Monday, June 19, 2023

In Praise of Waffling

If there are any continuing threads at this blog, one is certainly that education in general and teaching in particular are about balance, about managing the tension between a wide variety of conflicting forces and ideas. Students need direction. Students need freedom. Direct instruction. Discovery. Learning mastery takes whatever time it takes. Students must make it to certain goals by the end of the year. Teachers can't work with no standards at all. Teachers can't work with standards that are like straightjackets. Students should be lovingly nurtured. Students must be held to high standards. Students with special needs. Teachers bringing their own values into the classroom. Parent involvement. Culturally sensitive instruction. SEL. DEI. Etc. Etc. Etc.

There isn't an issue in education that doesn't involve multiple, contradicting points of view.

Balancing them as we move from circumstance to circumstance, from class to class, from student to student-- it looks a lot like waffling.

For many of us, waffling is suspicious behavior, a moral failure to identify a particular position as the One True Answer, and then stick to it. The way to develop policy, to teach a class, to properly pedagogify, is to identify the One True Answer and then tie off the steering wheel and put a brick on the gas pedal.

This is baloney. It's attractive baloney. Lord knows I was, decades ago, deeply attached to it. I set some conclusions, welded the steering wheel in place, nailed the gas pedal to the floor, and went to sit in a comfy seat in the back of the bus, which is where I was when the vehicle that was my marriage ran off the road and hit a tree. And even then I didn't get it. Even then I thought my mistake was in where I welded the wheel, and I just had to weld it in the correct direction. Uncounted arboreal impacts later, it finally dawned on me that I had to actually drive the bus.

Pick your metaphor. The classroom is a bus and you have to steer it as you go, responding to twists and turns in the roads, the demands of your passengers, and even the occasional person who darts out in front of you. You have to adjust the seat and the mirrors to your own particular personal shape. Do you have to have some idea of a general direction? Sure--but you can't simply steer directly toward it blindly (again, the balance is somewhere between the extremes).

Or maybe the classroom is an actual balancing act, and you just have to keep shifting and adjusting as the weights you're carrying shirt, the wind blows, and the tightrope wobbles beneath your feet. No, you can't just walk heedlessly forward, but you can't ignore the conditions of the moment, either.

There is lots of very specific teacher advice to be had, and every last bit of it is only useful in specific circumstances. "You must not get personally connected to the students" and "You have to forge more of a personal connection with the students" are both perfectly solid pieces of advice in entirely different specific circumstances. "Tighten up and act more like the adult in the room" and "loosen up and don't be so strict" are both great pieces of advice in the right moment, and terrible pieces of advice in the wrong moment.

"Use a hose to shoot thousands of gallons water at the house" is great advice when the house in on fire. It is terrible advice if the house is caught in rising flood waters.

Education has always been plagued by people who hop way too quickly from "This is an answer that works some of the time under certain conditions" to "This is the answer that works all the time for everybody." They once saw a house fire put out by a tanker spewing a ton of water, so now they want to hose down everyone. Education also suffers from people who, having seen their flooding house ruined by an application of even more water, now insist that hoses should be kept away from burning buildings as well. 

One of the greatest fallacies in education is some variation of "This works/doesn't work for me, therefor it must work/not work for everyone."

Classrooms are not always complicated, but they are always complex. If you accept, for instance, the notion that humans are a pastiche of 400 psychological traits, then multiple 400 by the number of humans in the classroom, plus the varied versions of lived experience, plus the dynamics that emerge in the interactions between the individuals in the room (any teacher can tell you about a class where the absence of one particular student changed the dynamic of the entire class), plus the dynamics around the material itself, with all of that slathered over with whatever has happened to those individuals in the past 12-24 hours. And what each of the students needs, and what the course is supposed to require. And all of that has to be boiled down, by the teacher, to a very specific action at a particular moment in time. Your deep-felt pedagogical philosophies are very cool, but the teacher is facing a certain student with a specific situation at Tuesday at 10:27 PM and she has to decide what exactly to do right then.

A teacher is on a high wire holding a ten foot pole that has, on each end, a twenty foot stack of cages with various wild raccoons and ferrets running around inside, and the teacher is on a bicycle, and the bicycle's tires aren't round, and there's a gusty wind, and a flock of geese flying at her. And she is adjusting and shifting every step of the way. Anyone who wants to tell her "Just do it exactly like this. Just hold this exact pose all the way. Then you'll be okay."

Certainly not all advice is created equal-- some techniques or grips or methods will serve better than others (which is part of what I'm talking about, because the sweet spot in teaching on any given day also lies somewhere between "You must do exactly this every time" and "Just pull whatever out of your butt on a whim"). And individual teachers will find certain techniques that work better FOR THEM.

The best teachers drive the bus. They shift the load as they move. They smoothly juggle dozens of possible tools to deploy the right one at the moment it's needed. They waffle. They waffle like a boss (even as they manage the tension between consistency and flexibility, because various tensions underline every single part of the job).

It is hard to overstate just how completely and thoroughly those who propose a Single Magical Solution simply don't understand how a classroom works or what teaching is. Scripted programs are absurd. A universal set of standards is absurd. Mandating a particular pedagogical approach, either by district policy or legislative edict, is absurd. Can some of these things contribute useful tools to a teacher's kit? Absolutely. But that doesn't mean they're the one tool that should be used every single time.

Waffling is a good and necessary thing in education. Teachers have to be adaptable and flexible, neither an iron rod or a floppy dishtowel, but somewhere in between. So much of the debate in education is commandeered by people out on the extremes, but the answer is almost always somewhere in the middle, and exactly where in the middle (which matters because, remember, teachers run on specific choices in the moment, not sweeping generalities) varies from day to day, moment to moment. If that looks like waffling, so be it. Or as that great waffler, Walt Whitman put it:

Do I contradict myself? 
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large. I contain multitudes.)

A classroom is large. It contains multitudes. And backseat drivers on the educational bus, hollering out "Hey, first you steered one way and then you steered the other way. Don't you know what you're doing?" are no help at all.

h/t TC Weber who started me down this particular path.


  1. Is it waffling or is it responding in real time? The conflict is not teaching that way but rather teaching that way in a institutional setting which prefers highly welded pieces to keep the "building" in place.

  2. This is so good. Now add the human aspect in that teachers and students are full of human emotions and you have summed up teaching beautifully. Thank you..