About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.

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Thursday, May 30, 2019

On Counting and Writing


           For something I’m working on, I have been reading several books by the surgeon Atul Gawande. At the end of Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Gawande offers five suggestions on how to avoid being “just a white-coated cog in a machine” and make “a worthy difference” in the world. Gawande is primarily addressing other physicians and surgeons, and it would seem to many of us that they do make a difference—a big difference if we’re sick and in need. But his point is that work in medicine—well-paid and prestigious though it is—can get routine and burdensome and requires some extra effort to avoid feeling like you’re on a treadmill. Physicians I know who work in HMO settings confirm this feeling.
            Given the kinds of work most people do for way less money and status but often with a good dose of repetition and stress, it might be difficult to sympathize with Gawande, but I was interested to see that two of his five suggestions were to “count something” and to “write something.”
            On counting, Gawande writes: “It doesn’t really matter what you count… the only requirement is that what you count should be interesting to you.” In Gawande’s case, counting obvious things in the operating room contributed to techniques to improve performance and avoid dangerous mistakes. “If you count something you find interesting, you will learn something interesting.”

             On writing, Gawande observes:

            It makes no difference whether you write five paragraphs for a blog, a paper for a      professional journal, or a poem for a reading group. Just write. What you write need not achieve perfection. It need only add some small observation about your world.

Gawande confesses that he did not write before he became a doctor. (I assume he means for publication.) “But once I became a doctor, I found I needed to write.” Writing, for him, helps him hold onto a “larger sense of purpose,” enables him to “step back and think through a problem.”
            For Atul Gawande, counting and writing have high stakes and have contributed to his considerable achievements as a surgeon and author. In this blog, I want to reflect on small-scale counting and writing, everyday tallies and scribbles that can lift you momentarily out of the flow of events, help you take notice and give you a tool to think about what you perceive. How many are there of this object I’m seeing: trees, cell phones, shopping carts, cracks and buckles in the sidewalk, books and magazines? As I go through my day, are there more in one place than in another? What about behaviors, casual ones? How often do people greet or somehow acknowledge each other? Does this behavior vary by place?
            Writing. With a pen or keypad record a line from a song or t.v. show or from something you’re reading that touches or informs you, or the surprising color on a burst of flowers, or an overheard blip of conversation (this from a guy with a sad laugh on a cellphone: “Cuz I messed up, that’s why”), or something lovely someone says to you. Especially write that last one down.
            I probably need to state what I imagine is on some readers’ minds: I’m not asking that you count or write all the time, certainly not encouraging an obsessive adding or recording. But I do like the idea of momentarily focusing on the little things of the world that peripherally catch our attention.
            What I also value is that this orientation to count and describe small, everyday objects and events becomes a potent research tool when brought to bear on what one studies—for me and a number of the readers of this blog that would be school and schooling. Bring your writing and counting together. What kind of buildings surround the school—homes, shops? How many of each? What about signage? Where and how do students enter campus? Do they come alone, in pairs or groups, are they dropped off—on foot or by car? As you walk to your destination (the administrative offices, a classroom) what do you see and hear? The flow and clustering of students and adults? Bits of conversation? What blares from the loudspeaker? Are there trees and how many? Banners, flags, signs? Anything, anything that catches your attention.
            This is just the start, of course. Counts can be reductive as can snippets of description. You have to make sense of them—and try to understand what sense the people in the school make of it all. But both modest insights and big ideas can begin with a small amplification of our attention, kicking it up a notch, and counting and scribbling down or tapping out what we might have missed before.

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