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MSPnet Blog: “Heroes, myths — and learning communities?”

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posted June 4, 2015 – by Brian Drayton

Larry Cuban has recently been reflecting on a study of teachers as portrayed by Hollywood. (Here is the second of two posts — you can follow the trail back to the first one).  As he notes

Hollywood over-sells individual teachers while understating the institutional complexity of working in inadequately staffed, overly regulated schools where city politics, bureaucratic inertia, and sheer drudgery shape classroom practice as much as what students bring to school.

No surprise there.  American culture loves the mythos of individuals fighting against The System.  The message underneath it all is that while the System does bad things to good people, and seems oppressive, Hero(ine)s can escape their constraints, and do the virtuous things that they aspire to, by dint of great effort and perseverance.

One subtext of this story line is that we don’t have to take the System so seriously after all. The unusual case allows us to avoid focusing on the System, and instead encourage all of us to heroism, not to replacing the System. In classical myths, the hero by slaying the monster changes the system, eliminating the source of oppression.  In Hero Teacher myths, a head is cut off the Hydra, and celebrations ensue  — while the monster in the background merely prepares to shake off the pangs of the wound, and carries on business as before.  What seems on first blush to be an exciting victory seems (on second blush) to distract from the pervasive problems that called the hero forth in the first place.

As Cuban writes:

The Hollywood genre of heroic teachers overcoming obstacles promises better schools through individuals staying the course. While such films are popular, this optimistic strategy of reforming urban schools is doomed because it ignores the institutional side of schools and how teaching and learning are affected as much by the Street as they are by school bureaucrats, city officials, and other agencies.

But I’d like to make a different point, by asking “How do teachers learn good practice from each other?  How do schools make that more likely?  What is your project or system doing to foster the spread of good practice?”

When Joni Falk and I were studying teachers’ understanding and practice of inquiry in middle-school science we sometimes came across teachers whose practice was a delight and privilege to observe.  They were typically well-respected in their schools, and their peers recognized them as exemplary.  But what effect did their practice have on their peers’ practice?  It was hard to see any such effects. Once, an 8th grade teacher mentioned his admiration for a colleague, and we asked about how this translated into his own teaching.  His response was (I am paraphrasing), “Oh, I could never do that.  That’s just Patty’s way.”  You can probably list all the preconceptions about learning that underlie such a statement — and there was nothing in the school’s practice which could help name Patty’s practices, understand them, and help others figure out how to change their own practice, to benefit from her discoveries.

Many Math-Science Partnerships seek to create or facilitate learning communities. Sometimes I worry that the focus is on creating communities to learn what someone else wants them to learn.  How do we help communities of teachers negotiate for themselves what they value in teaching practice, name it where they see it, and work together to make some Heroic Virtue a commonplace in their school, “the way we do it here”?  This seems to me far more subversive and likely to improve The System than an individual heroic story, however inspiring.

Have you done it, lived it, or seen it done?  Has your project?  What made it happen, and what endures?

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Learning communities

posted by: Beverly Parsons on 6/5/2015 9:52 am

Brian, your message came into my email just as I was reviewing the guiding principles used in the CLIPs process - Communities of Learning, Inquiry, and Practice that we developed at Bakersfield College several years ago through an NSF grant. Today I'm working with Chris Lovato at the University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine as we look across the approach used in Bakersfield (and some other community colleges) and the approach she is using as an adaptation to her situation.
The CLIP approach directly addresses your point: "Sometimes I worry that the focus is on creating communities to learn what someone else wants them to learn..." The CLIP approach has as one of its fundamental principles that those in the CLIP select their own members and their own focus of inquiry while still keeping in mind the bigger systemic nature of the organization. Check out the CLIP process at or download and read an article about it at pdf .

post updated by the author 6/5/2015


posted by: Brian Drayton on 6/8/2015 9:51 am

Beverly, I appreciate your posting those links -- I've read your article on "evaluative inquiry" with much interest, and intend to share it with some colleagues.
I really like the framing of this in inquiry terms as a Dewey fan, that's how I tend to see almost everything, and the social element of it is crucial as I was reading through, I was thinking, "Well, I wonder what artifacts are used to record the learning these groups do?" and later found the answer. Are there some good examples of final products you might post (just one or two)?
I was also interested in the autonomy that the CLIPs have I mean, from the point of view of K-12 practice, this seems like such a luxury, and a concrete example of what "professional" means: that the practitioners are trusted to undertake rigorous inquiry into their practice.
The theoretical framing in general is very helpful and thought provoking, and for me the clincher is the use of the idea of "complex adaptive systems." The realization that reflection itself can be a factor that influences the development/change of such systems is powerful and militates against most kinds of reform and management planning that I've seen in education.
Thanks! I hope others will read your post and share their reflections. Are there participants in your Bakersfield project who might like to add comments to this thread?