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Philosophical Meanderings

There is no boss.

I got to participate in some beautiful and difficult conversations in and around Albemarle County’s 2010 Making Connections conference today (#acpsmc2010). Each conversation, in its own way, was about the disjunct between what we’re asked to do and what we’re asked to do.

Mary Beth asked, “Who’s the boss?” I suspect that there is no boss, just traditions and compliance inadequately examined.

In his session on liberating technologies, Ira Socol (@irasocol) explained the ambitions of Henry Barnard, the 19th Century father of the industrial-era school. Barnard, according to Ira, wanted to create a school system that assimilated Irish-Catholic children into the menial roles of industrio-Protestant shift work. Ira shared some great ideas about how to subvert this structure through allowing children meaningful choice amongst the tools best suited for their learning and learning preferences. Ira asked a great 1:1 question: why are students expected to use the same computers – moreover, why are schools dependent on the single technology of the book? He also posited a great multiple-choice question thought-experiment concerning drama midterms, which highlighted the obvious tension between teaching students how to do something and teaching students how to answer questions about it. “Where was Shakespeare from?”, asked Ira. One of the possible answers was Tennessee, which I imagine to be the distractor for kids who have heard of Tennessee Williams, but never performed his work.

After that, I participated in an open house for my own school. I think the conversation there between our faculty and our guests really captured the soul of our school and what we do to re-engage kids with learning. I came to the realization that we don’t rush through three years of middle school; we approach relationships and learning over the course of one, long school year that takes up three calendar years. That kind of time-dilation is risky for teachers assessed annually. It was notable in Virginia to see that our session was attended by arts teachers, alternative educators, and elementary teachers. I’m interested in secondary core teachers’ takes on their choices not to attend.

Then I reconnected with friends. I wonder how much of our lives and selves we keep out of our teaching. Self-expression is at a premium for students and teachers in American public schools (which, I suppose, is how you limit others’ voices). The more we’re asked to control – or the more we want to control – the more controlled we must be. I’m for accountability, but I’m frustrated that our American public education system doesn’t look at model standards and models of accountability from other countries that do a better job of balancing freedom and accountability for teachers, students, and schools alike. It’s not like the “technology” of authenticity, inquiry, and choice doesn’t exist to create more meaningful education, schools, and evaluation for all of our kids and their teachers.

I left the conference feeling as I often feel: all dressed up with nowhere to go. I do work in a division that is generous in its willingness to experiment with differentiated approaches to instruction, grading, and reporting. I know that the interventions we develop and purchase are meant to help kids learn. Nevertheless, I remain confused as ever about which session to attend: the one about subverting tradition or the one about using Embiggening Reading daily?

Which brings me back to my contention: there is no boss. It’s tradition all the way down to the 1840s. Stick your neck out and another tradition is gonna fall on it unless a neck above you is already stuck out, but then how can you scale up?

Kids don’t deserve to be silenced or met with silence when they ask, “Why?” Neither do teachers.

I don’t feel silenced; I think it’s great that my division’s leaders put together a day so full of cognitive dissonance. Nevertheless, I question.

What do you want to ask today? What conversations are overdue?

A better question: it’s 2010; what do you want to make of your work? What conversations are you willing to have in pursuit of that ideal? What discussions about your practice are you willing to have in return for discussions about the system?

Somewhere last night the zombified corpse of Henry Barnard sat with the spectre of Sputnik and the ghost of standardized testing future. It may have been in the teachers’ lunchroom. They were toasting one another on the aether of lag indicators – to which none of us can catch up – and getting drunk. Somebody needs to take away their keys to the school, but there might not be a boss to do it, at least not alone.

After all, there were four Ghostbusters (PG-13 language). Now there’s a study in tradition, innovation, a solution in search of a problem that exposes a problem in need of solution, collaboration, and the real, gooey cost of authentic change.


About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


13 thoughts on “There is no boss.

  1. Chad,

    I agree that we all seem to be governed by an invisible boss called Status Quo.

    Empowerment is the key. We need to be asking the big questions like the ones you ask along with the seemingly simple question of “Why educate?” Teachers who engage in such conversations better understand themselves and what they do and begin to build a sense of purpose. This leads to empowerment.

    I do find it hard, as you describe, to leave a conference, dialogue or conversation feeling “all dressed up with nowhere to go.” I guess that’s the next step. Taking that empowerment into our schools and classrooms to affect change.

    Posted by Mary Beth Hertz | November 1, 2010, 4:52 pm
  2. It’s a big step, that’s for sure. I think it’s deceiving in certain ways. We could wait forever on the status quo to empower us. We could disagree about what to do with all that power. I think the biggest step is to acknowledge the power we do have, which is not an easy or internally or externally comfortable thing to do.

    The kind of power we’re talking about here isn’t the kind that provides security, at least not in today’s schools. It’s a willingness to assume an ambiguous stance towards the status quo that acknowledges its positive traits – such as universal education and an awareness of the achievement gap – and confronts its problems – such as a political and economic dependence on one model of schooling that disadvantages children.

    No one grows up pretending that they have the power of ambiguity, and when it’s offered it’s sometimes offered in a back-handed way.

    It’s problematic when a federal or state government populates itself with folks who decry ambiguity to govern local leaders and educators who want to explore it.

    Keep up the brave conventioneering.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 1, 2010, 5:57 pm
  3. Well, now I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight…that’s certain. So much of what you have written resonates with my current thinking, and my current situation.

    I’m envious that you are working in a division that promotes alternative thinking.

    I do agree that tradition (is tradition different from the status quo?) courses through the veins of most public schools in your country, and in mine.

    But here’s the question with which I find myself grappling these days: Who really wants change? Do most teachers really want to see a substantially different system? Do parents? Do administrators?

    Could it be that a large percentage of people (present company excluded) involved with schools today don’t want to see a great deal of change. I mean, who goes into a profession if they don’t like what the profession is all about? Most young teachers I see coming into the profession these days are just happy to have a job. (Here in Ontario, the average wait time for a full time position is 3-5 years!)

    Many mid-career teachers have made a home here–comfortable in the fact that they know what their job is about.

    Most near-retirement types (I’m almost there!) have a different goal in mind.

    So where is the critical mass that is going to challenge the tradition?

    I see a lot of passion for the profession in the U.S. (not a great deal in Canada), but does that translate into transformation?

    I’ll stop now…

    I like your writing Chad!

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | November 1, 2010, 10:33 pm
    • Stephen – I like your question about tradition and the status quo. I don’t know that it’s academic; every time a big change or new initiative comes along to improve a traditional school, it seems like it’s designed to fit on top of that school’s pre-existing structures. It fits into the schedule or on to the computers or along with the standards. In some ways I’m reminded of double-speak from 1984. The double-fresh product meant to boost this or that isn’t really helping us make any headway in revising what it is that schools do or what it is that schools value in kids. The long status-quo of industrial school design seems to pre-dispose the design of new products and pedagogies to traditional ends, if not means.

      Here is a big missed opportunity for change: the charter movement. It’s mired in a nationwide debate about the efficacy of one type of charter school. Allies of the movement would have done better, I think, to show the public a rich diversity of the types of schools – charter, magnet, schools-within-schools, and specialty centers, all geared towards different missions – that provide real, innovative breaks with traditional pedagogy and design. Instead, the schools touted by #edreformers are all stuck in the same economic and political debates we’ve had for years and years about test scores, funding, and what good behavior is. The charter school movement, at the national level, is missing opportunities to show what schools could be in favor of showing how schools that take a certain type of kid and prepare her for a certain kind of test do on those tests.

      I also wonder about the critical mass necessary for change. Frankly, I hope for a broad school choice coalition. States, divisions, schools, educators, students, parents, and communities who want to see changes like school choice become a viable reality across the United States need the time and money of people not in schools every day. States like Virginia need the political operators from states like Arizona, Colorado, and Minnesota. We educators need to make a case for compelling change; right now I think it sounds like we want to be respected, left alone, and trusted to do what we’ve “always” done for the compensation and raises we’ve always received, which, in my mind, lacks a certain verve as a political platform.

      Kids might be the critical mass we need. Crikey. Hook me up with Microsoft and a game development studio, and we’ll get all the players we need to change school. Players have spent the equivalent of thousands of work-years, not work-hours, on multi-player games. If we could make similar systems a reality in schools without dumbing-down the experience to be nominally “educational,” we could crate products that engage kids with collaboration, design, and problem-solving in a heartbeat. I would, of course, want schools designed around such experiences to balance time spent playing games that teach with projects that serve their communities. As much promise as games have for recruiting kids into school change, schools should no longer bind students to a desk or screen for the entirety of their time spent in public education. Games can’t be the sole tool for learning, but they could be a great lever of change supported by student voice, if we listen to the students. Numbers always help. Games help with numbers.

      I think Joe Bower is amassing Canadian passion for himself.

      Thanks for the comment, feedback, and prompts, Stephen!


      Posted by Chad Sansing | November 2, 2010, 6:03 am
  4. Wow! I just found this and thought of this post right away!


    Posted by dloitz | November 2, 2010, 2:51 am
  5. That Link was amazing this one will blow your mind! Seriously I am speechless right now!


    Posted by dloitz | November 2, 2010, 3:05 am
    • Thanks for both links, David. Decentralized, crowd-sourced curriculum-as-service is a sweet model to follow; now I just want the content to be a little more wild.

      The ebook page will hold my attention for a long time –


      Posted by Chad Sansing | November 2, 2010, 6:23 am
    • David, my friend Melissa Techman (@mtechman) asked me about the legality of some of those .pdfs.

      We’ve never really discussed information freedom on the Coöp, but I would wager that any such discussion would try to reconcile the valuation of creative work with learners’ rights to learn since cost and access are, at times, directly related.

      Anyone have a useful ethical framework to situate the use of the Gyanpedia ebook resource in American public education? I like to pay when artists ask me to. I also love a good mash-up now and then. Not sure my ideas are defined enough to be of use here.

      Hoping someone else will go first,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | November 2, 2010, 7:22 am
  6. I found this.

    seems he has done his best effort to get approval, but I do believe in open source martial. I personally believe copyright has outlived it’s usefulness in it’s current form, and so too has capitalism, but maybe that is another conversation all together. We have figured out a way to prove a good life for artists, and other creative professions, but that is a problem worth solving!


    Posted by dloitz | November 2, 2010, 12:15 pm
  7. I think the solution will be some type of mystery. Lame, I realize. But I think there is a paradox in being a leader (having trust, being the one with a sense of direction, being strong) and being a servant who will listen and put students first. I don’t expect compliance in my classroom, but I do expect respect and we aim for compassion. I make some big decisions and they make some big decisions. Not quite democracy, but not exactly militaristic or industrial either.

    Posted by John Spencer | November 3, 2010, 9:08 am
    • John, from what I understand part of servant leadership is helping those you serve evaluate their legitimate and illegitimate needs and wants so the work of the servant leader becomes that of supporting the organization’s efforts in achieving its legitimate needs, while not keeping the organization’s people from pursuing any legitimate wants that don’t conflict with its needs. I think the partnership of decision-making you describe sounds very helpful. I wonder in my own classroom how to question and support inquiry and discussion enough for students to assess their needs and wants to take over most of the decisions I made early on in our time together.

      What changes do you see over time in how your class makes decisions?

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | November 5, 2010, 6:22 am
  8. Chad, This post moved me. Really. At times when I feel very alone in the work, very far out on the edge when I perceive schools as workhouses/prisons, and the deep attachment inmates seem to have to their structures, a post like this, so searching, so thoughtful, so about exactly what it all is…makes we so grateful for the colleagues and thinkers and intellectual partners here at the COOP.

    The system designed to socialize masses of immigrants, the ways in which (Stephen) notes, if you didn’t like school in some way you probably wouldn’t have chosen to go back and work there (don’t expect change to come from a large working mass of teachers), the ways in which we seem to have settled for an extraordinarily denuded and flattened idea of “learning” in most classroom situations, has been really present to me of late. A kind of sober, reflective state that even last call seems not to shake.

    I had to do my usual balancing act here too, reading along, that delicate dance between following the thread of your post and hopping to all your links. But now, dressed up, mike in hand, ready to shake off control. I’m there. Let’s go to the mall.

    Posted by Kirsten | November 4, 2010, 10:58 am
  9. When frustrated, shop. Or eat. Or go to the mall and eat at the food court – Chik-fil-A or Chinese. That’s my motto.

    I have four or five posts for different audiences in my head. The one demanding the most attention is about our behavioral expectations and how they compromise our learning expectations. I’m willing to bet that with struggling students we punish and denigrate non-reading and non-writing learning behaviors because we don’t recognize or value them as learning behaviors. While this is hardly a new revelation in the history of American public education, it complicates language arts teaching for me in new ways since I am a recent immigrant to it. The monoculture of text is strangling schools and the lives led within them.

    Also, thank you for the generous comment, Kirsten.

    More later.

    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 5, 2010, 6:27 am

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