The Ever-Renewing Society

You know that moment when you undergo an experience that all of a sudden makes you realize (in the span of just an instant) why you were told to do something a certain way? For the eight-year-old, it’s when they touch the hot stove for the first time, and for me it was when I finally realized the myriad uses for quadratics and the reasons why we follow certain steps only after I started teaching the subject.

Well, I recently had one of those moments dealing with the scheduling of the school, and it led me to realize a bigger tenant of education, in general: in order to be effective to the highest levels possible, we must know why we are doing something. As educators, we of course know this naturally. A student can cram for an exam and not understand why they are performing the manipulations necessary to get the answers. But they won’t necessarily be able to apply that content to novel contexts. The revelation for me was that it’s the same for teachers and pedagogy, including moving to a new school.

Here’s what happened:
My school offers students in each grade the somewhat unique opportunity to ask the question “What do I most want to learn about?” and go out and pursue it in the form of an internship for two to four weeks of the school year. Our 9th and 10th graders call the internship ‘Mini-Challenge’ and prepare for the two week experience all Fall, completing the experience in the mid-Spring. 11th grade completes the experience in the Fall, and our 12th grade completes the experience, for them called Senior Learning Experience (SLE) for an entire month during April.

After each of the experiences, we host an ‘Academic Showcase’ to give students a chance to practice presenting to the larger community on the value of their Internship experiences. Well, last year, our SLE was changed from a poster-board presentation to a TED-style talk, which we film and upload to a YouTube channel. So, this year I decided that Juniors should also give a TED-style talk, without the filming and high-pressure associated with the Senior talks.

While Juniors were giving these TED talks, 9th and 10th grade instructors decided that the students in their classes should also give presentations of their own on academic topics.

Come mid-Spring, as 9th and 10th graders were preparing to give their poster-board presentations, instructors realized that not everyone had created a high-quality presentation. They made the decision to only have students who achieved a certain quality standard present. Surprisingly (actually… if you understand that adolescence is the social plane of development and the sense of justice therefore runs high then this won’t be surprising at all…), this decision upset our 11th graders, even though the implications did not affect them at all.

As I did my best to truly listen to their concerns, remove myself from my personal emotion and see the situation from a bird’s-eye viewpoint, I began to realize a few things. First, the reason that Juniors do internship in the Fall rather than Spring is because they are showcasing and setting an example for our 9th and 10th graders of what high-quality presentations look like. This meant two things for my cause: first, Juniors have to be presenting in the same format in which we expect 9th and 10th graders to be presenting; second, 9th and 10th graders have to have no other responsibility than watching the Junior presentations!

The whole scenario reminded me of a famous experimental myth of which you’ve likely heard: the monkeys beating each other up. According to urban legend, an experiment was run in which monkeys were placed in a zoo-like environment with a ladder in the middle. At the top of the ladder was a ripe banana; however, whenever a monkey would climb the ladder to get the banana, all the other monkeys would be unpleasantly sprayed with water. The monkeys learned the consequence associated with retrieving the banana, and would physically threaten or prevent other monkeys from climbing the ladder. Well, after some time one of the monkeys was replaced with a monkey who had never been in this situation before. Accordingly, he went for the banana and got beat up. Well, then another monkey was replaced, with the same result. Eventually, none of the original monkeys (who had actually witnessed the consequence firsthand) remained, yet the completely new community of monkey would still beat a newcomer up if he went for the banana!

The fact that this experiment (which was based in reality but severely tweaked to make the story more relatable) never actually occurred is of less importance to me than the fact that it captures the attention of so many folks who hear about it. Why? It seems that we all, upon hearing the myth, think ‘yep, I can relate to having been there!’ Yet, in the moment while we actually were ‘there,’ we did not recognize that we were making this same … I don’t know – miscalculation – it was only afterwards that we realized.

Implicit in the story is the lesson that we must be careful of ‘tradition,’ because tradition relies on the assumption that the world is the same as it was when the tradition began (e.g. the consequences or rewards of the tradition are the same). In many cases, this assumption is true; however, complications arise when either a) things have changed and our assumptions haven’t, or b) when people, lacking a narrative as to why the tradition exists, stop believing in it (which, importantly, may happen subconsciously).

As to the first complication, Postman writes:

The basic function of all education, even in the most traditional sense, is to increase the survival prospects of the group. […] Survival in a stable environment depends almost entirely on remembering the strategies for survival that have been developed in the past, and so the conservation and transmission of these becomes the primary mission of education. But, a paradoxical situation develops when change becomes the primary characteristic of the environment. Then the task turns inside out — survival in a rapidly changing environment depends almost entirely upon being able to identify which of the old concepts are relevant to the demands imposed by the new threats to survival, and which are not.

One of the purposes of education, therefore, is to be able to identify which of the old concepts are no longer relevant. To do this, education must instill in learners the ability to ask divergent questions, which are instruments of perspective expansion. “We grow up never questioning that which is unquestioned around us,” wrote Margaret Mead; by teaching divergent questioning, we empower learners (including ourselves) to put on different lenses through which we can view the world in new lights and come away with different meanings. The technique itself of divergent questioning is a whole ‘nother post outside the realm of this post – as for now we will focus on the implications of an education grounded in divergent questioning.

The implications, as you might expect, have a catch. The catch is that when we do indeed make new meanings from our world, we must accept that we will have to create an Ever-Renewing Society: a society that can and does constantly question the status quo and innovates in order to create itself anew each generation.

We, as teachers, must take part in this society. We must begin by admitting that we don’t have all the answers, and that’s OK. We cannot live by Postman’s maxim that ‘students enter school as question marks and leave as periods,’ we must instead adopt the maxim that Change is Inevitable; Growth is Optional. And we choose growth.

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