A Cat, a Washing Machine, and a Tornado

Common Core Standards. Authentic assessment. Site-based decision making. Standardized tests. Community partnerships. Student suicide. Equity. Access. Transformational Education. Accountability. Technology. Funding formulas. Hybrid roles. Teacher Evaluation. National Board Certification. Knowledge of students. Data. Finland. Singapore. Lockdown drills. Bond elections. Reductions in force. Failing schools. Teacher leadership.

Today, at the AZK12 Teacher Leadership Institute in Tucson, current forces swirled through my mind when Dennis Shirley and Andy Hargreaves used the metaphor of a tornado to explain what it feels like to be a teacher in schools in the United States today, what they define as the “third way” of education (based on their writing in the book The Global Fourth Way.) In the “third way,” teachers work at the center of a vortex amid the pressures of limited government support, national accountability and reform efforts, pressure to create and nurture public engagement in education, and the need to work with colleagues to perfect practice. I had two immediate responses to the tornado image: a) Yes. Based on my limited understanding of tornadoes, the metaphor seems apt, and b) this is not a sustainable model for teacher leaders. Tornadoes are frightening, destructive, sudden and unpredictable. They may be fascinating, but even experienced tornado chasers can be killed by a miscalculation or misfortune.

I have just been hired for a new position in a new city, which will require me to get a new endorsement in reading. As I was packing our house and unlayering the papers, art supplies and dog treats from our back room desk, I came across an article that was given to me by a colleague last fall: “Learning to Love Volatility” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, published in the Wall Street Journal. In it, he talks about his concept of “black swans,” unpredictable events of large magnitude that have huge consequences (such as 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy.) He argues that to deal with black swans, we need systems that are “antifragile,” that actually benefit from disorder. This concept appeals to me on a personal level, I suppose because I have so much disorder, and not just on my back room desk.

Taleb outlines four rules for creating an “antifragile” system:

1. Accept natural fluctuations in systems. Accept complex systems as organic rather than able to be “fixed.” Systems which are micromanaged will not develop self-healing properties. He gives the example of Greenspan trying to micromanage the economy, which made it more fragile. Better to ride the natural troughs.

2. Favor systems that benefit from their own mistakes. The example he gives is the airline industry. When a plane (tragically) crashes, the industry takes steps to make travel safer.

3. Smaller units of authority are actually more efficient. Taleb claims that large projects and institutions are not more efficient, despite popular wisdom, because they become less nimble and able to respond to problems.

4. Trial and error beats academic or theoretical knowledge. The potential cost of error should be small; the potential benefit of success should be large, like the tinkerers who have become some of our greatest innovators.

5. “Decision makers must have skin in the game.” Those making policy or funding decisions must not be distanced from the results of the policy. Taleb points out that the Romans used to require bridge builders to sleep under the bridges they built.

I agree with most of these points (though I might argue for the value of academic knowledge… but that’s another blog). Now, imagine if schools followed these rules? For teachers and students alike?

Although some educational systems follow these precepts, it is highly dependent on visionary leadership by administrators and teachers. I would argue that heading in the direction of many national school “reformy” agendas creates a micromanaged, falsely scientific environment for teaching and learning, governed by those who have little skin in the game. You want data? Teachers will give you data, if that’s what you want.

Taleb’s theory of creating “antifragile” systems that can handle the unavoidable black swans of life has much in common with Andy Hargreaves’ and Dennis Shirley’s Global Fourth Way of education. Although admittedly I have only read half of the first chapter, their six principles for achieving the Fourth Way have synergy with other writing about creativity, innovation, the future of the teaching profession and with what I have been observing in schools after 17 years:

1. Shared moral purpose and collectively-created (not politically imposed) goals. Those of you in Arizona schools know what hoops we jump through to get Prop 301 Performance Pay. Most school plans are designed by a small group of administrators and teachers in order to be successful so that teachers can get the pay. They are not designed with an eye to improving teaching and learning, but with an eye to data. If the work becomes meaningful, it is because of the individuals doing it, not because the policy created collective inspiration to do better.

2. Teaching and learning encompasses a broad range of learning for all kinds of learners. Although many teachers achieve this with their students, our system does not encourage it, especially at the secondary level.

3. Data informs inquiry and decision-making rather than “driving” instruction. Data does not contain self-evident lessons. It must be interpreted within a specific teaching context to be useful. This year when I looked at our district reading benchmark scores for my English students, they corroborated much of what I was seeing in terms of ability among my classes, but they also raised questions for further inquiry: Are 4th period really low readers? Or did they blow off the assessment because of their social tendencies? How can I engage them further in the academic material while building on their social interactions?

4. Testing is used to sample the system without distorting the way it operates. See my reflections on numbers 1 and 3.

5. Teachers develop curriculum; we are not a “delivery system” of other people’s curriculum. Amen. I spent a year working for Kaplan, and although their testing strategies are incredibly helpful, I didn’t feel that I was teaching in earnest. I was delivering the Kaplan program. But at least Kaplan was up front about that fact, and I appreciated that.

6. Leadership emphasizes and creates collective responsibility and not vertical accountability.

A major force in the vortex which sweeps away teachers and administrators is number 6. I see administrators who seem (from the outside) to want to get to the conversations about collective responsibility, but get stuck in the demands of vertical accountability (see my rant on data in this entry). The national conversation about education is certainly volatile, and it is certainly in disorder. If you want to dipstick the complexity and varying approaches to the diversity of issues facing educators, choose five people at random and ask them to define “school reform.” And here’s the rub, as always: Our students are Dorothy and Toto, trapped inside a spinning house.

Andy and Dennis today encouraged us to be dynamos in education, not just passive levers of change. According to Taleb, their ideas have the potential to create a complex and antifragile education system in this country, one that is steered by a shared moral imperative and clear national goals for education, but imagineered by communities of teachers and local leaders, those with skin in the game, those most able to respond to problems (i.e. take responsibility). A school full of students is, to steal a phrase from Taleb, more like a cat than a washing machine. They are organic and ever changing. It is impossible to fix them with an instruction manual.

Hopefully, when the tornado passes, as they always do, we have all been swept away to a land where administrators, teachers and students discover that we have hearts, brains and courage, and the means to return home to our center, unscathed.


Amethyst Hinton Sainz

I currently teach English Language Development at Rhodes Junior High in Mesa Public Schools. I love seeing the incredible growth in my students and being an advocate for them. I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts. Before this position I taught high school English in Arizona for 20 years.

My alma maters are Blue Ridge High School and the University of Arizona. My bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy led me toward the College of Education, and I soon realized that the creative challenges of teaching would fuel me throughout my career. My love of language, literature and culture led me to the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College for my masters in English Literature. I am a fellow with the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and that professional development along with, later, the National Board process, has been the most influential and transformative learning for me. I enjoy teaching students across the spectrum of academic ability, and keeping up with new possibilities for technology in education, as well as exploring more topics in STEM.

In recent years, much of my professional development has focused on teacher leadership, but I feel like I am still searching for exactly what that means for me.

I live in Mesa, Arizona with my family. I enjoy them, as well as my vegetable garden, our backyard chickens, our dachshund Roxy, reading, writing, cooking (but not doing dishes), hiking and camping, and travel, among other things.

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