Given The Choice, We ALL Move To Safety: Content & Process In The Classroom

Given The Choice, We ALL Move To Safety

We ALL move to safety.  It’s kept us alive and thriving as individuals and as a species.  We are all aware of the threats of climate, access to food and water, shelter etc. that have plagued us for thousands of years.  Our adaptation has been our success.  Sometimes our shrinking away from threats has worked, however, the times we have stood up to threats, adapted, and overcome them are the times we are most proud of and have led to things much larger than just survival.

What are the threats to teachers in the classroom that cause us to move to safety?  Do we shrink away and play it safe and, if so, what does that look like?  What is the risk to not standing up, adapting and changing?  What might ‘adaptation’ look like in the classroom? What might it lead to beyond mere survival?


Over the past decades we have learned more, and now know more, about how the brain learns than ever before.  Through technology we have amassed great repositories where we have access to all the research, the expert opinion and the reams of best practice around how to teach for learning.  Great right?  Not so much.  This now presents a new challenge.  Clearly, this challenge is no longer related to our ignorance as educational practitioners.  The knowledge exists, we merely fail to apply what we know. But, why?  It has been my experience, despite what the trolls lurking about in the online editorial comment sections of local newspapers might content, that the problem is not due to a lack of care.  Teachers care.  School administrators care and the senior staff at the school board care.  Nor is the issue capacity.  It’s hard to imagine that we could have a more highly qualified cadre of educators yet, the results fall short of our collective expectations regularly.  Despite remarkable individual efforts.  Avoidable errors continue to plague us.

So, if it’s not ignorance, care or capacity what is the threat?  In “The Checklist Manifesto,” Atul Gawande suggests it is related to ineptitude.  Despite all that we now know, things we want to do are beyond our abilities.  The problem now is that we have to make sure we apply the knowledge we have and apply it properly.  “Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.”  It’s too complex!

Adding to the complexity is having a completely new type of learner in the classroom requiring a completely different set of skills for the 21st century who enter already adept at accessing gads of information and who have a need for autonomy and immediate gratification.  Our students have a very different sort of parent with very different expectations and needs.  To compound things further, the teaching is to be done by the ultimate products of the outdated school machine that we are in need of changing.

Move To Safety

Is it any wonder that the complexity leads to overwhelming pressure and results in educators moving to safety.  In doing so, everyone wins.  What does it look like?  At secondary anyway, we focus on delivering content and console ourselves in the misaligned belief that ‘covering curriculum’ is our mandated duty without ever really checking to see that the learning is occurring at the same pace as the teaching, let alone, ever consider what students are thinking or think about teaching them how to think.  We cite the absence of process skills when students fall short but fail to see the connection and the need to shift our instruction to providing for this skill development.  This is OK with parents because who wants to understand what Growth Mindsets, Grit, Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, Character Education, and Citizenship are really about and how we can develop these attributes?  I can understand that my child knows the four causes of World War I or doesn’t or that they completed the assignment or didn’t.  It’s too complex to understand the messiness of what the purpose behind doing the work really is.

How we teach; our methodology, needs to change to meet the needs of the students it is to serve.  Active learning, Student-Directed learning and inquiry is complex.  It’s far safer to move back to ‘Question-Response-Evaluation.’  Parents support teachers subjecting their children to same lecture and gratification-delaying paradigm that they suffered through.

The Machine

“Though students may bring diverse oral and literate knowledge, skills and capabilities to school, these do not necessarily match with those that schooling requires and rewards.”(Gee, 1996).  Ever heard, “We have to prepare them for the real world.”  “They need to learn how to take a lecture, write exams etc.”  The real world has changed drastically and our understanding of how to function, survive and thrive within it has grown immensely. However, it’s too complex and we don’t know where to start so we don’t.  We move to safety and reassure ourselves with beliefs from an era that no longer exists.  It’s easy for us teachers because, again, we are the ultimate products of the machine that inculcated closed mindsets through person-oriented praise.  “In the context of mainstream schooling, one way of normalizing judgment is to document observed deficiencies in students; and to judge them according to a particular set of norms.  The result is a system quickly able to sort individuals into categories and to determine each individuals potential.” (Bowdridge, Blenkinsop, 2011).  After all, we were taught to ask, “Is this for marks?” and “How much is it worth?” so we are quite adept, and have been very successful, at teaching the next generation to do the same.

The Risk

Pressure:  There is pressure on teachers to not lose the support of parents despite the fact that the parents are pressuring us to maintain the status quo too often.  There is also pressure to achieve according to existing measures – standardized tests despite knowing deep inside that teaching students how to think, instilling growth mindsets and developing their agility and grit will raise their achievement across the board.  Fear of the unknown: we often don’t know where to begin.  In looking out across the complex challenge before us we move to safety and go with what we know. We don’t know where to begin. The risk for our students is the further deepening of the chasm that separates the them from the system that is meant to serve them.  For us educators, the risk is to losing our relevance.


So, what can we do?  Complexity is the problem.  Where do we begin?  Gawande points to the checklist; a simple set of sequential steps intentionally followed to mitigate the failings of our own capacity to understand what confronts us and to remember all that we know to do in response.  In the ER the triage nurse checks our blood pressure, pulse, respiratory rate and our body temperature.  Any one of which could point to a first step in treatment.  The pilot has a sequential checklist to ensure that all the various components of the complex machine are set correctly for the specific stage of the flight necessary.  In The Power Of Habit, Charles Duhigg, posits a similar approach to breaking down the complexities of life into small, easy to manage keystone behaviours that drive bigger change.  In dealing with anxiety itself, many resources break it down into manageable chunks that allow one to ‘stick to the facts’ versus getting distracted by the perception of what is happening.

Is this type of approach applicable to the classroom?  Are their ‘vital signs’ that we should check for?  Is there an “A-B-C” approach that we can create and apply like first-responders  do to a medical crisis?

What would it include?

Complexity feels like a threat.  We are human in our response.  Moving to safety is understandable.  We need to, however, stand up to the threat and make the fundamental shift that is necessary to secure the relevance of our education system and to ensure that we are serving our students.  Perhaps we need to think small to think big?


About gsstrojantalk

I grow people for a living and stretch myself for fun! I pursue a constant state of relentless restlessness and 'grow people' by creating conditions within which others around me choose to stretch. I want to explore the Why, How and What that I do, or believe that I do. These are musings and provocations. Oh, and I'm the proud Principal of Gananoque Secondary School, in beautiful Gananoque, Ontario.
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One Response to Given The Choice, We ALL Move To Safety: Content & Process In The Classroom

  1. McIntosh, Ewen says:

    Nugget: It’s too complex to understand the messiness of what the purpose behind doing the work really is.

    Ewen McIntosh
    Upper Canada District School Board
    Twitter: @ewendmcintosh

    This email and any files transmitted with it are confidential and intended solely for the use of the individual or entity to whom they are addressed. If you have received this email in error, please notify the system manager. This message contains confidential information and is intended only for the individual named. If you are not the named addressee, you should not disseminate, distribute or copy this email. Please notify the sender immediately by email if you have received this email by mistake and delete this email from your system. If you are not the intended recipient, you are notified that disclosing, copying, distributing or taking any action in reliance on the contents of this information is strictly prohibited.

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