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.

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: Lisa Delpit’s _Other People’s Children_

cover of Other People's Children

A quick keyword search for Lisa Delpit on the blog will show I’ve thought and written about her work pretty deeply over the years as I’ve thought about what it means to be the other in my classroom (both as a teacher relating to my students, and for my students relating to me).

As I continue this series of posts about those thinkers, practitioners, and researchers who directly influenced what you’ll find in Building School 2.0 in the run-up to its Sept. 8 release, I cannot say enough about Delpit’s work and this title in particular.

In Other People’s Childrenc, Delpit is challenging, fair, thoughtful, and caring in laying out – over the course of several essays – some key considerations and understandings teachers (particularly teachers who are white) need to take up so that they might be better versions of themselves when working with students who come lived experiences wholly different from their own.

More than anything, I hope you pick up Other People’s Children, select a chapter, and start a lunch-time reading group with faculty friends. The conversations won’t be comfortable or easy, and they shouldn’t be. Most important conversations, most acts of changing your mind, are difficult. That’s good.

I hope, in some small way, Chris and I honor Delpit’s ideas and weave them with those of others.

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.