The perfect marriage/school

I’ve been married a little over two years, so surely there are more experienced spouses in the world, but as I made the bed this morning, I had a nice little thought. My marriage works, but probably not for everyone. Shows you how nuts I am, but this somehow got me thinking about school, of course.

Here’s what marriage has taught me about teaching.

* * *

I was last out of bed, so it was my job to make it. That’s our deal – one of many that address small, but rather vital little things. We also have agreements about stuff like dishes, walking the dog, money, watching TV, and on and on – everything from how we spend our time to how we communicate.

Our relationship is central to my life. It’s the primary structure in which I thrive and grow and learn, so I’m extremely thankful that we’ve settled into patterns that keep it going. We certainly don’t have “the perfect marriage,” but these little deals and strategies work for us. We’re constantly engaged in a process of rethinking ways to make life better. If we stopped that process, I’m sure the marriage would be over.

And yet, I have no expectation at all that anyone else’s marriage needs to run like ours. What we have is highly idiosyncratic and certainly our own. If there is such a thing as “the perfect marriage,” I don’t think it’s one-size-fits-all.

* * *

I feel the same way about school. What works for me and my students may not work for you and yours. What motivates this student often leaves that one flat, so I run into real trouble when I walk around the room and give the same explanation over and over (pseudo-teaching for sure).

And yet, the national education debate seems to be aiming straight at one-size-fits-all. Not a week goes by without someone pointing to Singapore or Finland, trying to figure out what they know that we don’t. “If only we did it like that,” we seem to think. In professional development teachers are pushed to establish “best practices,” as though good teaching were simply a matter of doing it right.

I checked out MSNBC’s two-hour special, making the grade just long enough for, “we’re here to figure out what works, 100% of the time.” I seriously doubt there’s anything at all that works all the time, for every student, and every teacher, in every community, let alone a scalable structure that will fix our system. It’s futile searches like this that keep ed-reform stuck in endless, pointless debate.

* * *

There is no systematic and standardized solution to education for the same reason my wife and I can never stop adjusting our life patterns. The heart of the matter is growth, development, and sustenance, i.e. change. Nothing static can ever address this fully.

Though students and teachers can’t often choose each other in quite the same way, the central questions are equivalent; how can we make this better for both of us? Teachers and students need the freedom to respond in ways that are inventive and unique to the two of them.

Day one this year I might say something like, “I’m here to figure out what works for me and each of you, more of the time.”


11 responses to “The perfect marriage/school

  1. Paul, isn’t the problem that given how society is set up, there has to be a way of comparing students to each other and the only “fair” way to do that is to have a standardized system? High School in India is mostly about cramming – we had to memorise as much as we could and the more we could regurgitate when we were tested, the better we did. Is there a way around this problem?

    • Tariq,

      It makes a good deal of sense on a macro scale to think about the systematic need for certification, credentialization, grading, competing, comparing, and on and on. On the individual level, however, the one-size-fits-all standards are failing far too often, for all of the reasons I’ve been trying to detail in the blog.

      Here’s a good article about what school might be like if we got rid of transcripts. I’m confident the only truly “fair” thing would be to give up on standard and treat each student individually. By taking on their own interests and developing personal strengths, students have a powerful process of validation and self-actualization. Certainly something like this is just as good for anything that requires comparing students.

      I’d love another comment from you. Thanks!

  2. I love your marriage analogy. Well said!

  3. I agree that the marriage analogy is a good one – that each teacher, classroom, and student is unique and what works for one may not necessarily translate as successfully to another. I think you’re spot on with your comment on ed reform, that the endless search for the single “best practice” (or silver bullet) that is 100% effective is nothing more than a wild goose chase.

    I also agree that schools can do more to individualize learning, but I’m curious about a purely individual-based education that has “given up on” standards. Would a school allow a student to pursue a single discipline and forgo all others that don’t interest them? What sort of accountability would there be for students to achieve learning at a high level rather than just quitting when it gets difficult?

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

    • Thanks for your support, and for your great questions! I sometimes second guess myself about requirements, core content, or standards. I’m still processing these ideas.

      Steve Miranda of the Re-educate Seattle blog teaches at a school with truly no requirements. He gives inspiring stories that make me feel confidently that students create greatness for themselves when they are given control over the process, with guidance of knowledgeable and successful adults of their choosing.

      My school, despite giving freedom to teachers and students with respect to content, still has required course sequences. I’m not sure where the right line is. My gut tells me that school standards need to arise from the values and needs of the community a school serves.

      Maybe that’s a cop out answer. Thanks so much for reading as well as for your thoughts.

  4. A classroom does indeed have some of the idiosyncrasies of a marriage. Whenever possible, learning should be a community.

    The problem is that a teacher can’t teach more than 30 students (or 20, if they must be taught well). There are millions of people that could benefit from education, and there simply are not enough teachers. And while allowing every human being the chance to be part of a learning community is the ideal, it just does not scale. That doesn’t invalidate this post, merely puts it in context.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Max, and as always they are worth considering. I do think, however that the power of human interactions is the one truly scalable thing. There are always people, and they can always learn from each other.

      I wrote recently about an algebra 1 class of 65 students and how they could use each other to create something amazing in their time together. I hope you’ll give a read and maybe comment again.

      Thanks so much!

  5. Paul, I’ve been silently appreciating your blog for a couple of weeks now. I really enjoy what you have to say about the goals of education.

    The four kids in my family were all homeschooled for varying lengths of time (my sister until she went to college, my older brother until his sophomore year of high school, my younger brother and I until we were high school freshmen), and, in the environment my parents cultivated, we were able to do what you mention: take on our own interests and develop personal strengths. I’m still not really sure how that worked, as we all studied many of the same subjects. I think a lot of it had to do with our individual pacing. So, for example, I zipped ahead in French, enjoying doing extra exercises, while my younger brother spent a long time checking out Civil War books from the library. We did not have tests or grades, and I wrote far more journal entries and stories than papers.

    When I went to high school, it seemed so ridiculous to me that each class had a rigid, equal allotted time every day. That kind of a structured schedule was completely foreign to me (along with things like not being able to eat whenever I was hungry and having to get permission to go to the bathroom).

    Unfortunately, I became very grade-oriented rather than feeling like I was learning because I wanted to learn. That sentence may be overly dramatic – I went to a good high school and enjoyed many of my classes. Some teachers, however, seemed to assume that students were only there because we had to be (true, in many cases), and that had an impact on teaching style. My sophomore year English teacher was the worst teacher I’ve had. I think she thought that we couldn’t be trusted to do our reading, and so her tests included obscure sentences from the text and we had to fill in the blanks. Yuck! Definitely an effective way to snuff out a love of the story.

    Bringing up the issue of trust reminds me of a time I came home from school and said something (I don’t remember what), and my mom sighed and said she could tell I was getting an “us vs. them” mentality (students vs. teachers). At home, she was a collaborative partner in our learning.

    This is getting super long, and I’m not really sure what my point is. I think I was very lucky to have many years of learning for the love of learning (and spending lots of time reading books and playing outside). I’m also glad that I went to a public high school, where I met some great teachers and did things I couldn’t have done at home (e.g., sang in choirs every day, used fancy lab equipment, interacted with large groups of peers, etc.). If there were a way to combine the best aspects of both educational models, that would be cool, but I’m not sure that it’s possible.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Heidi! Some very good thoughts here, and lots of things to ponder. I’m really excited by the possibilities of school for our future. I’m starting to wonder how great, paradigmatic change will occur. Inside this system or out of it?

      Thanks again for your comment. Hope to hear from you soon.

  6. Pingback: The perfect marriage/school « Cooperative Catalyst

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