The Danger of Extremes


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by evoo73

Joe Bower is a good friend of mine and someone that I really look up to in the field of education. Although we don’t always agree with each other, I know that we both respect each other’s point of views.  I am an avid reader of his blog (you should be too) and was particularly interested in his latest post titled, “Who should control teachers’ professional learning?

Although there is somewhat of a political nature that is involved in his post, two statements that Joe made really stick out to me:

  • I summarize my worse learning experiences as top-down, externally mandated, out-of-context, irrelevant to me and little to no purpose events that I am expected to play a passive role. I own my learning. Who owns yours?
  • Who owns a teacher’s professional development? And under what circumstances would the answer to the above question ever be someone other than the teacher? To avoid cultures of compliance, teachers need autonomy.

So do I disagree with Joe on what he has said and questioned here?  Yes AND no.

As a teacher, I would agree with the statement made about some of his worst learning experiences being top down.  As an administrator, I also see the need of having a vision and purpose that a team works together.  My job is to work with my staff to develop some school objectives, not simply dictate them to staff.  I also believe that teachers should be able to further their own learning in many different areas.

Although we are often isolated in our classrooms as educators, teachers should not work in isolation.  They should be a part of a team that works together to build the best environments for students, and looks at kids as part of a school, not simply part of a classroom.  Many people refer to Dan Pink’s work in “Drive” regarding motivation, on the notion of autonomyyet they often leave out the element he writes about purpose.  

Sorry for using a sports analogy, but Michael Jordan was the best player in the NBA yet won no championships until Phil Jackson took over the team (6 championships with the Bulls, and 5 with the Lakers; the guy is pretty good).  As the coach, he had the team work towards a common goal, while each defining their role in serving the larger purpose.  Autonomy and purpose.  That is how individuals work together to serve a higher purpose.  Does his quote below have any relation to the work that we do in schools?

“Basketball is a sport that involves the subtle interweaving of players at full speed to the point where they are thinking and moving as one.” Phil Jackson

We talk about change a lot, and it starts with one person, yet there needs to be a team working together to make it sustainable.  Often a great teacher in a weak school either becomes a weak teacher or leaves.  The opposite is often true.  What are we aiming for?  A few great individual teachers in schools, or great schools with a culture of great teaching?

Now I am not saying that teachers do not need autonomy over their learning; they absolutely do (kids too right?).  I am just saying that it is not an “either/or” proposition.  We tend to watch the pendulum swing from one side to the other, often missing the ideal middle with a lot of our initiatives.

Group work serves some, where others excel working in isolation.  

Lecture isn’t bad; lecture all of the time is bad. Reflection time is essential.

Skills do not develop if you do not have the knowledge to build upon.

I won’t take away your pencil, if you don’t take away my computer.  Both work for the person that has chosen to use them. 

I guess my point is that shifting from extremes on either end is rarely beneficial.  I believe, as Sir Ken Robinson says, that education needs  transformation more than reformation, but does that mean we throw out everything that we have done?  If education is to be truly personalized, we need to find out what works for different people while also working together to find what our current strengths are and build upon them as well.

If we always stand on opposite sides, will we ever truly move forward?

 

13 thoughts on “The Danger of Extremes

  1. Elena Blume

    Agree. Opposite sides makes moving towards common goals such as truly well educated, well rounded children (or adults for that matter) extremely difficult.

    Middle ground can be high ground. On the other hand I love the idea of a fluctuating, flexible line movement. (If you envision this for a moment as a number line for instance). Fluctuation and flexibility along the line versus opposite stances upon a line increases agility and addresses necessities as they become apparent.

    In fact, “apparent” is a key word in that awareness is so critical. One could argue that awareness is vital to any organization. We only achieve true awareness through listening. Listening is done not through simply having an open door. It is done via the senses.. all of them.

    …and also, how could one address such a line without listening first? How would one even know where to approach the line?

    I love to read your writing, George Couros. You make people *THINK*.

  2. Iram

    Thank you! I read Bower’s post this morning and Calgary Board of Education letter which spawned the post. Both didn’t settle right with me, but I could’t coherantly figure out why. Well, they both represtented extremes and it’s not that simple.

    We can not sit back and allow weak educators and weak schools hide behind the veil of professional autonomy, but at the same time professional autonomy is often what drives innovation and good teaching. I also agree that we need professional autonomy but with purpose. What’s best for our students’ learning is key, but I guess people are going to differ on their beliefs of what’s best…

  3. Dean Shareski (@shareski)

    I don’t know if this is so much about extremes as it is about tone. The tone of the CBE is along the lines of “we don’t trust teachers enough to direct their own learning”. While I know they would say that isn’t their intent, it’s what the tone of their response was conveyed to many teachers. I’m sure that’s how it was received.

    I’d also suggest that when we advocate for teacher autonomy it comes across as “no one can tell me what I need to learn”. Again, not the intent but often that’s how administration often interprets it.

    Neither party actually believes in these extremes, or at least only a small percentage. Statements get tossed around because their is a lack of trust and relationships on both sides to achieve understanding. I’m sure they aren’t as far apart as it appears.

    1. George Post author

      But appearances are important right? Often we take the exact opposite stance because one takes a threatening side. I agree with you that most are closer than it appears, but it is important we do not polarize one another.

  4. Cherra-Lynne Olthof

    We’ve been working this year with a book called “5 Dysfunctions of a Team” (Don’t let the title throw you, it’s a good book.) While it’s based around corporations and how they function, much of what it proposes can be brought down the school level, particularly when it talks about having a common goal and deciding together how to get there. Leadership steps in when decisions don’t appear to be forthcoming from the group.

    I think where some people get their back up is when they are told what to do without any clear purpose or explanation. I’ve worked under administrators who have registered me for conferences before I’ve even been told about them and I’ve worked under administration that let me choose everything yet have failed to provide choices or options. Neither system worked for me.

    I find people throw the word “autonomy” around when they are constantly being “voluntold” to do things. My school has a clear vision of our goals this year. Administration has presented us with some valuable PD options related to these goals and then said, “Who would be interested in attending?” I like this system. It works for me. I get to maintain my professional PD autonomy while at the same time being focused in the direction our school is heading.

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  6. Chris Wejr

    I cannot recall who said it (Blase maybe?) but they differentiate autonomy TO from autonomy FROM. We need the autonomy to professionally learn in a way that is meaningful to us… but we need to be careful that we do not use autonomy to move away FROM our team/organization purpose/vison (with the assumption that this has been created from within).

    Freedom can be powerful but we must always consider our direction and purpose. Where are we going and how will we use this autonomy to get use there?

    Thanks for continuing this important conversation, buddy.

  7. Allbrighterfuture

    The country I left behind in which they changed every great mankind or great thinker into mediocre cookie-maker. Now, the country I am adopting seems to chasing that shadow in which they want to make every great teacher or thinker into a dull-rule follower. Leading a way or catching it up is the question shall be answered soon.

    Best practice and research is nothing, but mediocre if used from top-down without exercising your brains.

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    New Posts (50) »
    Business » best practices » why best practices are mediocre
    Why Best Practices Are Mediocre
    posted by Anna Mar, Simplicable, February 28, 2013

    Many organizations approach business like trendy high school kids approach fashion — they copy each other.

    Best practices are created by firms (especially consulting firms), standards organizations and individuals. They are an attempt to describe methods that are optimal and widely deployed.

    Definition: Best Practices

    A best practice is a business method that’s widely recognized for producing outstanding results. In other words, it’s a way of taking what worked at one or more organizations and applying it across many organizations.

    Best practices are important. It makes sense for organizations to learn from each other.

    Like bees pollinating flowers, consultants play an important economic role in applying known efficiencies and innovations across many firms.

    Best practices also play an meaningful role as benchmarks. If you want to do something better than anyone else, first you need to understand how everyone else does it.

    As useful as best practices are, they are widely criticized for several reasons:

    1. Best Practices Are An Excuse To Stop Thinking
    Managers and leaders who don’t want to think for themselves cling to best practices like a shipwreck victim clings to a lifeboat.

    “Because it’s a best practice” is often the answer to “why are we doing this”?

    2. Best Practices Are Often Biased
    Many best practices are the creation of consultants who are under pressure to boost sales and sound smart. Best practices may reflect these motivations.

    Academic studies indicate that the homework required to validate that a practice is really “best” is rarely done1. If this is true then best practices are really just advice.

    There’s nothing wrong with accepting advice from a consultant. In fact, it’s a good idea. The problem comes when firms adopt best practices as doctrine without validating them.

    3. Best Practices Are Mediocre By Definition
    Implementing what is widely considered the best method is by definition mediocre.

    There’s nothing wrong with mediocrity. Especially in areas that aren’t your competitive focus.

    If you’re in the aerospace industry, it’s probably a good idea to follow standards and best practices in your accounting department.

    4. Best Practices Inhibit Innovation
    The infinite monkey theorem says that if you have infinite monkeys banging at typewriters that one of them will “almost surely” produce the complete works of William Shakespeare.

    The point here is that random paths can yield results. Best practices send everyone down the same path.

    In 1781 James Watt patented a steam engine that produced 10 horsepower. So in 1781, 10hp was the high benchmark for engines. Inventors of the day were focused on ambitious goals such as producing a 15hp or 20hp engine with similar methods (steam).

    A modern A380-800 jet has a total of 127,275 hp (4 engines). It wasn’t possible to invent a jet engine in 1781. However, the internal combustion engine (i.e. car engine) was certainly within reach.

    If you’re too focused on what the next guy is doing you’ll miss out on the big leaps forward.
    http://business.simplicable.com/business/new/why-best-practices-are-mediocre

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