Friday, October 26, 2012

Doing Versus Thinking

Which is the more noble task? Generating the idea or carrying it out?  Action without thought is ineffective, but thought without action is useless.  The dichotomy reminds me of James' warning in the Christian Bible's New Testament.  He reminded early Christians that "faith without works is dead." For two millennia, Christians have debated the role of faith and works, but most would agree, they are not mutually exclusive expressions.

Likewise, ideas and execution-- thinking and doing-- cannot exist in isolation.  As teachers, we plan, we do, and after it's over, we think some more and evaluate so that next time we can do it better.  At least that's how it should work.

I'll admit, there are times when I don't see that I have time to think.  I simply "do."  I taught U.S. Government the first six years of my career.  It was my only consistent prep, so every year I had to prepare for a new class in addition to teaching Government.  I didn't have time to plan or think about what to teach so I relied on the previous year's material.  After six years, even I was tired of what I had to teach.  I started throwing away materials after I used them just to prevent myself from going back to them the next year.  But too often as a teacher we get so caught in the busyness of everything that needs to be done that thinking becomes a luxury that our time can't afford.

In regards to education, some people spend more time thinking than doing.  Educational structures facilitate this.  A recent article noted that with the exception of Administration, there is little room for vertical movement of teachers.  Making the choice to move upward in the world of education usually removes one from the classroom.  Many capable teachers do not seek higher level positions because of this, but do we really want to encourage good teachers out of the classroom anyway?

Administrators, guidance counselors, tech support, etc., all have their jobs to do; "Thinkers" don't include everyone that serves our schools outside of the classroom.  But from created positions in individual schools all the way up to our Secretary of Education, too many education professionals spend their day "thinking" without very much "doing."

How do we bridge this divide of "doers" who don't think enough and "thinkers" who don't do enough?

Thinking takes time.  We put quite a bit of thought and time into the Teaching Underground.  Still, we fail to match the depth of content or frequency of posting that so many others manage to handle.  The frequency and quality of the Underground is a product of how much "real" work we have to manage as teachers.  I'm sure most bloggers feel this stretch.  I've often thought "why do I do this, there is not enough time in the day and what do I really accomplish in the end? I'm simply thinking about my profession and sharing those ideas with others."

My answer: because thinking is just as important as doing and I refuse to give up the power of ideas to drive the efforts of my work toward meaningful ends.

To the doers:  Take a break.  Think about what you're doing, why you're doing it, and what you'd like to do next. Learn about what's happening around you and figure out your appropriate place within the context you live and work. If you have to leave somethings "undone" to protect your time and energy for thought, do it.  If you're too busy to stop and think, you're too busy.  You're going to harm someone if you keep going.

To the thinkers: Get your hands dirty. Not a casual drop in or guest appearance in the classroom.  Find a regular consistent way to directly impact a teacher, student or group of students.  Don't overburden the "doers" with good ideas that you can't test out yourself.  Remember that ideas don't have a life of their own, don't treasure them so much that when the doers tell you the ideas aren't working that you don't believe them.  If you don't remember what it's like to miss your lunch or postpone a much needed bathroom break because you're occupied with students, you're not connected with the place where your ideas are carried out. If that's the case, stop thinking so much and do something.  You're going to harm someone if you keep going.

To everyone who can make a difference: Give teachers the power to think and trust them to make good decisions. Provide the space and time for their experience and practice to gel into sound theory and plans for moving forward. Don't make decisions in isolation, but build systems that give teachers the ability to engage in deliberate thought about policy and practice.  Don't provide opportunities to attend after-school forums, complete surveys, or serve on another committee and consider it teacher leadership.  Consider placing certain decision-makers in the classroom more often, and give certain teachers a break from full teaching schedules in exchange for leadership roles.

Effective education requires a proper mix of thinking and doing from everyone, not a cadre of thinkers to direct the activity of the doers. This is education after all, not a beehive.

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