Hargreaves’s Ideal

by Mr. Sheehy

In chapter five of Teaching in the Knowledge Society (a book I’m reading for a grad class at USD), Andy Hargreaves profiles an ideal knowledge society school: The Blue Mountain secondary school in Ontario. In talking about how wonderful a place this is, I cannot get past one key point: they handpicked their staff. It’s what makes the difference, no? Great people make great learning communities. If all the people are top notch and well-suited to a collaborative environment, guess what you get? A great collaborative environment! I have a hard time reading any of this as applicable to the rest of the world, unless we’ve decided that we have to hire only the “best of the best,” and those best have to be particularly suited to collaborative, team oriented, sacrificial environments. And if it’s great, it will attract great employees – a takes-money-to-make-money scenario. But what can we of the bonus to the tough-to-fill vacancies and looming teacher shortage learn from it? I asked my mom this weekend what she thought of Nancy Atwell’s contribution to middle school language arts, and she said she’d stopped listening to her since Atwell began her own school and was testing all her curriculum with selected and “weeded-out” students. In other words, the value of the experience had diminished to nominal amounts when the reality of most people’s situations were withdrawn.

For example, Hargreaves and the teachers he quotes continually emphasize the importance of their families: “when you’re not happy, obviously you’re not going to be as effective, like when my father-in-law passed away” (143). That’s nice and I’d like that flexibility and support too, but what I have seen of the world is that a situation like that falls under the realm of Policy, and administrators and colleagues can express compassion but are bound to follow Policy, which has been Negotiated in the Negotiated Agreement and therefore is no longer negotiable but instead is Policy. I realize Hargreaves’s point is that what I have experienced is not right and needs to change for us to be more effective, but I don’t get excited about experiments at schools where the reality is removed. And I was not surprised to hear Hargreaves label bureaucracy as a key player in Blue Mountain’s slide from perfection. I wonder if a main reason it was able to succeed was that someone was able to keep bureaucracy at bay temporarily, and I also wonder if any system besides private education can avoid bureaucracy, since by rule public education is run by the public, and the public is awfully big.

So I was not surprised to read that as time wore on, things even at Blue Mountain broke down. Especially obvious to me was that people would try to repeat the formats of interaction and collaboration, like school councils. Hargreaves calls it recycled change, and folks who mandated such formats failed. Personally, I would guess that these initial teachers at Blue Mountain were so talented, devoted, and emotionally bound to their work that they could have organized their staff into Mailbox Partners (random pairs meeting at the mailboxes each morning) and made it look attractive to other organizations. Maybe I’m guilty of hyperbole here, but my point is that when you gather great educators, you reach a point of spontaneous combustion – education and success erupts.

But maybe I sound like the perpetual pessimist, doing nothing but complaining and railing against anything presented to me in this text. Am I this pessimistic? Not on the whole, but I am skeptical about the fruit of thinking how to change the entire system. I’m not willing to wait for it to ripen. I tire of thinking about it (which, I suppose, is Hargreaves’s point in this chapter) and I look at my own situation as less bleak.

I do not work at a place like Blue Mountain, and while neither do I work at its antithesis, even if I were a few rungs “down,” I would not see my spot as bleak. Many in education speak with passionate distaste of No Child Left Behind, and in some cases I understand the high level of frustration. But I consider it so unachievable that it is dismissable. That’s not to say I ignore it completely, but I think little of it, and when I do, I chose to think of it with the words of Joseph Bottum, who writes it off as a “bureaucratic annoyance.”

I do not totally disagree with what Hargreaves presents in this chapter – that “standardized educational reform also is actively undermining the efforts and success of those few true knowledge-society schools that already exist” (156) – but I am tempted to say to those who are getting so discouraged that they need to stick to their convictions. If they are seeking the best ways to reach students, if they are continually seeking to grow as professionals, if they are open to critique from thoughtful colleagues, if they are teaching kids, not curriculum, then why should they fear some system getting in their way? Don’t fight the system – it’s bigger than you; instead, ignore it and slip through the cracks.

I’m pessimistic about changing the whole system and I don’t consider models like Blue Mountain practical enough to draw conclusions from them; but like anyone else, I get riled in the lunch room when I hear rumors that my state is considering standardized tests for students who finish a class (a standard English 10 test, for example). Riled or not, however, when the bell rings, I don’t walk into my classrooms with lesson plans built entirely around what some system says I should do. I focus on kids and allow the rest to form a colorful, blurry background, the same strategy so many of my favorite photographers use. And the results, in my humble opinion, are exceptional and beautiful.