Paradigms, Parallels, and Muddy Hands

Very few things can be touched and leave one a different person. It is this paradox of who is touching whom that gives pots their greatest potential. -Chris Staley

In a paradigm shift, you see things as you’ve never seen them before.
-Joel Baker

There are a lot of strong emotions and reactions running through the school where I teach right now, and it’s probably for the best that we have a few days off for Thanksgiving break to clear our heads.

Change is necessary, but change is hard.

We spent a full day this past week at an in-service that explored directions for change, and oh-so-many of those directions have to do with technology. I’m sold on the idea that many folks on our team (count me in) are ready for some updates and challenges to our current technology toolkits. We haven’t done this updating before at my current workplace – nor did we address technology training meaningfully at any of my previous gigs, that I can recall – because, I repeat, change is hard.

One-on-one or small group sessions work seem to work well for teaching a single skill – like how to use the online grading program du jour, or updating a web page template. We did these type of breakout sessions at our in-service event, with mixed results. Mine was a session on Google Docs, and networking glitches prevented the session from moving beyond how I had already used the application. But those one-and-done sessions feel almost off-topic compared to the broader paradigm shift we are being asked to consider – namely, that 21st century education requires us to be motivated, lifelong learners not only of our subject area but also – and equally – of educational technology. Nothing in this paradigm is one-and-done.

Over a break, I listened to one administrator who had led a break-out session remark, “Half of my room didn’t even know how to turn on a computer.” He went on, “I really wanted people to follow the directions and move ahead at their own pace. But we couldn’t even move past step one.” Aside from a slightly indignant response, “My computer was on,” I remained quiet – a little surprised by his reaction. The frustrations that happened in his session happened – by his own admission – because some of the network infrastructure was still rolling out, and thereby communicated last-minute. Parallel in my world – no instructions on the board when students enter the studio, and uneven reclaim laid out as the throwing clay. And although he had a great collection of resources amassed to share with us on Google Drive, these were presented as hyperlinks that we were to explore ourselves, if or when we finally got access to the drive. My parallel – no snazzy sample, no engaging demo, “y’all should go look this up on my blog after class.” My own students would probably have been throwing clay at each other or me instead of on the wheel by the end of my parallel session.

As a teacher of craft, I have learned to never assume interest or motivation. In the last few weeks, I’ve started out several presentations with what is becoming a catch phrase for me: “My students have to graduate from high school knowing something about math, something about science, something about history… but they don’t need to know how to throw a pot.” Many of them come in to the class assuming it’s going to be an easy A, that the workload will be light, and that they will never touch clay again after they get through their credit requirement in the studio. I would like to believe that clay is intrinsically motivating, but the fact is that the motivation piece is my job. I have to show my students the amazing things they can make, and how those things fit into the world, by making and using those pieces myself. I have to prepare each class carefully, because I have to build in time to set up, practice, reflect, and clean up, and that’s a lot to squeeze into 45 minutes without devaluing any part of the process. I have to expose them to real craftspeople who are driving the field forward, so that they recognize the niche as a field. I have to show them that it is OK and even good to fail by failing myself, without making excuses, and always modeling how to gather motivation out of frustration. And, maybe most importantly, I have to carefully measure my students’ motivation and interest as we progress through the semester. If the motivation is growing – even if the pots are still flopping, and even when my students realize that their initial assumptions were dead wrong – we are on the right track.

The expectation that we “follow the directions and move ahead at [our] own pace,” when it comes to developing our tech toolkits makes a faulty premise. It assumes that we are motivated and interested in the change, and that we have assigned it to be worthy of our time. Many of my colleagues are master teachers in their subject area, content experts with habits of time and mind that result in great teaching and learning in their classrooms every day. In order for that premise to become truth, we need to see our leaders model the amazing things that can happen in those classrooms (and beyond) when technology enhances learning. Training needs to be prepared carefully, maybe even with test-runs to ensure that glitches won’t derail or devalue outcomes. We need real-world connections – validation from colleges and workplaces that proposed changes align with with they expect of our students. It takes guts to model failure, but we need that, too, and maybe the occasional admission that 20th century learning has better substance than what educational technology can currently offer. And – although it’s above my pay grade to figure out how to measure such a thing outside the clay studio – I believe that motivation needs to be equally assessed alongside outcomes.

Throughout the other breaks at our in-service, I was in the studio, trimming and putting handles on mugs. This felt necessary to me. In the midst of so many questions and hypotheticals, I needed to touch something real. I returned to each new session with red clay under my meager fingernails, and it kept me grounded. I wonder if the shift towards a new paradigm of tech-heavy teaching will shift my students towards the intrinsic motivation for mud that I can’t currently assume?

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3 thoughts on “Paradigms, Parallels, and Muddy Hands

  1. You make a very good point about leaders leading. Granted the admins don’t have many classes, but none give examples of what they are doing. Meanwhile, the teachers mirror the students: some intrinsically motivated that will do these things regardless of encouragement, some are people pleasers that are working but only for the grade/job, lastly there are those that simply don’t care, complain, and rely on the fact that they can get by without really having to try. It will be interesting to see how things play out. I have always found it easy to describe and promote a project with my guys, its when I hold them each individually accountable that things get interesting.

  2. I’m a student studying at Texas Tech and really appreciate what you’ve gathered here, definitely like what
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