Diagnosing the Teaching of Adults and Children


So many ways to think about the differences between teaching children and teaching adults. Let’s frame it up a bit first. For starters, let’s put both of our groups in a traditional setting. The schools in which they learn and teach have 7.5 hours of classes, desks are in rows, grades are delineated by age. For the adults, there’s someone in charge of meetings if not scheduling PD. These happen once a month or once every two weeks. At a district level, trainings are offered by a PD department. These are staffed by teachers in one of two categories – they were either exemplary teachers and were pulled out of the classroom in a move to create economies of scale with their practice, or they are ineffective and were pulled out of the classroom so as not to cause too much damage.

There’s our system. It might be your system with a few different creaks and cracks in the floorboards.

Now, back to the question of the difference between teaching the adults and the children in this system. For the children, instruction is most likely a collection of linear timelines of facts and skills separated by artificial disciplines. While not completely dependent upon rote memorization of facts and procedures from the earliest days of public education, students are expected to await the topics and information teachers have scheduled. A student might happen into a unit or lesson of study that ignites his interest or curiosity, but this is left to chance and requires a great deal of social capital and individual agency to pursue outside of the regular schedule of study.

Reading this from the outside, this can seem a horrible way to pass your time. From the inside, though, many of our students don’t know any different. And those who try to demand something different often find themselves breaking against the system. They become examples for the others of why the status quo is preferable to something else, no matter how much they might enjoy that something else.

Teaching these students means moving along the well-worn path of covering content and using discipline or classroom management to control them when they stray from that path. While the schools we’re discussing may accept creativity in practice, they do not encourage it outright and certainly do not require it.

It is easy to imagine the same is true of teaching the adults in this system as is true of teaching the children. Almost.

These adults find themselves as caretakers of a system in which they were once the children. Here, let me point out, they are rewarded for being caretakers of the system rather than of the people in the system. So long as things move smoothly throughout the year, they may remain.

Teaching the adults means reinforcing that smooth movement. To keep their attention, it often means re-packaging old efforts and presenting them as a new advancement. The more veteran teachers can sense the repetition. They’ve likely taught through several cycles.

The key difference in teaching the adults here is their increased agency – personally if not professionally. Should they find the system so distasteful or unsatisfying that they no longer wish to be in it, they can move on. Whether top or bottom performers, when they leave, they allow the system to move closer to stasis. The status quo remains.

Unlike the children in the system, it is no longer necessary to prepare lessons across multiple disciplines for the adults. They’ve become specialists in specific content.

Teachers are allowed to shrug off math as English teachers, and disdain history as science teachers. This makes the dosage of professional development easier as well.

The needs of the adults as they have been shaped by the system require only content-specific reinforcement. They have no need for understanding or presenting how their respective content interacts with and is interdependent upon colleagues across the hall.

Teaching the adults means presenting information in ways that make it seem new and exciting without the requirement of a well-balanced intellectual diet. When adults leave, similar to when children are asked to leave, it is because they don’t fit the system, not because the system could not fit them.

Obviously, the above is a bleak perspective. In writing it, I attempted to be more pragmatic than pessimistic. Sometimes the two intersect. If the question is “How should teaching these two groups be different?” Then the answers are going to be specific to the individuals and cultures within schools and districts. As Chris and I suss out in our book, it means realizing asking the right questions is key. To beginning to make the system framed above a more humanistic one, the following three questions are the place to start:

  1. How do we honor and care for the humanity of each of the adults and children in our care?
  2. How do we make our learning spaces places where children choose to be, and where they make the education they need?
  3. How do we ensure each adult has a balanced learning diet, and the same opportunities to explore new curiosities that we hope they create for children in their classes?

If we take an informed, participatory citizenry as the goal of public education, and decision reflects that goal, then these three questions can help us create the schools we need.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

Are we talking our problems into existence?

As part of Connected Educator Month, Chris and I are having a great time hosting a book study of Building School 2.0. The questions for Week 2 went up last night, but this post isn’t to get you to join the conversation (though you totally should).

This is because a comment from last week from Nancy Ironside has kept me thinking about changing culture and perceived barriers. In the book, Chris and I call out the ineffectiveness of admiring the problem, and I think there’s some element of that in my reply to Nancy. More, though, she’s got me thinking about narrative creating reality. Below is my reply.

I hear what you’re saying about lip service being paid to innovation and a counter narrative being played out in policy and practice.

One of the things I’ve noted in schools everywhere is not innovation dying in policy or practice (to be sure, these can be killers), but it dying in the commonly-held narrative within a school or district. People start sharing the story that they’d like to do new things. They’d like to try this new approach or practice. But, they cite policy and administrative practices as hindering them. They cite them in that way – unspecific, as though these prohibitive policies and practices were floating in the ether.

When cultures start to change, it’s because people within those cultures do what you mention. They envision what they want the culture of their learning space to be and then they start acting and talking as though that new culture has become the truth.

I had a book when I was young called Donkeys Can’t Sleep in Bathtubs. It was a collection of ridiculous, arcane, and outdated laws that were still on the books in various states. The thing I realize now is that no one was trying to make a donkey sleep in a bathtub, and anyone who happened to try it nowadays would likely avoid jail time. This is the truth about those who decide to change the narrative about what’s possible within our schools simply by acting according to the narrative they’d like to work into existence.


On Whose Shoulders: Barn Raising


Today’s shoulders provided more than key ideas for inclusion in Building School 2.0, they were also key for the how of building Building School 2.0.

The barn raising in question is that described by Don McCormick and Michael Kahn in their article “Barn Raising: Collaborative group process in seminars.”

McCormick and Kahn present a possibility for running class discussions and seminars that run contrary to Person A making a point, Person B poking holes, and Person C poking holes in those holes, and so on ad nauseam. Instead, McCormick and Kahn write:

We would like to suggest:

  1. The classroom battle is not a good way to teach thinking.

  2. Even if it were, it makes idea-conversation so unpleasant that students do their best to avoid it, in college and afterwards.

  3. It is a significant contribution to the building of a society of contention and enmity.

  4. And, as an alternative, there is another way to talk about ideas which obviates those difficulties.

That alternative, barn raising. Finding an idea and agreeing as a community to do whatever we can to build on that ideas as a community. In classrooms, in faculty meetings, in any room where ideas are discussed – barn raising can change the game by changing the unexamined rules.

As Chris and I were writing, barn raising occurred time and again as an idea we wanted to situate in the context of the larger messages of the book and as a guiding principle for marrying my ideas to his and his to mine. We would not have gotten anywhere if we’d positioned ourselves as partners whose objectives were to tear down whatever wall of the text the other had just completed.

Here’s the other thing about barn raising – once you know about it, you can’t not see its place in conversations. Every meeting I’m in where we’re supposed to be coming up with ideas or working together to build something, I can’t help imagine how things might have gone if we were all amenable to building something. Instead – and you’ll see it – so many meetings operate on a theory of pulling down whatever ideas propped up next to yours. Nothing of merit tends to get built that way.

On Whose Shoulders: @GLSEN

Just when you thought this month’s series of posts was going to focus on singular writers, their individual texts, and how they influenced the writing of Building School 2.0 – bam, the unexpected.

In all seriousness, the good people of GLSEN work tirelessly to compile one of the most helpful, if not stark and sobering, data sets available on the lived experiences of our LQBTQ students.

GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey is one of the most complete accountings how our country and states are progressing in helping students walk through their compulsory school days without hearing being mocked for differences – real or perceived.

Beyond the Survey, though, GLSEN is also acting on its findings. From resources to start and support school-based Gay Straight Alliances to the Day of Silence and Ally Week, GLSEN is building tools and resources for LGBTQ students, teachers, and their allies to foster understanding, conversations, and change within schools so that everyone might have the chance to feel more comfortable in their own humanity.

While the book may only call out GLSEN’s work directly one or two times, the organization’s work toward its mission “…to assure that each member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression” embodies the Ethic of Care.

'13 School Climate Survey Infographic

On Whose Shoulders: Dan Lortie’s _Schoolteacher_

cover of Dan Lortie's SchoolteacherIn exactly one month, Chris and my book Building School 2.0 will be out for your reading pleasure. As excited as that makes me, it feels most appropriate over the next month to point those who are interested to the shoulders on which we stood when playing with the ideas we hope will be helpful to you and anyone else who decides to pick up the book.

First off, in the battle against education and teaching’s frustrating ahistoricism, I point you to Dan Lortie’s Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study.

Most people’s understanding of the history of teaching began with their kindergarten years and ended with a collected throng of teachers in senior year. This is helpful for a personal narrative, but not excellent for knowing the history of our profession.

Lortie goes well beyond an individual’s experience in public education and places schoolteachers within the larger historical context and should be required reading for anyone who has been ever ventured a sentence on the status of teachers and their role in supporting the formation of informed public.

Even more, for those fighting the good fight today to put teaching in its rightful position as a profession worthy of esteem and honor, Lortie’s book helps put in perspective the many battles (large and small) that have taken us from living the back of one-room school houses to those on the cutting edge of helping our students be the architects of tomorrow.

For Chris and me, Lortie’s Schoolteacher provided not only a set of shoulders on which we stood, but a reminder of all the voices throughout history who did quiet, thankless work of showing up each day to figure out what it meant to build public education in America.

Dana Boyd proves ‘It’s Complicated’

Dana Boyd’s It’s Complicated has been on my Kindle for longer than a book of its quality should have to wait in digital limbo before a person gets around to reading it.

Complicated is Boyd’s distilling and examination of years of exploration of the online lives of the American teen. Making the title apt, the text shows that teens’ relationship to online spaces is complicated and best summed up for me in the closing pages:

As teens work through the various issues that emerge around networked publics, they must struggle with what it means both to be public and to be in public.

I tried, as I made my way through the book, to figure out where I was agreeing with Boyd because she was making points I’ve made in public before and where I was agreeing with her because she’d masterfully unveiled a new line of thinking. In the end, I tipped my hat to Boyd because she’d made points that had never occurred to me and woven them together with what I realized were my own simple ways of thinking.

Explaining Complicated to a friend the other day, I explained, were I designing a syllabus that included the book, I’d follow it quickly with Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American City.

Because that’s what Boyd does here, she pounds the digital concrete of modern American cities and attempts to understand how teens are hanging out there the way they used to do on stoops and in malls across the country.

Additionally, she works to understand adults’ fears that have driven teens to these spaces and adults’ fears now that they’re there. Boyd writes, “[S]ocial media services like Facebook and Twitter are providing teens with new opportunities to participate in public life, and this, more than anything else, is what concerns many anxious adults.”

I read the book with a constant refrain in my mind, “What kind of adults are we forcing these teens to become?”

For adults to make their way through that fear, Boyd later adds, “For adults to hear the voices of youth, they must let go of their nostalgia and suspend their fears.”

Perhaps this idea is where Complicated hits its highest note. In helping readers to pull apart the fear from the fact, Boyd sets the stage for a measured, informed conversation of how we create and monitor online and physical spaces for our teens.

I read the book with a constant refrain in my mind, “What kind of adults are we forcing these teens to become?”

If you’re looking for something more informed to say than, “Kids these days!” then it’s time to pick up Dana Boyd’s It’s Complicated.


You can find a full list of Kindle notes and highlights from the book here.

43/365 Assign Projects

Alex transferred to SLA in his junior year from one of large comprehensive schools in Philadelphia after it closed. Toward the end of the first week, I asked him how SLA compared to his former school. It was similar, he said, many of the same classes he’d seen where he came from.

“But that learning, though…You guys are way ahead of us on learning.”

It took time for him to become accustomed to the way of doing things at SLA. The transition was a culture shift, and it wasn’t one he’d asked for.

If we had administered test, I’m sure we would have found gaps in Alex’s literacy and math scores. In conversations in class, he would often ask for clarification on historical ideas that were common knowledge to his classmates.

Using these pieces of assessment, we would have enough data to draw up a deficit model of Alex that fit him somewhere in a remedial class in a traditional school.

That wasn’t the philosophy of the school.

If you want a dipstick along the way, use a quiz or test. If you want to know what a student has truly learned, assign a project.

Throughout his first quarter with us, Alex was assigned a joint project through his English and history classes. He was to find a named building in his neighborhood and research both the building and the person for whom it was named. That done, he was to tell the story of both.

Alex selected a middle school near his house and decided a video documentary would best convey what he found.

The physical structure of the school, Alex found, had been under contract for sale to a local business. Though the contract had fallen through, it hadn’t fallen through before the district installed a new heating system as part of the deal.

Alex found the heating system hadn’t been connected or made operational. It sat in the basement unused while the inefficient system the building was built with limped along.

Then, Alex found something on the tour that changed the story he was telling. In the school’s library, he found bare shelves and was told the school hadn’t purchased a new book for the space in more than five years.

When he returned to SLA, he was impassioned. Recognizing the injustice he’d uncovered, Alex approached the editing and production of his project with new intensity. He had found something real through the asking of authentic questions, and worked to marshal all of his abilities to make the best product he could.

While Alex’s case is not the norm for all projects, it does highlight what can happen with projects at their best. Because he had been givent he scope and charge to build something of meaning that required dexterity with primary sources, interviews, storytelling and myriad other skills, Alex created something that blew the possible deficit understanding of his learning out of the water.

The video narrative he created laid out in stark relief the images he’d captured of the heating system and juxtaposed them heartbreakingly with his images of the library. After the viewing in class, his classmates gave him a round of applause and peppered him with questions, hungry to better understand what he’d uncovered.

As teachers were able to assess his discrete skills through quizzes and other assessments and and offer Alex help in augmenting the areas in which he was weakest. Because of the project, though, we were able to see the best of what Alex was capable and, in turn, she the best of Alex.

41/365 We Must Be Our Whole Selves in the Classroom

Remember when you were in school and saw a teacher out in the real world? Do you remember that feeling of awe as you realized this person existed outside of the classroom? It was a mind-bending experience for me, filled with questions – Could they still grade without the classroom? Were they talking to everyone in the grocery store about the quadratic formula? Were they hiding our homework in their purses?

Then, when I was safely back in our roles as teachers and students in the classroom, I could say, “I saw you this weekend!” as though we’d caught them out of bounds. Those are times burned into our memories.

They have no place in the schools we need.

As much as we can, we must be out whole selves in the classroom.

It is easy to step into a classroom and decide, “This is my teacher self. This is who the students will see.” Then, when the day is done, we return to our nerdy appreciation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, meet up with our kickball teams, or join with our fiction writers’ workshop as though the two identities are completely separate.

The separation of our professional selves and our private selves must be maintained, to be sure. Taking the problems and worries of every student home with us each night creates martyrs, not teachers.

Still, there is a place for our whole selves in the classroom.

This is the support to which our students must have access. We bring social capital with us. To ignore that and deny our students access is to do them a detriment and limit their access to the “real world.”

Whatever we were before we were teachers, we must take these roles with us into the classroom. In fact, we cannot help it, so we might as well make it explicit.

No matter the social standing of our students outside of school we must consider ourselves as conduits to the cultures they might access when they leave us. Much has been made of the “funds of knowledge” in which our students exist outside of schools, in their daily cultures. To be sure, these are cultures from which teachers should and must learn.

Little to nothing has been mentioned of the funds of knowledge existing in the non-school lives of teachers. Learning lives there. Whatever can be used by students to access the lives of their teachers can be used by teachers to access the lives of students.

As much as we must be our best teacher selves, we must consider how much of our whole selves we can be in the classroom.

A former student recently asked about how much she might share regarding her past. Now in college and preparing for student teaching, this student knew the hardships she’d known in childhood could act as anchors for her students. She knew she would have found it easier to navigate the difficult and tumultuous psychological spaces she’s encountered if she’d had a teacher in her life who’d said, “I’ve been where you are, and I found the way out.” Realizing she was about to enter the lives of her own students, this young woman wanted to make sure she was as transparent as she could be so that her students saw her as a source of strength if they were working through some of the same personal crises.

Certainly, teaching does not require we lay our lives bare for our students in hopes such nakedness of spirit will help them at our experience. When possible, though, whether it be a favorite television show or a traumatic event, begin our whole selves in the classroom gives students access not only to who we are as people, but to who they might become.

39/365 What We Want for Students, We Must Want for Teachers

A friend of mine, a classroom teacher with more than 15 years of experience working with students at all grade levels, found herself a new school in a new city after years of experience in another school system. Because of tough economic conditions, few teaching positions were open, and she took a job at a school about which she’d heard mixed reviews.

A few months later, she resigned from the school. She left it broken in places no teacher should be broken by a school.

What we want for our students, we must want for our teachers.

Within her school, my friend was constantly being evaluated and given feedback that she had not met the expectations on the school-wide evaluation form. During one observation, when a student spoke out, rather than awarding that student with a demerit as policy dictated, this teacher approached the student and spoke to him as a person about community and what it means to be a member.

At the end of the lesson, the teacher’s observer commented that she’d failed to follow school protocol and would be marked “unsatisfactory” as a result.

This is a story of a particular time and place, but it could easily be the story of innumerable schools across the country. We are treating our teachers, practicing professionals, as though they step into the classroom devoid of wisdom, care, and creativity.

We must stop this. Teachers must refuse to subject themselves to this kind of treatment. When teachers are not trusted or allowed to connect with their students in human ways that help to model how to be members of a community, when they are forced to award consequences devoid of conversation, when their professionalism is called into question when they treat children as people – it diminishes our democracy let alone the professionalism of teachers.

In many cases, it is our youngest teachers, drawn to the profession (often with minimal training) who find themselves in these schools. As it is there first foray into professional teaching they may not know to be insulted by the feedback they receive. Indeed, because of the feeling of treading water that comes with any novice teachers, they may welcome the feedback as the only chance to improve.

In time they may become dependent on this feedback, relying on the outside judgement of others in place of developing their own since of success based on their professional opinion. Worse yet, some may master the criteria of the observation form, receive “outstanding” ratings in all areas and come to think of this as a mark of completion. For those teachers who were, themselves, the schooliest of students, counting success as the approval of their assessors will make perfect sense.

We must want more for teachers.

We must want more for teachers because we want more for students and for society.

Oftentimes, those who call for the improvement of the teaching profession employ the same deficit model of thinking they apply to rhetoric about those students who come from communities in poverty to the teachers they’re attempting to “improve.”

I am reminded of the passage from Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation where he describes fast food’s attempt to alter their production lines so that workers with no experience and limited or no English proficiency can prepare food based on a system of pictures.

While the school reform movement has not made it this far, such a horizon is not as distant as some might think.

Scripted curricula, check-off observation forms – these tools and those like them not only generate a stifling “one size for all” mindset about schools, but they ask less and less of our teachers, not more.

And we should ask more of our teachers – more creativity, more imagination, more inquiry, more investigation.

As it sits, though, we are asking for more conformity, as though our children come from one mold, as though our teachers should as well.

32/365 Learning Must be Non-Negotiable

There’s a trend I’ve noticed in education. Maybe you’ve noticed it too. Teachers are no longer teaching “students.” They suddenly find themselves teaching “learners.” What’s more, with this shift, many teachers find they aren’t even teachers any more, but have taken on the new title of “educators.”

Many times, it is easier to change what we call something and then point to it as innovation than it is to change what we do. One major issue with calling students “learners” one day and keeping them in the same classrooms with the same people doing the same things they were doing the day before is the ease with which the title change can be conflated with a change in what is actually going on. I could insist that people start calling me a male model tomorrow, but this would do little to attract the attention of agents, magazines, etc., if I didn’t also change how I live my life and what I deem important.

Such is the case with calling all people enrolled in a class “learners.” It’s aspirational, and that’s admirable, but changing what you call a thing means nothing if you don’t also change the way you do that thing. What’s more, changing what you call the thing can often mean a loss in urgency regarding changing how you do the thing.

Learning, on the other hand must be non-negotiable. It’s subtle difference, but a key one.

I don’t care if our students are learners, so long as our students are learning.

The latter is more difficult to put hands on, perhaps this is why we’ve settled for the shift in name and decided to qualify the earning of that name with passing scores on exams of questionable worth regarding how appropriate the name might be.

It seems to me, the better questions come from teachers asking themselves, “Are my students learning?” and following that question with, “How can I tell?”

Building on that, the best schools and teachers are the ones that help students ask, “Am I learning?” and following that question with “What am I learning, and how can I use it?” Exceptional schools move out of the way so that students can inform teachers’ professional practice through the identification of what they’re curious about and what they’d like to create.

These questions prove to be difficult because they bring with them the possibility of negative answers. Both teacher and student is liable to answer, “no” at any stage of the game. Such answers are invaluable and frustratingly so. They represent the necessity of re-evaluating what we’ve been doing, asking what isn’t working, and then building something new with the knowledge we might need to go through this whole process time and again as we move toward learning.

Calling a student a “learner,” represents no such problems. It’s hard to imagine a case in which a person would reject the label no matter the presence or absence of proof of its fit. Walk in to any classroom and ask a student, “Are you learning?” and you’re likely to get myriad responses. Ask that same student, “Are you a learner?” and it’s much more likely you’ll be answered in the affirmative.

Still, the schools we need are not schools where students proudly introduce themselves as learners to those passing through, but they are schools where those passing through have no doubt that the work, play, and creation they see are acts of learning.