Zen and the Art of School Change

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About a week ago I grabbed Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig off my bookshelf and cracked it open for the first time since I first read it probably 30 years ago. I didn’t remember much of the story, but I did remember thinking it was an important read the first time around. And I’m finding that again. For the uninitiated, it’s the true story of the author, his son and two friends on a motorcycle trip through the high plains and Rockies, and the search for a deeper understanding of life and existence. It is, for me at least, a pretty deep and challenging text that I’m enjoying struggling through.

Anyway, last night I read this one passage that when I read it made me go “yeah…that’s what I’ve been trying to say but haven’t been able to.” Pirisg is writing about Phaedrus, who, it turns out, is actually a younger, darker version of himself. He writes:

“He felt that institutions such as schools, churches, governments, and political organizations of every sort all tended to direct thought for ends other than truth, for the perpetuation of their own functions, and for control of individuals in the service of those functions.”

I love passages like this one that literally (and I mean literally) give me goosebumps of resonance, if you know what I mean.

So let me try to break that down a bit more in terms of my sense of the schools part of that quote.

Do schools “direct thought for ends other than the truth?” This is what I’ve been trying to suss out in my never ending homilies around beliefs and common sense in schools. I think, too, this is what Frank Smith argues so well in The Book of Learning and Forgetting. There are just truths about learning and schooling that we deny. Truths like we don’t remember what we don’t want to learn or what doesn’t have relevance in our life. That we don’t learn when we are oppressed. That standardizing an education pushes against the inherent uniqueness of children. That learning in schools doesn’t reflect learning in real life, and so on. This is the Russell Ackoff quote, again, where we do things right at the expense of doing the right thing. It’s why so many people go “aw, crap” when I show that side by side slide of conditions that we know kids (and we) need for deep and powerful learning and the conditions we actually create.

And the idea that schools (meaning the people in them) do this for “the perpetuation of their own functions” is absolutely true. If we truly were to move agency over learning to the learner and hew to the truths about learning, our functions would radically, fundamentally change. Teacher wouldn’t be teacher. The architectures of schooling would be seen as barriers to learning, not as paths to efficiency. The narrative would have to be completely rewritten. But the reality is we’d rather be “better” than “different” because the former doesn’t require huge change.

Finally, do we avoid the truth and instead focus on the “control of individuals in the service of those functions” that are already well established? No question. This is what Seymour Sarason writes so passionately about in terms of the power relationships that have existed and currently exist in schools. I’ve written before the literally hundreds (if not thousands) of times where I’ve talked to teachers who have told me they are “powerless” to change. They are, in other words, controlled by the system, by the standards, by the narrative. And no one doubts that kids are controlled; they have little voice in what happens to them, and classroom management is still high on the list of things that teaches are evaluated on.

So, yeah, we ignore what we know is true because if we didn’t, we would have to seriously change what we do. It’s just easier to work within the well established norms of learning and teaching, the efficiency model, and to impose power over those who may want to challenge those norms in a quest for truth and effectiveness in learning. In other words, as much as we as individuals may want to change, the institution we’re stuck with is built not to. It works to “perpetuate its own functions,” which is why real, high-bar change in schools is so hard to effect.


(Image credit: Alan Levine)

Also published on Medium.

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