Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Lessons in Education, Featuring Gary Larson: Part VI

By Ed Tech Maniac, Darin Anderson


Gary Larson often used his The Far Side comics to prey upon the inhumanness of animals to make us actual humans laugh. The joke here is not so much the entrance of the border collie to help edge off the uncertainty of the sheep, but rather it is the sheep themselves, unable to piece together enough collective intelligence to make their party a hit.

Throughout time sheep have been marked with the stereotype of being blind, dumb followers, and/or unable to have independent thought. Even though this label is not entirely true, society still uses the species to define anyone who follows the crowd or bows to the whim of any kind of mass grouping. (See Animal Farm...or political rallies...or any show on MTV.)

See, sheep instinctively flock together when predators are near as a means of safety. The rattlesnake has its venom, the porcupine his quills, and the teacher her detention slip. What does the fuzzy white ruminant have?

Students, and even teachers, are typically no different when it comes to sheep-like behavior - at least in certain arenas.

Here are two education examples:

1. A teacher assigns his students to complete a project and then commences to scouring the internet for insight into his upcoming NFL fantasy draft. A worthwhile cause to be sure, but meanwhile his "little flock" is wandering aimlessly through fields of academia without any knowledge of where they are or what they should be doing.

2. Staff members show up to their assigned location for professional development delivered by a consultant from parts unknown. Before long the teachers are confused wanderers, continuously watching the clock in anticipation of lunch at Cafe Rio.

The point of this comic strip is NOT to illustrate the rather unfunny idea that border collies are bred for the specific purpose of herding sheep and chasing cattle. Such thoughts are identical to pointing out that teachers are supposed to teach their students.

No, the key takeaway here is that, left to their own devices, sheep are often incapable of pursuing outside objectives, or sometimes their own desires, without some guidance from competent, trained professionals.

As we approach our work with students, PLCs, or content departments, let us always remember these few NOTs:
  • Not all children and adults are capable of going off on their own, rudderless
  • Most people do not intentionally sabotage proceedings without having at least some reasoning
  • We cannot assume that students or staff know what to do, but are simply not willing to do it
  • When asked to do independent work or engage in self-guided inquiry, not all kids and adults will be able to have success just because they are expected to
  • Individualized learning is not equal to on-your-own learning
  • Do not attempt to build a lasting edifice without first laying a solid foundation and then putting up strong walls

Conversely, here is a list of DOs to keep in the foreground:

  • Provide individualized exploration opportunities combined with just-in-time instruction - just beyond the ZPD
  • Teach, model, and practice methods of working individually or in collaborative groups
  • Guided scaffolding is an irreplaceable aspect of education
  • Pre-teaching with constant check-ins is timeless strategy
  • Exercise gradual release of responsibility, with constant observation (think of a child learning to ride her bicycle)
  • Show patience and understanding, knowing that not all travelers reach their destinations at the same time
Certainly, no teaching will always result in the kinds of outcomes we want. But avoiding these pitfalls and following the path of DOs will help us get our schools where they need to be.

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