Thinking Apart in Education

In Sophocles’ Antigone, Creon asks the heroine, “Are you not ashamed to think apart from them?” (su d’ouk epaidei, tonde choris ei phroneis;).

In education, thinking apart from the others is likewise risky. Yet we need independent thought, if we are to have good thought at all.

The educational “right” and “left” both extol teamwork and collaboration, though for different reasons and in different terms. Proponents of value-added assessment, increased standardized testing, elimination of teachers’ seniority protections, and so forth stress the importance of teams in fostering student success. Dissidents and critics should not stand in the way of student progress, they say.

Opponents of such measures also emphasize the importance of teamwork and collaboration. Usually (though not always) they speak of nurturing of the whole child. They oppose the idea of pitting student against student and teacher against teacher; instead, they remind us, schools should pursue education in a cooperative spirit.

Yes, schools are cooperative entities, but in order for cooperation to have meaning, the individuals must be at liberty to bring their best ideas forward (at school and beyond). They must also have room to differ with the group, both privately and openly.

Truth is often unorthodox. For instance, there’s a lot of discussion of “value-added assessment” in education—that is, the calculation of the “value” that a teacher supposedly adds to the students. Many have objected, correctly, that such things cannot be calculated with precision. Others treat value-added modeling as the holy grail—a way of revealing, as though it were not already known, which teachers are moving their students along and which ones are not.

But there are alternate views. There are teachers, for instance, who do want to be evaluated in part on their students’ performance and progress, but want this to be interpreted intelligently. If I have been teaching intensive Russian for a year and most of my students can’t conjugate the verb chitat’ (“to read”), then something is very wrong, and I want to know this. On the other hand, if the teacher of second-year Russian sees her students progress by leaps and bounds whereas my first-year students progress more slowly, this isn’t necessarily because she’s more “effective.” It may be that this teacher’s students have a handle on the language and can learn new material with greater ease. (They might hit a bump in their third year, when they start reading literature.) If we steer away from crass calculations of teacher “effectiveness” and look at what’s actually going on, then we could gain some insights.

That’s just one example of a viewpoint that can get lost in the noise. It’s important for such views to exist and be heard, because they can offer something to both “sides” of the usual discussion.

So, people should just put forth their unorthodox views, right?

It isn’t as easy as it sounds. First of all, even the most independent-minded people have affiliations, loyalties, and restrictions. They may be outspoken on one issue and guarded on another. Few are in a position to speak their full minds. They may refrain from criticizing their friends and colleagues openly, or they may have confidentiality to maintain. Or else they’re swayed by other people’s reactions; if they’re applauded for saying something, they might think it is therefore correct. We all have weaknesses that can limit what we say.

Also, there’s the risk that you won’t have an audience, especially if you’re speaking entirely on your own, without the support of an organization or publication. By contrast, people who represent organizations have a built-in audience but significant restrictions on their liberty. When speaking for the organization, they must represent its positions. When speaking for themselves, they must still stay close to the organization’s positions—or else why are they affiliated with it? All depends, of course, on the nature of the organization, their role in it, and what they want to say.

So, suppose you are in a position to “think apart” from the others and speak your mind, at least somewhat. Suppose you have a vehicle for doing so—a blog, at the very least. What now?

Well, be prepared for some disappointment, because people may misunderstand your argument. They may try to place it in one of the familiar categories or camps. Or they may ignore it altogether. On the other hand, many people will show appreciation. Some will express relief (“Finally someone has said what I’ve had on my mind for years!”); some their interest (“Let’s discuss this further”). Things get dreary in education discussion fairly quickly; it’s refreshing when someone comes along and puts things in a different way.

Speaking on your own, you can refine and change your views. You can recognize and correct your mistakes. Mistakes can be embarrassing in the moment but should bring no shame (unless, of course, they have caused harm). John Stuart Mill wrote, “Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.” Truth lies not only in the answers, but in the bearer’s integrity.

It can be lonely to think on your own. At times there’s cheering from all sides, at times jeering; at times people seem more interested in the jingle of the ice cream truck than in what you have to say. That isn’t always bad; it makes room for retreat and mulling, even for an ice cream cone. Thank goodness the world isn’t hanging on our words.

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