Teacher Games: "Unboxing"

I thought I might start a new series of posts on "Teacher Games", by which I mean things that teachers can do to challenge themselves in their classrooms, and in the other facets of the job. So here's the first entry.

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We are really good at putting limits on ourselves. It’s human nature to think that the way we’ve always done something is the way it should be done. The brain loves a pattern, and it establishes them very quickly. Anyone who's ever tried to break a habit, or modify an existing one should be well aware of just how ingrained, how fast, things become.

There are all sorts of habits. Some have to do with how we live our lives, others have to do with how we think about things. Some are bad for us, most are good (or at least neutral). Teachers are not removed from this. We all have patterns of expectations, procedures, attitudes, ways to filter and deliver content, and all of the other aspects of the job. These are our preferences, and we prefer them mostly because they are how we, personally, do the things we do. They are the habits of our job.

My preferred analogy for thinking about this is the "cognitive box". Once established, a pattern becomes a structure that we use to constrain ourselves. To use a term from a recent book, patterns are algorithmic. There's nothing wrong with algorithms, per se. They are a major organizational tool. The danger arises when we engrain sub-optimal algorithms as our preferred patterns. The brain seems to be much better at ingraining patterns than it is at evaluating their relative effectiveness. And once ingrained, a sub-optimal pattern is not easy to remedy. It's a classic example of positive feedback: The pattern gives us rules for what to do and how to do it, and the use of the pattern engrains its structure ever deeper in our neurology. We don't do things that aren't part of the pattern because breaking patterns is not something we are inclined to do.

There are a lot of ways to think about how to build new patterns, and adapt existing ones. People have built whole careers (indeed, whole institutions) out of teaching other people how to "unbox" themselves from particular patterns. I'm not here to recommend or describe any of them. These processes and methodologies are outside of my area of expertise (or even interest). Instead, what follows is a quick process for dealing with just one pattern, for just as long as the participant is interested. I call it "unboxing", and it's a game that I play with myself.

To successfully unbox one's self, you first have to realize that you are, in fact, in a box. To that end, you need to pick a particular pattern you want to change. The pattern can be as big, or small, or simple or complex as you want. There is no rule here. The only rule is that the pattern is one that you engage in, and its one you want to alter. I will advise that in my own experience, the larger/more complex the pattern, the more advanced the difficulty level of "unboxing" yourself from it. But if you are up for a challenge, there's really nothing stopping you from picking any pattern you feel like. It's important to get really specific here. The more detailed you are in describing your box, the better you'll find the change process. Once upon a time I realized that I was in the habit of specifying the due dates for major project in AP Biology because that's how I'd always done it. It was a box, and one that I'm glad I got rid of (in this instance, the change was simple, and wholesale: I now allow the class to determine all due dates by mutual agreement).

Once the box is determined, the next step of the process is to determine what, exactly, your rennovations to it are going to be. Are you going to add some room, or tear it apart alltogether? There are many patterns that we use in our working life that work pretty well. If it's working pretty well, there's no need to tear it apart. Perhaps some modifications would help the "pretty good" pattern become a "great" pattern. Once upon a time, I made parent newsletters in google docs, and emailed the published versions to distribution lists of parents that I maintained. This worked pretty well. Then I learned about mailchimp. This worked better. This year, I learned about tinyletter, which works even better. I didn't tear apart my class newsletter pattern, I modified it to make it easier for me to manage, and less of a time burden for me (I can always find a use for saved time).

This is the game I play. I determine the cognitive boxes that I have built, and I evaluate how much they need to change. Sometimes I tear them apart entirely, sometimes I modify them, and sometimes I leave them alone. The point isn't to change as much as possible just because I can. The point is to spend time analyzing the patterns of my working life, and thinking about if they could/should be changed to improve things.

It's after you have learned how to play this game that the fun really begins. Once you're a regular, you'll realize that every pattern is a box, and none of them are above your scrutiny. You'll start playing with boxes that you didn't ever realize you could play with. The operating, dogmatic tennets of the job will stop looking like things you have to do for any reason other than habit, and new, interesting ways of accomplishing the same purpose will start to appear. You'll start scrutinizing everything you do, and you'll realize that you do a lot of silly things. When this happens, don't feel bad. There's no point in whinging on about sunk costs. And besides, it could be worse. You could have never learned that there were other ways of being.