30 June 2011

The art of seeing - afterthought - opening eyes

 part one      part two       part three  

I have a suspicion that, after about 30 days of any school year, most of your students could get from the bus, or the school's property line, to their seats in the morning blindfolded.

In San Francisco, abstract art gets close scrutiny
"When it comes to sleep," says Dr. Patrick Wolcott, the medical director of the Sleep Center of Southern California, "our bodies crave routine and repetition."1 Which seems both absolutely true and thus, an odd way for us to begin our children's educational days.

In a conversation from ISTE11 with @ChristianLong @BudtheTeacher and @NinaMehta I tried to sum up what we were saying about students entering a classroom in the morning: "If you're kids don't have choice of where to sit and what to sit on (or not) every day you are missing a critical educational moment in decision-making and consciousness."

Or, as I said at the TIE Colorado Leadership Event, "maybe your students should enter your school or room in a different way every day." The idea being to break routines, to stop mindless repetition, and to get the brain wondering, investigating, thinking...

Schools tend to train the opposite: Enough school, and the world becomes an absolute pattern. When the school leaders of Colorado gathered that Thursday morning, their training - in this case their "conference training," kicked right in. They grabbed coffee, sat down, worked on their own stuff, and waited for someone to give them information at the appointed time. These are great people, passionate educators, really smart people, but years of training in the captivity of schools and academic conferences have forced training upon them. Not one picked up any of the stories or pictures we had scattered on the tables - we had not, you see, created obvious packets at each place which indicated "this should be read" - and when four video screens popped to life across a sixty foot wall no one got up, and few even looked up. The "appointed time" had not yet come, and no introduction had yet been offered.

"Don't worry," a superintendent once told me when I complained about an 11-period day for fifth graders, "It just takes 60 days to form a habit." (I responded, "Great, we can have them all smoking by Thanksgiving," but, you know me...)

Do we really want to form these habits? Yes, habit makes management easier. People who follow routines are already deeply compliant, and so, perhaps fully ready to learn the checklist for the test, fully ready to not "waste time" with complex questions, even ready to give up their nights to the lectures of Salman Khan.

Harvard, where America's elite try to make the rules for all the rest of us, thinks routines are good for school ("Classrooms have routines that serve to manage student behavior and interactions, to organizing the work of learning, and to establish rules for communication and discourse. Classrooms also have routines that structure the way students go about the process of learning. These learning routines can be simple structures, such as reading from a text and answering the questions at the end of the chapter, or they may be designed to promote students' thinking, such as asking students what they know, what they want to know, and what they have learned as part of a unit of study."), but remember, Harvard's mission from its founding in 1636 to today, has been reproduction of the American social system as it exists.2

For most of our students - who'd get arrested if they walked the hallowed streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts without sufficient justification3 - the idea of preserving our system intact is a problem. The system will keep them poor, or at least struggling, forever. If they are to re-create the system, re-invent it, they must learn the art of seeing, they must gain the kind of vision skills which only come from needing to keep one's eyes open.

When most students enter a school, the institutional mission is - very clearly - safety and efficiency. Our goal is to get kids to their places without injury, and on time. And that mission is incredibly clear to our students, who see that mission as the only thing the adults think is important. But what if our mission was different? What if - not throwing safety out the window, but - our mission was to get kids thinking, wondering, exploring, and challenging.

Do anything to break visual and auditory routine as kids move through your school.
Even airports (hells on earth that they are) can do this. Example: O'Hare's United Terminal tunnel
When I worked at Grand Valley State University in Academic Computing, our "big boss," the Vice-Provost, bought one of those banner signs on stands you see at conferences. It said "Grand Valley" or something and he put it outside the Academic Computing "office maze" which sat one one side of an enormous student computer lab. After two days there I began to move it each morning, to one spot or another around the lab. About two months later I forgot to move it one morning.

By 10 am the Vice Provost was sitting on the couch in my cubicle.4 "Ira," he said, "you didn't move the sign today. You know, looking for the sign has become an important part of my morning. I have to look over the whole lab." He paused. "Go move the sign!" So I did.

Uncertainty, just a tiny absurd bit of uncertainty, had turned a place he never looked at before into a place he carefully observed every morning. And he knew that this made him a better administrator.

messing with the idea of "the ground" - ArtPrize 2010 Grand Rapids, MI
This is true for all of us. Uncertainty requires vision, and not just "looking," but real vision. Uncertainty forces us to depend on our very human observation skills - "what's different?" "is it an OK difference or a dangerous difference?" "should I explore further?" - which get our brains spinning.

And if this - if getting a child's brain into investigative mode - makes him 6 minutes late for something, unless it is emergency heart surgery, well, that's no cost at all.

So rethink your school's, your classes,' "morning routines." Or all your routines. Routines numb the brain. They allow our students to move through the day as if blindfolded.

That can't be what education should be about, can it?

- Ira Socol

1- Costco Connection (hows that for an academic journal) July 2011, p. 35
2- I'll note that Harvard is quite brilliant at controlling its visible reputation, the only criticism of the university allowed to stick around on Wikipedia are accusations that it is "too liberal"
3- Hell, Cambridge will attack their own if they even look like outsiders.
4- having a couch in my cubicle caused the director of Academic Computing to nickname me "Sgt Bilko" - well, maybe that wasn't the only reason


Max said...

If someone complained to me that I had disrupted their routine of uncertainty, I'd just grin impishly at them.

Just sayin'... make him think you left the sign there two days in a row to keep him on his toes!

Anonymous said...

As someone with a neurological need for structure, I wouldn't have been able to make it through school if someone shuffled everything around arbitrarily on me every day.

However, I also think that some kind of injection of delight or novelty into the school day for everyone would have changed the outlook of fellow students and faculty, which might have been a net positive for me.

The thing is, it has to be a complete structural change that alters the nature of school, not simply moving signs around or putting sculptures in the courtyard. Wackiness doesn't count, tho it would probably help.

Also, that tunnel in O'Hare reminds me of Leo Villareal's 'Multiverse'


Kathy (Kathleen) Kosobud said...

Moving the sign to make a "non-routine" creates a conundrum: it is its own routine. Which suggests that predictable routines do not have to be boring, but merely anticipations of things to look for. I would argue that effective teachers do just that--create opportunities for wondering, investigating, and thinking...

Changing objects on tables in a classroom, changing the pictures on the wall, playing music, modifying the lighting, etc. are all ways of piquing curiosity. I have seen it done well in Montessori classrooms, but that does not mean that it only happens there. And, ironically, there are many embedded routines in Montessori classrooms, that make things go more smoothly, without being mind-numbingly boring.

I agree that a stimulating learning environment is important, but I'm not sure that it excludes routine.


irasocol said...


Yes. And I think that when we create complexity and "chaos" we also need to create wormholes - safe passages through the maze - for those needing that. There is never a "one" solution in a school.

And yes, the complexity and chaos needs to be something deeply rooted, not superficial. I suppose we accepted a rather chaotic environment in most ways at GVSU - I should have discussed that.


Of course there can be "routines to uncertainty," perhaps there even need to be. But within that, there always has to be a willingness to/acceptance of, shattering even those routines. Beware the fully scripted chaos. Kids will know it isn't actually freedom.

- Ira Socol

ggomybaby said...

I agree that a stimulating learning environment is important, but I'm not sure that it excludes routine.