Sunday, November 9, 2014

How do we increase the diversity of what can happen next?

Voyeur (M.A. Reilly, 2010)

This past week found me at a northern Bronx elementary school one day, another at a high school in the South Bronx, and at two different schools in Newark on two other days. A busy week spent in the company of teachers and administrators. At one of these sessions a staff developer took exception to the absence of any viable answers on my part to the problem she described as: the kids don't know enough to read 'grade-level' texts well. She said this with considerable frustration, especially in light of the prescriptions offered these days as remedy.  Children are given 'grade level' texts to practice reading over and over and over again regardless of whether they can actually do so.  The pressure for learners to pass high stakes test in school-reading and math fuels fear, uncertainty, powerlessness, and learner ennui.  I listened to the staff developer and empathized even as I recognized that the causal solution she was after could not be found--well at least not by me.

Learning is more acausal, more rhizomatic, more becoming, rather than being.

Our belief in causality compels us to reframe learning as situational and in doing so to set up the outcome that says if kids can't do X by this specific point in time than they (and by extension we) have failed.  A Möbius strip of insidious intent, this. Comprehending 'grade level' texts as measured by standardized multiple-choice tests and written responses only become essential in a world that privileges such performance. There is nothing superior about such process and product, apart from our saying so.

It was mid-afternoon when she expressed this level of frustration. We had just spent a few hours engaged in arts-based ways of learning and the messy possibilities such methods bring and reduce. The arts offer adjacent possibilities, not causalities. Connecting the unlikely may well be a working definition of making art and perhaps might hold learners in better stead at school than the causal mousetrap we currently force learners to work within.

Think: more verbs--less nouns.


When I hear about what kids don't know, I think about the national and state standards that largely constitute school knowing and the narrow and set timelines we expect such knowing to be 'mastered'. Truly this makes such little sense. We know so little and what we deem to know is of course, incomplete. What a tangle we make when we continue to establish the merits of high-stakes assessments of sanctioned school learning as closed boxes of content to be mastered by x date.

Regardless of what is stated in a given set of educational standards, kids know, don't know, learn, unlearn, relearn, refuse to learn, learn perhaps in spite of us, learn the unexpected, learn the unnamed, and on and on and on. It is rather endless and perhaps pointless to think we can catalog knowing or that such a catalog is a representation of truth.

We continue to ask the wrong questions and pay attention to results that mostly matter because they have been sanctioned, expected, privileged by the very people who profit from them.  Rather than inquire about student performance on national and state school-based tests and ask How many students are proficient?--we would be better to ask: How do we increase the diversity of what can happen next? 

Think: more Kurt Gödel, less David Coleman.


I noticed that over at  Michael Doyle's blog, Science Teacher, he tops a post with a poem from Galway Kinnell:

The poets know in ways we most need to emulate. We ought to gather silence about us and listen.

Imagine if Kinnell's slight payer was foundational to how we worked at school?  What spaces such generosity and trust might open. Imagine schools as places to err and relearn. To unknow and consider. Steven Johnson (2010) contends "good ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error" (p.142). Noise and error give rise to the unpredictable, to the possibility of disconnected neighbors bumping into one another, altering, forming something new, something perhaps even unprecedented.

This is school as we need it. A world of infinite adjacent possibilities.

Johnson writes that "[t]he adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself" (p. 31). How contrary this reinventing, this noise and error are to the sterile schooling environments we continue to build with our dedication and acute single-mindedness to national standards and high-stakes testing.

The schools we continue to build are the very dullness we purport to disdain.


Johnson, Steven (2010-10-05). Where Good Ideas Come From (p. 142). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition. 

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