Better Problems

What kind of problems do we want?

“Every student should be able to walk into any classroom and decide for themselves where, how, and if to sit.” — Ira Socol, Timeless Learning.

A radically student-centered classroom doesn’t have fewer problems than a more traditional approach, it just has better problems.

Better problems revolve around community building, social justice, and purpose finding. They are rooted in developing trust and agency and choice instead of mindless compliance and distrust. They are usually confounding and exhausting, but also the place where personal growth, lasting memories and joy can be found.

Better problems are also a choice. We should be intentional about the problems we choose to create and open our eyes to the impact on learners. I used to focus much of my time on problems and challenges that, when solved, did little to create better conditions for learning, build community, or improve the health and wellbeing of children.

I marked and graded everything that crossed my desk (in the name of rigour, of course). I squandered time delivering and demanding homework. I created lesson content and assessments weeks in advance for the siloed subjects that students moved through in lock-step. I used recess as a bargaining tool. I did this because I didn’t know any better.

The summation of my school experiences and university training rarely deviated from the traditional. “Human-centred pedagogy 101" was definitely not a course option offered during my degree. Recently, I found an old university folder brimming with reams of lecture notes that I don’t remember writing. Flicking through the pages, I came to a highlighted summary that simply read,

When we put content before children, our problems become how to best sort, rank, police or punish children for failing to comply or excel in disengaging and inequitable systems. I don’t believe any educator signs up for this, but I think a great many careers begin with these problems and perhaps even more are ended by them. How many disillusioned educators leave the profession because of these kinds of toxic practices?

Better problems are a choice.

As educators, there are many complex societal and systemic challenges that fall outside of our locus of control. But when the COVID crisis subsides, and educators globally can return to a semblance of normality, we need to ask ourselves,

Deciding will look different for each of us, but decide we must. Do we blindly return to the same inequitable systems, structures and pedagogy that harm learning and learners? Or is it time we choose better?

Better digital gradebooks, behaviour management apps and anti-cheating proctoring software are solutions to problems I don’t have and don’t want. I don’t want the problems associated with a performance culture of testing, grades or homework. I don’t want a room full of “good robots”. Do you?

So what kind of problems and challenges should we seek? Below is a graphic from the Human Restoration Project primer which contains 4 values statements and twenty systems “that must be changed for a human-centric, equitable system that creates a better future for all.” Better problems.

Human Restoration Project (HRP) has identified twenty systems, summarized within 4 values statements, that must be changed for a human-centric, equitable system that creates a better future for all. Check the full primer (PDF)
"This work doesn’t provide firm answers or simple solutions. These do not exist in solving the complex, nuanced issues of the education system which is rooted in inequity, lack of proper funding, and systemic racism, sexism, and greed. This
primer outlines the philosophy of progressive education, which is the antithesis of the growing movement to test, retest, and dehumanize the education process."
- HRP Primer

A few years ago, I was beginning to feel increasingly isolated in my work and becoming one of those disillusioned educators mentioned earlier, close to burning out and walking away. My practices weren’t sustainable and I was flat out solving problems I didn’t believe in.

This year, I‘m collaborating with likeminded colleagues to trial a multiage classroom. I could’ve happily stayed in my comfort zone with a small size class, huge learning space, and relatively homogeneous cohort. But that isn’t where the magic happens.

Ungrading, learning to co-design content, and tackling transformative community projects all came with many “what was I thinking?” moments. It was hard to unlearn and let go of my old problems. Each shift was challenging and I was regularly left feeling like I should cut my losses and just give up, but I persevered because these were the problems I wanted. Now, a little wiser and more experienced, I can’t imagine ever going back. Better problems.

Seek problems that improve the learner, not just the learning. What kind of problems do you want?

Education blog. "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say" - Flannery O'Connor