Thursday, February 27, 2014

It's About Priorities... Not Time

In my last blog post I quickly referenced Prometheus, the Titan that gave man fire (Knowledge). The myth explains that Prometheus stole the fire from the gods because he felt bad for man; who had to survive the harsh winters without food, shelter, or warmth.  This gift allowed man to innovate and evolve, but it wasn't without consequence.  In order to punish Prometheus, Zeus chained him to a mountain where everyday a giant bird would eat his liver, only to have it grow back again until the end of time. This is kind of gruesome. During the time he was chained to the mountain, Prometheus (whose name means FORESIGHT) was continuously planning his escape.  He was incapable of the reflexion needed to grasp the severity of his deed.

I find myself thinking of the Myth of Prometheus a lot lately when visiting our District's schools.  When I exchange with teachers at different grade levels I find they are all well intended.  I have yet to meet a teachers whose goal is to be hated by his students, or to make them miserable.  Whenever new initiatives are presented to these teachers, it is never a question of will that stops them from trying out new pedagogical models or integrating technology in their teaching. It is rather a question of time.  There is never enough time. I find that we as teachers have modeled ourselves after Prometheus for too long.  As teachers we value foresight, proper planning, and predictable outcomes. We need to realize that effective pedogogy isn't about time, it's about priorities.

With the exponential growth of information and emerging technologies, I feel that the modern day teacher could learn a lot from Epimethius; Prometheus' twin brother. Where Prometheus is organized Epimethius is spontaneous.  Where Prometheus plans Epimethius reflects. Where Prometheus translates into FORESIGHT, Epimethius translates into AFTERTHOUGHT. As teachers we are continuously planning for the next unit, the next quiz, or the next report card. We seldom take the time to truly reflect on what we and our students have done, and how this might effect learning outcomes.  Leo Strauss describes Epimethius as:

"the being in whom thought follows production, represents nature in the sense of materialism, according to which thought comes later than thoughtless bodies and their thoughtless motions."

 If we transfer this to the teachers' context, we start to see how important it is to prototype our class.  Teaching should not remain stagnant for very long. We should develop a positive relationship with failure in order to continuously improve.  In other words, as Molly Shroeder (@followmolly) puts it :

 "We need to embrace Beta Mode".  

I remember an Ancient History teacher tell me once that there is no reason for him to adapt his teaching since "History hasn't changed... it's still the same as it was last year."  I feel that this is simply a result of this teacher not prioritising the learning experience for his students, but rather feeling the pressure of covering a curriculum that is probably too loaded and focuses on content rather than competencies.

Please don't think that I am putting the blame on teachers.  Again, I have yet to meet a teacher who is not well intended.  I think that Districts and administrators should recognise the importance of reflection, and allow teachers the time to reflect on their craft and how they might want to improve it.  I don't feel that most PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) achieve this, since students' results are at the centre of most of these discussions.  Teachers need to start asking themselves what these results actually mean, and whether or not students are developing the skills and competencies they will need to face the world of tomorrow.  Competencies such as critical thinking for authentic problem solving, collaboration, creativity, and empathy are not competencies that are measured by standardised tests used to measure student learning and overall pedagogical improvement.  I believe Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) said it best (although a bit crude) when he tweeted:

We need to trust the people who are in the classrooms everyday and empower them so that they can offer the most authentic learning experiences to our students.  We need to minimize administrative process and procedure in order to allow our teachers time for professional reflection and growth.  This is the only way that we can attack the mindset of these teachers in order to get buy in and achieve a shift in pedagogical culture.

I hope that people don't think that I am saying that teachers should fly by the seat of their pants and forget all aspects of planning.  After all, Epimethius was responsible for opening Pandora's box... not his greatest victory.  However, one might say that a teacher's job is also to open Pandora's box.  Everyday, teachers seek to inspire and instill curiosity in their students.  What better way to do this than to be a little curious ourselves; to give in to a bit of spontaneity, and allow our inner Epimethius to capitalize on a learning opportunity when we see it... even if it doesn't fit into our careful planning and curriculum. 

I realize that some mistakes or failures, such as the opening of Pandora's box might have graver consequences than others.  Nevertheless, it is these 'mistakes' that lead to new possibilities.  Had Epimethius never met Pandora, they never would have had their daughter Pyrrha who eventually survives the great Deluge and be charged with repopulating the earth with modern man.  In other words, our greatest accomplishments sometimes are the result of our greatest failures.

I feel as though teachers should set aside their curriculum for a bit and turn their attention inwards.  Ask themselves if they have a good relationship with failure; if they feel their students do.  I feel as though the common answer from teachers would be that they love the idea but simply don't have the time. But this isn't a question of time; it's about priorities.

My priority is making sure my teaching has a transformative effect on my students - you can't do that by sticking to curriculum.