A Story of the Nth

So one day I was doing a workshop with a whole bunch of teachers. Maybe 30. I had divided the teachers into groups of 3 - 4 and asked them to talk amongst themselves about their approach to course design. How did they do it? Where did they start?

Of course, I asked the groups to report out. The spokesperson for one of the groups shared that, in designing instruction, they thought about how to get “buy-in” from their students.

A hand in the crowd shot up.

“I don’t use the word ‘buy-in’ when it comes to education,” this teacher said. “It’s a pet peeve of mine. We shouldn’t use capitalistic words to describe student learning.”


When I turned my attention back to the group that was reporting out, I saw four sets of eyes that were the size of saucers. The teachers were clearly activated, fearful that they had just committed an act of PC treason. The energy in the room became anxious, as if people were tightening up in readiness for a fight.

I had to act.

“OK, so you don’t like the word ‘buy-in,’” I said to the teacher whose hand had gone up. “But this group does. And, of course, it’s a perfectly good word.” I turned to the group. “What’s your thinking when you use the word ‘buy-in’?”

“Well, we know that if students don’t ‘buy’ what we’re doing, they simply won’t do it,” one member of the group said. Another said, “It’s like they have to agree with us or want what we’re offering —”

“—or we need to craft an experience that they will take up, participate in, buy into,” said another group member.

“That makes good sense to me,” I said. “I definitely see course design as a means of encouraging students to do something they don’t necessarily want to do. That’s what you meant, right?” The group members nodded. “See, I wouldn’t have used the word ‘buy-in.’

I would have used the word ‘seduction.’”

A few smiles.

I turned to the teacher who had raised his hand. “And your objection to the use of a word that implies that learning is a business, a transaction, also makes sense. The word offends you. Fair enough. Can we agree that, in this place, we can all use the words that make sense to us and have a chance to explain those words if necessary? It feels important both to have the freedom to say what we’re thinking without fear of censure AND take the opportunity to examine the words we do use for further illumination.”

The room relaxed (it seemed to me). We went on with the workshop.

What happened here?

In my view, the teacher who objected to the word “buy-in” was crushing the Nth — he was stating his perspective, his reality, in a way that denied the group’s right to state their own perspective, their shared reality. If that teacher had continued to exercise this veto power over the workshop, the other teachers would probably have gone into self-protective mode and stopped thinking creatively. And their learning would have stopped as well.

Not my idea of a good workshop.

Hear me: It’s not that the teacher’s perspective was unwelcome. Or that the group’s perspective was unequivocally correct.

The Nth is not about being right.

It’s that the teacher’s way of stating his reality, his demand that the teachers conform to his sensibilities, his erasure of their reality, blocked learning. It ended risk-taking. It stopped play. Dead in the water.

Don’t get me wrong: I love it that the teacher showed up with his objection. But he couldn’t be the only one who was allowed to show up. The group needed to show up back.

I saw it as my job to keep the space open for different, even conflicting, realities so that learning — the co-construction of novel, deepened understanding as a result of the airing of multiple perspectives and realities, the Nth — could flourish.

And I’m using the term “the Nth” when I could be using “the 7th” (because there were four group members, one Conscientious Objector, me — that’s six realities— and the reality all of us were co-creating, the 7th), but there were so many other people in the room, too. The Nth just sounds better than “the 7th” or “the 32nd.”

But I’m open to other realities.

Betsy BurrisComment