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. 


  1. Hey Pal,

    There's a TON of really good stuff in here. I especially like the connections to Prometheus and his brother. That's a neat connection.

    My favorite line in the whole piece is this one:

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

    Now here's what I need from you -- and from all of the other folks working beyond the classroom: I need you to say this openly, loudly and often. I grow tired of hearing people talk about the need for teachers to take risks when we're constantly threatened with consequences. If you want risk taking behavior on the part of teachers, you need to create the conditions that makes risk taking possible. If teachers work in an environment where priority is placed on getting through the curriculum and success is defined as students who do well on standardized tests, we shouldn't be surprised when they are unwilling to experiment or look for opportunities to create transformative spaces for kids.

    I guess I've just sat around enough tables where people have bemoaned the lack of risk-taking and spontaneity on the part of teachers while simultaneously holding teachers accountable for nothing other than marching through a predetermined curriculum in time to take a standardized test each spring. I want decision-makers to put their money where their mouths are. You want risk taking? I'll give it to you when you're ready not to slap my hand if I don't meet the traditional metrics that have always been used to define success in schools.

    Does this make any sense?


  2. Hey Bill,

    I have been thinking a lot about your comment lately (Thanks for the push back btw)... I think we are in a very favourable position here in Canada as far as teachers go. Our salaries are respectful (speaking for Ontario) and standardized testing is limited to math and literacy in grades 3, 6, 9 and 10. Although these test are seen as important they are in no way seen as the be all end all of teacher performance evaluation. I totally agree with you that we need to question ourselves with regards to the skills these tests are actually measuring and how relevant they really are.

    I also believe that there needs to be some kind of accountability so that we do not fall under the spell of relativism. I am pushing for risk taking, but this risk should be based on criteria and research. It is such an exciting time to be involved in education, and maybe some day someone will be quoting people like yourself as I do Dewey and Montessori which I feel were about 100 years ahead of their time. Actually... I already quote you in that way...

    I truly believe we will someday look back on this era of education with disbelief. It really is Plato's cave in full effect. Shadows on the wall are being taken as absolutes. The problem we need to solve is how do we free the first prisoner? Plato doesn't explain that in his allegory... Oh... and how do we prevent the other prisoners from killing the philosopher when he returns to he cave?

    Anyway, it's easy to feel powerless... and stop blogging for 2 years...

    I guess for most teachers, all they need is a nudge to take the leap.