Jul 282016

Yesterday I posted about deciding if teaching really was a dichotomy between agency or conformity, and I decided that yes, it really is a dichotomy. It is impossible to be a teacher and straddle the ideas of teaching to change the world or teaching to reinforce the world as it is.

And then Andy Pethan hits me with this:

I wonder if you can put student thinking and classroom behavior on independent axes. For example: you want to be a +10 on creating student agency in your classroom by encouraging thoughtful questioning and being approachable about nearly everything as the adult in the classroom. At the same time, you want a consistent environment that matches the reasonable expectations and rules of the entire school (potentially a -10 depending on the school). You can be open to discussing rules with students and offer a pathway that may lead to changing your rules or advocating for students who want to change a school rule (encouraging agency), but doing this while continuing to live within the rules (conformity). Over the past 5 years I have become both a more consistent school-rule and personal-rule enforcer while becoming better at encouraging students to question, wonder, and appropriately push back in the academic and rule-realms. I feel like this is the direction I want to keep moving in, but I’m curious to see where this discussion goes.

Because I am kind of a little mathy and like visuals, I turned that question into this graphic:

Axes of behavior

To which the question then becomes, does “rule following” end up on the x-axis (B position) or y-axis (A) position. And if rule following ends up on the B axis, then can a teacher be in the middle somewhere or only at the two ends. OR, if rule following ends up on the y-axis, can a teacher navigate the line in a positive sloped direction (whatever that slope may be).

Option A or Option B?

My personal take on this is that in this case, we are not talking about a dichotomy, but a continuum. It is clear to me that a teacher can be in the middle. A teacher could have some very strict rules of behavior (no bubble gum for example), but allow learners to sit on the floor or wherever is comfortable for them to learn. A continuum is possible in this case, where it wasn’t possible in the case yesterday.

Therefore, the first question is where does rule following land? Is it opposed to agency, or is it compatible with agency?

  1. Can a system  start off learners while they are young and teach them to be strict rule followers, and then as the learners age and develop more maturity teach them to be questioners? (This would be a negative sloped line from position A to the right instead of the positive I drew initially, OR it would be the blue dot moving from the left to the right each year.)
  2. Can a system start off with equal parts rule following and agency, and balance the two in the middle year after year while the learner is in school?
  3. Can a system stay fully in the rule following (okay, that is easy, of course. See North Korea, or some of the hyper-strict charter schools here in the US.) Do we want that? We are currently allowing it to occur here. Jose Vilson at TMC16 shared the fact that in New York, some of the charter schools are so strict that children have literally peed themselves while trying to learn math facts.
  4. Can a system stay fully in the agency mode from kindergarten through 12th grade? What would that look like? Maybe more like the High Tech High‘s or along the direction Chris Thinnes advocates for.
  5. Can a system have certain rules that are followed consistently, but then teach learners to question everything else?

Those are the five options I see. Honestly, I don’t see how the positive sloped line is possible. How can anyone teach simultaneously to be more of a rule follower and to be more of a questioner. That is ruled out.

I think this conversation is one that every single teacher has to have for themselves. I know for myself (and I speak only for myself on this) I fall into the #5. My personal graph looks like this:

Personal question v rules

I placed the line at 1 for a reason. I had 1 rule in my classroom that I enforced.

“Your behavior must contribute to the learning of every person in the room, including your own.”

That’s it.

I was pretty comfortable with pretty much anything else as long as everyone was learning and could show they were learning. My classroom was loud. It had learners sitting on the floor. It had learners looking at notes or Desmos on their cell phones (and yes, that means they occasionally did a little Facebook or texting).

This is how I personally balanced the two goals. Having a classroom that was conducive to everyone’s learning, AND teaching agency and allowing learners the freedom to make decisions for themselves.

I think I had lots of room for improvement. I think I made mistakes, but I think as teachers, this balance is crucial. Would this work at the Elementary level? I don’t know. Would it work in Middle School. Again, I have no clue. Did it work for me in high school? yes. Not always. It burned me. I had learners push it too far. But I was able to pull them back in the end.

I don’t know if that answered Andy’s challenge, but it does clarify his question for myself. I look forward to hearing from others on this issue as well.

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