i am four weeks into grad school. again. i’m a big, galumphing dragon in a small box.

you’d think four years of writing blog posts would’ve taught me to churn out little papers like a confetti machine. you’d think fifteen years as an editor and writing teacher would make it natural to graciously receive grades on what i write.


being subject to an education system – even as an educator – is an exercise in paring oneself down.

but i’m learning. learning to remake myself to fit the parts of the box i need. learning too to bide my time, find ways to hold on to the things that refuse to be crammed in. this education stuff is a messy business.

our kids live within it every day. it norms them, tests them, grades them, then reflects them back to themselves on varying scales of worth. sometimes it’s a gentle motivating process that teaches them to believe in hard work, and in themselves. sometimes there’s violence done under the surface of all those metrics and rubrics and judgements, even the ones delivered in vague velvet language. sometimes what kids end up learning is that they cannot win, because the box was not made for them. sometimes they learn that sitting down and lining up and writing the “right” way – even if this year’s right way is exactly different from what last year’s teacher said – is what the world rewards.

in our culture, the education system – from kindergarten straight through to the highest levels of scholarship – regulates all those within it by appealing to the authority of the “this is how it is” box. our concepts of learning and knowledge and appropriate behaviour and rites of passage are all tied in part to this box.

i want to unpack it.

# 1. the first thing i know about the box is one we’ve been hearing more and more over the past fifteen years: increasingly, the world has little relationship to the view from within the box. it’s true. the box is based on industrial era values. we no longer live in an industrial society,  not really.

i am old enough to know that in 20+ years of various and sundry jobs, i have not once been subject to a letter grade. i am old enough to realize that there are many ways of writing and publishing, even within academia: that the world today rewards a very different set of skills than the compliance inculcated by the “teacher as ruler of the classroom” model. i’ve also spent enough years in education to know that most of the people who work in this system are good people, working hard, with good intentions.

but the box frames the way they see the world. it frames the way we ALL see the world. and ourselves. in many cases, for the rest of our lives. and yet we do not know how to challenge the box and its lack of fit because it is the package encasing too many things held dear. our concepts of what it means to learn are so tied to the box that we usually fail to think outside of it, when it comes to trying to “fix education.”

we need to think about the box. it’s so normalized as to be almost invisible, but the part it plays in shaping our kids is huge. and when we ignore it, we make it more powerful.

# 2. because the other thing i know about the box is this: it’s arbitrary. and, in part, irrelevant, both to learning and to eventual success in life. there is actually no other system in our culture that holds people to such an externalized and narrow frame of judgement as schooling does.

this doesn’t mean i don’t value education, or think we should throw rotten tomatoes at schools. but i do think we need to think more intelligently about them, as systems. and we don’t do that well, thanks to the box.

one of the best things i learned the last time i was in school is that everyone in our culture is an expert on education. it’s resoundingly true: you can see it each time the topic comes up in the media, particularly as regards reforms or any questions of what teachers should do. everyone and their pet dog in the court of public opinion has an authoritative perspective on precisely how schools should work. only nurses, maybe, get half as much helpful input on how to practice their vocation. but nurses are lucky: not everybody hangs out in hospitals. we all go to school, at least long enough to master schooling.

we are all experts, in our way. but what we are expert on is our own relationships to the box.

no matter how i gnash my teeth, the court of public opinion on education distills down to second-hand efficiency models borrowed from industrial-era business: testing. standardization. metrics and money and accountability for teachers, who end up wedged by the calls for total quantification of schooling into classroom manager roles more stringent and regimented than those of military drill sergeants.

this is the box at work, loosed from the control of the system and turning back on itself to attack its own maker for not being more of what people took from the system in the first place. the calls for increasingly quantifiable education are calls for a simulacra of what we think we remember of the box, of what it made us think school was about. and the master’s tools, people, will not dismantle the master’s house. (*thank you, Audre Lord*)

we need to think about what we’re educating for, and what we value, and fight for that, not replicate whatever we think education was trying to do to us.

the final thing i think about the box is the one that’s new for me.

#3. i don’t think it’s the quantifiable part that’s the problem. the messiness of education is not the fault of numbers. measuring things, even outcomes, can have value for good teaching and good education. the problem is blind belief that human systems have meaning outside of us.

for years, i had quantification, based in counting and measuring, confused with positivism and objectivism, based in the belief that some things are simply true, even when they’re human-constructed.

thanks to my forced and rather painful immersion in quantitative research, i’m learning that while measuring often reflects a belief in the absolute truth of numbers, even when there’s obvious evidence of human impact on outcomes behind those numbers, the connection between quantification and positivism is not absolutely necessary.

i’m also noticing that there’s a lot of positivism and objectivism even in aspects of education without numbers. maybe we grade kids on a scale of A, B, C, D, F. maybe the grading is important, to show how closely their work accords with what we’re trying to teach. i’m not anti-grading. but i don’t believe grading = Truth, not outside the societal conditions that construct those grades.

what happens with grading, too often, is that both for students and teachers, and then by extension for parents and society at large, the grades come to have a meaning far larger and more lasting than the deeply human process in which they originate. we amplify the subjective act of a teacher or school system choosing test questions and seeing how little Johnny performs his mastery of those particular questions – which is a process that can tell us things both about Johnny and about the system and the testing process itself – into a supposedly objective picture wherein we believe that we know something absolutely True about Johnny and his capacity and his future success, or about what his teacher was teaching. but we do not interrogate the testing process, or the marking process. and we treat the results of that testing as if they tell us something objective, something divorced from its roots in human systems and fallibility.

the box tells us we can do that, somehow. that’s how the box justifies its own meaning and existence, and how it replicates itself generation after generation.

i find it crampy. i wonder how it will shape my children. i wonder how it’s shaped yours. and you. and you. yeh, you.

i wonder if i would have done better as a veterinarian, or a hairdresser, or a poodle groomer. but i still can’t think how i’d be happier than digging away, trying to understand this strange societal enterprise we call education.

tell me what you think. do you see the box? am i tilting at windmills?