Monday, June 11, 2018

In Praise of Vagueness

This video (passed along by an administrator to staff) has some valid points, but on the whole, it represents a point of view that I think is hugely over-valued by some folks in education these day-- the view of education as a hyper-engineered all-on-the-same-page objective-dominated process. The speaker is Mike Mattos (who I sometimes find inspirational and sometimes-- well, sometimes he invokes Marzano's name like he's someone we should pay attention to) and the topic is getting "insanely specific about learning outcomes and learning objectives." I'm not a fan.

You probably know some of the hallmarks of this general approach--
  * every teacher in the department or grade level must agree on exactly the same outcomes and objectives and maybe even use the same assessments
  * post the objectives on the wall and drill the students in them
  * translate the objectives into clear, precise language so everyone is working toward exactly the same goal
  * decide what essential parts of the course every single student must master
  * set an agreed-upon measure of what proficient looks like

Before I launch into my counter-point, let me acknowledge two things:

I am opposed to national or state standards. I recognize that in this I am a bit out there, and I recognize that reasonable people can believe that state and federal standards would be a good idea. I just don't agree.

However, I am not an advocate of completely unstructured wandering classrooms. You should know why you're teaching what you're teaching; you should have goals and objectives in teaching that material. So, no-- I'm not lobbying for the Classroom of Do As You Please.

Also, feel free to insert "in my opinion" in front of all the following.

That said...

The kind of laser-sharp focus advocated by some educational folks gives me the creeps.

Sitting a department down to say, "We're going to figure out how we can all teach exactly the same things for exactly the same purposes aimed at exactly the same outcomes," diminishes the professionalism of the people in the room and does not serve the education of their students.

Laser-sharp focus on a single objective is a bad idea, a stultifying limiting idea. I say this not just as an education viewpoint, but a life viewpoint. People who focus on one single objective are the people who throw away gold because they were focused, laser-like, on digging up diamonds. Yes, some of them find diamond mines, but mostly they barrel through a lot of other human beings and riches of another kind because of their laser-like focus.

Laser-like focus also encourages you to view every deviation from the path as a crisis, a sign of impending disaster, instead of an opportunity. Laser-like focus fosters high-strung panic instead of sparkling improvisation.

To take that kind of focus into a classroom means to define a set single acceptable path to a single acceptable success, which means that some students in your classroom will inevitably be seen as disruptive non-compliant path-jumpers. If you are going to post the approved outcomes on your wall, you might as well also put up a poster of all the things that won't be valued or pursued in your classroom, and let your problem students know where they stand from day one.

It's no exaggeration to say that my life has not turned out anything like what I imagined at various points in my past, but it is also no exaggeration to say that, on the whole, if I had been free to design my life with laser-like precision, I would not have done as well as I have. The same is true for my life in the classroom. Students have surprised me; students will always surprise you. What you have to decide is whether you will treat those surprises as beautiful fire that illuminates and delights, or whether you will treat those surprises as disastrous fire that must be stomped out and extinguished.

I'm not an advocate for anarchy. To play a good jazz solo, it helps to have set known chords underneath. To teach a good unit, you need to know the territory well enough to know where the best views are for most people.

But for me, the prospect of a journey in which every step, every stop, every move is predetermined with laser-like precision is a boring, dull, soul-sucking prospect. Yes, I will set out with a direction and a purpose, but those are always subject to revision and they are always kind of, well, vague. More pudding-shaped than laser-like. And if during my career, you had dragged me into a meeting in which we were directed to develop a unified, all-on-the-same page laser-like focused set of outcomes and objectives, I would have been a pain in the ass every step of the way, and when it was done, I would have put up the poster on the inside of the cupboard door and the very first time something interesting came up in class that was not on the outcomes list, I would never have said, "Sorry, but it's Tuesday and we have to focus on reviewing the objectives for tomorrows common formative assessment."

Yes, different teachers may teach different things. So what? Different students will learn different things, care about different things, grow up to become different types of people in different types of jobs. I'm not saying dump reading lessons for macramé projects. I'm just saying that vagueness is not so bad. In fact, if you study the shapes of chaos and chaos theory, you find that vagueness is kind of beautiful.

A laser works taking all the different paths of light and forcing them into one, single, one-colored directed beam. But of course that's not how light usually works. Usually it bends and bounces and spreads and warps and filters in a million different ways and directions, giving us colors, shading, and everything pleasing to the eye. Sure, the laser has some useful functions in the world. But it is not how the world works. You keep your laser-like focus. I will continue to stay vague.


  1. here, in a nutshell, is why I left teaching. New DC had us ditch the books and devise a unified curriculum. For three different languages. The six Spanish teachers would come up with the vocab lists, the French and German teacher had to translate and use. Adding or deleting no more than 25 words per "unit". We all had to give the same test, modified for each language (instead of a map of Madrid, it would be Munich or Paris, but the questions were the same). Ludicrous. I fought it all the way, and made two years under that system.

  2. Thank you for saying what I have felt for a long time. Yes, let us agree on the basics, but give us each some room to expand or contract as necessary to breathe life into the subject at hand! I am always a pain in the rear when forced into those "we all need to agree on the same assessment" meetings. And then I go my own way anyway. I have taught longer than most administrators have been out of elementary school. I know what works most of the time. Please don't make me crazy with the "latest thing in ed."

  3. So, so spot on Peter! I can think of so many instances where that laser-like focus actually hinders one's development-thinking of a doc who I grew up with, next door neighbors, were in each others weddings, who lost his humanity in becoming a doc and then "growing" his practice into a money making machine. Yep, laser-like focus!

    But what caught my eye as a retired Spanish teacher, and that hits home from experience is "Yes, different teachers may teach different things. So what?"

    In a foreign language I believe it is better that each teacher focuses on what they know/do best and no two teachers ever focus on the same things. Are there curricular goals and objectives that are covered by all? Of course! But the differences that the student experiences with different teachers and focuses helps broaden their knowledge and learning of a foreign language. I was chair of an FL department and we all encouraged each other to do our own thing.

    Later in my career I was also the only Spanish teacher at a rural high school and I can say as a fact that the students were a lot worse of for having had only one teacher. While they learned Spanish, it certainly wasn't as good of a learning environment for them.

    As usual, great commentary, Peter.

  4. Dear Mr. Greene:

    I have spent my teaching career at the elementary grade level, and also teaching a specialty, Art. Before I got my K-8, I spent about 10 years subbing while my sons grew up.

    I’ve been to a lot of 3rd 4th and 5th grade classes, maybe hundreds, before NO Child Left Behind. I have also taught grade levels 1, 3, and 5, mostly after NCLB, and then Common Core.

    It is more important than I guess you think, that teachers know what they are expected to teach so the students are prepared for the next grade level. I don’t think it needs to be “everyone on the same page the same day.” but yes, there are advantages to working together. So, here’s a question: Before you retired, did other English teachers get your students after you with the expectation that you had prepared them? Did you have to “build anything” for the next teacher?

    See, If I’m a fourth grade teacher and my students regularly come from three third grade teachers, and the ones that come from Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Williams all know how to do a small essay, and Mrs. Jones, the new teacher who reads your column? ...her students don’t, because even thinking about teaching them how to compose an essay is a What? Oh, yeah, a “dull, boring, soul-sucking prospect”, well, see, then I’m not so happy with Mrs. Jones. Maybe I want her to “diminish her professionalism” a wee tad, and make my year less difficult by doing her job. I taught students in first grade how to make a sentence and then a three sentence essay. I taught third and fifth grades to make longer, more sophisticated essays. It was my job.

    Every time you write a piece on this subject, I think: “High School Teacher Privilege... Hmmm! Who knew it was a thing?” I just write this because I think you should make a further disclaimer that you hold these opinions because you were a high school teacher. Maybe you’ll have to explain this for the high school teachers, but the elementary and middle school teachers will know what you mean. You don’t want to encourage the new teacher, Mrs. Jones, to think that not doing her job is because “different teachers teach different things.”

    The fourth grade teachers will get her ass canned, OK? Thank you.


  5. "I am opposed to national or state standards. I recognize that in this I am a bit out there. . ."

    Well, if you a "bit" out there, some of us must be in another galaxy.

  6. "Students have surprised me; students will always surprise you."

    Now there is a truth that can't be denied.