Between the Secretary and the Trumpeter, our priorities were off

When Secretary Duncan spoke at the Askwith Forum here at the Ed School, every seat was filled. Tickets were raffled off and his talk was streamed for those who didn’t make it in the room.

As expected during an election year (not sure which years aren’t), Sec. Duncan’s talk was light on anything that could be taken as disruptive thinking. The title of “Fighting the Wrong Education Battles” was fleshed out not with a clear cry for which battles were worth fighting, but for compromise and ceding of ideology.

It was the stump speech I expected and that Sec. Duncan needed to make in an age when leadership has become conflated with keeping power. Because I understood the politics of the moment, I wasn’t surprised by the speech.

The underwhelming feeling came from the audience’s response. It almost felt as though being in the room negated the potential to disagree. Access trumped democracy. When we arrived at the Q&A portion, questions were largely driven by personal interests and not thoughtful engagement with the positions the Secretary had outlined.

This was expected. As columnist David Brooks noted at his Askwith, I’ve been at Harvard enough to know people were there to hear themselves talk.

All that was not what frustrated me.

The next day, Wynton Marsalis joined with a distinguished panel for another forum titled “Educating for Moral Agency and Engaged Citizenship.”

Marsalis and the rest of the panel explored education from the perspective of jazz, the arts, and non-religious spiritual education. They challenged notions of masculinity and community involvement and considered how educators and officials could shift the way they listen in a move to improve students’ learning.

It was exteporaneous and free-flowing. Tangents were followed. Ideas explored. Standards challenged.

…rows empty.

Whereas a stump speech brought out throngs and was streamed and archived, I can’t post the footage of the Marsalis panel because I can’t find it.

I wish I could.

If we continue to flock to those in power who are encumbered in the service of multiple masters for inspiration and solutions, the future we hope for will continue to exist on a far distant horizon.

If more and more we realized the value and wisdom of engaging with those who are in an of the doing of the work, that horizon would be far closer.


Things I Know 223 of 365: Everybody has an agenda

Education isn’t part of my agenda. It is my agenda.

– Kenny Guinn

In 1980, Hugh Mehan published a study of children participating in “circle time” in their classroom. Throughout the study, Mehan placed a wireless microphone on the back of students for one hour each morning to document their interactions.

Up to that point, Mehan wrote, classroom community had been studied from the teacher’s perspective. He wanted to se what was going on with everyone else.

Students like teacher, have objectives that they would like to meet during the course of a given classroom event, a school day, a school year. And like teachers, students employ others and their surroundings as contexts for achieving these objectives. The simultaneous presence of students’ and teachers’ agendas suggests that the classroom be viewed as a social activity in which teachers and students mutually influence each other and collaboratively assemble its social order.

In his published findings, Mehan reported interactions between a triad of girls who were talking to one another during circle time while the teacher was attempting to divvy up classroom jobs.

It all happened simultaneously.

Hair combing, securing snacks, discussing play dynamics, they all happened at the same time.

Mehan writes, “All this indicates an ability to monitor and participate in several activities simultaneously, a skill that cognitive scientists have called ‘parallel processing.’”

By teachers in any ordinary classroom, the actions of Carolyn, Leola and Ysidro would be taken as insubordinate. Not telling-the-teacher-off insubordinate, but certainly working-against-the-teacher’s-agenda insubordinate.

They don’t have to be.

Mehan’s point, and the deeper implication of the study is when teachers see “off-task” behavior, it doesn’t necessarily mean the students are off-task. They are on the tasks they deem important. And Mehan claims also on-task with the items on the teacher’s agenda.

This isn’t an argument that children should be allowed to do whatever they want or that their agendas should trump any agenda set forth by the teacher. There’s literature about that, sure, but this isn’t about that.

Instead, it’s about realizing everyone in the classroom has an agenda, and to each individual that agenda is personal and important.

Mehan writes the study’s findings shed light on the fact “that participants to interaction, including socializing interaction, mutually influence each other.”



The study serves as a reminder that teachers face the task (perhaps their first agenda item) of persuading each student in a class that the teacher’s agenda is worthy of student attention and perhaps even adoption.

It’s a tough sell all around.


Hugh Mehan, “The Competent Student,” Anthropology and Education Quarterly, Vol. 11 (1980), 131-152.