Learning Is Actually About Growth, Not War

Soldiers in the trenches on the southern section of Gallipoli Peninsula during World War I

A year ago, John T. McCrann wrote an excellent piece called “Can We Stop Saying That Teachers Work ‘In the Trenches’?” arguing that the language of war is not suited to the work of teaching and learning.

Sometimes, this language is used to paint the student — or at least his or her attitude — as the enemy. The Power of ICU, a school-wide initiative that advocates many praiseworthy practices, nonetheless prides itself in “defeating student apathy.”

How can we defeat something that we ourselves have played a role in causing? And even if we could, how does defeating things align with our mission as educators of children?

More often, it’s not the kid or their attitudes that are the adversary. It’s the enemy at the gates, on the other side of no-man’s land, we fear: the people who don’t understand or appreciate us as educators, who interfere with our work. Inside the metaphor of trench warfare, our attitude alternates between defensiveness and fearful compliance, keeping our heads low. Over time, some of us steel our nerves against the proverbial bomb dropping, lulling ourselves into an uneasy, dreamless sleep.

Still others conceive of our careers as waging war on injustice, poverty, or inequity, both inside and outside of school. When students come to us wounded, we want to stand up for them, to destroy the enemy that has dealt them these blows. We want to equip them, giving them weapons with which to defend themselves and others — either that, or help them take cover, offering our little cinder-block bomb shelter as a refuge from pain.

Certainly at least some of these are praiseworthy aims. But what are the consequences of conceiving of education in militaristic terms?

While I do recognize the difficulty of the social justice pursuit in which we are engaged, I refuse to speak about the place I teach and learn as “the trenches.” — John T. McCrann

Said one veteran of World War I, trench warfare is “90 percent sheer boredom and 10 percent fear.” How much of what we do in education is predicated on fear? Fear leads to a kind of tense boredom as our lives are confined to an ever-narrowing trench, allowing us to thread our way through the rat-infested muck in relative safety.

Confined to one’s classroom, what’s left but to make it as comfortable as possible — widening the trench, bailing the standing water, digging out the dead bodies, providing playing cards for the troops.

In some cases, the Germans — who rightly anticipated a prolonged conflict — added electricity and running water.

One can even build a kind of trench network, invisible to the enemy, that allows us to connect up with supplies and communication. I think of certain Twitter chats, hashtags, and other online communities where like-minded educators meet to share resources and encouragement in the midst of sometimes stark and hostile surroundings.

But as in World War I, the metaphor of trench warfare in education always ends in stalemate. Fear and defensiveness never encourage growth, build trust, or enrich culture. Every now and again, one side may be able to stage an offensive, to flush the enemy from his entrenched position. But the land we capture is no longer suitable for cultivation.

Education is about cultivation. We need good ground for seeds to grow.

How much of our “progress” as teachers has been spurred by fear of failure, of punishment, of low test scores, of a poor evaluation? How many of us are tacitly or expressly discouraged from taking risks outside the current school-wide initiative? In the logic of warfare, survival and safety become the sole raisons d’être.

Admittedly, much of the current climate has come from outside the walls, a climate that makes us fearful for our livelihood. And it doesn’t — as many advocates of this approach might argue — engender excellence. As Daniel Pink points out, carrots and sticks may get people to stack more boxes, but they don’t motivate us think creatively about the complex problems we confront.

Only a sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose can do that.

If we really want high performance on those definitional tasks of the 21st century, the solution is not to do more of the wrong things, entice people with a sweeter carrot, or threaten them with a sharper stick. We need a whole new approach. — Daniel Pink

How much of our current pedagogical practice has grown out of a mandate, a checklist of expectations, an item on an evaluation? How many of us are treading in a well-worn rut, cut off from the freedom to play, to fail, to wonder, to wander — all of which is necessary for discovery, learning, and growth? As Will Richardson recently asked, do we see ourselves as the CEOs of our own careers and learning?

If not, we will have a hard time passing that perspective on to our students.

At my school, I’m expected to post the learning objective in kid-friendly language. I’ve done this daily for 15 years and I’m still getting “credit” for it. I guess you could say this is one of the terms of our current ceasefire.

Rocking the Madeline Hunter-style lesson since 2001

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying it’s bad to post the learning objective in kid-friendly language, but why is the persistence of this trait valuable? Like trench warfare, an adversarial mindset results in stalemate, stagnation, and stasis. Sure, both sides may occasionally “make progress,” winning victories or forcing concessions, but at what cost?

Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death. — Anaïs Nin

It’s true: higher ups will need to change if they want to evoke the best from teachers. Otherwise, life inside the classroom will continue to be a toxic mix of fear and boredom. The abused becomes the abuser.

But it takes two to tango. Someone, anyone, needs to take the initiative and restore the peace, to make the first move toward disarmament. And I don’t just mean to capitulate or compromise. I mean to stop hiding and be vulnerable or — as Don Wettrick says — transparent. Stop fearing for our lives. I may take shelter in a real war, but I refuse to live in a metaphorical war zone. I will not cower in fear, nor will I go on the attack. Both of these only make sense inside a metaphor of war.

As for me, I will attend to my own growth and the growth of others.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. — 1 John 4:18

Let’s stop killing each other. We need a new metaphor.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. If you like what you’ve read, please share and click the heart so more people get to see it.

This post is also crossposted at my website.

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