Who’s murdering learning in your school?tombstone image

Today I’d like to talk about murder.

Unfortunately, there are many murders I could talk about. The on
es in Afghanistan. The ones in Toulouse. The one in Sanford, Florida. But the murder I’m going to focus on here is the emotional and intellectual murder that can happen in any classroom. It’s the murder of what I call the “Third.”

Here’s an example of the “Third”: Teacher asks students what they know about Trayvon Martin’s death. Students throw out information, impressions, opinions. “It was a hate crime!” “There was nothing racist about it.” “I don’t get what the big deal is.” “I can’t believe something like this could happen.” “I thought racism was dead.” Teacher listens to each statement, discouraging baldly disparaging comments but allowing disagreement among the students. Teacher eventually creates two columns on the board: “It was racist” and “It was self-defense.” Teacher asks students to offer evidence to support either or both of these positions, challenging (but not requiring) those students who are most vehement on one side or the other to offer at least one thought in support of the opposite perspective. Teacher questions students’ evidence, alert to the students’ own conscious or unconscious biases, aware that airing inaccurate thoughts and discussing them respectfully, without debilitating shame, is prerequisite to changing them. Teacher brings discussion to a close with “Wow, what a lively discussion! I’ve really enjoyed trying to make sense of this disturbing event with all of you. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, too.”

Here’s how to murder the “Third”: Clamp down on discussion. Control what students get to say by dismissing comments that make you uncomfortable. Insist on one perspective or the other. Invite discussion but ridicule students who disagree with you. Discourage students from saying anything controversial. Move on to math when the discussion gets too heated.

So what’s the “Third”? To put it very simply, it’s the “third reality” that emerges when two (or more) people combine their thinking in a playful way that allows for creativity and discovery. It’s a reality, or a way of thinking, or a glimpse of the world that no one person possesses because it is dependent on both (or all) of them, on what they come up with together that neither (or none) could have come up with alone. The “Third” is present when a parent stops and listens to a child’s complaint then negotiates a resolution that works for himself and the child. It is present when management decides that its workers’ demands make a lot of sense and can be considered without threat – and when the workers recognize the legitimate concerns that constrain management. It is present when I stop blaming you and get honest about me. It is present in a good classroom discussion about a genuine question that not even the teacher knows the answer to.

And why is the “Third” important? Because the Third is where people get to stretch and grow, where they get to try themselves out, bump up against others, and experiment with alternatives. Another word for the Third is “potential space,” or the space in which potential can be played with. Even in this age of standardized tests, best practices, scripted curricula, and packaged knowledge, children (and teachers, for that matter) still need to grow up. They still need to become wiser, kinder, better regulated, more confident, more creative, more empathic. Where do they become all these things? In potential space. In the presence of the Third.

In short, the Third happens when people get to “show up” to each other trusting that their experience, their right to exist, will not be denied. This is easier said than done, of course. For a teacher, it requires courage, confidence in one’s own authority, and trust in one’s ability to “hold the line,” to contain one’s own emotions and thereby provide containment for others’. A sense of humor helps. The ability to detach and maintain calm perspective helps. As does, I think, a capacity for joy.

Unfortunately, it is much much easier to murder the Third than to foster it. All one needs is a wee bit of anxiety. Because it is anxiety – insecurity, uncertainty, fear – that makes it impossible to stand calmly and confidently in the presence of another. It is anxiety that makes us murder, whether our victim is a student’s opinion or another human being.