‘Why?’ and The Web of Content

One of the foundational rules for VC educators states that students must understand the purpose of their education. They have to be provided with an inspired reason for learning; otherwise, why would they choose to expend the effort on the suite of seemingly arbitrary tasks they are asked to complete on a daily basis in school? 

Neil Postman wrote a book on this very topic; I see it as a primer into education – one that should be required reading in Teacher Development/Prep courses everywhere, as it only gives suggestions as to the types of purposes teachers could instill in their own classrooms, and the conversation is clearly meant to be continued from there. “Without a narrative,” Postman wrote, “life has no meaning. Without meaning, learning has no purpose. Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention. This is what my book is about.” 

Postman passed a torch to all future generations of educators with The End of Education, and my purpose today is not to review the contents of that message nor even to add ideas to the mixing pot of plausible educational narratives to pitch to students. Instead, I mean to call ourselves out, as educators, for not following our own advice with ourselves. 

What am I talking about? Teacher Preparatory Courses, Professional Development Courses, and texts on Best Educational Practices. Every week, it seems, I find evidence of educators not giving reasons to other educators as to why we might want to do what we do. What is our purpose? What is our inspired reason for working? I get it: reasons are messy. They can vary from one educator to the next, they can be disagreed upon and argued about, they take time to analyze and dissect relative validities, and they can, of course, have many ‘correct answers.’  

Let’s stop being so theoretical and abstract and allow me to give some examples. I was reading through EL’s Core Practices the other day, a fantastic reference text for all educators (not just those within ‘EL’), and came across this statement in Core Practice 22 – Creating Quality Assessments, Section A. Aligning Standards, Learning Targets, and Assessments: 

5. Teachers identify assessments for each set of learning targets. They almost always develop the assessments/assessment tools before each chunk of instruction begins. They often use preassessments aligned to learning targets to inform instruction and differentiation.

Why?!? Before we jump right into trying to answer that question, let’s take a moment to recognize and understand some of the metaphors at play here. To borrow from Postman again, he writes in Teaching as a Conserving Activity “I do not see how it is possible for a subject to be understood in the absence of any insight into the metaphors on which it is constructed.” In education, for example, “if you believe the mind is like a dark cavern, you will suggest activities that are quite different from those suggested by people who believe the mind is like a muscle or an empty vessel. […] Do you conceptualize the mind as a kind of computer? Or a garden? Or a lump of clay?” Well, I conceive of ‘Teacher Education’ as a vast and complex web of knowledge; this knowledge is made up of fundamental truths and paradoxes, created narratives or purposes, and tactics and actions that serve those purposes. Notice that this ‘web’ metaphor is in stark contrast to the ‘linear story’ metaphor that we could use, whereby a teacher might progress from one topic onto the next without any deviation (aka jumping around to other parts of the web, if necessary). Sir Ken Robinson has called this linear model ‘the Industrial Model of Education,’ whereby products (students) are run through an assembly line that ensures they fit within the narrow band of tolerances (standards) necessary for the product (students) to go out to the consumer (the economy). The point is not that students shouldn’t have basic skills and knowledge – they should. The point is that the ways in which we show our disparate skills can and should vary widely – they should be as the web is: diverse. 

The process of conveying information in the field of education, then, becomes a process of efficiency exchanges similar to the way a human body or mind makes efficiency exchanges. No teacher can ‘know it all’ – consider every single aspect of their craft at once – so there’s always room for improvement. Each principle, instructional coach, or pedagogical book must then do the job of sensing where a developing teacher is within this web, and decide to either ‘rubric-ify’ (create heuristics) or really process and ask ‘why?’. They have to make the decision of how much are we going to exchange efficiency for effectiveness, how much we just do something that will work passably well vs. how much time we spend giving narrative or purpose to what we’re doing. This is much the same process teachers go through with students! For example, a good math teacher decides deliberately whether or not, during the course of teaching quadratics, to structure her approach by just teaching the kids the quadratic formula or to go through the much slower – yet vastly more effective for content understanding – approach that really helps kids understand why we complete the square to solve for the roots of an un-factorable quadratic, and to have them derive the quadratic formula as an efficient shortcut to the process by completing the square using constants*. And I will pause my philosophical explanation here to say that this is largely the point of this post – that PD-providers and principles can and should treat teacher development in the same way teachers treat student development, but we don’t do that. 

Instead, we go through the process of ‘rubric-ification’ and come up with immutable statements like “[teachers] almost always develop the assessments/assessment tools before each chunk of instruction begins.” Why? Well, to be honest with you, I don’t know why. The book doesn’t discuss it, nor did my PD Instructors comment on it when I asked about it in class after they had us read Core Practice 22. So I am left to guess. 

My guess would be that when the EL Core Practices manual was originally written, every statement in the text was scrutinized and debated. However, in order to promote efficiency they did not go into detail in explaining the why behind the statements for teachers to get a better understanding. They taught the quadratic formula without giving any indication of where it came from and why it might be a great, time-saving device that has real meanings behind it. 

In my thinking, the why behind this particular statement is that by writing the assessments beforehand, teachers can engage in a ‘backwards-planning’ process. But why might backwards-planning be useful!?!? Well, if I have a specific end-goal that requires understanding of multiple concepts in order to execute, breaking that end-goal down into steps that can be achieved on a daily basis is a very useful planning strategy! I use backwards-planning all the time; however, I only use backwards-planning for projects. I know, I know – why? Because projects are a creative process (in the true sense of the word) – we are trying to create something! It has an end-goal. Learning, on the other hand, doesn’t. If it did, then every school in the world wouldn’t have a mission statement that says something to the effect of ‘to create lifelong learners…’ We hope that students get a taste of how fun it is to explore this “web of content” and want to keep doing it throughout their lives – or at the very least to know how to explore the web when it comes time to exercise their democratic powers: to really be able to understand the complex issues at stake when they go to the polls as members of a Representative Republic. 

The point is that when we begin to conceive of education as a web of possibilities, we begin to realize that the entire concept of ‘not having time to go slower’ becomes ridiculous! We want students to learn how to think and learn, and there is an infinitely large web of things we could be teaching them, not a list that we have to ‘get through!’ Why in the world would I need to limit the infinite potential of my students by saying what we’re going to cover and then commit to that only? If the class is interested in something, we follow that rabbit-hole! And, then I decide to put that on the quiz because that was the strand of the web that I didn’t necessarily plan to follow, but that we decided to anyways! Putting that content on the quiz, then, is not a way to say “Do you know the content well enough to pass the state exam?” – it’s a way of saying “Here’s a chance to check-in with yourself on your own learning process – this quiz is not only a way for you to revisit the ideas again and grow more neural pathways, but also another way of you asking yourself, in a way that forces you to be honest with yourself, how deeply you really thought about the topics at play.” You may be sensing why my class doesn’t have “Quizzes,” it only has “Check-In’s,” which are the functional equivalent to quizzes. The language (and metaphor) matters. 

If you’ve made it this far into this post, then you are somebody who understands how important it is to have a ‘why?’ – or else you would have read another blog that gave you a one-line how and went on about your merry way. You understand that the methods of good instruction can (and probably should) look very different between different teachers, depending on the why behind their practices**. So please, if you happen to find yourself in a position of teaching how to teach (Professional Development, Instructional Coaching, whatever), slow down. Ask ‘why?’ Adapt a ‘Web Metaphor,’ by abandoning the ‘Assembly Line’ metaphor and recognizing that healthy systems have end-products that display a ton of diversity. Explore and learn together, with your students; that’s how we’ll Return to the Heart of Education. 


*I recognize the irony in using an example from quadratics to describe the ‘Web of Mathematics’. Quadratics, while incredibly interesting from a developmental/historical perspective, are pretty freakin’ stupid to be teaching in 2019, especially in the context through which we are teaching them where students go out into the real-world and never really recognize why quadratics are connected and cool, and even more stupid in a world of big data where we don’t have requirements to teach statistics or Excel! More on this in a coming post, though. 

**And conversely, bad teaching actually often shares similar characteristic flaws… and thus in some ways PD should also be about identifying and avoiding certain flaws of bad teaching, because isn’t it much more efficient to analyze the smaller number of practices that are ineffective than to promote the vast sea of practices that are effective? But that’s a story for another day.

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