Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Not Either/Or; but Yes, And...

Many people have offered many valid reasons innovation can occur slowly in schools. Risk aversion, ossified structures, lack of vision, fear, silos, intellectual arrogance, myopia, standardization, the textbook industry, poltiics, parental concerns, silver bullet belief in the latest fad--I'm sure you could add some other items. As I reflect on that list, I notice that many of them share a common problem, one which smacks of oversimplification. Too often in education we engage in either/or thinking.

To illustrate, let's consider a recent, perhaps ongoing, battle about early childhood language instruction. In this corner, we have the defending champion, Phonics Instruction. In the oppositie corner, the challenger, Whole Language. In schools all over the country, people picked one side or the other and bet the house. Phonics people continued with the "tried and true," and Whole Language folks threw out the traditional. Was one side right about the better approach? Perhaps. Then one would have to be wrong, and both had very valid points. Yet in many cases one side viewed the other only with disdain, rather than with an open mind that would enable integrating the two in a way that woudl work. They thus missed an opportunity to reach more children through effective differentiation.

Let's take a curernt example but switch focus a bit to consider two issues: cultural literacy and a more modern approach. I'll stick with language arts. Most people--even those who are not the most vocal defendants of a cultural literacy approach--likely would argue that students should have some familiarity with Shakespeare. Let's use Romeo and Juliet since that seems a popular choice for inclusion in many curricula. We know the traditional way of studying Shakespeare: read it while struggling with the language, analyze the themes, take some quizzes, memorize and recite passages, take a test, write an essay. Now imagine this approach. The students, upon hearing of the trend in modernizing the Bard's works, suggest doing that also. So as a class they decide to rewrite the play. They figure out a plan and go at it. They keep all the key elements; for example, the balcony scene remains an interlocking sonnet. But now it's set on a porch outside the school library. Once done writing, they rehearse and then perform and record their version of the play, making it availaible for a much larger audience. After, they have to write reflections that show their understanding of the play and how this project aided in that. They've gained the cultural literacy. After all, which approach do you think will better lead to kids learning and even appreciating Shakespeare? They also had to work on the basic literacies of reading and writing. Plus they had to be creative and to collaborate, and their final product was a contribution to their community--some of the essentials of a modern education.

That Shakespeare project--one of the real highlights of my teaching career--epitomizes how we can take a "yes, and..." approach to education. The best part? The students initiated it. All I had to do was go along. This happened in the late 1980s, and I argue that our doing more and more work like this is more imperative now than ever. But too often the response is "yes, but..."--that killer phrase which is the hallmark of either/or thinking and even closed-mindedness. Even beyond the curricular and pedagogical implications, I worry about this in terms of role-modeling for students. F.S. Fitzgerald wrote, "The sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still maintain the ability to function." Kid suffer when we can't--or won't--do this to improve education.

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