Back to School and the Lesson of Accumulation

For millions of kids and young adults and the many faculty and family members associated with the noble profession of teaching, today is the biggest day of the year. It’s back to school.

School and learning are clearly on the minds of many these days. As I posted last week, there is much to be concerned with how education is (or is not, depending on your point of view) being funded. Yesterday I read an editorial on the CBC’s website from a teacher who pointed to the stress that his profession is under and how it is killing those who choose to remain in it.

“I think that the whole idea of teaching has changed in the last 15 to 20 years,” says Emily Noble, past-president of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

“People are dealing with more high-need students, with more multicultural issues and with no-fail policies.

“Teachers want to make a difference, but the supports are just not there.”

It’s not a particularly rosy time for educators of any stripe.

Anyone who’s been at the head of the classroom (myself included) knows that teaching is as much of a vocation or calling as it is a job. It is not something you do from 9-5 or whatever the set hours are. If you ran an education system on ‘work to rule’ where people did just what their job required of them within normal hours, paid them an hourly wage and had them account for every minute they worked, the system would collapse within weeks. I can’t imagine that there has ever been a greater gap between what teachers actually do and what they are perceived to do by those outside of the profession. As a professor, I routinely shock people who think that I have 4 months off each summer and spend the remaining 8 wandering the hallowed halls of academe ‘thinking big thoughts’, reading books and conversing with grad students in between teaching duties. Between ongoing grant writing, doing research, conference presentations, thesis defences, supervising staff, writing, and preparing our courses for the fall (including adding in the H1N1 provisions this year) summers are anything but idyllic times off. There’s a lot of stress in this job and, as a recent double issue of the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment explored, it manifests itself in many (mostly harmful) ways. Still, most of us do it because we believe in our profession and, mostly, enjoy what we do.

Whether at university or primary or secondary school, teaching as a whole is undergoing a major change. As Smol writes:

There is a general understanding that things “are not the same as they once were.”

Teaching has always been a tough, but rewarding job in part because there’s always new things to learn and we, as humans, are wired for learning. Teaching is also a dynamic profession aimed at supporting this learning, but as Smol and others have written, the changes that are happening in education are great and fast and without the structural supports in place to help these changes take place. I wrote of resliency in my last post, arguing that we’re testing the resilience of our education system with this imbalance between demands and resources. Today I want to focus on another important systems concept: accumulation.

It turns out, people are lousy at understanding how things build up over time. A study by John Sterman from MIT, one of the leading scholars in system dynamics, found that even among his students — some of the best, brightest and well-equipped to handle this topic given that it is part of their studies — most have a poor sense of what accumulation really means. So do educational policy makers I suspect. The reason this is important for education is that as accumulation of stress builds the likelihood of something going amiss increases dramatically. A tipping point, that term popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book by the same name, is an expression of accumulation.

In our case of education, the tipping point could come when people no longer want to become teachers en masse. Or, it becomes nearly impossible to hire good, quality educators for anything other top salaries, which in an age when even the basics aren’t funded, seems unlikely. Or, teachers begin to amass more sick days than ever before (which is already happening) creating disruptions in the classroom. (Note: Remember those days when the substitute teacher came to class? Were those ever days filled with lots of learning and orderly classrooms? Not often. Imagine that on the rise as teachers start to miss days on the job a little more)

The unintended consequences could see parents fleeing the public system of education for private institutions, leaving a growing gap between the education of the haves and have nots  even more than exists today. Another option is that some other market form of education replaces our current system. Among the many scenarios that could play out, most suggest that the system could break. And when systems break suddenly and quickly, the stress increases, which seems a little counterproductive given that it is one of the problems in the first place.

The Arab proverb about ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ comes to mind here. The mistake is thinking that a single straw caused all that damage. It did, but only because of its relationship to all the other straws. Each straw weighs the same and presumably has the same relative impact on the camel. What tipping points show is that, despite this similarity between objects (straws, stressors, whatever…) not all are created equal in terms of their impact. While it is true that each individual object taken on its own is relatively the same, the cumulative impact makes each of them quite different. That ‘last straw’ (which, incidentally, is the name of a great teaching game on the social determinants of health) , has far more influence than any other straw. What we don’t often know is which straw will serve as the ‘last’ one. How resilient is the system? What is its carrying capacity? We don’t know, but by paying attention we can anticipate problems ahead and potentially avoid this last straw scenario and the tipping points that follow.

So as you go back to school, consider bringing something other than just an apple for the teacher.  Perhaps a lesson in accumulation for the principal, school board officials, the public taxpayer, and educational policymakers will do.

One Comment on “Back to School and the Lesson of Accumulation

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