Wandering the Path: Seeking Detectorists, Silver Bullets, & Philosopher’s Stones
April 25, 2016 § 2 Comments
Inspired by my lovely wife and her observation that I embody the Tolkien quote “Not all who wander are lost,” my goal is for this piece to be continuation of a series highlighting aspects of my thinking, my strengths, and my authentic self as I attempt to connect more deeply with you all.
The Detectorist’s Hope
Treasure hunting draws the attention of many, young or old. We find ourselves imagining “what if” from the pirate treasures and golden tickets of our youth to the job opportunities and lotto tickets of our adulthood. Much of our fascination can be traced back to a deep desire, a hope, for something better, something surprisingly — even unfathomably — in our favor. There is nothing wrong with such hope. In fact, various studies on hope show a correlation between our hope levels and a number of positive outcomes ranging from life satisfaction to well-being to academic success.
In comes the detectorist. When I was aimlessly scrolling through Hulu in search of a new show to capture my interest, I happened upon The Detectorists. Though the show quickly turned out to not be for me, I was quite smitten with the title. I found out that “detectorist” is an actual word, not a glamorous one with a storied etymological history but a published definition nevertheless . Detectorists often are considered modern-day treasure hunters in a parallel category to garage salers, dumpster divers, and pickers (another term that I learned from a TV show that means people who look through junk yards and the collections of hoarders for valuable, resellable items). They seek out the priceless among the ordinary and in some cases the downright disgusting.
What could drive treasure hunters, both real and fictional, to seek out what others haven’t or cannot find other than hope? It isn’t optimism because I know some very negative people who still play the lottery every week. It can’t simply be self-efficacy because self-efficacy can lead to results anywhere and need not be narrowly applied to the rarity of discovery. Yes, both optimism and self-efficacy could very well be at play in many of the successful cases where treasure is found by our intrepid detectorists; however, they are not required. Instead, I am convinced that hope plays an essential role in the motivation of treasure hunters.
Having hope matters, even if it is the fantastic belief in treasures left undiscovered. Many of us traded in the treasure hunting of our childhood literature for the hope of monetary gain or career success. We hope one day to be discovered, to have or make our big break, or to come into a large sum of money such as promotions, lottery tickets, or inheritances we never knew existed. The reality is that Black Beard’s treasure, which may have ignited our childhood imagination, is about as plausible as long lost rich relatives who leave us their estate, and the big breaks we hear about are usually the result of a little bit of perseverance and a healthy dose of luck. The Powerball odds are what again? Okay, we probably have better career odds than that, but without hope, there is no reason to believe that the treasures we seek are possible.
Sorry, Coors. No beer here.
As the odds of our adult treasure hunts become more daunting, we turn to new treasure hunts. Many people in many industries hold out hope that they create, discover, or at least bump into the next innovation because innovations in our society are as good as gold. If you don’t believe me, do a little digging on the number of lawsuits filed by major corporations in the tech industry over proprietary designs, features, code, etc. Technology is our modern day uncharted pirate islands filled with the possibility of hidden treasure. But the tech world is not alone.
Education is as guilty of this infatuation with innovation as any other industry. In education, it isn’t just technology, mind you. It’s technology, curriculum, tests, accountability measures, and in many cases student performance. If it isn’t disheartening enough to realize that we treat students as outputs, outcomes, and commodities, we do so while innovating all over them. Worse in my opinion, the powers that be use the “oh but the children” line to allow only one shot at hitting the mark (Get it? Mark. British for grades. Too much? I’ll see myself out.) before declaring incompetence — often attributed to someone else — and starting all over again.
No, seriously. Why do we keep doing this absurd process that would never meet reputable standards of research in other industries?
I have a hypothesis. We have silver poisoning. Silver poisoning like water poisoning is having too much of one thing, for example water. In the case of educational innovation, it’s too many silver bullets. The silver bullet metaphor has become toxic to education. First of all, we don’t need any guns even in implied metaphors in our schools. Secondly, no one in education is a vampire or werewolf or any other evil creature mystically believed to be slain by such an item, not even if we carve crosses into the bullets. Most importantly, the idea that any one thing (read: lesson, curriculum, textbook, technology, teaching style, etc.) can create educational success for all is assimilation through erasure. The only way that one intervention of any sort will work for all students is if all students are the same. Period. Leave your exceptionalism at the door. Silver bullets erase the diversity of the student populations by assuming they know what is best for every student in every situation. Yes, even the flexible, differentiated ones.
Human beings like our students are complex creatures who cannot and should not be defined by any one particular trait or aspect of their being. Because of this, they deserve a variety of educational supports to further their growth. Fortunately, many teachers, principals, counsellors, parents, tutors, friends and other students already provide such a variety of supports whether we as a society allow them to be leveraged successfully or not. I use the word “allow” carefully here because we cannot lose sight that the only mythical beast deserving to be slain by a silver bullet is the system itself. We’ve created a monster, a monster we too often refuse to take responsibility for and one we feed with the shattered fragments of the hope we cast upon the silver altar of short-sighted interventions.
All Philosophers Must Get Stoned
We have poisoned ourselves with silver. We’ve become so entrenched in our denial of our malady that we’ve fooled ourselves into not just believing that silver bullets exist, but that we can even create them out of the mundane.
Recently, I read a tweet from the #asugsvsummit that called for educators to stop seeking silver bullets in favor of polishing lead until it becomes silver. While I understand the intent of this quote by Mr. Collins whom I have never met and assume is a very nice gentleman, the metaphor he uses doesn’t follow. It is the equivalent of a modern day philosopher’s stone, making us believe that we can transmute materials if we just try hard enough, care enough, practice enough, <fill in the blank> enough.
To be abundantly clear, my quarrel is not with Mr. Collins or the tweeter, who I also assume is a wonderful person. My quarrel is with the mythology of the metaphor and our societal obsession with one-size-fits-all interventions, including home grown ones. No amount of trying is going to make any one-size-fits-all approach work unless we assimilate ruthlessly and promote an education erasure, which can easily be argued already exists. I don’t know about you all, but erasure has nothing to do with why I teach, why I give of myself to my students, why I fight systemic constructs and the bureaucracies that made them. The presence of erasure in our school systems is why I teach resistance to my students. It’s why I tell them to be skeptical of what they are told in favor of discovering their own truth. It’s also why up to this point I’ve stayed on the fringes of grit and mindset debates.
None of these concepts are silver bullets nor are they philosopher stones. I’m inclined to believe that very few of them were originally conceived to be either. How do I know that? I don’t, but why else would Duckworth and Dweck both come out in defense of their research and to admonish its use as a silver bullet? Could it be that their intent varied from the application, even some of the application they committed themselves? Though I have no crystal ball, I would guess that these defenses are much less nefarious than some make them out to be. Dweck and Duckworth both seem to be pushing back against narrowly focused teaching construct. Plus, aren’t they just trying to polish their lead into silver like the rest? Regardless of the intent of these edu-interventions, too much of any of these one-size-fits-all approaches is more poison than solution, and this is where the silver-bullet-polished-from-lead metaphor ends for me.
We don’t need silver bullets. We don’t need philosopher’s stones. We don’t need one-size-fits-all interventions. What we need to do is find our inner detectorist, spark our curiosity, and harness our motivation to learn about, from, and with each other. We need to have hope again. Hope, not in a solution, but in and for one another.