The Measure of Our Own

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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.

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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!

Image Credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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?”

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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.

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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?

Crossed Purposes

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Click here to read Mixed Metaphors

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 learning and applying philosophy 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.

Click here to read Common Ground

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.

Click here to read Common Ground

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