Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tell Good Stories!

Even at the best of times – and this is far from the best of times for teaching and learning in British Columbia – we find it easier to notice the few bad apples than the orchard of beauty.  Our brains are wired to pay attention to bad stuff, to look for information about what will harm us.   This natural tendency is severely abused in this age of abundant (abundant to the point of pain) information.  Not only does the sheer volume of information from far-flung places fill us with enough doom and dread to last a lifetime, but it is magnified through media.  If you want someone to pay attention to your information in the midst of this abundance, the best way is through sharing horror, bad news, and nasty rumours.  No wonder that, given the daily onslaught of negative stories, we think we’re going to hell in a hand-basket.

But of course, the opposite is true.  Peter Diamandis, in his Ted Talk, Abundance is our Future, reminds us of some of the good stories over the past 100 years:

  • Average human lifespan: 2x increase
  • Average per-capita income: 3x increase
  • Child mortality: 10x decrease
  • Cost of food: 10x decrease
  • Cost of transportation: 100x decrease
  • Cost of communication: 1000x decrease

We could tell good stories in education, of course.  Instead we wring our hands and moan about how education is “broken.”  We forgot, as we focus on the bad apples and dark spots, how much education has improved in a short time.  Consider even two small (huge) examples.

When I was in school, children were sent to the office for the strap.  When I tell students today they are appalled. Someone HIT children, they say.  HIT them?  That it is unimaginable to them gives you an idea of the scope of improvement. Shaming children was routine when I was in school; it hasn’t disappeared and we have work to do, but it is no longer sanctioned.  We should not scorn this as a small difference.

When I was in school, a boy’s mother fought to have her son included in school.  It was a hard fight, but she won.  We couldn’t believe it when the boy – he had cerebral palsy – joined our classes.  Our ignorance was massive.  We had no understanding of his condition, had no experience of anyone with physical or mental differences.  You may be assured that we did what children do: we taunted and excluded the little boy.  When I tell students today this story, they are appalled: how could you, they ask.  Didn’t you know anything? Were you ignorant?  Yes.  We were.  Bullying continues.  The media shares these stories endlessly so we know that.  But it is no longer sanctioned. We should not scorn this as a small difference.

But teachers, I know, are dreamers (I am a dreamer):  we are not satisfied with such small (huge) changes.  We want our classrooms and schools alive with rich joyous continuous dance-in-the-streets meaningful learning; we want each child, rich or poor, brown or white, tall or tiny, strong or weak, ordinary (if there is such a thing) or extraordinary to belong, to learn beautifully, to be safe - and loved.

But ironically, our great dreams (I have great dreams) risk destroying that possibility.  We are like the child who, after years of hearing that they've done it wrong - again - declares, “I am stupid.  I can’t learn.”  The gap between our dreams and the reality discourages.  We lose faith in our institutions, our colleagues, our selves.  Schools are broken, we hear.  And we nod.  Schools kill creativity.  Yes, yes, we say.  Schools need to change.  Yes.  We bring people in from around the world (at great expense) to help us change.  We are not good enough.  We give up.  We bow our heads.  We close our doors.  And we blame whoever is handy for the failure we feel.

How can our community have faith in us when they hear negative story after negative story?  How can we believe in our capacity – through our continued collective action – to make our dreams come true for children when our only stories are of what is wrong, when the constant cry is – not good enough?

Let us tell good stories.  Negative stories sap our strength – literally.  But good stories make us stronger, more able to meet inevitable challenges.  And we have good stories!  They spill out of every school, every classroom; the halls ring with them.   We shouldn’t save our stories to tell at times of crisis.   Let's tell the good stories that have brought us, in a very short time, from a system that educated a privileged few to one that is striving toward universal education.  And let us shout our stories from the rooftops - or on blogs and Facebook and Twitter and in newspapers and forums; let us throw open the doors of our classrooms and schools to show us to the world.   Let us invite others to learn about us, to learn with us, to learn for us so our already extraordinary progress toward our great dream is accelerated.

Let’s each of us tell a good story a day.  Imagine the power.

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