Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I Do Not Know It/It Is Without Name/It Is A Word Unsaid*

Screen shot from Waiting for Superman
I've been thinking about what might be left of public education and democracy, what might be left for our children and their children after the current crop of methods to 'reform' public education fail.  In the pause between failure and the inevitable rise of a new crop of doing unto others, what will remain and for whom?

Efficiency seems to cross the various reform efforts. Scratch beneath the surface of the Common Core Standards, national assessments, for-profit schools, charters, vouchers, pop films like Waiting for Superman, teacher/principal evaluations based on test scores, removal of collective bargaining, increased co-payment by public school educators for health benefits, publicly displaying teacher 'effetciveness' ratings in national newspapers and you will find efficiency. Much of the reforms rest on a belief that 'optimization of the system' (and the people) will lead to better student outcomes as measured by state mathematics and reading assessments.

It's the mistake of substituting system for people when trying to optimize that most concerns me. It reminds me of this classic clip from Modern Times. Imagine this scene today. Perhaps you see Chaplin as the teacher who is being 'enhanced' by the efficient machine?  Or some might see him as the student who is being 'optimized' via the great testing machine.

Efficiency is often the excuse for doing onto others. We blindly pay homage to efficiency and allow it to excuses our worse actions.

 The Downside of Efficiency

A week ago while reading Walk Out, Walk On, I came across Brian Walker and David Salt's (2006)  Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World  who Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze quote:
“The more you optimize elements of a complex system of humans and nature for some specific goal, the more you diminish that system’s resilience. A drive for an efficient optimal state outcome has the effect of making the total system more vulnerable to shocks and disturbances" (p.9).
This quote sent me in search of more by Walker and Salt. Later int he boo they write:
"When we aim to increase the efficiency of returns from some part of the system by trying to tightly control it, we usually do so at the cost of the system's resilience. Other parts of the system begin to change in response to his new state of affairs--a part of the system, now constant, that used to vary in concert with others. A system with little resilience is vulnerable to being shifted over a threshold into a new regime of function and structure. And as we have seen this new regime is frequently one that doesn't provide us with the goods and services we want. And, very importantly, i is not a space from which we can easily return" (p. 141).
The observation, 'Other parts of the system begin to change in response to his new state of affairs--a part of the system, now constant, that used to vary in concert with others,' is particularly chilling.  It made me think about how the relentless push to ever increasing efficiency often pushes us to value fast fast fast as if it was our very self we have been trained to out run.

We speed up.

Our lives, in and out of school become ever more crazy.  We begin to resemble a scene out of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi.

So who remains? Who gets lost? Who is abandoned in the efficient new world order of school reform? Will we notice?  Will we exercise the will to care?

Screen Shot from Koyaanisqatsi
A Different Way

There are alternatives we can embrace, especially when the certainty of standards, testing, charters, speed up, and so on collapses under its own weight. In Walk Out, Walk On, the authors tell us, 'when certainty collapses, it’s often replaced by curiosity'.  This curiosity, I suspect, leads some to walk out and on from restrictive systems.

Wheatley & Frieze explain that "Walk Outs' are:

people who bravely choose to leave behind situations, jobs, relationships, and ideas that restrict and confine them, anything that inhibits them. They walk on to the ideas, people, and practices that enable them to explore and discover new gifts, new possibilities (p.4).
I tend to agree with poet, Adrienne Rich, when she observes: 
I have to cast my lot
with those who age
after age,
and with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
Reconstituting the world (or at best a local parcel you call home) is situated well in a root belief of the Berkana Exchange. Again Wheatley and Frieze write:

We create healthy and resilient communities by relying on the wisdom and wealth available in our people, traditions and environment. This belief has led us to know that we must include the elders and the youth, we must invite in the wisdom of women, we must reinvigorate our history and traditions and discover their gifts for today’s world (p. 220).
The Exchange offers 8 principles to guide Walk Outs' work.  They include (pp. 221- 224):

  1. Start anywhere, follow it everywhere.
  2. We make our path by walking it.
  3. We have what we need.
  4. The leaders we need are already here.
  5. We are living the worlds we want today.
  6. We walk at the pace of the slowest.
  7. We listen, even to the whispers.
  8. We turn to one another.

There are those who have walked this open road before us. 


Start anywhere?

Follow it everywhere?


*Title is from Walt Whitman's Song of Myself.

Works Cited

Walker, Brian and David Salt 2006.  Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. Seattle: Island Press.

Wheatley, Margaret; Frieze, Deborah (2011-04-11). Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now . Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition. 

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