Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The problem with infinity

In his book The Dip, Seth Godin writes, "the problem with infinity is that there's too much of it." He ends up talking mostly about business and markets, but his point is not lost on education.

The trouble with focusing on content as the primary role of education is that there is an infinite amount of stuff to know.

If teachers are suppose to the be sage on the stage, they might never have time to get off the stage.

If teachers are suppose to be the jugs and the kids are the mugs, the teachers might never notice that their jugs are bottomless and the kids' mugs are already overflowing.

If teachers are to chalk and talk, they may only stop talking because they are waiting for their turn to talk again.

Rigorous and rigid curriculums that are bloated with content is used to rationalize all kinds of horrible pedagogy such as horrendous loads of homework to sit-and-get-regurgitate-and-forget lessons. We cover curriculum at break-neck lightning speeds so that we can say that we covered while we really have no idea whether we've uncovered anything for the kids.

I'm not saying content isn't important, but for the most part, school gets curriculum wrong. You can't demand teachers to dispense an infinite amount of material and then hold them accountable for reducing it all to a finite score.

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson offer this perspective on planning in their book Rework:

Why don't we just call plans what they really are: guesses. Start referring to your business plans as business guesses, your financial plans as financial guesses, and your strategic plans as strategic guesses. Now y ou can stop worrying abou them as much. They just aren't worth the stress.

When you turn guesses into plans, you enter a danger zone. Plans let the past drive the future. They put blinders on you. "This is where we're going because, well, that's where we said we were going." And that's the problem: plans are inconsistent with improvization.

And  you have to be able to improvise. You have to be able to pick up opportunities that come along. Sometimes you need to say, "We're going in a new direction because that's what makes sense today."

The timing of long-range plans is screwed up too. You have the most information when you're doing something, not before you've done it. Yet when do you write a plan? Usually it's before you've even begun. That's the worst time to make a big decision.

Now this isn't to say you shouldn't think about the future or contemplate how you might attack upcoming obstacles. That's a worthwhile exercise. Just don't feel you to write it down or obsess about it. If you write a big plan, you'll most likely never look at it anyway. Plans more than a few pages long just wind up as fossils in your file cabinet.

Give up on the guesswork. Decide what you're going to do this week, not this year. Figure out the next most important thing and do that. Make decisions right before you do something, not far in advance.

It's OK to wing it. Just get on the plane and go. You can pick up a nicer shirt, shaving cream, and a toothbrush once you get there.

Working without a plan may seem scary. But blindly following a plan that has no relationship with reality is even scarier.
On the record, teachers are bullied into saying that they teach every single outcome that their state or province dictates. Afterall, if they admitted otherwise, they run the risk of being tossed out on their ear. But off the record, over an ice-cold beer, teachers will likely say that they don't get to everything because they just can't. There is too much.

And yet, there are some teachers who will stand stead-fast and recite their allegiance to their curriculums. To these teachers I say, wouldn't you like a little more autonomy? To be trusted a little bit more? A little more time and opportunity to explore the things you and your students would like to explore? In the end, all I am advocating for is more trust and autonomy for teachers.

This is why the very best teachers spend everyday of their lives subverting or ignoring curriculum. And they do so because it is in the best interests of their students.


  1. I wish someone would challenge you on your final statement. It might be interesting to read. Unfortunately (fortunately?) I cannot. What you have reflected here matches my professional experience. I do think curriculum matters and despite our complaints it is the result of some deep thinking about what and when people should learn. It informs my teaching and offers meaningful challenges to my students. Never-the-less it tends to exist in abstract. The student's learning needs take primacy. I have to meet them at their level and follow them as far as they can go. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I'm a regular poster, but due to the content of this comment, I'm choosing to remain anonymous today. I agree 100%. In fact, I'm teaching a new course now and am finding that I despise the curriculum, textbook, and online homework system I'm supposed to use. I was trying to stick with it at the beginning, give it a chance, but it goes against everything I know about learning. I've carefully talked to my boss and other instructors about it, but I keep hearing excuses not to change the curriculum and materials used for the class.

    So over the semester, I've been slowly and quietly ditching the curriculum. Now at the end, I'm not giving out anymore homework, not making them take anymore exams. I'm doing things my way and students are more excited and are learning more than ever. A quote from one of my students who almost dropped a few weeks ago: "Wohoo, this is more like it!"

    Now I've got a different "problem." There are still a few weeks left and the students have blazed through what they're supposed to learn for the semester. Oh well. I can live with that. :-)

  3. Right on, Joe. I wrote a while ago about an idea to let students decide 20% of what they learn about your subject. Now I'm thinking, why not also let teachers decide 20% (at least) of the curriculum?

    I also loved those thoughts from Godin on planning vs. guessing. Definitely matches my experience.


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