If there’s an emoji to describe my writer’s mind during the last 4-5 months, it would be the one with the nuclear explosion coming out of the top of the head:
You see, before this past summer started, I scheduled fewer speaking engagements than normal so that I could bury myself in research. When I look back at the questions I was asking and the enormous pile of books I intended to read in order to start answering them, it’s clear that I was destined for a head explosion.
- How do we rethink K-12 curricula in view of the clear (and widely unknown) role that knowledge plays in comprehension, critical thinking, motivation, and further knowledge-building?
- How do we rethink teacher preparation and teacher in-service professional development from the ground up, so that our profession has an actual shared body of knowledge that its practitioners actually know and can retrieve on demand?
- What do we do NOW in systems that are full of under-prepared and/or under-motivated teachers? What makes great PD, and how do we make it more commonplace?
- What do we do NOW for students who find themselves in the middle of K-12 systems that emphasize high performance on tests that, to them, are irrelevant?
- How do we build strong and coherent school cultures around strong and coherent school goals in a world obsessed with newness and noise?
I’m barely getting started. So just that first bullet point ended up taking me in hopelessly multitudinous directions.
I read Daniel Willingham and Graham Nuthall and the Murphys and David Didau. I read new books from David Epstein and Natalie Wexler; I reread old ones by Nassim Taleb and Timothy Walker. And by the time I was done, I was nearly incoherent.
(That incoherence is still happening today, so expect my next several months of blog posting to be me digging myself out one article at a time.)
The point for today’s article is to dig into WHY our heads explode like this and WHAT TO DO when they it happens.
Why the head explosion?
I see at least four reasons for the unpleasantly fragmented nature of my mind right now:
- We (education professionals) have LOTS of clear, evidence-supported thinking about teaching and learning that is currently unknown to the vast majority of the teacher workforce. (I make this assumption because I know that most of our workforce isn’t as nerdy as you and I are or as blessed with time to research teaching and learning for weeks at a time.) Instead of clear, evidence-supported thinking, we tend to emphasize the kind of thinking that rings more of politics or philosophy than it does of a professional knowledge base. I’m not against politics or philosophy, but I’m weary of the incoherence that comes when those things form the foundation of our thinking — and now I’m especially weary because of how unnecessary it is for us to be founded on such shifting sands.
- The gap between what our best thinkers have demonstrated about teaching and learning and what our school systems currently look like is excruciating. It literally causes me physical pain at times.
- The path to fixing this is difficult, especially in light of the contractual, policy-derived, and workforce constraints that many of our school systems are currently under. I’m all for constraints! But there just is a point where you have too many and you need to quit or re-strategize. If you want to be a stronger swimmer, there are probably ways to constrain your practice — like maybe attaching weights on your wrists — to get better faster. But if you swim with a family of pandas on your back, you’ll probably die.
- I entered this recent research phase with so little direction. This meant I read a lot of really smart but really disparate sources, and since a lot of it was new, my working memory was constantly (and I feel still is constantly) taxed to its capacity. That can be overwhelming.
Now, I’m not special. We all get in these times where our heads are exploding: we’re overwhelmed by a new curricula (yep, got one of those I’m building this year), a new program (yep, I’m in one of those this year, too), a new approach, or some research-heavy PD you went to with this nerdy guy Dave Stuart Jr.
So, what do we do when we’re at this point? It’s a stressful moment (or months of moments), and our brains don’t do well with super-optimal pressure.
What do we do when our heads are exploding?
I’ve been in a boxing match with this question for the last month, and I’ve lost most of the rounds. I can’t tell you how many writing sessions I’ve left lately with 3, 4, 5, or 6 false start blog posts drafted. It’s been a hard season and it has tested my resolve.
I was so thankful then, this past weekend, to meet Tammy Elser, a career educator in Montana who has been earnestly engaging the questions above (and more) since about the time I was born. What I found in Tammy wasn’t just another instant friend and rigorous thought partner — this blog blessedly attracts so many of those. In Tammy I also found a living picture of what it can look like to work within broken systems, to read the professional literature deeply and widely, and to join with others to make things better as you go along. (Tammy’s success, like all real successes in education, is group work, and there is quite a powerful community of teachers and leaders there on the Flathead Reservation.)
Talking with Tammy reminded me that when our heads have exploded, the way out is simply to work the problem. Do I hate the achievement gap? Do I hate the inhumane features of our systems? Do I loathe the incoherence of so much of what passes for professional development in our schools? Yes. But instead of drowning in these problems, the trick is to ask: What’s right in front of me that I can work on right now?
Early on in Tammy’s career, she was in a curriculum and instruction role, and the school she was at had a large achievement gap between American Indian students and their non-American Indian peers. So what did Tammy do? She worked the problem, one step at a time — ultimately arriving at ten or so top-level strategies that, through consistent implementation for years and years, allowed her school’s teachers and students to start winning.
Simple, robust solutions, repetitively and exhaustively communicated, for years on end. This is what allowed her school to reverse that achievement gap.
So for me, what does working the problem look like? Writing. There was once a time when this blog was little more than the rough draft thinking of a teacher in West Michigan. Sometimes I forget that that’s still what it has to be if I’m to keep the pieces of my head and heart together.
So, two things as we close:
- If you’re in the exploded head mode, work the problem. What needs to be done for that program, that class, that department? Go all the way back to the first principles. Work the problem.
- If you’re subscribed to my blog, consider yourself warned: months of rough draft thinking are in store as I put the pieces of my head back together, once again.
Teaching right beside you,
Dave Stuart Jr.