The controlling metaphor, the engine of all narratives about teaching and learning, for the duration of my career has been one of transaction. Teachers deliver. Learners receive. Assessment has always been some measure of how much was retained. The language of this metaphor is so ubiquitous as to be invisible – do fish know what water is? This metaphor shapes agendas of faculty and department meetings, gives direction to district vision statements, and influences policies.
Yes and, the questions available to a reflective teacher within this metaphor limit the potential of reflection for professional growth: What do we want students to learn? How will we know if they have? What will we do if/when they don’t? These questions are dependent on the metaphor of delivery and reception, and limit ways of knowing and sources of knowledge.
If the COVID-19 crisis has a silver lining, it is that we have the opportunity to see and challenge this narrative. One measure of commitment to our beliefs about teaching and learning is to notice what we hang on to and build on, and what gets jettisoned in times of crisis. Arguably, those things that are superfluous or that we don’t really hold to be true will go first. The word essential has been thrown around a lot the last month – who and what is essential? Rio Del Sol’s version of this question, asked long before COVID arrived on the scene, is “Whose knowledge counts?”
A tangential question, one particularly relevant now because it allows us to discover new metaphor is “How is knowledge created?” I use that verb created very intentionally because it challenges the traditional narrative of teaching and learning. Acting within the existing metaphor of transaction, we would certainly use the word acquired instead of created. Notice how the mental models, the metaphors we use to make sense of teaching and learning, change with the change of that verb. If knowledge is merely a corpus of stuff to be acquired, then education becomes a science of delivery and reception. We unpack standards, make lists of objectives and criteria. Teachers cover material. Assessment becomes a science of measuring how much is retained – reducing that value to a number to ease making comparisons and judgments, to inform decisions about re-teaching. Grades, the sole currency.
I worried, when this crisis first started to evolve, the cultural landscape that has scorned educators would be emboldened, would see this as proof that teachers are barely a cog. If we just move the status-quo to digital spaces – Kahn videos, packets of worksheets turned to PDFs, then teachers are interchangeable, expendable, not essential.
If, however, knowledge is created, those old metaphors of transaction don’t hold up, and the arguments crumble under their own weight. If knowledge is created and curated, culturally linked, then we have access to better and more important questions than: What are we learning? How will we know if we learned it? And what is next?
As I have moved my pedagogical thinking to digital spaces, I’ve aimed first to connect, to ask how are you and your family doing – do you need anything. Relationships, first and always.
Two of the more exciting projects to emerge at Del Sol – learning experiences that challenge the old metaphor are The DNA Seed Project, and River Stories. Inspired by NPRs podcast challenge, we launched River Stories the week before schools closed. River Stories, among other things, is an intentional attempt to answer the question “Whose knowledge counts?”. Each episode explores stories within four large thematic clusters: building and maintaining relationships between adults and students, building and maintaining school/community relationships, learning across disciplines – passion projects, and current events and issues. The stories are student created and produced.
The DNA seed project casts learners as scientists, explorers of the word. This may be the most profound change possible in changing our metaphor for teaching and learning. A transactional model rests on the assumption that learners are somehow flawed or incomplete – a deficit model. Worksheets, remediation, re-teaching, power-point presentations, and flipped videos make sense within this mental-model of learning and the learner.
Wielding DNA, learners interact with the world as scientists, mathematicians, writers, and thinkers. As such, learners’ lived experience – their knowledge – is honored and leveraged for future and new learning. The questions they ask matter more than the answers they give.
Several years ago, after a post-observation conference with my assistant principal, I made a bold claim. I told him that I had figured it out, all of it. I knew the change that had to happen in education and that this change would change everything. All that we had talked about during my meeting – assessment (always a perplexing emphasis), student engagement, achievement gap, grades, cell phones, tardies, smoking (now vaping) in the john, all of it could be improved with this shift in point of view and language.
He looked dubious. Our conversation, though, had shifted to the philosophical – had become a professional conversation rather than one of conjuring evidence to justify some checked box. I felt maybe finally I had met someone who could hear what I was about to say (and I was hardly the first one to say it).
“Well lay it on me.”
“We have to shift from thinking of teaching as delivery, and learning as reception. It’s not a transaction.” I knew this particular principal to be a card player, had lost more than my lunch money in poker games in his basement summer nights. After I revealed to him this hypothesis, I couldn’t tell if he held a pair of bullets, a flush, or what? Nothing. No reaction. So I pushed on, all in, confident in what I said.
“Oh I know. Think about our language, the metaphors we use to conceive of teaching and learning. We cover material, and check to see if they got it. We have pacing guides and curriculum maps. We re-teach, we name standards and objectives, success criteria. It’s what water is to fish, so a part of our narrative that we don’t even see it. But does that narrative, do those metaphors of making deposits, ‘giving them something,’ align with what we know about teaching and learning? What if learning were something more active, generative?”
He didn’t see it. And others with whom I’ve discussed this idea reacted in a very similar way – as if I had just landed from another planet.
In many very real ways, we are on a new planet and new normals are emerging daily. My mom texted the other day: “I got to Walmart just before they opened. I was about 15th in line. Few weren’t wearing masks. It is so surreal. I fought back tears.”
My friend Andy Weaver and I spoke on the phone recently. We share a passion for Ray Bradbury and dystopic fiction. We are living it, he said. We wondered together what sort of collective PTSD society must now face. He sent some photos documenting this remarkable time.
We are now on that other planet. And rather than colonize it with narratives of a world that no longer exists, we have the opportunity, and responsibility to create something new – to guide and support the kids in our schools to write their own stories. Perhaps this new planet could be something more humane and mature than the one we left.