Ebb & Flow

Originally published on Dusty World in March, 2014.

Many moons ago I found myself hiring automotive technicians for Quaker State.  There were a couple of odd things I did that helped find people who could survive in our tough working environment.  One was toss any résumé that was full of grammar and spelling errors.  I didn’t care if a tech had perfect grammar and spelling, but I did care that if given the time they didn’t take pride in their own work.  The other thing I did was invent an emergency that interrupted the interview.  The whole point of this was to test their initiative and see how they would respond to a change in tempo.

These interruptions became more and more complicated as the other guys on the shop floor got involved.  What started off as a, ‘could you help me move a heavy thing’ turned into faked medical emergencies or whatever else struck the fancy of the staff.  The guy who just sat there while everyone else shifted into overdrive wasn’t getting the job.

You see this kind of unresponsive stuck-tempo everywhere; employees who work at a walking pace are the new normal and it’s no different with students.  This kind of thinking isn’t just found in work or school, but even in sports.  People who throw themselves at something with any kind of intensity are becoming vanishingly rare.  I suspect this is a response to modern management tactics based around fear and control.  Those tactics have also been adopted by education, and students have responded with a similar protective apathy.

This apathy is a combination of digitization, systematization and the business-think that oversees these processes.  Current business leadership revolves around creating an unbalanced workplace where fear and uncertainty drive employees into blind obedience.  This highly charged methodology is completely unsustainable, but then it doesn’t have to be, there are always more employees to throw on the fire.  Realizing potential and maximizing efficiency are irrelevant to a modern manager, the goal is short term gain and control.  Digitized, data driven workplaces (and classrooms) are designed systemically to collect data that supports the system; statistics are as opinionated as politics.  This Taylorist wonderland is overseen by caffeinated managers whose only approach is to spin their employees into a panic at every turn (those managers themselves are managed in the same way).  The permanent engagement approach to learning is modelled on this thinking.

Days of lower energy, contemplative work and periods of off-task behavior are perfectly normal and even beneficial to the development of complex skills, but this is considered a failure in the modern world.  When working on anything you should aim for sustainability as well as intensity, but education has followed management thinking in an effort to systematize and control.

A byproduct of this shortsightedness is the inability for students to amp up their focus and overachieve because modern education wants them to be giddily engaged all the time.  The only way to achieve the highly agitated state of permanent engagement is to present simplistic, short term learning that offers constant reward.  Working toward anything other than immediate gratification is a sure way to turn off the hyper engaged learner.

I have this up in my classroom. Any student that thinks a flurry of activity in the final weeks can make up for weeks of absences and apathy is kidding themselves.

 The issue I’m seeing in many students is a benign neglect toward developing complex expertise.  I’d argue that the decline in mathematical ability in Canadian students is a result of deemphasizing foundational skills in favour of short term learning strategies.  These short term strategies stress engagement and success for all at the cost of building complex expertise.  

Expecting students to work towards something other than immediate skill (the kind found in most video games) is becoming a lost art.  Long-term, complex skill sets fall apart when we can’t expect students to follow along for more than thirty seconds at a time without some kind of Pavlovian payoff.

There is an ebb and flow to everything we apply ourselves to.  For someone seeking mastery, even the ebbs have value, creating a deeper sense of familiarity and comfort.  Anyone who has soaked in their discipline without a clear sense of direction knows what I’m talking about.  From the confidence that arises out of those ebbs we push beyond boundaries and surprise ourselves with new learning when we are flowing again.

Whether it’s the workplace or a classroom, being hyper-engaged all the time just isn’t that productive, especially if you’re building long-term, complex expertise.  If we’re all really just edu-tainers, then I guess we don’t have to worry about that, just be sure to collect the data needed to justify how well the system is working.