Crossed Purposes

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If learning is a kind of renovation, does that make teaching hard hats, tool belts, and construction sites?

A teacher is a person in your neighbourhood although, no, this isn’t him.
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No… for me, construction is definitely the wrong metaphor for teaching. That’s probably a good thing because renovations always end up being way more work than anyone planned, and anyway, I’ve got a whole roster of students to teach.

My own notion of teaching is about persuading people. And by persuasion, I mean presenting a sincere offer.

And what, you ask, makes a sincere offer?

No, not him either.

Humility, for starters, and simplicity… I found this meaningful, so I thought I’d share it because maybe you will too. Of course, the wellspring here is trust: the learner trusts the teacher, just like a teacher needs the learner’s trust if they’re to hold sincere attention. In education yet really in any circumstance, trust is the crux of relationships.

One way to imagine relationships is two-way traffic, which animates the familiar “two-way street.” The dynamics of transit – cars and pedestrians, movement and flow through intersections and traffic lights – it’s hardly a flawless metaphor for communication, but it gets the point across.

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And again, what flows beneath is trust. At a pedestrian-controlled stoplight, awaiting the signal, we eventually step off the curb, relying on drivers to halt their vehicles rather than driving through and running us down. Even naming these ‘pedestrian-controlled’ stoplights is an embellishment – a deferral, perhaps, to those really favoured in the equation. But surely a pedestrian who steps off the curb commits an act of faith by abrogating whatever control they had over their safety, first, to the signal’s proper functioning, second, to the driver’s respect for signals, and third, to the driver’s responsible operation of their vehicle. For that brief moment, a pedestrian entrusts their well-being to the driver’s motives and capabilities.

Great disciplinarian, or persuasive sophist? Surely no green light is just a friendly smile
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Revise that sentence a bit, and pedestrians might be students with their teacher in a classroom. And if the image is neither here nor there to learning-as-renovation and constructivism, it’s still all about trust because what’s really being put to the test by the student in that sentence are the motives and capabilities of the teacher in that classroom. Somewhere along the way, a teacher fosters in a student the inclination to like or dislike, heed or dismiss, trust or mistrust.

“… fosters the inclination” – I had to sit for a minute to come up with that one because I would have otherwise just said “persuade.” We can use the same word, but it can mean different things: the distinction I made about persuasion being a sincere offer… a teacher persuades, i.e. presents a sincere offer, each day, each class, each lesson. Then over time, as this happens again and again, that teacher persuades, i.e. fosters an inclination, in the student, which essentially becomes the essence of their ongoing relationship. Of course, two-way traffic is heading the other direction, too, as students foster inclinations in their teachers – there’s a post for another day because this one’s about teaching-as-persuasion.

In another classroom on another day, some teacher may have reason to teach less persuasively, not by sincere offer but by direct imperative, or whatever. Let this be since who’s so high-minded as to think they’ve figured things out for people in another classroom, and who’s so adamant as to levy their judgment upon the rest? Where’s your badge, traffic cop?

Giving the green-light, or the benediction?
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And hey, I readily accede to ‘time and place’ – we all have our judgment. But as compared to telling and ordering and explaining and demanding, I’ve generally taken to communicating persuasively in my teaching because I’ve found, long-term, it helps to establish and maintain trust.

Alright then, communicating persuasively… what exactly is that? Well, for instance, I try to speak conscientiously, using a more precise vocabulary…

  • offer… instead of delivering a lesson, I offer a lesson
  • respond… as compared to answers, I offer and ask for responses
  • address… rather than solve a problem, I address an issue

Yeah, these seem kind of fluffy, but then again I usually keep all this to myself. A few more examples…

  • study rather than learn
  • meaningful as compared to effective
  • a quest instead of a journey
  • “I wonder” instead of “I think

If it all seems contrived and pretty pedantic – yes, well, it is definitely contrived. Over many years of life and teaching, I’ve begun to appreciate how the language we use not only reflects our thoughts but renovates them. If it follows from this that growth takes time and patience, then so must teaching take its time and be patient. Because sure, a word used once, today, will hardly make a difference beyond alienating yourself as a punctilious twit. But how about once today, this moment in time, every time? On the road to becoming who we are, how becoming is a prolonged conscientious use of language?

…process… [product] …process…
…time… [careful usage] …patience
becoming… who we are …becoming

Is it ever too late to start? That might better be stated, “It’s never too late to try” because it follows that “it’s never too late to change.”

– sorry, I know, this was about teaching-as-persuasion. Didn’t mean to get existential. Don’t get me wrong, I like philosophy and learning to apply it to my teaching. But when I’m busy in a classroom, with all those students renovating themselves, I’m in the driver’s seat, and my own tool belt is in the backseat, and I think reaching back for it is probably distracted driving… well, it’s hardly perfect trying to map out mixed metaphors with a word processor.

One last thing… I try to phrase things positively – so, for example, rather than “Don’t do this,” which is negative, I’d say, “Avoid doing this.” Again, it seems pedantic to a fault, but strictly solely for me, it amounts to discipline, practising and setting a frame-of-mind, and I don’t usually make a show of it.

Or actually, I have made a show of it, but in a context, ‘time and place’, because yes, I agree… it’s just so much tedious pedantry when asked of others. But it’s not like I’m out correcting people everywhere I go… no, that I reserved for students, on the basis of (a) trust and (b) See (a). I even warned them each September that I was setting out to brainwash them, but benevolently, and fairly, too, since here I was letting them know in advance. Plus, by encouraging them to agree or disagree, come what may, we’d both at least have something new to think about. Dare I say a few may actually have come to understand the point by June although, to what extent or meaning, I can only leave with them to decide.

The same goes for this here… I encourage each and every one to take it or leave it as you have and as you will. If teaching is about persuasion, then that’s about trust, and we’re probably right to understand education – that is, teaching plus learning – as a collaboration: as you do your part and not mine, the same goes for me, and then let’s see where that gets us.

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On Bias: IV. Right Bias?

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Click here to read On Bias: III. Fun With Dialectics

On Bias: IV. Right Bias?

Here’s an idea: let’s eliminate bias!

We’ll all finish breakfast together and head out, everyone trying their very hardest, pitching in with, like, mindfulness and all – and boom, we eliminate bias. Well, except for all the inevitable ripple-effects, what with that ‘cost to everything’ thing and everything that goes with that, but… here’s the thing: we eliminate our bias!

I hear this idea fairly often in Teacher Education: “Eliminate your bias.” Actually, it’s more of a recommendation than an idea, come by honestly, as I see it, from a place to (a) preclude unconscious assumptions, which I gather to be individual, and (b) guard against inherent power structures, which seem bigger than individual, at least as far as their fount if not their flow – which is sort of like saying the heart itself is not quite the circulation that depends on it, or that life is not itself the exactness of living. Basically, the difference between (a) and (b) might be cause-and-effect although, when anyone says “basically,” it’s bound to be an oversimplification, so maybe just forget I said it.

And as I’m about to mention ‘space between’, of course I’ll be speaking metaphorically: for example, the space between teachers and students.

Where the one ends and the next begins …some more than others
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Speaking of metaphorical space… from my own experience, I’ve found where one person ends, as it were, another finds space to begin. In between them is space… sometimes a void or distant divide, or sometimes an inseparable overlapping affinity though, more likely, something less fringe-worthy in between. It is space filled by dialectical influence, by relational back-and-forth, something I’ve elsewhere called a kind of curriculum. And where all this is true for all, even so I suspect it will resonate more with someone who was told at school they were a troublemaker, say, or a top student – at different times, I was told both, so I oughta know.

But as metaphorical space relates to eliminating bias, well… when teachers are told to eliminate bias, or minimize it in their planning and practice, for being superficial the suggestion for me is essentially misleading.

Dusek distinguishes between a generalised teacher bias, “expectations regarding the performance of children who are equivalent on some objective measure,” and what seems to be more individuated teacher expectancy, the “significant effects due to the teacher’s own, self-generated expectations regarding students’ performance” (p. 679). Expectancy, he notes, can beget bias such that a teacher “subjectively [feels that some] students are [less capable than others] of grasping certain material.” Apparently, the difference between teacher bias and teacher expectancy, as in “some objective measure” and “self-generated expectations,” is something like objective-subjective.

When teachers are told to eliminate bias from their planning and practice, the suggestion is superficial and thereby misleading.

Now, one could expound for pages, distinguishing external from internal, collective from solo, or communal from individual, or arguing apparent vs inherent, without vs within, or knowing vs doing, or even exploring remembrance-reaction or learned-instinctual. They all seem nurture-nature in some way or other (which yes, I’ve had to reverse from the more common usage, nature-nurture). I didn’t even bother with hyperlinks because there are just too many options – search for yourself and see, any similar form for any of these pairings.

Instead, I simply note here how I described it (in common order) on the homepage: there’s me and there’s not me. It’s a philosophical difference, definitely epistemological if not also ontological, so take it or leave it but at least please understand it for your own philosophy as well as mine.

As all this pertains to teaching – because I write here most often as a teacher – the difference seems one of perspective, which is probably pretty telling, so educators take note. Where the difference seems one of perspective, with each person left to construe what other people also construe, maybe the most we could expect from a bunch of persons is consensus – seems a shame, then, to demand something instead like conformity.

To those unconscious assumptions that Teacher Ed aims to preclude I relate Dusek’s teacher expectancy – both seem more individuated. But if we’re set on “eliminating bias,” whether that individual is a teacher or anyone else, how exactly do we measure expectations? How do we even identify assumptions that are unconscious? Is there “some objective measure,” maybe some kind of systemic outcome, to help us determine where bias ends and expectancy begins? Because, if there were, bias might almost even seem reliable, maybe have some practical utility – seems a shame, then, to eliminate it, I mean if that were true.

Less formally, I can imagine teachers intentionally mitigating expectancies in order to respect student autonomy – I’m pretty sure I have. Thanks to Dusek, let’s consider an attempt at identifying and mitigating expectancies to be, by extension, an attempt at managing bias, and this much I’ll grant you, Teacher Ed: managing bias. And surely this would affect ensuing outcomes – I’m pretty sure that was my thinking.

“… every ripple, rippling and re-rippling, placid at times though many times not”
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Maybe a systemic distinction between bias and expectation could indicate some kind of synthesis… of people, of history, of institutional aims and cultures, and all their back-and-forth influences – every ripple from every pebble tossed, rippling and re-rippling across the gulf, placid at times though many times not. All this is its own continual cause-and-effect-yet-more, in which bias seems as much an unending if curiously dissociated mutual negotiation of each with every other.

Mackenzie – remember Mackenzie? – may have been on to this, too: he finally quells our “deplorable” state of bias as “… not something which should be feared in education… [but rather] the beginning of a process of debate… [ending] either in a discussion of appropriate emphasis, in the accuser coming to see that an allegedly neglected viewpoint has indeed been covered, or in the accused learning something new” (p. 499). Okay, maybe Mackenzie’s still a little polarised, but he’s unquestionably a little more flexible, too: therein the patient, and all. And maybe there really is something to all that ‘mindfulness’ crap, aside from being so popular.

Biased people, biased history, biased institutional aims and cultures… with literally everything to consider, yet being only human, we’re inevitably certain to leave something out on account of that limit, our incapability for anything more: eliminating bias starts chipping away at all we know because bias is essentially what we are. Eliminate bias, eliminate self. So, how to proceed?

For starters, let’s not just openly acknowledge bias, let’s embrace it: the rigor of education, of discourse and sharing and research… if two heads are better than one, imagine the dialectic arising from a dozen, or a hundred. We already know the potential of entire communities. Let’s value the humility of learning precisely because no one can say it all, know it all, or do it all. No less was suggested by Sir Francis himself: we all can do better together, and not just kumbaya – gotta love some bacon. Let’s learn and teach how to reason and how to communicate, and how to be biased.

Let’s learn and teach how to reason and communicate: how to be biased.

And let’s let bias be. If it limits alternatives, bias also clarifies too many. Ambiguity can amplify what we already know and also what we don’t; from there, we proceed. Elsewhere I’ve mentioned my ignorance in a museum: where I knew nothing about the exhibits, plenty others did know, and certainly over time, we all come to know however much. In the meantime, though, I’m partial for my ignorance, and a decision befalls me to take action, to study and learn, or to do something else.

Study is only a potential outcome of education, making education only a potential process of constant renovation, of who we are and what we know. Study is a decision that not everybody makes, I think because it’s humbling. It brings us to realise how much we’ll never know. Some rare few master plenty, but even they have limitations. We do what we can, or anyway, we ought to. But whether or not each of us accepts our own responsibility for our own decisions, come what may, we will still face the outcomes.

For all this, on balance, I’d say bias is a good thing. It changes as we grow, even if ‘change’ just means leaning further the same direction. Given our context – myriad influences, ceaseless decision-making, the whole roiling rippling mess – we’re probably wise to consider bias dynamic: fluctuating, buffering, whispering continually in our ears, always remaining, never quite resembling…

Bias is potent energy, our source of passion, opinion, vision: our perspective. Where a world without bias would be flat and dull and monotonous, lucky for us “eliminating bias” is also mere aspiration. For the world in which we live, bias marshalled by a culture of responsible morality can actually enrich our collective experience.

“…a world without bias would be flat and dull and monotonous,” so if you think this pic is oversaturated, maybe the world has too much bias… or could it be you simply see a world with too much bias?
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That’s why, when teachers are told to minimize or eliminate bias from their planning and practice, I take the suggestion as essentially misleading for being superficial. Bias is an always-thing, not something we minimize or eliminate but something we identify and address, and if we’re wise enough, something we incorporate. Bias is not pejorative, it’s descriptive, and even people you admire have it. Everybody has it, which is perhaps most obvious when they say they don’t – that’s a fool’s game to be avoided by responsible teachers.

Worse, teachers who do plan and practise under this spell of rectitude risk falling blind to the costs of their still-biased decisions: believing they have somehow minimized or eliminated their bias, they merely shift its cost from whomever they sought to protect onto somebody different. As I’ve concluded about decisions more generally, a teacher’s so-called ‘best’ decisions would seem to be their most informed decisions. If so, then I think a teacher’s professionalism can oblige no less yet can also demand no more.

For me, there’s no such thing as unbiased – if a single word can be an oxymoron, ‘unbiased’ is it. There is, however, such a thing as multi-biased; in the current lingo, that would be interdisciplinary or holistic, or what I might otherwise simply call responsible, considerate, or even mature, or how about maybe just educated.

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Enacting ‘The WHY’

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To borrow an earlier phrase, teaching is not a matter of act but a matter of character. Someone may already agree with this before understanding what I mean.

The previous post considered decisions arrived at with phronesis, practical wisdom – an acuity of discernment and a benevolence in the weighing of options, something we might generalise more simply as savvy good will. Where ‘savvy’ is within, note with care that ‘good will’ is inclusive: others as well as you.

And if that’s somehow alarming, because not everyone is your friend, then note with added relief that practical wisdom is something we can exercise in concert with healthy scepticism. I say we can because, of course, not everybody does. On the other hand, the reverse is equally true: we can exercise our scepticism. Either way, we implicate education, things people profess to know, and teaching.

So then… a matter of character and, specifically, teachers. Practical wisdom informing decisions is a nuanced thing: why to act, why under the present circumstances to pick ‘this’ decision over ‘that’ one, the kind of nuance that we often call ‘the why’. Of course, every question asked, “Why… ?” is answerable as some sought-after outcome, the corollary “Because… ,” and ‘why’ might be offered in different ways at different times. Where there may be some clever reason to withhold ‘the why’ and keep people wondering, surely any such decision would be good will at its savvy best, lasting only as long as necessary.

But this continual reasoned weighing of possible outcomes is, in very large part, the daily work of teaching. Justifying each decision is arguably the greatest professional responsibility teachers face. So where some chosen course is the outcome of practical wisdom, then maybe let’s consider this to be meaningful teaching.

The continual reasoned weighing of possible outcomes is, in very large part, the daily work of teaching.

Something curious here… where ‘course’ often means Social Studies or Math as we commonly say “course,” in this case it means something like a path, that decision taken to follow ‘this’ way over ‘that’ as we aim for some objective or goal, i.e. some chosen course.

Note further that “curriculum” derives from currere, which likewise suggests a flow or path to be run, as we might say “a race course” or a river that “runs its course.” Curriculum is coming from somewhere, and heading somewhere, and in between these, it’s dynamic and influential upon encountering whatever’s already there. Add one bonus mark if you’re now also noticing a temporal past-present-future quality, but for me, the relationship most central to curriculum, far less abstract than tangible and personal, is the one between teacher and student because they’re finally the ones who not only face each decisional fork-in-the-course, whether ‘this’ way or ‘that’, but also they’re the ones who finally take action as well.

More colloquially, you may have heard curriculum described as what teachers teach, ‘the what’. If so, then you may also have heard curriculum paired up with pedagogy, ‘the how’, but these simplifications really do little to convey their complexities, much less their concerted interconnectivity, much less their significance within the holistic scope of school and education, where a lot is going on all at once. Overall, of curriculum and pedagogy, I might say it this way… the better we know someone, the more meaningful our interactions become, and I wonder if curriculum and pedagogy, as two concepts, are better considered as one.

For now, though, for space and sanity, I’m satisfied to describe curriculum as relational – ‘what we do with someone else’ – which has a lot to do with abiding respect and time spent together – and pedagogy as purposeful – ‘what we do for someone else’ – which has mainly to do with motives and objectives. On behalf of others as well as themselves, teachers must know with whom, for whom, and up against whom they might be taking action as well as what such action might look like when they take it and, finally, who will likely be paying the cost.

On that note, I haven’t even addressed power and authority, which of course are also central considerations to this broader relational concept – that last emphasis being my way to ask whether the common phrase ‘of course’ means anything more for you now than it did before.

So… a matter of character, practical wisdom? …remind me again how we arrived here? One last thing I should probably mention, the previous post was an obliquely political critique since, for all their connection to policy and legislation, the branches of politics just hang so low that, honestly, who can resist but be tempted. But true to healthy scepticism, any take on practical wisdom can probably do better than those posturing purveyors of politics, and me being a teacher, and nothing whatsoever political about school and education … well, therein the physician must minister to himself, I guess, and besides, you could always go start a blog of your own.

Seriously, which seems harder to sustain: being persuasive or being in control?

They’re obviously not, but say those were really the only two choices: which work would you rather be doing? How would you prefer to spend your efforts? Because wouldn’t that tell us something more about you.

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