Heroes, myths — and learning communities?

Larry Cuban has recently been reflecting on a study of teachers as portrayed by Hollywood. (Here is the second of two posts — you can follow the trail back to the first one).  As he notes

Hollywood over-sells individual teachers while understating the institutional complexity of working in inadequately staffed, overly regulated schools where city politics, bureaucratic inertia, and sheer drudgery shape classroom practice as much as what students bring to school.

No surprise there.  American culture loves the mythos of individuals fighting against The System.  The message underneath it all is that while the System does bad things to good people, and seems oppressive, Hero(ine)s can escape their constraints, and do the virtuous things that they aspire to, by dint of great effort and perseverance.

One subtext of this story line is that we don’t have to take the System so seriously after all. The unusual case allows us to avoid focusing on the System, and instead encourage all of us to heroism, not to replacing the System. In classical myths, the hero by slaying the monster changes the system, eliminating the source of oppression.  In Hero Teacher myths, a head is cut off the Hydra, and celebrations ensue  — while the monster in the background merely prepares to shake off the pangs of the wound, and carries on business as before.  What seems on first blush to be an exciting victory seems (on second blush) to distract from the pervasive problems that called the hero forth in the first place.

As Cuban writes:

The Hollywood genre of heroic teachers overcoming obstacles promises better schools through individuals staying the course. While such films are popular, this optimistic strategy of reforming urban schools is doomed because it ignores the institutional side of schools and how teaching and learning are affected as much by the Street as they are by school bureaucrats, city officials, and other agencies.

But I’d like to make a different point, by asking “How do teachers learn good practice from each other?  How do schools make that more likely?  What is your project or system doing to foster the spread of good practice?”

When Joni Falk and I were studying teachers’ understanding and practice of inquiry in middle-school science we sometimes came across teachers whose practice was a delight and privilege to observe.  They were typically well-respected in their schools, and their peers recognized them as exemplary.  But what effect did their practice have on their peers’ practice?  It was hard to see any such effects. Once, an 8th grade teacher mentioned his admiration for a colleague, and we asked about how this translated into his own teaching.  His response was (I am paraphrasing), “Oh, I could never do that.  That’s just Patty’s way.”  You can probably list all the preconceptions about learning that underlie such a statement — and there was nothing in the school’s practice which could help name Patty’s practices, understand them, and help others figure out how to change their own practice, to benefit from her discoveries.

Many Math-Science Partnerships seek to create or facilitate learning communities. Sometimes I worry that the focus is on creating communities to learn what someone else wants them to learn.  How do we help communities of teachers negotiate for themselves what they value in teaching practice, name it where they see it, and work together to make some Heroic Virtue a commonplace in their school, “the way we do it here”?  This seems to me far more subversive and likely to improve The System than an individual heroic story, however inspiring.

Have you done it, lived it, or seen it done?  Has your project?  What made it happen, and what endures?

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