Taking the Long View

There have been two experiences lately that have helped me gain a very different perspective on my role as an educator.  More specifically, both experiences have shown me just how narrowly we teachers too often view our roles and view our students.  The first “experience” I had was reading Lawrence Cremin’s work on educational history.  I’ve written about that previously, but I’ll say a bit more about it.  The second experience — an ongoing experience — has been parenting.

Let’s start with Cremin.  As I’ve written about before, Cremin, especially in his book, Public Education, writes about the “ecology” of educative institutions other than schools: the way that parents, schools, popular culture, employers, churches, and other community institutions serve to combine to “educate” (or sometimes aid in self-education).  I have been thinking a great deal about this book since I first read it, and even after writing about it, which is fairly rare.  I just think Cremin points toward a particularly healthy understanding for educators: that their role is necessarily complementary and in partnership with the other educating factors in any student’s life.  The goal is to work together, not against each other; we’re not the only ones, and we’re not the most important ones, either.  

Specifically, it’s a reminder to me that too often we teachers take an uncharitable view of the other educative institutions, especially families, whom we often believe do not value the narrow sort of academic learning that schools impart.  I think that too often educators look at any evidence of a lack of those academic or social virtues prized by schools as evidence of a failure on the part of the other institutions — again, especially the family.  We forget that students go up and down in their motivation and engagement, particularly during adolescence.  And often we see it as simply too difficult and too fraught to imagine real partnering with families in service of shared educational goals beyond the most basic communication.  That’s too bad.

Speaking of parents, becoming one has, unsurprisingly, changed my understanding of my role as an educator.  There are a lot of reasons for this, but the one that stands out most is that parenting requires that you take the “long” view of education and development.  You learn to tell yourself, “It’s just a phase.” You think to yourself, “Calm down, he’s probably not going to be refusing to wear shoes in the winter when he’s 25.” You think, “This whole trend of wanting to “save” crackers in his crib sheets and then getting mad if you try to throw them out — that probably won’t be a thing when he’s in high school.” One day he’ll head off to college and you’ll be able to think to yourself, “I sure am glad he’s able to go to bed without me having to read ‘Playful Puppies.’” You have to think this way because you see the changes happening.  Development and learning is a long process, and the arc of it always bends toward development.  You learn to take the long view.

Plus, if you’re any sort of half-awake parent, you’re not just waiting things out; you’re thinking pedagogically — developmentally and behaviorally.  But your “unit plan” extends well beyond the next vacation or even the end of the semester.  You’re looking ahead two or three or twenty years, not six weeks.  You’re thinking about the habits, virtues, attitudes, and predilections you want to encourage, and the methods you’ll use to get him there.  I did a whole deep dive into Rousseau’s Emile last year (I wrote about it on this blog several times), and I often find myself thinking in Rousseau’s terms: his philosophy of teaching Emile to, as he puts it, “rely on things, not on people” (what we now would call, “natural consequences”), his theories of proto-behaviorism, experimentalism, and developmentalism; his belief that very young children are pre-rational; his belief in when and how to reason with a child.

I think about these parenting questions — which are really teaching questions — a lot:

“What behaviors should I reward?” 

“Where should I bend, and where should I draw the line?”

“How can I encourage him to . . . ?”

“What’s the best way of responding to him in this situation?”

“What message is my expression or behavior sending to him?”

It’s a lot like teaching.

But there are several important differences that also serve to show me where too often we as teachers come up short.

First, we don’t see the long game.  This is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of parenting to me.  As teachers, we have such a narrow and limited amount of time with students.  We have little appreciation of where they come from (how often do we even get to talk to their previous teacher?).  Once a mother shared with me the details of how her 17 year-old son hadn’t spoken a single word for until he was quite old, developmentally.  There were years of struggle and years of extra support.  I’d of course had no idea, and this new information explained so much about this boy’s struggles in the present day.  My own explanations immediately seemed so hopelessly limited.  Too often we simply can’t see the long view.  Again, the structure of schools is set up to do this: it’s usually near-impossible to even get a sense of how a student did the year before.  Now and then I’ll mention a senior to a coworker and she’ll tell me a story that will show me, clearly, how far this student has come.  But such experiences are deeply limited.  For a profession apparently based on shepherding growth, we often care about only a small sliver of it.

It has taken me so long to begin to realize basic truths about students’ development.  For instance, I’ve learned to realize that you don’t get something from nothing.  No one’s born with an innate vocabulary.  That reluctant student who rarely writes but who, when he does write, writes lucidly and fluidly — I’ve started to realize that that child had a period where he was really interested in reading and writing, perhaps was encouraged by his teachers for his eagerness and precociousness.  You can see it — the long view — but too often you have to picture it for yourself with little else to go on.  

One of the unfortunate corollaries of not being able to, or not being inclined to see the long view is that too often we tend to not realize how much growth a student has made or is making — and we tend to think of students (against our best wishes or our stated goals) as being at relatively fixed places.  He either does his work or he doesn’t.  

Too often we high school teachers think about students as being subject to such inflexible, unforgiving timelines — graduation, college, career — that we forget that some students take longer to mature than others, and that learning often continues to happen, independently of the cultural timeline of school.  It’s hard for us to imagine, sometimes, that a student might have a mediocre work ethic in high school, but suddenly catch fire (find an interest, or just straight-up mature) and develop one in college.  Such things happen all the time, but as teachers, we forget this.  Again, schools are not set up to see the big picture, the long view.  We have so little time with students, so many complex interactions to deal with, that we’re entirely inclined to take a quick, pragmatic assessment of our students, and proceed from there.  We see present tendencies as strong indicators of future behavior.  Again, we only see students for 50% of one year (sometimes for just a semester), so we have no appreciation for just how much people can and do grow.  Second, we are trained, culturally, by the institutions we work for, which are deeply sequential ones.  For us, the skills of 9th grade build straight onto those in 10th grade; two mindsets emanate from this.  First is the notion of falling behind.  The second is related: the notion that “growth” happens at a similarly even rate as we’ve planned for it to happen.  We like to think that we’ve created a fairly neutral ground on which development or growth can increase at any given time — surely a somewhat orderly curriculum does not preclude students learning to acquire it at faster rate.  But too often we simply tend to imagine that growth happens evenly, or really that it doesn’t happen much at all.  We picture a student as either engaged or disengaged, while forgetting, or not so much noticing, that growth is often uneven.  The final problem, in the end, is that we’re not really set up for growth to happen unevenly.  

The other problem is that we forget about the power of goals or outside institutions to help guide students toward a direction — which in turn improves academic performance.  I have started to think that the most important thing I can do for any of my students is to give them a direction to aim for after graduation.  This is what’s beneficial about the PLP (Personalized Learning Plan) design here in Vermont.  We as teachers are quick to forget that we’re not the only game in town — that school is just (and should be just) a waypoint for students traveling into a life’s work and a full existence as functioning, literate adult members of a community.  Again, we forget the bigger picture.

A final, and very simple point — but a compelling one, to me — is that we in formalized educational settings simply don’t prioritize growth.  Not only do we fail to appreciate it, but it’s just not a priority in our measurements or in our goals.  Too often I think we have a metaphor problem: we see our teaching as acquisition (whether cognitively — with new knowledge, or behaviorally — with new skills or behaviors) done by students of fairly fixed abilities and fixed attitudes.  Yes, this is partly the result of an innate knowledge that nothing changes overnight (something that experienced teachers know only too well, resulting from their distrust of any magical turn-arounds on the part of their students).  Yet the metaphor of acquiring knowledge is very different than the metaphor of growth.  The difference is that while growth does require acquisition, it also means that, in Robert Frost’s words, “way leads onto to way”: students not only store up knowledge and new behaviors, but actively improve their abilities to do this acquisition.  A student who acquires a new process for writing essays can more effectively write essays, which in turn leads to a more effective processing and understanding of her own thoughts and ideas, which in turn leads to a more mature, informed perspective . . . which in turn leads to the acquisition of more and greater knowledge and skills.  It’s a self-sustaining process.

But too often we judge students and conceptualize their progression in a normative fashion: by their progress against what an 11th grader should know.  Are they ahead or behind or right on track?  Yes, we tell ourselves, as good proficiency learning proponents, that learning is the constant and time is the variable, but when we conceptualize learning in a standards-based model rather than a growth-based model, we’re still rewarding normative achievement, not growth itself.

Either way, being a parent has really brought home to me the notion that people go through developmental “phases” — that our progress is rarely a straight line — and that growth is complex, developmental, and influenced by a variety of sources, and that it’s the most important metric by which to measure education.  It’s definitely in our best interest as teachers to remember this.