A teacher faces questions like these in the classroom:
What body of information do I need to convey to my students in a deep and integrated manner that best fits their pedagogical requirements and will most help them take their place as fully-actualized adults in the world?
What instructional techniques can best be used with this particular set of content-based objectives that also blend with and respect the cultural and personal backgrounds of my students while maintaining a whole child approach that helps achieve my global objectives?
But these questions are also part of the classroom world:
What’s the most efficient way to get these test papers passed back?
Do I have enough copies of this worksheet?
Can I get Chris to stop jabbing Pat with a pencil?
You can’t have one without the other. Focusing on the broad and deep concerns of education is like loving someone deeply and fully and never doing anything about it but sitting in your room and writing angsty poems. A broad vision without an action plan gets nothing done, achieves nothing for the students. But focus too intently on the nuts and bolts and you end up with a technician who completes tasks efficiently, even though the tasks have no real useful purpose behind them. You need a vision of how to get through the next year, and a plan for how to get through the next forty minutes.
Educational amateurs and neophytes often suffer from this balance problem. Beginning teachers may enter the classroom with Big Dreams about Touching the Future and Shaping Young Minds, but with no idea of how to get twenty-five teenagers to keep watching while the teacher writes on the board (chalk, white or smart). I’ve also seen new teachers arrive with stacks of unit plans and worksheets, ready to deploy them while moving briskly through the textbook, but with no idea of why they’re doing any of it except that it’s their idea of what teachers do. Each creates their own problems– one leads to students who ask “What the heck are we doing?” while the other prompts students to ask “Why the heck are we doing this?” And the teacher has no answer, and the class sinks further and further into the weeds.
The educational amateurs who push the reformy agenda have similar issues.
On the one hand we have visionaries who offer broad vague ideas, like we will lift up teachers so that they will raise expectations of students, who will rise and succeed, emerging from school well-educated and primed to succeed while also closing the achievement gap. All of which is pretty, but completely avoids the question of how, exactly, this will work. You are face to face in a classroom with a student who doesn’t understand what the first paragraph of “Call of the Wild” says– exactly how will you Higher Expect him into understanding. And you’re doing it in a room with thirty other students, some of which haven’t eaten in twenty-four hours, and the walls in the room are crumbling, and you don’t have enough copies of the book, so you’re looking at a projection of it on the stained and peeling wall in a neighborhood historically riven by all the stress that comes with being on the wrong side of poverty and systemic racism. What exactly will you do in the next fifteen minutes? Visionaries don’t have an answer. They just want you to keep your eyes on those higher expectations and big dreams etc etc etc. and when anyone brings up the “How do we spend the next forty minutes” question, visionaries level the accusation that folks lack vision and keep making excuses.
On the other hand, we have the technicians. These reformsters are excited because technology answers all the questions about how to manage tests and practice and worksheets and all the record-keeping. They know exactly what you’re going to do for the next forty minutes– have students log on to their program and pull up the next module of materials that have been selected by the AI and answer questions as the software process those answers so that you can see the data crunched on the monitor on your desk. Technicians are so excited about the efficiency and elegance of this system that they forget to ask if any of it actually is a good way to serve the educational needs of the students. They are so excited about the pipeline they’ve built that they never stop to consider that the solid, unyielding shape of that pipeline completely dictates what can pass through that pipeline, allowing curricular and pedagogical decisions to simply happen as a side-effect of the technical delivery system.
Visionaries build gorgeous golden imaginary productions without any means of transporting them into the world. Technicians build efficient systems for delivering things that don’t do anyone any good.
Teaming them up is not enough. They will fight. They will argue, and they will ultimately produce something that includes the worst of both worlds.
No, an actual teacher has to have both a vision and an understanding of how to make it real. A teacher must always balance a broad, deep view, and a detailed, granular one. A teacher must see forests and trees, as well as leaves and bark and full-scale ecosystems. When we tell reformsters that they should talk to actual classroom teachers, it’s invariably a reaction to their lack of a full scale of sight, their childlike belief that if you just concentrate really hard on the forest, the trees will take care of themselves– or vice versa.
Teaching is by no means the only profession where this sort of many-scales issue exists. In most professions, part of the training and the wisdom of experience is based on learning to see forests and trees and how they fit together. But in every other profession, it is widely understood that it takes a professional to see All That. It is in teaching that powerful amateurs continue to believe that since they once camped in a forest or they have this one tree they know really well, that makes them knowledgeable to act like a professional educator (and in some cases, qualified to wave a giant chainsaw around with abandon).
Like any metaphor, this one this limitations, and not everyone fits inside. But we’ll wait for another day to discuss the people who want to clear cut the forest and replace the trees with condos.