The importance of watching and naming

Watching you

This past weekend our minister asked us to consider what it meant to be ‘present’ within a community. Among other actions, she articulated two concepts – watching and naming – that she thought were particularly important for members of a community who wish to be deeply involved and fully present.

Watching includes the acts of staying informed and of being a participant observer. Naming includes the willingness to label things as they really are. The example she used was the so-called ‘alt-right.’ She exhorted us to be vigilant against both hate and discrimination and to be aware of their existence in all of their numerous, varied, and often-hidden forms. She also reminded us that whoever controls the rhetoric controls the mindspace and that we need to call the alt-right for what it really is: a white nationalist movement based on bigotry and hatred.

I think that the concepts of watching and naming are relevant to educational contexts as well. Educators are losing political battles all across the country because they’re not able to influence the overall mindspace of policymakers or the general public. Whether it’s anti-union rhetorics or pro-voucher rhetorics or grade-level retention rhetorics or ‘no excuses’ discipline rhetorics or statistically-invalid ‘accountability’ rhetorics or any of several dozen other antithetical rhetorics, we see firsthand that the end result of educators’ inability to substantively impact high-level conversations is policy that harms children and schools. Despite the heroic efforts of bloggers and school advocates, many educators STILL continue to be unaware of how think tanks, private foundations, corporations, astroturf groups, and government actors work together – often behind the scenes – to formulate harmful laws, policies, and advocacy campaigns. Many educators are woefully ignorant of how state and national policy is made and/or feel completely helpless to positively impact policy conversations. We need more educators to follow educational reform conversations and to read more actively than an occasional mainstream news story and/or association newsletter (hint: social media can be a great way to accomplish these goals). We also need more educators who are willing to speak up – publicly and visibly – and name things for what they are. Right now fierce conversations are occurring around terms like ‘personalization’ and ‘pro-children’ and educators are losing.

Watching and naming are relevant concepts inside a school too. Are educators within your schools paying attention to transformational societal trends? Are they watching with a keen eye and critically interrogating the instructional practices that occur within their buildings and classrooms? Do they even see existing inequities? Are they willing to identify and call out outdated or ineffective school mindsets, structures, and processes?

How might you utilize the concepts of watching and naming to enhance your own policy and/or instructional work?

Image credit: I’m watching you…, Christine Krizsa

5 Responses to “The importance of watching and naming”

  1. Watching and naming and talking and acting!

  2. Scott, as you know, I have a great regard for you and your work, and read your posts every time I see them. This one I found particularly interesting, and I hope you take my comment constructively.

    As a parent, employer, investor and American, the first, and only, thing I care about when it comes to education is our students, and whether or not we are preparing them to be informed, responsible, empowered and productive citizens. I repeat often the words of Eric Sheninger, who I once heard say “when we filter every decision through the lens of what is best for students, our decisions become a lot clearer.”

    After the two introductory paragraphs summarizing the talk by your minister, you discuss the applicability to education. 88 words in, you first mention children – this in a post specifically devoted to naming the problem.

    This is why educators struggle to control the dialogue. The most public voices for teachers are Randi Weingarten – the union leader – and Diane Ravitch – who is paid well by the unions – and who write and speak mostly about teachers and complex, liberal political positions, and the Bad Ass Teachers group.

    On the other side is Michelle Rhee and “StudentsFirst,” and talk about “accountability.”

    For a new outsider wading into this debate, which is the easier one to embrace?

    • Hi Mark,

      As I read over your thoughtful comment, I’m reminded of the policy mantra that we typically have good agreement on end goals (e.g., children who are ready for academic and life success) but wide disagreement on how to get there. So as much as I like my buddy Eric, I’m not sure he is totally correct on this front. If he was, it seems like we’d have fewer arguments over pathways to desired goals?

      For instance, let’s take the very student-centered end goal of all children being interested and proficient readers. We all can probably agree on that goal and that it is “what is best for students.” And yet, while many of us advocate for additional teacher training and appropriate interventions and supports for students, others are putting forth in-grade retention as the end solution (despite the overwhelming research that shows how damaging and ineffective it is). Guess which side is winning?

      And, yes, part of that is because educational reform organizations and astroturf groups have co-opted the policy rhetorics (the “Students First” and “accountability” examples you profer) in ways that educators have not been able to (for whatever reason). Which is why I think it’s important for us to be watchful so that we stay informed and to name things for what they truly are (because “Students First” often puts forth anti-children agenda items).

      Your thoughts?

  3. Excellent points, Scott.

    To restate, as a parent / employer, all I want is what’s best for students. Many non-educators, including policy makers and others who influence education policy, feel the same way.

    StudentsFirst plays up to this sentiment with its name and mantra, even though what it advocates most definitely is not in the best interest of students.

    Too often when I hear educators argue the counterpoint, the word “student” is used sporadically, and late, which goes against the main point of your post – which is to name things for what they are. When educators speak out against policies, they should move very quickly to emphasize the impact on students – not on themselves.

    Regarding in-grade retention, in light of the compelling evidence that it’s harmful to kids, I suspect that those who promote it have other agendas. My daughter teaches 1st grade and her greatest challenge each year is one or two students who were left back in Kindergarten or 1st grade – once or twice – and who struggle with being far more mature, at least physically, than their classmates.

    • It’s not necessarily an agenda, it’s often that belief is held over actual evidence. In fact, evidence is very rarely used in Educational Policy. Look at the evidence for the Common Core standards, or “Value added” teacher assessments, or SLOs (Student Learning Objects). There is little or none, yet these have been mandated by most states.

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