Back in 1968, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner published a book called Teaching as a Subversive Activity. It shook schooling to its roots; in some ways it advocated chopping off the roots. Remember its location in history. The late 1960s and early 1970s in North America were a hippie heyday: Woodstock, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” “Let it all hang out, “Have it your way,” and burn the flag.
This book blasted traditional education: lectures killed the human spirit; storing up facts was trivial; logical thinking was deadening; students’ being inactive in seats dulled minds; teachers were teaching what one could see in the rear-view mirror and not preparing students for the future…which is where they would live! The writers compared schools to prisons and factories.
Decades ago, while meandering through a magazine, I stopped at a letter to the editor, entitled something like “Jigsaw Puzzle Education.” The writer was troubled at the state of education, claiming that teachers were not connecting one fact or idea to another. His analogy went something like this: teachers ask students to learn that 2 + 2 = 4, but without any reference to the broader context of life.
He said that this way of teaching is similar to asking students to connect two pieces of a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle without ever seeing the picture on the box. Two facts may connect, but for the students, it has little meaning beyond that. The writer said it would be frustrating for students, seeing no sense in learning the tidbit connection without seeing how it fits in the whole picture.
Over this past year, we’ve been looking at the relationship between power and leadership, including some of the key factors that impact the power dynamics in our schools. I’d like to turn now to some reflections on different ways of doing leadership and how those impact power in our schools. For our first step on this journey, I want to draw from the excellent work of the restorative practices movement. Restorative practices draw from a variety of disciplines and seek to build healthy community, increase social capital, reduce anti-social behavior, and repair harm and relationships.
“My son will not amount to anything.” Decades ago, when a student’s father said that in anger during our parent-teacher conference, I cringed. He saw it and pulled back, “I guess he will find a job someplace, but school is not for him.” Since then, I’ve wondered many times whether some kids lack the brain power to learn anything beyond the repetition of a task. Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, says they can: “I think anyone can learn anything under the right circumstances.”
For Christian schools, this debatable issue has appeared in several places. Some Christian high schools still market themselves as college prep schools, clearly communicating that they make little accommodation for students who may not be interested college prep subjects. More and more, Christian schools have access to programs in the community that train students for trades, with these students, in effect, having dual enrollment in two schools. Many have special education programs that help students with learning differences, including students who learn only elemental parts of various subjects.
I see quite well, actually. From a distance, that is. Computer screens, books, the print on my pill bottles? Not so well. I use reading glasses, cheap ones, with multiple pairs at every landing point of my day. I have an eyeball distortion, called presbyopia, a Greek word meaning “old eye.” (Presbyterian means “rule by elders.”) For most people, this aging of the lens begins in one’s 40s. Reading glasses correct the problem, with higher magnification necessary as one ages.
In school leadership, boards and administrators often have vision diseases that prevent them from seeing God and the world rightly. When administrators wear the correctives lenses of the Bible, they can lead teachers to supply these glasses for students and help them overcome a major vision defect: myopia. This myopia, left uncorrected, blinds people from seeing God’s vision for his people. When school leaders themselves have this disease, they can lead followers on a path that may look satisfying but is loaded with potholes and ditches of quicksand.