What's the point of working toward problems that lack solutions?
Conversations with colleagues and young(er) teachers cause me to wonder what's required to make positive change in response to answerless questions.
Earlier this week, one of the young(er) teachers who I mentor asked: is there ever a moment in the classroom when you’ve got it dialed in just right for every student?
It is, to me, a defining question. The answer, I’m fairly certain, is no: no teacher can design a classroom that is perfectly, reliably engaging, challenging, and valuable for each student in the room The implications of that answer lead to a core problem in education. Teacher’s respond to it in equal and opposite ways: either they lean heavily on traditions, their own and those inherited from others, trusting what’s familiar but ignoring the ways that those traditions don’t serve all of their students; or, they obsessively reiterate, expending energy trying to teach every student well, which is essentially work to solve a problem with no solution.
When people ask me how I became a teacher, I always reassure them that it was an accident. Students who ask me need to know that, though they too might picture themselves becoming a foreign correspondent one day, the weirdly unchanging environment of a classroom might, and maybe even should, beckon them more. First dates need to know that, though I am professionally caring, in my personality I’m closer to a corporate lawyer than the nurturing caregiver they might remember. The reason I became a teacher, I tell them all, is because teaching is challenging every day. If you think markets are volatile, you should meet a fifteen-year-old.
Because of its constant change, teaching invites iteration and asks unsolveable questions. That’s why I show up to work each day. This vision of the job rings true to most educators but baffles most outsiders: teaching a kid should, it seems, be fairly simple. If we contextualize contemporary debates over education, though – the who, the what, the where deserves our time and energy – we can start to see that there are really no right answers or fully effective solutions in education. There are only optimally effective solutions to problems, not perfect ones. What’s optimal, too, is context-dependent, not easily (or, maybe, not even possibly) scaled.
The Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps especially in the United States, revealed that previously optimal solutions are no longer optimal. In education, most settled-upon and scaled solutions to the problem of how to educate students weren’t even solutions that represented the optimal, though. In any institution or broad system, we face this predicament that also arises in education: that we decide on optimal, “best” practices and then find that they no longer fit (in teaching, this shift can happen in a day).
On the same day that this teacher asked his question, I spoke with a group of colleagues about checks for understanding, which are part of a process of creating learning communities that include all kinds of learners. In the absence of pop-quizzes and constant testing, both of which aren’t considered best practices under most circumstances, schools have begun to recognize that they urgently need to develop new, effective ways to know what students do or don’t know – particularly in diverse schools, which most schools actually are, despite what they may appear to be demographically. When we discuss diverse learners, we speak of neurodiversity – students who learn differently, who might deal with ADHD or processing differences – but we also speak of students who find themselves outside of a dominant culture of a school, or students whose family experiences shape their learning experiences, or even students who grew up speaking mostly a language other than English. Covid-19 heightened the importance of the check for understanding: exit tickets (notes that students write at the end of class that answer a specific question or articulate understanding); online mini-quizzes or surveys; multimodal question-and-response mechanisms that allowed students to talk about their work in different ways. What we learned was that we could be collecting a lot more information than what we do collect. Students have questions that we usually never hear in a classroom; they nod really convincingly when they have no idea what’s happening; they sit with blank stares while they also understand everything. What Covid revealed was that there was an opportunity, not to meet everyone where they are, but to meet a lot more people where they are. It’s an example of an optimizing practice, and also an example of what Adam Grant calls “thinking again”: we recognize that the previous practice relied on assumptions that do not hold, and then we implement new strategies to better catch our holes. Even though the holes will always be there.
As I write, I realize that I’m a bit of a broken record. Whenever I use the word “optimize,” or whenever I find myself trying to drum up enthusiasm to rethink and tinker with systems, I think about Jia Tolentino’s brilliant essay “Always be Optimizing” (a version can be found here) from her essay collection Trick Mirror. Tolentino names the underbelly of the addiction to optimizing, which is the way that, not unlike a drug, it can sap one’s energy in pursuit of an empty hope. The instinct to constantly optimize is societally contingent and societally valued, but/and it’s also impossible because of the limitations by which society would define success. I, and others, run up against this problem often, especially when we’re trying to drum up support for new initiatives. In 2022, this is even more challenging, because as we recognize new problems because of what the pandemic brings to light, we also, in great numbers, lack the energy to attack those problems because of the exhaustion and ennui the pandemic has brought. It’s another Catch-22. Endless energy could not bring the magic my new teacher is hoping for, and that endless energy can seem impossible anyway. We’re screwed.
When I began teaching and spoke to teachers about what it took to make a really good class, especially in the Humanities, most teachers seemed to credit magic (or some kind of metaphysical alchemy) for some to all of their success. Under a former supervisor, Peter Nilsson, I even participated in collecting from teachers around the world illustrations or mindmaps of the process of planning a great lesson. I never coded the results, but I do remember how prominently “magic” and “chance” and “spontaneity” figured into those plans, usually put together by master teachers. I see the echoes, too, in many of my interviews with teachers for In REAL Time. There really is a certain kind of magical moment, like a certain slant of light, which can change everything. It’s moment when a room seems full of energy, togetherness. I felt it the other day, with my eighth graders, during the first class they’d ever tried to have a discussion, all seventeen of them, without my guidance and without raising their hands. They built so beautifully, so rigorously off of one another that twenty five minutes later, it felt like the top of a big breath you’ve just taken in – you’re so full of energy that you don’t even know where to put it. Everyone’s there. Something just happened. Really, when we’re working out ways to that ideal classroom, “boats against the current,” we’re putting our faith in something intangible. The motivation to keep growing one’s teaching practice, then, relies upon our ability to have a certain kind of faith.
And yet, and yet – if we collected the data, and if we really checked to see if every student was taking away from the class a thorough understanding, based on all the metrics we’ve decided are important for the course, we’d quickly notice that of course, that single magical class period didn’t do what it needed for everyone there. As teachers we’re always hoping for those moments when it all comes together. What I’d argue, though, is that those moments aren’t what we’re working for – they’re just what keep us around. What we’re working for is the whole picture, the growth, the individual stories of every kid. And that’s why we don’t just get to give up when we look at all the Catch-22s we face; that’s why we have to keep working. It’s why we have to keep optimizing, even though we’ll be optimizing forever. Because this teaching thing isn’t logical, nor is it even reasonable. We use our reason to decode it, though, to try something new; we use logic to get unstuck. And then we suspend both to believe that it could happen.