Talk of best practices, teaching programs, cycles, and progressions can lull the casual observer into believing that programs on their own bring about result. A program's success is only as powerful as the vision and determination of the teacher delivering it and the learner engaging in it. We should not forget that learning is work, that skills and knowledge can and will be forgotten (if not reinforced), and that teachers and learners need to wake up each morning to ponder yesterday and reach for the "living warm seed" of today's and tomorrow's and the next day's learning. Schools (and other forums of learning) may be full of a great many activities (the 'rubble'), but teachers and learners must regularly return to the significance of all the activities (the 'warm living seed') that all the hard work is seeking to attain.
Education should not and cannot be reduced to mere mechanical elements that are banked into learners with the expectation that the learning will be sustained and will grow without the ongoing care to foster, cultivate and extend skills, knowledge, practices, beliefs, attitudes or careers. Even after the everyday complexity of the teaching day or week or term or year, the teacher must strive to break through that "rubble" and reorient him or herself to why the learning is important and what a successful learner should look like. Clear expectations are key. What is the significance of the learning? What should be cultivated in the learner? Likewise, the learner should also be able to navigate through the "rubble" of peer groups, media icons, status updates, etc. Often, the young learner needs mentors, encouragement and experiences in order to harness the hard work, which often requires perseverance, imagination and resilience.
In a recent presentation for a Dangerous Ideas conference, Alain De Botton stated the following, "At the moment we have this very weird idea in education. It's as if you tell someone a good idea - just once when they are about twenty - it will stay in their mind forever. You will never need to do anything else. You will fill someone with a jug of intelligence and it stays with them." He contrast this with a more religious perspective in which "religions are obsessed with the idea that we forget everything ... that is why religions tell us to repeat things all the time. 'you must be good, you must be good, you must be good.' Because if you just hear it once, it goes dead in your mind ... We are very forgetful. Our minds are full of brilliant ideas, but unless someone says, 'Ah, think about that idea today [and tomorrow and the day after], we will forget [to do so] ... The problem is that most of us do not pay attention [to the ideas] when the time is right." Our teaching should regularly remind learners to see, interpret and value experience in such a way so that ways of seeing, knowing and acting can be sustained and be enacted in the learners' lives.
Both De Botton and Wittgenstein are prompting teachers to be mindful of teachable moments, of fostering skills and people, and of re-evaluating the teaching and learning trajectories to know when to reinforce, extend and revisit experiences, content, skills, etc. A learner's pathway is so very fragile, and a learner's pathway can be derailed if teachers move in and out of a child's life, if a teacher loses inspiration or if the learner cannot see (or does not have access to) the warm seed amongst the dead rubble.
Gambrell, Malloy & Mazzoni (2011) warns literacy educators against the temptation of the 'easy fix'. They warn educators to avoid seeking 'magic bullets', or of hoping that linear development in discrete skills will 'magically improve' reading achievement (now and to the future). Talk of magic or silver bullets fails to take into account how one's literacy journey is never complete, even if reading development is incremental and moves through stages. Adults must be ever vigilant and sensitive to this development and be there to encourage and motivate the leaps in skills as learners consolidate past skills and move toward new expectations.
The opening quote speaks about circumstances beyond learning and literacy, though. For me, it reminds the reader to seek form and purpose in life, because it is all too easy to be caught up in the great hurly burly of everyday living and lose sight of a vision of individual and collective living. There is a strong religious sentiment in the quote (though not of a particular religion). It urges the reader to meditate on core values, reflect on what is important and critically assess actions that may threaten the ideal or be seen as transgressions. If one does not have an ideal, then how can one know if one is failing to meet the standard one has set for oneself (or the standards set by respected members of the community). Perhaps, it is a message for teachers. If one does not have a clear vision of the expectations of learning, then how can one know whether one is doing a good job.
"The only way for us to guard our assertions against distortions - or avoid vacuity in our assertions, is to have a clear view in our reflections of what the ideal is, namely an object of comparison - a yardstick, as it were - instead of making a prejudice of it to which everything has to conform." (Wittgenstein, Culture & Value)
References (back to top)
Gambrell, L. B., Malloy, J. A., & Mazzoni, S. A. (2011). Evidence-based best practices in comprehensive literacy instruction. In L. M. Morrow & L. B. Gambrell (Eds.), Best practices in literacy instruction (4th ed.). New York: Guilford Press.