How many of you, I wonder, wear shoes that fit. No need to raise hands, but just now consider, “Yes or No… I’m wearing shoes that fit.”
As you consider this about yourself, ask as well whether you’re thinking not solely of your shoes but also of your feet.
This is an illustration of the way to think as a teacher: always holding more than one idea in mind at the same time. For most teachers, there’s typically even three or more ideas to keep in mind, but two will do for now, or perhaps better just to say, “For now, more than one.”
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
(F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1936, “The Crack-Up”)
And why say anything at all? Because suspending our judgment helps prevent leaping to conclusions, which inescapably leaves someone out, and leaving someone out is anathema to teachers, literally the opposite of good teaching. Leaving people out is politics.
Reflective thinking, in short, means judgment suspended during further inquiry; and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful… the most important factor in the training of good mental habits consists in acquiring the attitude of suspended conclusion, and in mastering the various methods of searching for new materials to corroborate or to refute the first suggestions that occur. To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry ― these are the essentials of thinking.
(John Dewey, 1910, p. 13, ‘How We Think’)
The point to stress, beyond keeping in mind more than one idea at a time, is the sense of what we value – that sense of what ‘fits’ – which is to say no longer simply the shoes or the feet contained inside them, but what most appropriately suits in their coming together. In assessing ‘appropriate’ value, that sense of what ‘fits’, we weigh more than any single consideration – even when we don’t recognise them all: we lump more than one consideration together and treat them as ‘one’ consideration, like a kind of rational shorthand. When asked about the fit of our shoes, we may think shoes, we may think feet, or we may think distinctly both at once. The point to stress is that shorthand is subtle enough to go undetected.
The point to heed is that talk about ‘fit’ is talk about more than just the assessment of our satisfaction or frustration – our emotions. Any satisfaction or frustration we feel about the fit of our shoes will have arisen from that pair of shoes, now bought and paid for – and buyer beware! But as we feel those emotions, let’s heed how they arise from an empirical objectivity: “I paid $200 for these blasted things – and look at these blisters!”
Money, foot care, bandaids, a trip to the pharmacy, maybe a trip back to the shoe store… even if tangentially, then still no less materially, all these considerations plus how-many-others will factor in to our satisfaction or frustration, our emotional approval or disapproval, of the fit of our shoes – what better measure or evidence, what better empirical objectivity, for assessing the fit of our shoes than a blister on the back of our heel?
The fit of shoes is a congruous match-up of size and shape, the shoes and the feet that wear them. It’s something any good sales person comes to learn over time: as much as you must know your product – available in these shapes and sizes – you must also come to know people because customers also come in all imaginable shapes and sizes, and unimaginable ones, too – did you know the same person might have two differently sized feet? What on earth to do then!
In the same way we might consider feet while we consider the fit of shoes, let’s now put on our teacher hats and consider what makes an appropriate learning environment for young people. For starters, count how many things we’re now bringing to consideration… at the very least, I count two:
• learning environments, and
• young people
… and what else?
I’m sure we would all share similar feelings about the fit of a poor learning environment for young people. So, as we put on those teacher hats and consider what makes for an appropriate learning environment for young people, zero-in on that word, ‘appropriate’, and ask yourself what informs it… its prescription, its sense of value. Ask yourself, “Beyond what I value, what I say ‘fits’, what is my source of that value?”
I’m pretty sure we could eventually reach some consensus on the empirical objectivity of an appropriate learning environment for young people although I hesitate to suggest what that consensus might actually be. But while we decided, what exactly would account for our initial reactions? What would we lump together in shorthand, and what could we factor in to more considered measure?
It’s as if to say of young people and learning environments, both at once, that each one doesn’t just stir its own reaction within us; rather, together they prompt a reaction within us, on account of something about each one of them, something not just worthy but something that warrants our appreciation: young people, for instance, evoke from us emotions like humility and compassion, on account of their vulnerability; and learning environments provoke emotions of respect and approval, on account of their helpfulness.
So ask yourself… what empirical objectivity arises from this combination of young people on the one hand and learning environments on the other: in their coming together, what is it that makes us so certain? And beyond mere nature, how do we measure – how do we know – what’s most appropriate – almost as if to ask, “What does each one deserve?” And, in between ‘what each one deserves’, how do we not simply describe but also account for what’s most ‘appropriate’?
Before blisters and complaining and asking for our money back, before even spending as much as one thin dime, how do we know if the shoe fits?