Living in the Tail

by Beth Knittle on April 12, 2012

I have trying in vain to write a coherent piece about some things that have me thinking. Failing that I am sharing some ramblings.

In education we often find ourselves trying to wrap our heads around and carry out new mandates and policies.  Just when we think we are getting things settled it is out with the old in with the new.

In Massachusetts MCAS tests and frameworks are becoming PARCC and the Common Core, the old ELL trainings will now be replaced with a required RETELL/SEI license endorsement. The old evaluation system is to be replaced with one linked to student performance. There is much change ahead for teachers and in my opinion too little information and data from the DOE on why the old policies were not working and why these will better improve student learning. If we knew what informed these changes would that not make us better at adapting and adopting the new practices. I feel like we are just jumping from one band-wagon to another.

It seems as public school educators we are being asked to live out the saying:” Ours is not to question why ours is but to do or die!”  When we would rather live with this one: “Inquiring minds want to know?”

A couple of recent events have convinced me more than ever that we are heading in the wrong direction. I recently read Steve Hargadon’s A ‘Tail’ of Two Ed Tech Agendas and attended Anime Boston.

The Long Tail is a statistical distribution that has been applied economics and retail sale models but can be applied to other areas as well.  Steve Hargadon suggests “Ed tech reform in the head is about using money to scale simplified solutions of that which is popular, or the status quo. Ed tech reform in the tail is about using the network to provide freedom and choice.” I can also picture our students fitting this curve the bulk of students are located in the head and others in the long tail.

Teaching in public schools is like teaching in the head of the curve. We say we need to differentiate and teach to those in the tail but we have very structured curriculum, time tables, common assessments and structure classes where for all practical purpose we teach to the group, the bulk, the head of the curve.  Most schools wish those in the tail would get with the program and conform.

Education’s sort of schizophrenic we say one thing but do another.  Group teaching, grouped standards can not do anything but support conformity and uniformity. As if to emphasize this expectation of conformity was the conversation I had with a mother new to Anime conventions.

She said” these must be the kids who had a tough time in school, the kids who don’t fit in.  I asked why?  “Well they are sort of crazy.”   Thank God they are.  They are creative, passionate, enthusiastically encouraging others to purse their passion; art, writing, design, costuming and gaming. I have been attending for the last 7 years and am always heartened that these young people are still among us; out of the box thinkers, creating, sharing and for many making a living in the tail.

I guess I am a “bad” parent because I encouraged my children to participate in these things.  They may not have the highest grades possible. Because their connected, collaborative out of school learning to pursue their passions may have gotten in the way of completing all their homework. But I strongly feel they are better prepared and ready for college and working in the tail then if I allowed school to be the sole focus of their learning and education.

It is the out of the box thinkers, the non-conformists, the inquiring minds that invent and change things.  Those who ask; how come, why not, what if are the once that move society forward.  Maybe more of us should keep asking questions.

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