The Lure of the Listical


When I began teaching, I struggled most with planning.
And classroom management.
And organization. Maybe time management.

I was often stressed and tired, spending hours planning only to have most of the plans end up being replanned.

The process would start all over again. Neverending it seemed.

Oh, then there was correcting. On weekends. Usually binge correcting — the predecessor of binge watching before Netflix was a thing.

I sometimes would borrow units from other teachers but this really didn’t cut down on the work time since I usually ended up retooling them, often only taking a few ideas from them. Often the units didn’t really work as new curricula were just coming out which was different and “resource-based”.

Ahead of its Time — Maybe too Much!

The curricula were ahead of their time. The idea of resource-based teaching meant that, well, there were no textbooks for each subject. Except math. There was a math textbook but one was suppose to supplement it with other resources.

And manipulatives. All sorts of manipulatives.

There was just one problem — it was hard to find resources besides, well, textbooks. The internet hadn’t yet become the firehydrant of information that it is today and accessing other resources was difficult.
Thus began my obsession with resource hoarding.

I Remember the “AHA”

I was in my 5th year of teaching and my third as a grade 7 homeroom teacher. I was struggling more than I had ever struggled. I was entertaining thoughts of quitting. Not only did I have a large class but I was struggling with implementing the new curricula. Actually, struggling doesn’t quite cover it. I was suffering. I was exhausted. I actually cried at my desk.

A few times.

Then it happened.

I remember the “AHA”. Clearly.

I was planning in my room. I had copied the Learning Objectives and cut them into strips — a suggestion from one of the amazing teachers I worked with at the time — matching them together as I was building units. It was a unit in ELA and one of the LO looked vaguely familiar. There was that little niggle at the back of my brain but it took a while to become clear.

It was similar to one of the Social Studies LO’s.

That night I took my first foray into cross-curricular planning as I found that the LO’s in different subjects fit together. I could cover different LO’s by developing units that were cross-curricular. The beginning of Inquiry was seeded.

I’d like to say that after that night things all fell together and shortly thereafter it was all better and I became an amazing teacher.

It didn’t.

See, that realization was just the beginning. What followed still required a great deal of work. A lot of work. Late nights. More binge correcting. I still had to plan the units, make connections and then figure out how to plan assessment. It was around this time that I came across Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins & Jay McTighe which introduced me to backward planning. I did improve. I began to explore teaching in new ways. Classroom design became important. The effort began to pay off.

Need To Do The Work

In his book, The Dance of the Possible, Scott Berkun discusses how part of the creation process is actually having to do the work.

No matter how great your idea is, there will be energy you have to spend, often on relatively ordinary work, to deliver it to the world.

The “AHA” was only the beginning. In fact, it would take a few years before I would become what I considered “good” at planning and being able to make connections. It would take even more years before I was comfortable sharing what I was doing. It took hard work, spending time working with curricula, making plans that didn’t work in order to develop the skills to make plans that worked better. Trying them and making adjustments.

Pursuing the process was important. It meant never being satisfied with what I had done but always looking for ways to improve it.

This means a central skill any creative person needs is a mastery of time, which means a mastery of habits. There will always be easier things in our lives than creative work. There will always be demands on our time that are more logical and lucrative than chasing an idea. Scott Berkun

Indeed, there are easier ways to get plans and units and, given the present conditions that many teachers face at this time, this need is being filled in a number of ways.

I’m not against teachers paying teachers to use their creations.

Not in the least.

Teachers are looking for ideas and sites like Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachersprovide a buffet of options. This is partly a result of a system that doesn’t always provide adequate resources and is geared toward efficiency and grades. The demands on teachers time have increased and teachers are looking for options that allow them to have some sort of life outside of school. Young teachers are not staying in the profession and one of the factors is the heavy demands on time.

Teachers are not being provided the time to have those “AHA” moments themselves. Instead of being able to struggle through the process which leads to an “aha”, many teachers are just getting through the day.

In his book, The Innovator’s Mindset: Empowering Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity George Corous suggests

If we want to do better things for students, we have to become the guinea pigs and immerse ourselves in new learning opportunities to understand how to create the necessary changes. We rarely create something different until we experience something different.

This is really how I ended up with my “AHA” moment — immersed in something new. But, in order to do that, there needs to be the conditions for that to happen. I would suggest this isn’t the present conditions in many schools where teachers are under extreme pressure to improve test scores and rankings. The focus is on data and documentation, making sure teachers are filling in the forms in the division-wide LMS.

There are teachers, outliers, who do things differently. They do things differently, often without great supports.

These outliers form pockets of innovation. Their results surprise us. Their students remember them as “great teachers,” not because of the test scores they received but because their lives were touched. George Couros

As an administrator, there were always teachers like this in each school where I worked. Part of my role was to provide them with time, to give them the opportunity to be creative, to try new things, to have “aha” moments.

But it wasn’t all teachers. Some weren’t ready or willing to chart new territory.

And we have to be okay with that.

We can’t expect everyone to be an outlier. In the past, I would suggest that often what these outliers were doing eventually found its way into many classrooms. There needs to be the opportunity for this to happen. It cannot be demanded of everyone.

It takes time.

And it’s hard work. Very hard.

To create means to make something new, at least for you, and to do something new is like going off of the map, or more precisely, deliberately choosing to go to a part of the map that is unknown. In this case it rarely matters where or how you start. Scott Berkun

Not all teachers work in an environment that supports creating. There are many students and parents that focus completely on grades. Constant accountability is stealing away time from the creative pursuit of learning in many jurisdictions.

But there’s something else happening.

The Draw of the Listicle

We are living at a time of information overload and struggling with managing the amount of information that is available. As teachers struggle with ever-increasing demands, the draw of the Listicle is powerful — 5 Easy Ways to …., 10 Innovative Ideas for …, 7 Creative Ways to…. — why struggle with your own when there are lists and books which provide the options.

Cut and paste.

Lesson done!

There are still teachers doing amazing things.
However, too often the product, what you see, the highlight reel lessons, overshadow the relationships and the process. The spectacle of learning replaces the wonder of learning. The process is the learning.

We always have more freedom than we think, we just forget. We spend so much time trying to be efficient that doing anything interesting feels like a waste of time. And in this tendency is another misconception: creativity is rarely efficient. It always involves taking chances and trying things that might work but might not. The question then is: are we willing to spend time to be interesting, to think interesting thoughts and make interesting things? We all have the power, but perhaps not the willingness. Scott Berkun

To be willing means to forgo what’s easy. It’s hard. We need to support teachers so they can find their creativity, to delve into the process that leads to “AHA”!

It requires hard work. It means doing and making, trying and retrying. All the while building relationships with students, parents, and colleagues.

It’s such an amazing experience. It fuels the wonder…

I Wonder ….

How often do we see the struggle as being an important part of the process?

How can teachers be supported to embrace an iterative process that, often, doesn’t end?

What is the impact on teachers of all the ‘Listicals’ and ‘How to’ offerings?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas about this topic. Leave me a comment or send my a note on Twitter at @kwhobbes.

Until next Wednesday, seek what is vital, focus on the important; find your own creative voice.

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