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 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.

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Enacting ‘The WHY’

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Click here to read Decisions, Decisions

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 internal, 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.

From The Financial Times – “Education demands free speech plus inclusion, Chicago university chief says”

I noted with interest this item from Financial Times Associate Editor Brooke Masters that features University of Chicago President, Robert Zimmer, specifically his adamant stance for university as a preserve of independent thought and inquiry.

Zimmer’s “warning,” to quote Brooke Masters, accompanies an announcement for committed undergrad funding, a pairing that may or may not suggest political scrim, depending on who thinks $200 million is a lot of money.

Full disclosure: I’ve always really admired The University of Chicago from afar for its eclecticism and quirky sense of self, like The Onion of the post-secondary realm but with degree-granting superpowers.

Disclosures continued, I also received recognition from the University of Chicago after being nominated for the Outstanding Educator Award by a student I taught who attended in 2010. The letter I received was not quirky so much as plain and congratulatory, but they did invite me for lunch sometime. Someday, Chicago, like maybe when my own doctoral epic is finally and fully told. Someday.

So very rarely am I into self-promotion, but all this seemed like a particular confluence and, anyway, who ever scrolls that far down on LinkedIn?

Of course, my immediate interest in the FT story is its connection to my own series on free speech from earlier this year – and, yes, more shameless vanity – but it felt reaffirming to see such noteworthy agreement from the likes of UChicago including, evidently, President Zimmer. I’ve never met Robert Zimmer, but if he’s ever here in town, sincerely, he’s absolutely more than welcome to join me for lunch.

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