerable amount of time believing in the singularity of things: this is the way a thing is, and then working to assign significance to thing x.  I have been conditioned to think that things exist as singular states.

But nothing is, that is not in some manner connected to/with something else. When we fail to understand potential, possible connections we tell ourselves a partial story we believe to be whole.  Now telling partial stories is all we have. A challenge though is when we believe our stories represent the decontextualized whole of something.

Situating our noticings as separate entities may well lead to believing the stories we tell are representative of the whole of something.  There are no un-situated wholes.

II. CCSS and the Pre-fab Lesson

It is this absence of context that most worries me about the way we seem to be responding to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)--as if this document somehow represented a completed whole that we could pick up and apply directly to children like a topical cream to an itch. I keep returning to the video of David Coleman offering a model lesson "about what it might look like to take the Common Core State Standards in literacy seriously in a daily classroom and begin to show what kind of shifts that might mean." What continues to astound me is that any teaching and learning model could be offered that fails to include students.  Mr. Coleman delivers his model without the students.  One of the most important maturation shifts I see in teachers happens when they shift their attention from focusing rather exclusively on what they are teaching, to focusing on what children are learning and how they are expressing that learning. This shift represents important learning.

Mr. Coleman offers us a rather incomplete model, but truly it is not his offering that concerns me.  Mr. Coleman is not a teacher and to expect deep understanding of something as complex as the connections between teaching and learning is to expect too much.  Rather, I am deeply concerned by the large number of educators, such as state commissioners, superintendents and other administrators who have watched this model and have failed to articulate how partial an offering Mr. Coleman serves.

The absence of students in a national model lesson is a fundamental problem, not a semantic difference.  We need to ask ourselves:  Do we see teaching as connected to learning or do we see it as a solo act? 

III. Egg Cartons

In some ways this dilemma is akin to that which Dan Lortie (1975/2002) described years ago when he wrote about schools as egg cartons.  Lortie described schools as being more like "collections of independent cells" rather than "tightly integrated 'organisms'" (p. 16).

Standards seem to have been made and supported by those who posit schools as colletions of independent cells.  The single set of standards is used as a method to distribute culturally ordained knowledge to the masses.  There is a logic here that suggests that separateness can be maintained, while culturally determined things to know are spread across schools.  Such schema has an odd Plessy vs. Ferguson echo.

For those who understand learning as highly contextual and unfinished, the presence of a set of standards is seen as an unnecessary intrusion; one that disrupts learning by substituting a completed story for the story that must be made by those walking.  Here, the importance of understanding connections cannot be understated.

V. Art Making/Theory Speaking

The shift from thinking about how things are to understanding how things connect undergirds and frames much of the talk about public education and reform.  Understanding how things connect is theory making. As such, it will not fit in the pre-made box, as there is often an insight gleaned that could not have been predetermined as things align in real time.

Take a moment here and consider this: how often do you rename things already boxed?  Can prefab ever be an apt substitution for a thing made?

Each time I make a collage I hold in my hands this supple truth: how we connect thing to thing (in)forms how ideas get named and by whom.

Work Cited
Lortie, Dan. (1975/2002). Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.


  1. Thank you for this very well-thought-out post.

    I think that one of the issues in classrooms today is that there is inherent in the system and the approach a plan - lessons are designed in advance, with a limited amount of time pre-assigned to each step and each stage. There is no room to allow each student to develop new levels of understanding at his or her own pace. And because each child moves forward at his or her own pace, and not as a group, it is easier to focus on content rather than understanding.

    1. Ishta, thanks for such a thoughtful and thought-inspiring reply. I agree. The emphasis on cotent divorced from context is ready made by the structure. Insightful.

  2. Reminds me of The Danger of a Single Story.