Monthly Archives: August 2010

Don’t let perfect get in the way of good…

A lot of teachers are control freaks.  I can be.  It used to be worse.  As a new teacher,  I felt like everything had to go exactly as planned.  I think it’s because I saw a good number of teachers– soon-to-be-ex-teachers, it turned out– melt under the pressure of being in charge of the classroom.  A young teacher starts out with the best intentions, plans his lessons, gets talking, gives an assignment, then they’re finished– a full 10 minutes before they were supposed to be.  Next thing you know, someone’s video recording a paper fight on a cell phone and posting it to Youtube, two kids are fighting, and somehow, someone has a small, floofy dog on her desk, and he’s yapping furiously.  And a book is on fire.

It’s easy to cling to a carefully-scripted lesson in which every lead-in, every “anticipatory set,” every activity, conversation, assessment, and conclusion is scripted and laid out according to an airtight plan.  That kind of planning makes teachers feel secure.  Any administrator who walks in will see a teacher in complete control.  Kids’ heads will be attentively bowed, obediently doing what the teacher tells them.  The kids will know that Mr. Johnson “means business” and “don’t play.”   And Mr. Johnson will understandably assume that he did a good job.

Except that the only thing the kids in this room are learning is to do exactly  what Mr. Johnson tells them.  As long as there’s a Mr. Johnson, they’ll be fine.  They’ll probably hate it, they won’t know why they’re doing it, they won’t be passionate about it, but by God, they’ll know how to follow orders.  But that’s likely to be it.  No thinking, no imagining, no dreaming, no aspiring, no creating.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to have an orderly classroom.  No one’s going to learn  if there’s chaos.  But sacrificing a little control doesn’t always lead to riot.

What if Mr. Johnson instead challenged kids with a perplexing question, then asked them to figure out a way to solve the question, using him, the internet, and each other as resources?  He could circulate around the room, posting hints, answering questions, leading a discussion, and validating effort.  The students would talk, pull out their phones, look things up on Google, call down to the teachers’ workroom, text their uncle who “does this for a living,” and, most importantly, figure out ways to solve the problem Mr. Johnson posted– solve it in their own way and via their own path.

But I get it– it won’t go this perfectly.  Someone will stumble onto a site that sells Viagra and everyone will laugh, another teacher will scold them for having their phone out in class, a parent will complain that school wasn’t like this when he or she was a kid.  But if you’re not afraid to let it be messy, it will still be better than the alternative– learning to do exactly what Mr. Johnson says to do, never mind the reasons, or the passion, or the deep knowledge, or the understanding.

As a teacher, I try not to let perfect get in the way of good.  Nothing is perfect, as everyone knows.  Teachers, especially, know this.  It’s when we can’t see past the illusion of the perfect lesson, the perfect outcome, the perfect student, that we miss the potential for the great and abundant good that greets us every time we walk into our classroom.


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There are moments as a teacher when I feel… a little incompetent.   You wouldn’t know it from looking at my class, I don’t think.  The kids sit there, they do what I ask, they raise their hands, they ask questions, they do well on tests.  But if you looked in my head, you’d see one nagging little thought that I can’t seem to answer like I want to:

Why don’t any of them really care about this?

They care, a little, because I want them to and they like me for the most part, or want a good grade, or want to avoid the hassle of doing poorly in class, or because they’ve been programmed to respond to a teacher.  But hardly any of them really care, and the ones that do, a lot of times, I don’t think it was because of me.

Dan Meyer’s video on perplexity in education might be part of the solution to that nagging question.

In it, Dan tells us to “perplex” our students, or, as I take it, present situations to them where they have to wrestle with possible answers, consider different approaches, or maybe even figure out the question to begin with.  And it doesn’t have to be something you already know; maybe the best way to perplex your students is to perplex yourself.  That’s authentic modeling of thinking– witness the teacher grappling with the issues with which his or her students are asked to grapple.  And maybe that’s why a lot of students don’t really care– they’re not stimulated enough.  It’s not about rigor, really– plenty of textbook chapters are rigorous.  It’s about giving students a reason to engage in rigorous learning, because doing that, after all, is hard– it’s rigorous.

But you don’t need to search for complex, nuanced, existential, space-age questions in order to engage your students beyond the limits of your average textbook or worksheet.  Really, I think that all they need is what amounts to a little field research or a treasure hunt for teachable moments.  What’s more engaging for a quick grammar review– exercises numbered 1-10 or this picture along with the question, “What’s wrong here?”

We could get into a lot with this picture:  Should they have spelled out “12?”  Why the apostrophe?  Is it less or fewer?  What was he doing in Wal-Mart in the first place?

At any rate, this is about meeting students where they live– that is, in the world.  There’s so much in traditional school that exists in some crazy, esoteric vacuum that you never set foot in again after you throw your mortarboard into the air over the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.”  Unless you become a teacher, of course.  Polynomials?  A thesis sentence?  The Lend-Lease Act?  These things all describe ideas, things, or concepts that are part of the real, actual, non-school world.  So why does so much of our teaching ignore that world?

Meyer advises us all to use mobile technology to capture teachable, “perplexing” moments in the real world.  I’ve seen the power of this– the picture above generated not only some quick lessons about grammar but a great discussion over why some people don’t like Wal-Mart, what messages are implicit in store advertising, and how “big box” stores rely on globalization.  I could easily have gotten into geography (Where are the Wal-Marts around here?), math (What seems to be their average distance from each other?) and art (Is something as simple as a bouncing smiley face effective as a logo?)  And that’s before students could write– using proper apostrophes and less-vs.-fewer rules, of course– about something generated from any of the above discussions.

Teachers who bring the real world to their students and invite it into their classrooms won’t have to answer the question, “What does this have to do with our lives?”  The answer will be obvious, because the lesson will be situated in the real world.  And the reality of the empowerment of learning will emerge.  Try it, and let me know how and what you kinds of tools you use to engage in what I call “fieldwork hunts for teachable moments.” I hope you see a difference in 12 classes or less fewer.

Check out Dan Meyer here, on TED, as well.

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