“May we exist like a lotus, At home in the muddy water.” Zen Buddhist saying.
I was recently contacted by a mainstream media outlet. They were covering a contentious education topic and wondered if I’d contribute. After a few minutes talking with a producer it became obvious what they wanted. They were looking for someone to represent a single, extreme viewpoint on a somewhat complex topical issue.
I took time and explained that my thoughts and opinions were more nuanced than a single position. The producer quickly lost interest and said they’d let me know if they needed any further interviews. I’m still waiting
Our positions on important issues are increasingly represented by a simple “yes” or “no” . Fuelled by digital tools, that count ones and zeros, our opinions are reduced to up-votes or down-votes. We “like” or “retweet” what we agree with and ignore what we don’t.
It’s understandable. There’s a torrent of information rushing at us twenty-four hours every day and most of us don’t have the time to understand, consider other viewpoints or even just think about controversial issues. So we click and move on. Making a choice, any choice, is calming, but deludes us into thinking that the world is simple. That it’s divided into right or wrong, good or bad, with our own judgements lining up squarely in the “good” column, of course.
Increasingly educators are encouraged to see matters of our professional practice with the same good/bad framework. However this isn’t how education works. Education isn’t a matter of absolutes, of right or wrong, but rather of better or worse. The effectiveness of any practice varies from student to student and students are constantly changing and developing at different rates. What worked last week may no longer be useful. Experienced educators understand that education is a very messy, muddy endeavour with little or no hard and fast rules.
It’s difficult to be a practicing educator while being an absolutist about any educational issue. When someone asks me what I think about something in education I often end up replying “it depends”, because almost anything you can think of can be effective and useful in the right context or useless in the wrong one.
The ongoing “math wars” are a great example of this. The popular discussion in the mainstream media identifies two positions. You are either “back to basics” or “discovery learning”. You either think students should be memorizing multiplication tables and algorithms or doing open-ended problem solving.
In reality the whole back to basics vs discovery math is a false dichotomy. Teachers don’t use one strategy or another exclusively, but rather a blend of approaches which vary and will be modified to meet the changing needs of their students. I wish teaching were as easy and simply applying a single instructional strategy, but it simply isn’t.
This reductionism can be seen in the approach to many education issues. While I oppose high stakes testing I use standardized tests in my classroom all the time. Full Day Kindergarten is a wonderful thing for some kids and useless for others. Some students benefit from learning cursive, others are harmed by it. And so on.
This is an important thing for educators to remember. Each time we enter into a simplified, absolute discussion about education we should resist the temptation to pick a side. The notion that complex education issues can be reduced to relative absolutes is born of ignorance. It shows of a lack of understand of the complex and complicated work we do.
When educators take a side without fully explaining the nuances education we reinforce the belief that what we do is simple, straightforward, and can be reduced to simple good or bad choices. We know that isn’t true. Rather than seeing discussions about education issues as battles to be won, we’ll do better to see them as opportunities to inform and educate. We need to help others see the muddy waters we work in so they can more fully appreciate the challenges inherent in the work that we do.