Education is Like the Car

One of the most common criticisms we hear from teachers is usually voiced at the time they are being confronted with yet another change to their teaching and learning practice. This is the critique that any new initiative, edtech or life skills or otherwise, is really just the same old idea coming around again, repackaged with 21st-century buzzwords. Especially if you’ve been teaching for some time or work in a school that is culturally risk averse, there is a certain sense of deja-vu with most pedagogical “innovations”. Been there, done that, never getting that weekend back! Anyone remember Wikis or Zines? Constant provincial ministry mandates and ongoing administrator classroom strategies don’t seem to help abate this trend towards the cynical.

The frustration is real. It’s the metaphor that lacks.

I’ve found an easier way to view innovation in education. Through the allegory of the car. Yes, not much has changed since the discovery that four wheels can get us places faster. The horse drawn carriage was replaced by the internal combustion engine. Henry Ford’s Model T ushered the motor vehicle into the age of mass production. Tesla now has record sales for the electric car. Still just four wheels. Isn’t it just the same thing over and over again, repackaged?

If, however, you pause to consider how many small yet crucial design elements have added to and improved this basic human transport need; from removing coachmen and allowing passengers to drive themselves, to safety measures such as the seatbelt and airbags, environmental pushes towards cleaner exhaust, greater mileage, winter tires, internal navigation systems, and now, automated self-driving vehicles.

The factory model of education may still be the most efficient way to instruct large populations of students, but education has come a long way since the single room school house. How we design and run these “factories” makes all the difference to how we see and conduct ourselves as teachers and the experience of open mindedness and curiosity we model for each student. Every educational theory and teaching trend, from Dewey to Vygotsky, from Montessori to Gardner, from Fullan to Hattie, Duckworth to Cain, all of them add incremental yet vital elements to our dynamic pedagogical toolbox, as well as providing fundamental progress to this noble profession.

So hold your head high at the next staff meeting. Avoid the temptation to slide into your default setting. Think of how YouTube is really just like the seat warmer in your car.

Like Spinning Plates

As an English teacher I’m always looking for the apt metaphor, that one-of-a-kind allegory which will once and for all, 100% no-questions-asked-put-your-hands-down-please definitively define what it is we do, day-in and day-out, as 21st century educators. I believe this one comes close.

The reasons why I like the visual synecdoche of the plate spinner may surprise you. In my heart, I know this is the healthiest model to explain why teachers need to give themselves a break, before they break themselves. And more often than you might think.

In talking with a colleague recently, the age-old adage of teachers not having enough TIME reared its perennial head. If it’s not TIME than it’s surely RESOURCES; (un-PC trigger warning alert!) the two twin towers of educational stress and anxiety.

But if we simply re-framed what we do as already impossible, perhaps then (only then) glimpses of the possible and profound would peek through. If politics is the art of the possible, then teaching is the impossible art!

If we divide teaching and learning into four ready-made components, they might be:

  • Curriculum Design
  • Instruction
  • Assessment & Evaluation
  • Reporting

If you think of these as the 4 plates we are constantly spinning, then you would be forgiven for thinking teachers have it easy, perhaps even under control. But, we know, like all good magic tricks, control is an illusion. The reality is there are spinning plates underneath these 4 plates, and more spinning plates under those– turtles on top of turtles, all the way to spinning infinity (R.I.P. Stephen Hawking).

The secret thus becomes this: in order to survive the greatest show on earth that is our noble profession, we can only spin ONE PLATE AT A TIME!!!

Yep. That’s it. Sarcastically sublime. Not as memorable as “with great power comes great responsibility” (R.I.P. Stan Lee), but nonetheless, reflective respite.

In other words, if you are concentrating on updating or improving strategies with your Instructional practice this year, you can let your other plates wobble for a little while. If- as I am doing this year- you find yourself with an opportunity and willing department, to radically change how you approach Assessment & Evaluation, than your Reporting might just not produce those wonderful bon mots you have so carefully curated and copy-and-pasted in previous times.

We set our own priorities, then we define personal best practice by them. If we don’t measure up to this exponential diagnostic quagmire, we imagine our plates have smashed and we have failed. We also unfairly project this best practice onto our colleagues and schools and when we do this we are guaranteed to find discrepancy- you see, we are all spinning different plates! This discrepancy may lead to stress and anxiety if used as performance comparison, especially as school mandates and department initiatives pile up, distracting you from your default-setting favourite plate; you know, the one you have the most control over so you spend all of your time spinning because if anyone noticed that your other plates were not spinning (or, gulp, missing) they might not see you as that grand wizard teacher anymore.

What we need to remind ourselves of, when everything is spinning, we can only control that which tasks our immediate concern or is in our sphere of influence. From there we can decide which plate to spin next, which one deserves the most attention, AND, most importantly when it comes to innovation and cultivating a growth mindset, which one we haven’t spun in a while.

Who are the expert spinners I look up to? @gnichols, @jmedved, @lmcbeth, @adamcaplan, @nblair@gvogt, @ckirsh, @lbettencourt, @ddoucet, @timrollwagen, @amacrae, @lmustard, @amaingot, @lfarooq, @dmonson, @shelleythomas, @vboomgaardt, @tfaucher, @lmitchell, @mmoore, @ljensen, @mneale, @egelleny

Wow, that’s a lot of sturdy plates!


Here is a handy graphic to help you prioritize. Turns out it was invented by former U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower!