"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Heisenberg comes to English Class

I know you all recognize this diagram as a demonstration of the Uncertainty Principle, a concept which guides my life, especially before 9:00 AM and my second cup of coffee.

It is true, I can qualify as a genuine Vague Scientist who spouts science stuff he heard on NPR which neither he nor the radio reporter really understands. And while I cannot wrap my brain around the mathematics of Uncertainty (you can click the picture to expand it and read it more easily), the essential metaphoric truth of it is crystal clear to anyone who has spent any time constructing or deconstructing narrative, to wit: The act of observing something changes the nature of the thing observed. (It also states that you can know where something is going and how fast, but never know both exactly at the same time. This applies to my students most of the time.)

Teachers reading this know where I'm going. I'm being observed this week. And being pre-tenured (I prefer that term to "non-tenured"), I am being observed three times within a one-week span. This is a strange phenomenon for anyone, like me, who had a substantial career in another professional field. I was an attorney for 18 years, a negotiator, a deal -maker. By and large, I was judged by my results. How many deals did I get closed, how good were the terms for the client (or the company), and how long did it take. I rarely was bird-dogged on the actual process, unless there was a sensitive client or corporate matter which required monitoring by someone in a higher pay grade. But they were not there to judge me on how I did the deal--just to make sure there were no promises made that could not be kept, issues that could not be opened.

From time to time I had bosses who wanted to control how I arrived at the results (as contrasted with assessing the results). The technical term for this kind of boss is clueless controlling jerk. Many lawyers think this is a good way to manage. Many lawyers are idiots. Because personal style has a lot to do with the arts of persuasion and negotiation (and that is what ALL lawyers must do, no matter their specialty). There is no one size fits all. When these situations arose, there was a parting of the ways.

But teaching is different. Because like it or not, we haven't yet really figured out how to assess the results of our work. Oh yes, there are constant "assessments;" tests, quizzes, projects. But we don't really know how to find out if and what anyone has learned--at least not for 25 or 30 years or so, when it's far too late. Real learning, not the mere accumulation of data, is at its heart ineffable.

So to some extent, it is necessary to make some judgments about process. One can fairly assess classroom management, responses between students and teachers, the structure of a learning plan, especially as to whether it is likely to be effective given what we know about students and learning at this point. But then Uncertainty kicks in--and the very presence of the observer alters the behavior of the observed--teacher and students.

And despite our best intentions, aren't teachers today like doctors of the pre-Scientific era? We try our best, but it is still necessary to promise to--at least--do no harm.

Wish me luck.

1 comment:

  1. The beginning of this blog is completely true.. I hope you did well- from one Pre-Tenure to the next. !!