My working table is a mess—piles upon piles of clippings and interesting articles to comment on. I watched a TV show today about pathological “hoarders.” I think that I am one—all the stuff I know I’ll want to use someday in the future.
When I started blogging for Education Week with Diane Ravitch I thought, ah hah—at last. I'll have plenty of time and space to say everything. But oddly enough it hasn’t had that effect at all. Everything connects with something else and eventually the pile is so huge I can't use any of it. What's such fun about education as a topic is that everything leads to so many connections.
In a way, this reminds me of the way a good curriculum develops. Almost any starting point can lead on to so many connections, and by the time we have to call it quits we’ve barely scratched the surface. It turns out that virtually everything is interesting, and that most interesting things find a way of reminding us of other interesting things, that in turn influence how we think...and so on.
Of course, one must make decisions in life as in the classroom. Which means we are all the time acting on our latest and best hunches, and hoping that in the process we’ll uncover new possibilities for when we come back to the same questions again.
This was precisely the basis of our curriculum design at Mission Hill. We designated some broad topics—three per year—and then jumped into them. Every four years we more or less came back to the same questions—when we were all four years older and wiser. In this spirit I recently reread several pieces I wrote for Dissent magazine in the 60s. Then I began to reread the short essays I sent home to parents after Central Park East started in the 70s. What changes could I detect over these 40-50 years?
Why was I so much more optimistic back then? When I think about how discouraging those years were--Vietnam, the bankruptcy in NYC, etc--why do I feel things may be worse now? Many of the issues I now wring my hands over were surely worrisome then too. Like standardized testing. Like top-down decision making, passive elementary school teachers, the shortcomings of the UFT (my union) and the patronizing put-downs I received from folks when they discovered I was an early childhood teacher.
So when I saw Harvard professor Richard Elmore’s essay in the Harvard Education Letter (Jan/Feb 2010) entitled “I Used to Think…and Now I Think” I decided it was time for me to do the same. The most enlightening/amusing point in Elmore's essay came early: how the idea of consciously revisiting one's old views was so thoroughly rejected by his colleagues. I'd like to have been a fly on the wall.
1. I used to think that policy was the solution. And now I think that policy is the problem.
2. I used to think that people’s beliefs determined their practices. And now I think that people’s practices determine their beliefs.
3. I used to think that public institutions embodied the collective values of society. And now I think that they embody the interests of the people who work in them.
I found myself agreeing with many of his thoughts as he developed them on all three topics. But least of all about #3. So I’ll start my own list with his three. In my next letter you’ll get my "I used to...and now" thoughts. But a few hints.
Grandiose policies avoid the realities of practice. But they are both less and more important than I once thought. The practices/beliefs conundrum intrigues me. When Elmore quotes poet Yeats, who said he increasingly saw the world “with a cold eye and a hot heart” I took a deep sigh... Me too. But unlike Elmore, my heart still goes out to all the constituents of our schools—children, their families, and their teachers. I'm less worried than he appears to be about some kinds of "self interest." I still believe that we can develop practices and beliefs that bring together the self-interests of at least those most directly affected by schooling. The connecting link between community, family, teacher and child does not seem unbridgeable. I still believe in our potentially shared interest in…well, almost anything and everything, if we believe ourselves powerful enough to have an impact. And finally, I still have a tendency to worry when a "Crisis" is declared and quick solutions demanded. Democracy works best when we have the leisure to do some hard thinking together.