Friday, July 17, 2020

Everything's Made Up (And Nobody Is Behind)

This is the opportunity we're missing, but to grab it would require us to look at things that some of us would rather not look at.

We can start with the notion that students are currently "falling behind." Well, now-- behind what, exactly? Is there some line scribed by the Hand of God in the intellectual sand that tells us, yes, a child who has been on earth 193 months should have crossed this absolute line on the One True Path of intellectual growth?

No box. Also, no spoon.
No, because it's all made up. The line that says "This is where they should be" is made up. In fact, the notion that there is a single path along which progress should be measured is also made up. Hell, this should not be news, because it wasn't that long ago that we moved all the lines, accompanied by declarations about rigor and challenge and other baloney that posited that making kindergarten the new first grade was somehow a good idea because it would push students "ahead" of that made up line on that made up path. none of this "ahead/behind" baloney is based on anything scientific or objective or rooted in anything except that some people with power decided "This is the rule we'd like to make up."

People are really struggling. There are so many nuts and bolts questions that are coming up in the face of whatever-the-hell is going to happen in a few weeks, like "If a teacher is sent to quarantine for fourteen days, does she have to use her sick days" and the thing about most of these questions is that they involve made up rules that were made up without any inkling that we would find ourselves here some day. The rules about how many sick days a teacher can have are made up. The rules about what they can be used for are made up. And the most important implication of this is that to deal with brand new situations, people will have to make up some new rules (which will also be made up).

My colleague Nancy Flanagan has observed repeatedly that nobody is coming up with solutions that are remotely outside the box, and I think she's right, and I think a big reason for that is a desire (which in times of uncertainty and general messiness inflames into a burning gut-level need) to hold onto the fiction that the box is a Real Thing, and objective Box of Truth that emerged fully-formed from a burning bush.

It's not. The box is made up.

Now, I'm not suggesting that "made up" means fake or false or stupid. We make up rules all the time, often for very good reasons. "Drive on the right-hand side of the road" is an arbitrary made up rule, but it's a very useful made up rule. Some rules are rooted in experience, the collectively learning of things that work and things that don't. Some rules are rules because they have always been rules, but those reasons are long lost to memory. Some rules are the result of expert judgment exercised by trained experts who have expertly studied the issue, and some are the result of that youtube video you saw last night.

We US citizens have an uneasy relationship with the made-up nature of rules. Our religious ancestors  believed they were following rules literally handed down by God. Some of our founding fathers, following the Enlightenment ideas of the time, believed they were using reason and intellect to uncover the rules hard-wired into the universe. We were going to be better than those European royal mopes who just made rules up to suit their moods and self-interest (even if many founding fathers had trouble actually applying the rules they discerned to their own actual lives).

Making shit up is what humans do. I have what I call the 5% rule-- 95% of everything is just stuff that humans make up, and then, having made it up, examine it with great weight and import as if it had just fallen out of the sky and not out of a human head. We do things like decide a "week" will have seven days, and then ponder the deep significance of having seven days in a week. 5% of everything is actually important, actually matters, actually has weight and significance. The trick here is that none of us can agree on what the 5% is. Plus, if your 5% includes things like loving and supporting the people around you, well, then, that means going along with some of their 5%. It gets tricky.

Almost everything is made up, and that's not an indictment of it. The question is not, "Is this made up or not" because it probably is. The question is, "Is it made well, based on evidence and wisdom and good intent."

But I digress.

Pretty much everything about school is made up, an artificial construct created by parents and politicians and teachers and tradition--oh, so much tradition-- as well as a few decades of predatory profiteer activity. But in normal times, much of that stuff, from "students sit in a desk in a room" to "everyone eats lunch together in a big room" to "all students come at the same time and leave at the same time" works just fine. Some of it, from "this Big Standardized Test measures the intellectual growth and capabilities of students" to "anyone with a pulse can run a classroom," has been destructive. "Everyone needs to get back in the box, right now, and act as if nothing unusual is going on," seems like potentially a really bad idea.

We are clutching hard to our made up rules these days. I don't think it's just the pandemic. Nobody has personified the view that all these rules are just made up shit more than Donald Trump. We have held tight to our conventions about government and elected officials for what seems like ages, but Trump's whole life is about ignoring all rules and conventions. "It's not actually a rule," he says, "unless someone can actually do something to me for breaking it." For people who want to believe we live by laws and rules and not just a bunch of made up shit that exists only as long as we all agree to ac t like it exists, these have been really scary times.

And you know who make great rules followers? Who believe you just don't break the rules because you just don't? Teachers. It is one of their greatest weaknesses.

Back when I was a yearbook advisor, the first thing I told each new crop of student leaders was that when planning the new book, they were to ignore the old books. Imagine designing a book from scratch. What would you do? How would you do it? Even if you reach a conclusion identical to last year's book, at least you'll know you're doing it for a better reason than "That's what they did last year."

We could be doing that with schools right now, saying "If we were designing schools from scratch right now with zero rules in place, what would we do." Instead, the discussion (led mostly by non-teachers) is about how to keep as many of our made up rules as possible intact.

You would think reformsters would be all over this opportunity to get outside the box, but they've always been mostly about preserving the made up rules--just tweaking them to add a few that let privateers make a buck. It has always been a useful for tactic for them to act as if public schools are locked in a solid titanium box brought down by the gods and unalterable by human hands; that way, clearly, the only solution to supplant the public system with something else.And now even Betsy DeVos has dropped her noise about letting a thousand virtual flowers bloom and instead argues that school this fall should look just like every other fall.

If we started from scratch, one would hope that we decided that trained professionals in a setting that maximized student safety and provided education for every single child in the country would still be on the program. For me, that's the 5% of public education, and all the rest is less important, or only important insofar as it helps us reach those goals. (Charter and voucher fans are welcome to tell me how their favorite ideas would help, and I will go ahead an explain, once again, why they're wrong.)

But step one is to recognize that all of this stuff is made up, created by humans with a range iof intents and wisdom, and as humans we are perfectly capable of unmakimg it up and remaking something new up in its place. We can stop the stupid noise about where students are relatively to some made up standard and stop worrying about how a real pandemic response might require us to rewrite some made up rules.

We like the rules. We like the feeling of a solid earth under our feet. We like feeling that stuff came from some higher source than Made Up By Regular Humans. Just watch as July and August unfold-- I predict that the majority of school district administrators will wait to see what other districts do, and then adopt that plan, as if those other administrators have some pipeline to wisdom that local leaders do not. Shame on them. All the plans that come will be made up stuff. Have the nerve to make something up that best fits your local district. There is no box, and nobody is coming to save you with a Higher Truth. You're going to have to make something up.


  1. Love this post so much, Peter! Thank you!!!


  3. I have to say, your commentary does make the good point that in many ways we're missing the great opportunity this pandemic offers which is to take a fresh look at the existing system and create serious out of the box revisions. I don't agree that folks don't want to look at it. I think quite the opposite. Many have taken a hard look and frankly are overwhelmed with the hard work, time and essentially the money it will take to do that. Sadly what we are hearing is discussion as to how we can get back to normal as quickly as possible. Apparently "normal" is what people crave even if it wasn't the ideal in the first place. In addition, I've seen more "talk" on facebook from teachers focusing on "Should we be wearing scrubs?" and "What about hazard pay"and "Do I now buy my own virus shields along with all the other stuff I currently fund in my classroom?" etc., rather than how can we really turn the status quo on its head. Peter, you mention mainly non-teachers looking to keep the rules intact, but I'd say it's in equal measure.
    Perhaps rather than being overwhelmed with all that could be reformed, we can focus on a few shifts with shaking up the status quo in various districts within the same counties- like experiments. That would take coordination among districts. For example, start with the school day. With sports not in session this Fall in most places, let's change the school day for older students and teens who benefit from more sleep a make a shift for the school day to start later, end later.

  4. Yes, I agree. I wonder what ideas you have for students and teachers at an average American high school.

    For example, here are some of mine:
    Groups of 20 students socially distanced in a large, well-ventilated space, possibly outside. Teachers function like itinerant preachers, showing up to teach at a social distance for 45 minutes one day and offering remote sessions the next day. The in-person sessions could be videotaped and sent to students who opted for remote-only. Students could turn in homework assignments and receive feedback during the following in-class session. Because in the age of virtual learning, every opportunity to do something real--handwritten on paper, for example--should be embraced. No phones, no chromebooks allowed. The in-class school day might last for 4 hours, from 10am to 3pm, with an hour lunch.

  5. A friend shared this and I'm so glad she did. thanks.

  6. Unlurking to post that this is one of Peter's most concise and best offerings. Let's make up something that benefits our school communities. No more standardized anything.