Friday, April 8, 2011

The power of mutual knowledge

I understand why many teachers feel the need to shut their classroom doors and teach as if they were on an island. For some of these teachers, they do this out of necessity. It's sadly ironic that in order for some teachers to be innovative and creative, they need to isolate themselves from the shackles of the system's unreasonable standards and accountability regimes.

These teachers engage in a kind of professional subversion.

These teachers become what Barry Schwartz calls system dodgers.

While system dodging can be fueled with good intentions, it simply is not sustainable; educators need to move from being mere system dodgers, who the system is glad to pick off one at a time in isolation, and graduate to being system changers.

However, if educators ever wish to move beyond having to bend the system's rules in order to do right by kids, we need to assemble in the metaphorical public square where everyone will see everyone else. Once educators assemble where everyone can see everyone else, everyone knows that everyone else knows that everyone else knows that the hyper-prescribed, content-bloated curriculums and high stakes test and punish testing bureaucracies are loathed.

It is through this mutual knowledge that educators will gain the collective power to challenge the idea that those outside of the classroom have more control over those who are inside the classroom.


  1. Joe,

    Great post! It truly made me think, and I know I need to step it up a bit; however, it did leave me with a question...

    What about when the system isn't just the dictator in the palace? What about those instances where there is another group with mutual knowledge who all believe that the status quo is what is right? Then you have TWO groups in the square, fighting, while the metaphorical dictator watches from the palace.

    Not challenging your idea...just seeking your thoughts/advice...

  2. Mr. Heitz's observation articulates one of the challenges of change, but it doesn't contradict Joe Bower's point. I am networking professionally; building mutual knowledge about educational reform.I am aware that I still communicate within a limited community. Staff room conversations make it clear that differences abound. I am watching the events in Libya conscious that the "opposition" attempting to oust the dictator is not a monolithic block. There will have to be a resolution of differences at some point there. There is still power in mutual knowledge.

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  4. I absolutely agree that there is power in mutual knowledge and am not looking to contradict. The challenge was my point...a challenge I'd like thoughts on addressing.

    My question is this: How do we connect with the "opposition" in a way that makes progress, not just agree to disagree? (Notice, "connect," not "convert." There are obviously some valid concerns in both camps.) How do we spread mutual knowledge effectively?

  5. My doors are always open yet I still feel trapped and isolated (could be that the current political climate here is exacerbating my feelings). Over the past 2 years I have been working towards being more open and sharing what works and what doesn't in my classroom. This creates a sense of greater competence in myself as a teacher (and develops the courage to discuss ideas with the "opposition"). Without the discussion, you can't discover how much you have in common.

  6. Your points are valid, Joe! I've often wondered, though, whether educators would also benefit from understanding HOW to begin this change. The "hiding" thing works for the individual, but if we really want to make a systemic change, we'll need the ability to persuade professionally, courteously, and irrefutably. : ) I talk a little bit about this in my blog: "Why Professionals Need to Disagree and Disagree Well." On Joyful Collapse, Blogspot. : )

  7. The byline caught my attention: "I understand why many teachers feel the need to shut their classroom doors and teach as if they were on an island." I often feel this way, but not due to unreasonable standards or accountability, for almost none exist in my school system. I'm not a dodger, quite the opposite, but I still need to isolate my practice from the institutional chaos that exists outside. In 16 years I can count on one hand the number of times I have been held to account for what I do as a teacher as a direct application of standards. My school system routinely (although not necessarily as a habit) turns a blind eye to my students' attendance, work completion, work habits, drug habits, cyberbullying, exam scores, plagiarism, mastery of learning outcomes, whether the tech works, what students eat, grad transition forms, daily physical activity requirements. If we care about these things as individual teachers or administrators, we can get involved, otherwise don't ask, don't tell. Our education ministry is even floating the idea that "prescribed learning outcomes" are more of a menu to choose from than learning requirements, so now they don't even care what I teach. There are few logical responses left when the school system does this - fight, flight, or just don't care. I definitely care, so I suppose my "island" tendencies are more about fight and flight. Luckily this tendency also produces self reliance and a hunger for interdependence with other like-minded souls. We've gone underground. Hey, it's functional, and when it sucks we get to blame ourselves!


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