Killing the Buzz

Years ago when doing some strategic planning with a public school district I remember wrapping up our final session with a sense of accomplishment.  We’d crafted a mission and vision, strategic objectives, measures, and activities to support our objectives. We were exhausted, but had a nice blueprint.

Then to my utter bewilderment, the director of finance said, “Glad that’s over. Put it on the shelf with the others and let’s get back to work.” To a chorus of ‘amens’ and affirming head nods, they shuffled back to their offices.

I was stunned. What had just happened? Was six weeks of work for naught? No, they said, these planning sessions were good.  But no matter the new knowledge and understanding, “the system” wouldn’t change.

They did what they were asked to do, they explained, but in the end there were State rules, and they preferred their routines, procedures, and comfortable old habits anyway.

This was nearly fifteen years ago, but I feel it like it was yesterday. This is, in part, because I see the same mentality in our students as I visit different FYS classes.

I see an acceptance of facile thinking despite having read many of the essays and engaged in multiple writing projects.

Too many are still reading and writing because they are told to read and write. They discuss because they know it’s the path to an A.  But the readings and discussions are in one box, the papers in another, and the issue maps appear divorced from both.

They’ll not let this “learning” interfere with what it takes to get an A.  After all, the school has its rules.

When I watch students wrestle with a problem by constructing an issue map and they happily produce something that looks like a grade school product devoid of any criticality, let alone appreciation for the arts, humanities, social or natural sciences, I know I am being played (again).

If after all the readings, papers, and discussions a seminar can construct an issue map with unexplored assumptions, political sound bites, or feel good bromides, we’ve allowed them to substitute the appearance of learning for any meaningful change.

My role in the classroom maybe to enable student-centeredness and autonomy (so they can unlearn this school game) but never at the expense of rigor.

It may kill the energy in a room, but I ask questions that are designed to have them go back to a past reading. I ask questions that force them to confront other perspectives and to renew their questioning.  I solicit contrary viewpoints and forestall early consensus.

Page counts alone don’t equal rigor. Neither do lively discussions and crowded whiteboards.  Unless.  Unless you are asking the questions that lead students to self-discover the connections that make it all meaningful.

Making sure that they influence each other toward deeper understanding and changed habits is what I expect.

And it’s what I measure when assessing performance.


1 Comment

  1. Good post, Thomas, we probably cannot expect dramatic changes in students’ mentality after a few weeks. However, we’ll be able to stimulate their independent and analytical thinking, at least some of them, and this will be an achievement!


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