The phrase “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” has been attributed the Abraham Maslow. As far as schools are concerned, I would change the analogy a bit. If all you have is one lens to see through, everything is distorted by that lens.
The Common Core State Standards for literacy promote a one-lens system: Formalism, otherwise known as New Criticism. This critical approach to reading takes the stance that all that matters is the text itself and what it does. All that matters is figuring out how a writer’s use of writing tools effects a reader. Never mind that you have to have been affected by the text in the first place to understand that effect.
The Common Core approach completely ignores the other lenses a reader might use. It pretends that critical lenses like reader response criticism, gender criticism, social class criticism, historical criticism, psychological criticism, and biographical criticism don’t even exist.
Likewise, for twenty years, public schools and public school teachers have been asked to see their job through one lens only: improving student test scores. Nearly every other reform teachers put up with comes from seeing the world through that one lens of testing: curriculum maps, scripted curricula, expensive computer-based programs – you name it, and you can bet it was sold as a way to raise students achievement. “Student achievement,” in case you hadn’t picked up on it, is always code for “test scores.”
School systems have a myopic focus on seeing everything through the lens of test scores, but every time I plan, every time I teach, every time I think about my students, I remember that there are many other lenses with which to view my students, my lessons, and teaching itself. Here are a few of the alternate lenses I use to view teaching.
The Investment in Students Lens – It seems that all we talk about is assessment of students. I prefer to think about the things we do in class as investments in students instead. I don’t spend all my time measuring them. I spend my time giving them experiences. Instead of having students read survival stories and answer multiple choice questions about them, you have them read about survival and simulate a survival experience and have them write about it any way the want. That’s an investment.
Social-Emotional Development Lens – For a variety of reasons, many of our students are stressed and depressed, and it can take a toll on their learning. We should be teaching them about emotional intelligence – constructive ways to deal with your emotions. Emotional and social intelligence are at least as important as IQ when it comes to success. Instead of making Romeo and Juliet a dry analysis of Shakespeare’s use of metaphors (as good as they are), make it an examination of the emotional intelligence of the characters. The reading experience takes on whole new dimensions.
Autonomy Lens – We give lip service to innovation, to getting away from a factory model for learning, but then base our entire system on a factory system of ranking our students. Our students will be working in increasingly flexible workplaces with lots of room for autonomy. We need to be teaching them how to be autonomous. Instead of making every assignment about compliance to our instructions, we should be giving students freedom when it comes to their assignments. If you give them a list of possible projects, include a “student choice with teacher approval” option.
Creativity Lens – One the main skills that can’t be automated is creativity, yet we seem to be systematically killing off creativity in schools. We ignore it completely or rubric it to death. We should be giving students more time and space to think creatively about the things they learn and also link them together. I learned about Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe in 11th grade Earth-Space Science and was so intrigued by their story, I am still working on retelling it decades later. I just finished my first full-length play – about the two astronomers I learned about in 1983.
Inventio Lens – This lens relates to the creativity lens. In Scott Newstok’s speech “How to Think Like Shakespeare” (which I have mentioned in this space before) he talks about Inventio – a latin phrase that is the root of both inventory and invention. What if students saw everything they were learning as gathering an inventory toward inventing something? What if they didn’t see things as disconnected random skills they don’t need, but as stepping stones toward creating something – a play, a piece of music, a novel, a poem… a design for a building or theme park? It changes the whole dynamic.
Exploration Lens – In the book Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: the Myth of the Objective the authors argue that objectives are useful for small-scale goals, but not useful for larger, more ambitious ones. For more ambitious goals, one needs to set out not necessarily with a specific, efficient objective in mind; instead one should explore, looking for stepping stones to the next interesting thing, and see where they lead. They make a convincing case, and even have a whole chapter on the flaws of objectives in education. Every time we write a “learning target” on the board, we are losing the chance to explore and find something great that is not on the map. This book deserves to be widely read.
Learning How to Learn Lens – Another skill for the future is the ability to learn anything. It’s the old cliche that we are preparing them for jobs that don’t exist yet – and it’s true. What that means is that knowing how to learn anything is the only job skill guaranteed to not go out of style. Suddenly no subject becomes impractical or useless. In fact, the more complex a subject is, the more you can learn about learning from it.
The Microcosm Lens- I just shared the poem “Did I Miss Anything?” by Tom Wayman with my freshman today for the first day of school. Near the end of the poem are these lines about a classroom: “…Contained in this classroom/is a microcosm of human experience/assembled for you to query and examine and ponder…” What if we viewed our classes as microcosms through which to view all of life. Each of our subjects becomes a lens of its own: the historical lens, the scientific lens, the mathematical lens. Our subjects are then not merely collections random facts and ideas, but ways of seeing the world around us.
Literacy and Life Lens – When I view my subject as a microcosm, it takes on new depths and richness. When I teach you about point of view in fiction, I am really teaching you about empathy. When I teach you how to organize your writing in a non-formulaic way, I am teaching you how to organize your thinking – in fact, to think for yourself. When I teach you about themes and specific details, I am really teaching you about the need to take our deepest-held values and turn them into concrete actions. I could get a whole book out of this idea – and just might at some point. Literacy is not a dry test-taking skill. Reading and writing hold within their depths the secrets of the universe and of being human.
Meta-Teaching – I read an article once that said half your curriculum walks through your door. I agree. Instead of necessarily viewing cellphones, distracted students, bad behavior, and plagiarism as mere distractions from learning, I often drag them center stage and make them the main event. Why not take a hard look at how cellphones are designed to be addictive and what are the issues and ambiguities surrounding their use and overuse? Why not take the idea of attention and discuss how are our educations, our writing, or very way of perceiving our lives, are all controlled by how we pay attention? It’s a kind of classroom jujitsu: use the force that is getting in your way to your own advantage.
Moral development – Plagiarism, which I mentioned above, is both a practical issue and a moral one. To control plagiarism with threats of punishment is only treating the symptom. I’ve discussed Kohlbergs’s Levels of Moral Development here before, but it bears repeating: we tend to hold students to the lowest level of moral development: “I don’t want to get in trouble.” To take them higher, we must get them thinking about the things they do instead of merely getting punished for them.
Empathy/Negative Capability – When I teach fiction, reading it or writing it, a great deal of what I am teaching is actually empathy – the ability, as Atticus Finch tells Scout, to stand in someone else’s shoes and see things from their perspective. This is related to the idea of Keat’s concept of negative capability, the ability to see things from different perspectives and to live within doubts and uncertainties instead of always needing certainty about everything. The ability to deal with uncertainty is related directly to the ability to be able to think (see below).
Context – Anything we study in school in any subject is somehow related to the way we live today. If we viewed school through the lens of giving students context for the things going on around them, it might make the work more meaningful. History is all about context. So is Science: the very specific circumstances we live in today exist because scientific discoveries have changed our view of the universe, or the way we exist within it day to day. Take away our ability to understand, generate and harness electricity and civilization as we know it collapses. But taking away the philosophical underpinnings of a civilization, underpinnings constructed out of words, and civilization is in a different kind of peril. Everything we learn gives us context.
Literacy Health and Intellectual Health Lenses – What do healthy readers, writers and thinkers do? How are we promoting healthy literacy and healthy intellects? I’ve written about these ideas in two other posts. Check them out.
Questioning – What if we viewed education through the lens of getting students to ask good questions instead of answer them? Some smart people asked that question and started the Right Question Institute, which my wife introduced me to. I have been using their Question Formulation Technique with my classes for a few years now – and it always helps my students start to ask good questions of their own. Questioning is just as important, if not more important, than answering questions.
Thinking – There is a tendency toward compliance in schools. The model is this: I will teach you how to follow directions to solve this problem-write this essay-answer-this-question-fill-out-this-lab-report. The problem with following directions is this: it’s useful in some situations, but seldom requires thinking. I have seen students so addicted to compliance that they hate being asked to actually think about something. One of the little mottoes I repeat to myself, at least in my head, is “Always err on the side of THINKING.” What if we saw everything we did through the lens of getting students to think rather than comply?
Self-Actualization – Abraham Maslow, the man I quoted at the start of this post, is most famous for his Hierarchy of Needs, and especially for the highest level of that Hierarchy: self actualization. A person who is self actualized is a person who is fulfilling her or his potential and is operating at a high level of personal, interpersonal, and social health. What if we looked at education as a chance to help our students reach self-actualization? It might be difficult, of course, since we would need to acknowledge and try to address the various deficits at lower levels of the hierarchy: the fact that some of our students lack self esteem, love, safety, and even basic physiological needs. But it is still worth thinking about.
In the movie Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s novel, humankind has been trying, and failing, to decipher a message transmitted from an alien intelligence. Mr. Hadden (John Hurt), a billionaire inventor, cracks the code by realizing that an alien intelligence will think differently. When he reveals it to Ellie (Jodie Foster), he says that an alien intelligence will think “on multiple levels and in multiple dimensions.” Cracking the alien message means looking at how it works on multiple levels instead of just on one. To make teaching work, we must think like the aliens.
Take anyone of the lenses I listed above, and you could write whole books about them. Some of them already have whole books about them. Thinking about these other ways of viewing our students, and our teaching, reveals the testing and assessment lens for the one-dimensional warped perspective on education that it is. As educators, we need 3-D glasses. No – we need multi-dimensional glasses.