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How do reformers “see the whole elephant?”

About 5 years ago, my school district brought in a reading expert. This was a real expert who had studied the reading process as her life’s work, some 40 years in schools and in a university laboratory setting. This expert has a list of book titles to her credit. Seeking help to design our Response To Intervention (RTI) processes for struggling readers, our district leadership contracted her to work closely with teachers and instructional coaches.

In her first address to instructional leaders and reading teachers in my school district, she read Seven Blind Mice, by Ed Young, an engaging, artistic treatment of the old parable, The Blind Men and the Elephant.  In this one, each blind mouse feels a different part of the elephant and declares what they have found, each identifying the elephant as something entirely different. Scrawling in my notebook that day, I made a note of her choice of texts, feeling that she meant to comment on the biases each of us brought to our endeavor to help students read.

Our expert likely knew then what the last four years have shown: like the blind mice in the story, the educators who hope to help kids read better have disparate views of the situation, the problem, and any possible solution. Even after working under the guidance of an expert for five years, when we come together to talk about students’ reading, or our RTI processes, we might as well say, “This elephant is like a spear!”

We might as well respond, “No, it is like a snake.”

Like many urban school districts, our RTI processes still need much work in order to really improve student reading.

In The Fifth Discipline, a book I’m reading now about how organizations become learning organizations and employ systems thinking, by Peter Senge, the author quotes an old Sufi version of the same story, saying, “Given these men’s way of knowing, they will never know an elephant.”

According to Senge, rigid internal divisions inhibit an organizations ability to see problems from all angles. The same rigid internal divisions inhibit inquiry across divisions.

In any conversation about reform, I think it is fair to ask, What rigid internal divisions limit educators?

These are easy to find in schools. Parent groups and teacher groups can conflict. Administrators and teachers experience these divisions between them. In a large school district like mine, school sites can feel divided from their central office. These divisions are so easy to find, they almost aren’t worth looking for. Like my daughter’s toys scattered on my living room floor, I don’t have to go looking for something that I’m constantly tripping over.

What is a better, more difficult search, and one that might act as a catalyst in a conversation about reform is, How can thoughtful educators engage in inquiry across rigid divisions?

In my work as an instructional coach, when I enter a teacher’s classroom hoping to help, I think about how to inquire across the divisions that exist between the teacher and I, divisions born from a teacher’s preconceptions about coaching or divisions born from a teachers’ dispute with his administrations goals for the school.

I bring my own “blindfolds” to this work. Having worked passionately for years in the classroom to develop student-centered learning that placed a premium on collaboration and interest-driven learning, I can recoil when teachers dismiss the importance of collaboration or interest-driven learning  when they talk to me about  their practice and their goals.

Those can be the hardest times to help. In my first years of coaching, I lost interest and hope in coaching opportunities where the teacher and I did not share these values. Every time, the results of my coaching were predictable- predictably bad.

To grow as a coach and in order to help even the teachers who don’t agree with me, I have to ask myself, Do I want to be right, or do I want to be effective?

This question that I bring with me into classrooms now keeps me grounded in the work I’m doing as a coach and reminds me not to be too entranced by the work I did as a classroom teacher (In my mind, my old classroom gets better every year. In a few more years, I will have been a perfect teacher!)

I’m excited about the invitation to participate here in Cooperative Catalyst, and excited to push “Publish” on some of the questions I like to bring to conversations about reform. Here they are again:

What rigid internal divisions exist in schools and limit educators?

How can thoughtful educators engage in inquiry across rigid divisions?

Do educators want to be right, or do educators want to be effective?


Young, Ed. Seven Blind Mice. New York: Puffin, 2002. Print.

Senge, Peter M. (2010-03-25). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization (p. 66). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


2 thoughts on “How do reformers “see the whole elephant?”

  1. I’ve presented many times in front of school administrators, Deans of Universities, Child Study teams, parent organizations and I completely agree. The irony is that educators are working with children and want them to be open minds yet they themselves become reflexively defensive and disrupt progress with a confrontational approach.
    I do enter these events as a defender of teachers who I feel should be much more highly valued and respected and leave them wondering who if anyone will emerge as the advocate for the children?.
    Teachers seem to blame parents, parents blame schools and the kids are stuck in the middle with little or no voice, no lobbyist, no advocate.
    It’s like watching our congress. I can’t even get them to agree with the simple premise that many of the kids in our classrooms today can not see and or hear the information that is being presented properly.
    It seems to make sense to me that if that premise is true (and it is) then it will be difficult to impossible for a child to process, store and retrieve when needed information given to them in class. If we continue to ignore that simple true premise we will continue act as though we are solving a murder mystery by looking at all of the wrong clues, locations and suspects.
    Further the interesting solution of providing “extra time” will not work well for the student in the future (workplace)
    nor does it do much for anyone’s self-esteem to be constantly treated as “less” than other students.
    All I ask is for the chance to demonstrate how much power there is in identifying the root cause of these issues and systematically improving those skills to restore the joy of learning to children.

    Posted by jack marcellus | December 9, 2012, 10:58 pm
  2. Excellent questions, Joe – so glad to have you posting with us!

    I would also ask what rigid divisions between school and outside learning opportunities hold us and kids back. How can we maneuver past and/or disregard those, as well?

    I think the rigid divisions are largely political and systemic – the kinds of barriers that create false antagonism and scarcities in what can otherwise be joyful communities of learning.

    Check out this Parag Khanna talk on the squiggly lines of human relations and the conflict necessitated by rigid borders. Compare the evolution of our current political map with that of our current school system. Big fun (for nerds like me).

    Looking forward to more,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 11, 2012, 9:56 am

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