Schools are Messy Places

Yesterday, a colleague unearthed what she thought to be one of two missing video cameras “belonging” to a course I now teach. Tucked deeply away in a closet, amidst a snarl of cables and battery chargers was a camera. Not one of the cameras, but a camera. As we marveled a bit at the mysteries of schools, she said (and I paraphrase) that without a more relaxed approach to some of these items, to inventory, to the organizing of stuff, our school would not have come so far so fast with technology.

Which got me thinking – hard as it may be to swallow, schools are messy places. Schools will never serve their most important functions in our society and be cost efficient, totally personalized, streamlined pods where students dutifully follow their playlist for the day, tick the box, score points, or earn Mario Brothers-style gold coins while teachers stare into their digital dashboards and adjust their classes of seventy like an America’s Cup skipper. Some like Tom Vander Ark spout wild, jargon-laced treatises and sometimes even almost start schools, but the underlying dream of all corporate reformers is a shiny new kind of school running with for-profit efficiency, even if not-for-profit.

Of course, even the shiniest, ivory Apples can’t seem to stay neat and clean, yet the image of the squeaky clean corporate model persists. Imagine: Apple loses a prototype for each of it’s last two iPhones and the buzz seems to be that it’s a publicity stunt on Apple’s part. Because Apple is hurting for publicity, right? Maybe the easier explanation is that programmers like to get hammered on tequila, too, and that the iPhone is a slippery fish in a trouser pocket. But, how could this happen again? Because it’s worth it. It’s worth it to have the phone in the real world, the real, messy world, where people spill drinks and throw down their backpack and cycle with their phone on the handlebars and get frustrated about a particular function and then change the function. Messy is dynamic and dynamic is successful.

Likewise, schools are messy, dynamic places when they function well because learning is messy and dynamic. Just today, a student I’ve never met before gave me a lesson on a new Adobe web design software that I’ve never heard of before and showed me his photo website that he just built with it. If his laptop didn’t allow him to install software or had crazy admin hurdles in place, he wouldn’t have built the website. Sometimes, when the powers that be cede control and let things happen, stuff gets broken, lost, misplaced, misused, and sometimes abused. It’s expensive – messy is often expensive. But, it beats a rigid bureaucratic or authoritarian approach because that cost is an investment in creative energy. School reformers who lead with efficiency should have their hands slapped with rulers because school is an investment in the future, and investments take courage and a stomach for delayed gratification, neither of which are values of the “efficient” corporation.

Do I wish someone would have slapped a sticker on one or both of those video cameras? Sure. Heck, I would settle for having noted the location of the shelf in this out of the way closet where they were stored. But, if we had those cameras, we may not have embarked on our current, messy iPad pilot that involves students as experts in their own learning and explores what’s possible with these tools. The outcome may be unimpressive, but nobody is going to be hurt. In fact, kids given such opportunities may learn to take agency in their learning process. It’ll be hard to test the results, but the kids will know. That’s messy for you.

On “Modern Status”

Living in a time when 20% of all American children live in poverty, David Brooks is on a search for Jane Austen’s America. Seriously. Brooks has his eyes on the ball in “Modern Status” when he notes that there is little difference between the mannerisms and noticeable intelligence of students from Arizona State versus Harvard, but he loses any sense of critical analysis when he notes that “employers aren’t looking for genius as much as energy and clubbability” without a hint of irony. Certainly, the club that Harvard students are game to join is that which “attribute(s) superior intellectual, moral and cultural qualities to people who can get into those places.”

Indeed.

Brooks goes on to observe that “The message, which one does detect on elite campuses, is that the actual academic content to be found in these places is secondary.” I looked around, but can’t find any numbers indicating how many freshmen admitted to Harvard went to test-drilling charter schools or failing schools where all arts, music, and extra curricular activities have been restricted or cut completely, but I bet 100% of those students haven’t spent much time on their sculling stroke. The message is academics first! and they don’t even cover academics. They cover testing, because if they don’t, teachers get fired. The problem, however, goes beyond vilified teachers and students who may not fit in easily to Harvard’s secret clubs.

This argument by Brooks is exactly why money has to be invested in all public schools, and why non “core” classes must be restored with vigor and respect: the culture that these kids lose when they spend all day on math multiple choice strategies goes beyond the critical thinking, beyond even the culture of not hating boring, awful school lessons, and right to class culture. Elites value those who know how to learn and how to live. Those who know pay attention to life beyond the walls of the school, and for the most vulnerable students, that world must be brought into the schools or they’ll miss it. Underpinning Brooks’s argument is a sad reality: modern status is the status quo, reinforced, and girded by taxpayer dollars flowing into banks and out of schools.