High Responsibility; Low Control

Genius is the axis of the spinning top that we call school. To keep great teachers in the business and get the test scores up we must spin on this axis. Increased reliance on tutors and the demoralization of students are all manifestations of the top wobbling. Fear has caused us to lose our center as a democracy based on the decision making capacity of each human. When the top starts to wobble, bring the focus back to genius. The commitment to lead each character’s genius into the world teaches us the art of “High responsibility; Low control.”

Yesterday my beautiful, brilliant, corporate bigshot wife Victoria got a corporate car delivered to her. Bob, the expert on the car, began to show her all the fancy high-tech instruments by demonstrating each one himself. But the more he taught her the less she learned. Her learning was compromised, because his hands pushed the buttons, turned the knobs, moved the levers, and flipped the switches.

Finally, she said, “Wait, don’t show me. I will do it; you talk.” Things went better after that, but Victoria noticed how hard it was for Bob not to do it himself. So strong was this urge that twice he even put his hand on her hand to press buttons.

When a person takes responsibility for something it seems intuitively correct that he needs to have control. How can you have responsibility for something and not have control? But that is exactly the question that every parent, teacher, and educator needs to answer for himself. All kindergarten teachers worth their salt have it figured out. They know. Bottom line: the kids have to be the actors, the agents, the doers. Good or bad education is determined by the answer to the question, “Who is in the driver’s seat?” (and how much back-seat driving is there?)

Joan Fitzpatrick taught a mixed group of 18 first and second graders on her own. On the wall just inside the classroom was a sheet of plywood she had painted white, and on it was a matrix of brass screw-hooks 7 across and 18 down. On each hook hung a 3 x 5 card, one side white and the other gold. On the left hand column of hooks Joan had hung cards with the names of the students on the gold side. Opposite each name hung white cards with a word, symbol or sticker that indicated an activity. The curriculum was arrayed around the room in centers. Where the material involved progressive degrees of difficulty it was color-coded.

Each day when the students came into the room the first thing they would do was go over to the hook chart and notice what cards Joan had hung up for them, pick one, go to that center, and get to work. Laura, for instance, might have a robin, a rose, a red car, a yellow kite, “math game,” and “read to me.” Richard might have a blue bird, a tulip, a green truck and a blue balloon, “math game,” and “write a story.” When they were finished one activity, they might get the work checked by Joan and then turn the card over to gold. The room was a beehive of active learning all day long. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that each child was being optimally challenged. One girl was so distractable that Joan only gave her one card at a time. A boy with an IQ of 80 spent three years in the room. The system was infinitely flexible. All members of this very diverse class loved to go to school.

Joan presented the entire lower elementary school curriculum to all the students. The “Hook Chart” said: “Do this. Do that,” in such a way that the students felt ownership and agency. Although Joan’s method was my favorite (because all the machinery showed), it wasn’t necessarily the best. I have known hundreds of great teachers who all found their own way of teaching so that the students felt they were in charge of their own learning. There was no compromising on standards. We didn’t even think much about standards; we thought about having each child love learning all day long.

Years of exposure to this kind of teaching resurrected for me the original meaning of the word “genius.” How to teach all those learning styles? How to make diversity work? How to keep kids from cheating? Dropping out? Bullying? How to prepare citizens for democracy and leadership in a complex, changing world? How to get them to love to go to school?

We know this, today. Dr. Marty Fletcher says: “respect is allowing a student to act, to test assumptions, and to be.” Marjie Braun Knudsen says to parents: “stop teaching and be parents.” Dawn Morris keeps reminding us about the vitality of play. All Kinds of Minds says “Learn how each child learns.” Dr. Edward Hallowell says: “Connect. Play. Practice.” Ken Robinson says that each child is an origin of creativity. Denise Clark Pope and Madeline Levine say: “Change the definition of success.” Deborah Stipek says its all about internal motivation. Peter Ackerly says the teacher-student relationship is reciprocal.

However, the concept is not new. Over a century ago John Dewey said: “We learn by doing.” And who said: When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!'”

Answer: Lao-tsu.

Who are your favorite advocates for the genius in each child?

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7 thoughts on “High Responsibility; Low Control

  1. Loved this article. It falls directly in line with what I’ve been witnessing at schools. My interest is in bullying prevention at the elementary school level. I find the best approach is through a mentoring program where the older kids teach the younger ones about standing up for each other. I base the program on a fantastic book called One by Kathyrn Otoshi. Kids can’t be lectured about “bullying,” they have to actively learn what it’s like to be respectful of each other. My “Tangled Ball” blog is a way to help adults realize that early prevention will save so many emotional and physical lives. If you don’t mind, I’ll share this information. (http://tangledball.blogspot.com)

  2. Absolutely agree. 1) buddy programs are outstanding for teaching everything from mathematics to kindness. 2) The culture of a school is ultimately determinative and trumps everything–even buddies. But if buddies are happening, it is a sign of a strong learning culture. Thank you, and please do pass on. We need a revolution here.

  3. Great article. Unfortunately with todays educational system we- the parents have to become the teachers for our children. The school / system lacks the initiative to have the teachers become a role model for inspiring our kids to learn on their own. It is frustrating to say the least, but hopefully we can try to change things sooner rather than later.

  4. I know. Perhaps one silver lining is that at least parents know what good education should look like. There is some evidence of this. Every time I ask parents what they want school to do for their children they say some version of: “love learning, good at working with others and comfortable in their own skin.” Indeed, when this is the aim of a school, it gets great results.

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