Marry structure and freedom to create something… that works

“The challenge is to find a way to marry structure and freedom to create something altogether new” – Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown.

I wanted to start with a quote from our reading in A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change that stuck with me and, in my opinion, is fundamental to a lot of the discussions we have had about education and pedagogy. It begs the question where is the ideal line between structure and freedom? For the student? For the teacher? For the administrator?

I agree with a lot of what this article discusses, and it brings up a lot of interesting takes. However, I feel that the emphasis on ‘new’ is a misnomer, at least in a sense. Throughout the history of teaching there has always been a tug and war between freedom and structure so marrying the two isn’t a new concept. In my opinion, the emphasis should be more on finding a balance that ‘works’, especially with the added challenges that educating in modern times bring.

I guess even defining what ‘works’ is a challenge in itself and can mean completely different things depending on what lens you view the question. Does what ‘works’ look the same for a student, administrator, and teacher? I can’t say for sure that it does and maybe that explains why finding that balance is so difficult.

I think for many of us the most ‘obvious’ solution to the systemic issues in education is to place more agency with the teachers – the ones in the classroom on a day to day basis. Allow them to better control their classrooms, lesson plans, and approach to education and give them the latitude to tailor their teaching to their student’s needs. I think there is exceptional merit in this idea, but only when the teacher is a good one. What does a bad teacher do with all of that latitude?

I guess the retort would be to get better teachers, increase their pay, and incentivize more ‘brilliant’ minds to go into teaching in the first place. I doubt many of us would be opposed to this idea, I know I wouldn’t, but sadly there are plenty of people outside of our circles that are.

I guess in the current system you have to ask yourself, what does more damage – creating an environment that prevents the great teachers from reaching their potential or one that gives full reign to a bad teacher? I honestly don’t know the answer, and maybe the best solution is somewhere in between, or maybe that somewhere in between is where we are now and it makes few people happy.

Outside of the above, I think one of the other huge problems with education is how we seem to find ourselves in Death Valley to begin with. Yes, Sir Ken Robinson brilliantly points out that with the correct changes even Death Valley can spring to life, invigorated with wonder, and I do not doubt him that the same can be experienced with young minds. My big question is why does our education system or society, more generally, turn young minds dormant?

When I graduated high school I remember meeting with my old high school math teachers and they convinced me to get my substitute teaching certification to teach while I was home on breaks (apparently finding math/science competent subs is extremely difficult). From my personal experience there were plenty of students who just didn’t care, and had no interest in learning. I remember feeling that somewhere, somehow the system failed and I won’t argue that it hadn’t.

However, the more I think about it, I can’t say it is just the education system that is failing – obviously there is plenty of room for improvement – but I don’t think the social and cultural pressures that students face day to day should be ignored either. I can’t say I was ever bullied for doing well in school, but I do still remember that there were plenty of pressures that didn’t always emphasis the importance of learning. Being passionate about learning didn’t pull the same social clout as being a star athlete did, or being extremely good looking, or being ‘fun’. From where we are now these things may seem small, as we are surrounded by people that very much revere the purists of education, but during grade school they may cause just as much damage as the systemic issues we commonly focus on. A lot of students took some of the same classes I did, with excellent teachers that cared about their pupils and their minds and curiosity were still dormant. Why? Doesn’t this go against the very premise that great teachers will find a way?

Maybe they fell into the immovable camp, or maybe by the time they got to high school they had already given up and that lack of motivation drowned out the attempts of a few good teachers. It’s possible. Or maybe the societal pressures that ‘math isn’t for girls’, or ‘being a nerd isn’t cool’, or failing support structures at home cause just as many problems for cultivating a passion for learning as does standardized testing.