Monday, August 5, 2013

Ramblings about Blueberries and Starfish

This video has made it's rounds and it seems that there are people who love it and there are people who hate it, pick it apart, and criticize it. For me it speaks to the difference between working with people and working with products. The process of providing an education to a child is complex while the process of making ice cream might be either simple or complicated.  I don't know which one as I don't know enough about ice cream making but either way, an assembly line is set up with balances and checks and at the end out comes a consistent uniform finished product that gets shipped off for consumption. 
In education, we cannot reduce our students to the raw materials that we send along an assembly line with the goal of having a uniform product in the end.  We can't assume that the "raw materials" that come to us at the beginning are going to come having met some pre-determined man-made quality standard. It's not about quality control, raw materials, assembly lines, products or consumers.  We are more than assembly line workers when we see every child that walks through the door not as a high or low-quality raw material but as a child who we are going to have to meet where ever they happen to be on their personalized learning journey.    
Sadly, some of the structures that exist in education make it difficult not to fall back on running our schools like assembly line businesses. Within those structures, it can be hard not to be lured by the idea of creating a product rather than engaging in a process. Conformity seems to offers us the promise of simplicity... of being able to reduce the complexity of educating a child to a one-size-fits-all assembly line process. We are supposed to have them meet curriculum goals based solely on the year that they were born and testing, or quality control, is done to ensure that happens. Sadly, all too often our  "quality control" mechanisms have then been used to remove the students who are not meeting standards and are disrupting the way that the assembly line is supposed to work.  Rather than questioning or rethinking the assembly line process, we seem to have gotten stuck in creating different assembly lines for different "raw products" (aka special and general education, fully streamed courses, or setting inflexible criteria in general). 

The structures that exist around us push us towards concentrating on the end product that we are to produce rather then engaging in a more adhocratic process that would foster a growth mindset.  How do we frame education?  What do we value at the end of it?  How do we ensure that what we value fits in to our structures?  How can we re-design in a way that breaks down the barriers to learning that currently exist for some students?  Are we truly "taking them all" in the system as it stands now?  Can we do more to blur to the lines between "special education" and "general education" students and teachers?  Are there advantages to doing this? 
Roland Barth (1991) wrote "Are teachers and administrators willing to accept the fact that they are part of the problem? God didn't create self-contained classrooms, 50 minute periods and subjects taught in isolation. We did because we find working alone safer and preferable to working together." 
Can we actually "take them all"?  Can we actually "teach them all"?  Is that goal too idealistic?  Should we just be okay with "throwing one starfish back in to the ocean"? 

What if it isn't about us coming to the rescue or "saving" them - picking up the starfish and just throwing it back in to the water?  Isn't the tide that washed up the starfish in the first place still there?  What have we done to make sure it won't get washed up again?  What if it's about creating the environment, providing the appropriate supports and facilitating learning of the skills, strategies and competencies that will allow them to grow, learn and thrive in what should be their natural environment? What if our job is more about swimming along the edge of the beach, watching for those students who are getting washed up by the tide and then supporting them either to become more powerful than the tide or to be able to use tools that will allow them to be more powerful than the tide so they can get back out in to the ocean? 

Is our system set up to wash some students up on the beach? Is the beach really such a bad place to be?  It's sunny and warm and the ocean is big and harsh.  What about tide pools?  Is it okay to decide that students should just exist in tide pools rather than the ocean? Perhaps nature gives us the answer to that as there are very few organisms that can actually live and thrive in the limiting environment of a tide pool. There isn't much room to swim or many places to explore.

But... are we getting stuck in assembly line, one-size-fits-all thinking even in wondering about the ocean, beach and tide pools?  Rather than grouping and segregating, how do we recognize the individuality of each?  How do we facilitate and respond to a whole learning ecosystem?


Is it possible that it is actually the fact that we could even imagine comparing education to an assembly line business that has created a system that is disabling to some students?  Have we actually created some "disabilities" for the purpose of continuing to perpetuate our education system? 

If it seems in the middle of these questions that I have no hope, that is not the case at all.  I think the fact that we can ask these questions speaks to the fact that we are moving there.  There are a lot of great things happening in education and it is a time ripe to ensure that we are thinking about ALL students as we continue to move forward.  We are more than assembly line workers when we believe it can be done... even if we don't yet know how... and then we approach it from starting looking to break down barriers from a standpoint of ability, possibility and opportunity rather than from a standpoint of deficit and disability. 

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