Follow Up, "Dear Citizen Math"
A follow-up letter to Dear Citizen Math. First given on July 28, 2022 in Philadelphia.
Good afternoon. Thank you so much for having me. I have been looking forward to meeting you for months. I’d like to offer a special thanks for selecting Dear Citizen Math as your summer reading. It’s strange. When you write a book and send it out into the world, you have no idea how people will receive it or whether anyone will even read it. I’m honored that you did. I hope you found it a worthy use of your time.
I wrote Dear Citizen Math as a letter. It felt more intimate than a practitioner’s guide. More honest. For the head, sure, but fundamentally from the heart. In that same spirit, rather than try to wow you with a fancy slideshow, I’ve written you another letter. No bells or whistles. No bits or bytes. Just words on paper.
Dear Citizen Teacher:
First thing’s first: How are you feeling?
Teaching is a remarkable profession. The decision to teach may be the most generous contribution one can offer to a society. Thank you. I admire you for becoming a teacher. And I truly believe there’s never been a better moment to be one.
And yet…I know it may not feel that way.
It’s a strange time to be a teacher. The pandemic; remote learning; students who are even further behind now than they were before COVID, to say nothing of more anxious and more depressed; concerns about political indoctrination; bans on library books; fights over what schools are named; dismal teacher pay made worse by inflation; and to top it off, school shootings that have become so commonplace that we’re seriously discussing whether teachers should be armed.
I know that many of you are in your first few years of teaching. What an introduction, huh? What a welcome to the profession. I’m sorry you have to deal with it. For what it’s worth, teaching is supposed to feel uplifting. Despite the chaos of recent years, I hope you’ve had at least a few moments in which you got to experience how energizing a classroom can be. If so, you deserve that. But if not, or if you haven’t had enough of those moments, I’m sorry. If your overriding emotion right now is exhaustion — of feeling burned out before you’ve really even begun — that isn’t fair. It isn’t sustainable. And I am sorry.
But I’m not surprised. It’s a weird time to be a teacher because it’s a weird time to be an American. We shout but don’t listen. We argue but don’t reason. We’ve gotten good at yelling at one another. We’ve gotten great at judging one another. But when it comes to hearing one another — to approaching one another with respect; to considering one another’s viewpoints; to supporting our positions with evidence and grounding our disagreements in facts; in short, when it comes to doing the things that one would do when trying to live constructively in a country with other people — well, we’ve gotten terrible at that.
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln observed that a “house divided against itself cannot stand.” Eight score and four years later, we as a society have become so divided — our discourse has become so divisive — that many of us now measure the sincerity of our patriotism by the intensity of our mutual disdain. If being a “good American” today means picking a side in battle, I suppose it’s no surprise when even school board meetings start to sound like Bull Run.
I’m sorry to you. I’m sorry for all of us.
My name is Karim. My maternal family is from the Middle East. I am genetically predisposed to being a nomad. I’ve traveled to as many countries as there are U.S. states. I’ve lived on every continent except Antarctica. One of the benefits of spending so much time abroad is that, when you come home, you get to experience it anew; you get to see your country through the eyes of an outsider. I spent almost all of 2020 in Australia. (I basically skipped COVID.) When I returned to the States last March, I was immediately struck by a few observations.
The first was just how beautiful this place is. The Blue Ridge Mountains. The Rockies. Have you ever driven across Wisconsin in the spring? Amber waves of grain. This country is stunning! Of course, Earth is stunning. The Gobi Desert. Table Mountain in Cape Town. If you’re ever in Australia, you have to visit Tasmania; the cliffs near Port Arthur will blow your mind. Still, there is something special about the United States. We have the Everglades and Denali. We have Death Valley and Kauai. Every time I return home, I am breath-taken by the diversity of our landscapes.
I’m also breath-taken by the diversity of us. When you step onto a subway car in New York City, it’s like entering Zion from the Matrix. The Hasidic guy with his curl of hair. A Muslim woman in hijab. A Rastafarian with dreads down to his waist. Some banker in a three-piece suit. I love it. I realize that not everyone is as enamored with our diversity as I am. But I dig it, if for no other reason than because of the music it allows us to create. You can’t have punk without rock. You can’t have rock without Elvis. And you can’t have Elvis without gospel. Every time I land in this country and press shuffle on iTunes, I am floored by the diversity of our creativity. We have Johnny Cash and Kanye. Good Vibrations and Despacito. That is quite a range. This place is pretty cool.
But it’s not perfect. We have our challenges. When I returned to the States from Australia last spring, there were two challenges in particular that struck me.
First, this country seems rigid. We’re all quite certain of what we believe. When we interact, it often seems less like we’re talking to one another and more like we’re talking at one another or past one another.
Second, this country seems solitary. Even when we occupy the same space, it’s as though we’re absorbed in our own individual worlds. I could be wrong. I’m an only child. I’m an introvert. When it comes to solitude, it’s possible that I’m just projecting my experience as a human onto the nation as a whole. But I don’t think so. Because every time I do ride the subway in Manhattan, everyone is wearing headphones.
Are my observations off-base? Or have you noticed these challenges, too: the certitude and isolation that pervade America today?
How did we get here?
I believe our intellectual rigidity is a consequence of the media we consume. Cable news that caters to emotion and ideology. Social media posts that are engineered to appear in our feeds only if they align with what we already believe. The world is complex. Most questions don’t have definitive right or wrong answers. You wouldn’t know that, though, by watching MSNBC or Fox News, or by scrolling through Facebook or YouTube. By tailoring reality to personal preference, these systems hook us with an intoxicating promise: that whatever we think, we’re absolutely right.
Cable news and social media are not information brokers. They’re certainty machines. They create the impression that the questions we face are self-evident and that anyone who thinks differently is wrong, or unpatriotic, or evil. This certainty is comforting to us as individuals, but it’s poisonous for our democracy. Why would I be curious to hear what you think if I already know all the answers? Have you noticed how combustible this country can feel at times? It’s the inevitable result of a media ecosystem that encourages half of us to be an unstoppable object and the other half an immovable force.
While modern media is making us rigid, modern technology is making us lonely. COVID may have sent workers home, but Zoom is what allows us to stay there. We no longer have to talk with the butcher at the grocery store; we have Instacart for that. We no longer have to sit in a crowded movie theater; we have Netflix and Hulu for that. Far from bringing us together, the apps and services that characterize modern life are making it easier for us to remain apart. And yet, we humans are a social species. Even the most introverted among us needs social contact. But what happens when we don’t get it? What happens when we define progress as not interacting?
Certainty begets intransigence. Isolation begets loneliness. And the net result is a country that doesn’t just struggle to have a conversation with itself, but one which — increasingly — doesn’t even want to.
So what does this have to do with education? Why would I include this in a letter to you?
In Dear Citizen Math, I described mathematics as having two identities. Like a telescope, it’s an elegant system to look at as well as a powerful lens to look with. Similarly, school has two identities. On one hand, school is a reflection of society. What we as adults expect of ourselves informs the types of learning experiences that we prioritize for our students. On the other hand, school is a mechanism for improving society. It’s an opportunity to practice being the type of country that we’d like to become. If we want to get better at thinking creatively, school is where we can do that. If we want to get better at debating respectfully, at grounding our reasoning in something more substantive than partisan bickering, classrooms are where we can do that.
Unfortunately, for generations we as a society have chosen to prioritize the first version of school. Instead of using school to help us get somewhere better, we prioritize educational experiences that mirror where we already are.
Consider the types of activities that we tend to assign in school. In mathematics, we tell students to calculate the square roots of 16 and identify the hypotenuse of a right triangle. In science, we tell students to identify the genus of the house cat and determine the number of electrons in an atom. In social studies, we tell students to list the presidents in order. In language arts, to diagram a sentence. In Spanish, to conjugate a verb.
These are all reasonable things to learn. The knowledge isn’t always helpful — I’ve probably used the Pythagorean Theorem twice in my life, and I do math for a living — but there is value in developing a knowledge base, a sort-of encyclopedia of information that students might draw on at some point in their lives.
The downside of these types of activities, though, is that they communicate to students that the purpose of learning is to identify answers, and that the answers are already known. The square roots of 16 are positive and negative four. George Washington was the first president. The genus of the house cat is felis. There is no doubt about this.
Of course, fill-in-the-fact activities aren’t the only ones we use in education. We also ask questions like “How long will it take for the train to reach the station?” and “If a mother and father each have green eyes, what’s the probability that their child will have blue eyes?” Unlike prescriptive activities that instruct students to recite an answer, activities like these help them develop flexible problem-solving skills. They invite students to come up with their own approaches and explain how they arrived at their answer. But, once again, there’s only one answer to find. You may have taken a different path to get there, but certainty is still the goal.
But this isn’t how real life works. It’s most assuredly not how a democracy works. Should the federal government increase the minimum wage? There is no right answer to that. What’s the best way to respond to climate change? There is no clear answer to that. Should Americans be required to get the COVID vaccine? Does the Electoral College still make sense 37 states after our founding? If we want news to be more intellectually rigorous, who should spark that change: the newscasters or the audience? None of these questions has a definitive answer. Yet these are the types of questions that we confront as a society.
When we prioritize the version of school that emphasizes closed-ended activities that converge on an answer, not only do we fail to prepare students to wrestle with the nuance of the issues they’ll soon face, but we completely divorce the experience of learning from the reality of living.
But there’s another consequence. When the only questions we ask students are how long it takes for a train to reach a station and the probability of having blue eyes, we effectively guarantee that school will be forgettable. And for millions of Americans, school is almost entirely forgettable.
Think back to when you were a kid. What do you remember from school?
If you’re like me, you might remember where you caught the bus. You might remember how you played in sports. You might even remember what you ate for lunch. (Chili Frito pie. Short Pump Middle, baby!) But you have almost no recollection of what you discussed in class. You remember the names of your favorite teachers, but you’ve forgotten almost every question they asked. Just like today, when you and I were children, we were required by law to attend school for roughly 12,000 hours. Now that we’re adults, how many of those hours do we remember?
Surely we remember some of them. I remember some of them. In third grade, I remember sitting on the floor in Mrs. Wheeler’s class and watching the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. You might not have been born yet, but you probably remember what happened. I don’t think the inherent riskiness of space flight or the fragility of human existence were the lessons that Mrs. Wheeler had in mind for that day, but it was memorable nonetheless.
In eighth grade, I remember our drama teacher giving us handheld camcorders and allowing us to make movies. Doug Whitley, Charles Cox, and I decided to recreate MacGyver scenes using Matchbox cars and bubble gum. Our final product was…terrible. It turns out that winging it is not the most effective strategy for making a film. Lesson learned.
When I was a freshman in high school, our religion teacher had us debate why bad things happen to good people. What a fascinating question. I still think about it. Is ours a vengeful God like in the Old Testament? Are bad things the price we pay to grow? Or is it more like what Buddha suggested: that there are no bad things; there are no good things; there are just things?
In geometry, Mr. Choate gave every student a box of toothpicks, putty, and an egg. Our challenge was to construct a protective enclosure which we would drop from the belltower of our school’s 80 foot-tall chapel. “How should I design this,” I wondered. “Should I orient the toothpicks to be perpendicular to the ground to make the enclosure rigid? Or should I angle them to give way and hopefully cushion the fall?” A quarter century later, I still don’t know the answer. It turns out that if there is a God, he really has it in for eggs.
I had plenty of memorable experiences in school. I’m sure you did, too. But how many? If I were to add up the ones I remember — the questions I still carry; the conversations that endured — I estimate they’d account for roughly 40 hours in total. And that’s wonderful: 40 hours of eye-opening, carry-with-me-into-adulthood learning experiences. But it still leaves the other 11,960.
The version of school that we’ve chosen to prioritize is largely forgettable. We have forgotten most of ours as adults, and so will students today. Of course, this process of forgetting doesn’t require years. It happens in a matter of weeks. We teach a topic: triangle ratios or the different types of clouds. We give a unit test. And a large fraction of the students fail. They’ve forgotten what we taught before we’ve even moved on. So how do we respond?
We spin ourselves up into desperation mode. “Kids need to know this stuff,” we say. “How will we get them to remember?” So we double-block students and assign them an extra period of algebra or ELA. We give them workbooks and practice packets. We send teachers to PD workshops on grit and growth mindsets. (“If you forgot that the hypotenuse is the longest side, just keep at it.”) We turn big schools into small schools. We turn public schools into charter schools. We adopt new standards. We write new tests. We adopt new curriculum. We try all of these things. And we really are trying! But nothing seems to help. The kids just keep forgetting. So how do we respond then?
Then we bring out the big guns. Which brings us now to solitude.
When I was a teacher, if I wanted a laptop cart — the “cow”, we called it — I had to sign up weeks in advance. Today, it’s hard to walk into a classroom and not see students on devices. They’re tapping on screens. Many are wearing headphones. And what kinds of activities are they doing? More often than not, the exact same kinds that they’ve always done: fill-in-the-blanks; multiple choice; the ones that converge on an answer. Unlike when I was a teacher, though, now the activities are “personalized.” Developers in Silicon Valley and elsewhere have crafted thousand line-long algorithms to ensure that every child has their own “individualized learning experience that’s perfectly customized to them.”
This sounds good. And some of the technology is helpful. If I were still teaching, I’d much rather have C-3PO grade 400 multiple-choice problems than have to grade them myself. Assigning students to devices isn’t all bad. The danger, though, comes when we stop using computers as a supplement in education — something we use once in a while; something teachers need to sign up for in advance — and we start using them as a central feature. When stranding kids on computers becomes the norm rather than the exception.
In some places, this is already happening.
You may recall from the first letter the story about Rocketship Schools, the California charter network that built massive computer labs where students spent hours each day doing computer-based learning. So many hours, in fact, that while some children got dizzy staring at screens, others were diagnosed with bladder infections from sitting in place for so long. For an eight year-old in that 100-person computer lab, can you imagine how lonely that must have felt?
In 2009, a group of entrepreneurs in Brooklyn launched another high-tech school. Every morning students would arrive and consult a computer screen, which directed each child to a different learning station based on their previous day’s results. One student might be assigned to watch a tutorial video on converting between centimeters and meters, while another might be stationed on a laptop to practice adding fractions. The year the school launched, TIME Magazine named it one of the top inventions in the world, thanks to its high-tech approach to personalization. What was the school called? The School of One. Think about that for a moment: School of One. By definition, “school” is plural: a school of fish. And yet we have become so desperate for students to master tidbits of closed-ended information that it’s even changed our grammar.
A few months ago I had a conversation with a friend’s 10 year-old son. He was sitting on the couch doing his math homework on a Chromebook. I looked over his shoulder. A little character moved across the screen and paused at each new math obstacle.
“Do you like this program?” I asked him.
“It’s good,” he said.
“What do you like about it?”
“If I get enough right answers,” he replied, “I can buy a new outfit for my avatar.”
The need for rote practice. Developing procedural fluency. I get it. Still, when this is what school has become — a video game; a singular noun — that’s how you know we’ve lost the plot.
I’m curious: When did the goal of American education become to learn as many forgettable things as possible as efficiently as possible?
For decades we as a society have prioritized a version of school that’s focused almost entirely on the pursuit of definitive answers. In recent years we’ve invented technologies that streamline this process by isolating students in their own tailor-made silos. Answers as a proxy for intelligence. Isolation as a tactic for efficiency.
In other words: certainty and solitude. These are the characteristics that have come to define school. They’re also exactly the problems that we’re currently suffering as a country. If school were to look in the mirror, all it would see is us. The version of school that we’ve created is the one that reflects where we already are. But look at us, screaming at the TV about how undeniably right we all are. Is this really the aspect of ourselves that we’re so desperate to perpetuate with school?
We need to prioritize the other version. Instead of school paralleling the trajectory that we’re on, we need it to act as a source of gravity that bends our path in a different direction. We need school to be a place where students discover that most issues aren’t black and white. We need classrooms to be places where students learn how to discuss real issues respectfully and see themselves as part of a larger community.
So how do we do that? How do we ask questions in school that students will actually remember?
To answer that, let’s take another look at the types of questions that have traditionally defined school. How long does it take to fill a swimming pool with water? How many electoral votes does Oklahoma have? Which kind of rock is most likely to contain fossils?
For a long time I assumed the reason that so many students find school so forgettable — and why so many teachers find it less energizing than they envisioned — was because the questions we ask are boring. Recently, however, I’ve begun to understand the situation a bit differently.
The problem isn’t that the questions are boring; boring is subjective. The problem isn’t that the questions are bad; they have a role to play. The problem is that the questions we tend to ask in school aren’t actually questions. They’re instructions with a question mark. “How long does it take to fill a swimming pool” may sound like a question, but it’s really a command: Find the volume of a rectangular prism, then divide it by a unit rate. If I ask you, “Which type of rock contains fossils,” you may hear a question in my intonation. But you know that I’m not asking for your opinion.
Whatever subject you teach — math, science, social studies, ELA — if you survey all of the questions that you’re expected to ask over the course of a school year, I bet you’ll find that the overwhelming majority are rhetorical. They ask for an answer but they don’t invite a point of view. They may sound like a question, but they don’t feel like one.
So what does a real question sound like? It sounds like real life. If we want classrooms to be places where students discuss and opine on issues that lack definitive answers, all we need to do is ask the questions in school that we’re already asking outside of it.
What is the likelihood of finding life on other planets, and how will our lives change if the James Webb Telescope confirms the existence of aliens? How have video games evolved over time, and what might be the consequences if they become so lifelike that we’re unable to distinguish them from reality? What time should school start in the morning? Should Major League Baseball stadiums all have the same dimensions?
What’s the fairest way for cities to generate revenue, and should local governments add monthly late fees to unpaid speeding fines?
That’s a tough one. On one hand, if a low-income resident can’t afford to pay off their ticket on time, a monthly late fee can create a cycle of debt where a $150 ticket ends up costing $500 or more. That doesn’t seem fair. On the other hand, it doesn’t necessarily seem fair to do what they do in a country like Finland, where the fine someone pays is calculated as a percent of their income. In this case, a millionaire who drives just over the speed limit can get hit with a fine of tens of thousands of dollars. So what’s the right balance? What should local governments do?
Should airlines oversell their flights? Should cities recruit high-tech employers like Amazon? If so, how should they balance the increase in income with the increase in rent, and the increase in rent with the increase in homelessness? When you customize sneakers online, how many designs are possible, and is that amount of choice a good thing? How much can we trust our memory, and is forgetting a bad thing? Should every American be required to buy health insurance? Should people with small feet pay less for shoes? Is there an upside to having a bad day?
Real life is full of real questions, and very few of them have definitive answers. Can you imagine how much better we would function as a democracy if we embraced the legitimacy of that? Can you imagine how much more memorable classrooms would be if these were the conversations we had?
While modern media prioritizes answers, classrooms are places for questions. While we adults may be addicted to certainty, childhood is defined by curiosity. And, oh my, there is so much to be curious about. There are so many good questions to ask.
As you probably know, organizations like Locks of Love create wigs for children who lost their hair to leukemia and alopecia. It must be incredibly difficult for someone that young to lose all their hair. Is there something we can do to help?
The minimum donation to Locks of Love is a single ten-inch ponytail. If you’d like to donate an entire wig, though, that requires ten ten-inch donations. On average, human hair grows around a half-inch per month. At that rate, it would take 200 months — or nearly 17 years — to donate an entire wig’s worth of hair. That would be difficult for one person to achieve on their own.
But what if we donated together? Isn’t that the question that many people would naturally ask? As it happens, the mathematics involved in this is exactly what students are learning in seventh grade: writing and solving linear equations. Can you imagine how powerful it would be if every year seventh graders organized hair drives for sick kids in their communities? If they invited barbers and hairdressers to the school gym? If every grade came out to participate?
As a citizenry, we are increasingly alienated from one another. We’re being trained by cable news and social media to fear one another. How therapeutic would it be if these were the types of learning experiences that teachers sparked in school?
There’s a child in our town with leukemia who lost her hair. Is there something we can do to help? If students are destined to forget most of what they learn in classrooms, is this a question that you expect they would remember?
There is something healing about an honest question asked openly. By their very nature, questions that lack definitive answers are inviting. They’re something to consider together. Should we ban plastics that don’t biodegrade? Should there be a mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices?
When we go out to eat, is tipping as a percent the fairest way to compensate servers? After all, when we do this, we’re not paying them based on how hard they work but on how expensive the menu is. Is there a better way to calculate a tip? I’m really asking. Person to person, I’m curious what you think.
As you might expect from someone who wrote a letter called Dear Citizen Math, most of the questions that I propose are explorable with mathematics. Baseball stadiums? Quadratic functions. Fidelity of memory? Exponential decay. When it comes to discussing the world around us, it’s natural that I think math teachers are the best people to do this. Math is the world that I live in. Math is the telescope I know.
But what if you prefer a different telescope? Great. Because no matter what subject you teach, the questions you can ask are just as powerful.
The last eight years have been the hottest on record. If you teach science: What are the different options for slowing CO2 emissions, and which are worth investing in? We Americans tore ourselves into shreds over mask mandates. If you teach social studies: During a national emergency, what’s the right balance between centralized authority and individual rights?
I’m not a psychiatrist, but I imagine that before we can persuade others, we need to be persuadable ourselves. If you teach writing: What are some essays that changed your mind about an issue, and what were their key characteristics?
Art teachers and notions of beauty. Gym teachers and strategy. Shop teachers and the age-old debate over whether the new way of doing things is always the best way of doing things. Every classroom is an opportunity for a respectful open-ended debate. Every teacher can ask an unforgettable question.
So why isn’t school as memorable as it could be? For the same reason that most systems aren’t as good as they could be: inertia. We as educators have been asking the same questions for so long that they’ve become the only kind that many of us can now imagine.
A math riddle from the year 1256 asks, “A chessboard has 1 grain of wheat on the first square, 2 grains on the second square, 4 grains on the third, and so on. If a chessboard has 64 squares, how many grains of wheat will be on the final square?” Today, nearly 800 years later, one of the most popular math curriculums in the country poses a nearly identical problem: “A purse contains 1 penny today. Tomorrow it will magically turn into 2 pennies. The next day it will turn into four.”
And how do we respond when we see this? We embrace it. In fact, EdReports rated the curriculum one of the best they’d ever seen, blessing it with what may be the two most dangerous words in American education: meets expectations.
Why isn’t school as memorable as it could be? Because it’s never been as memorable as it could be. We’ve never expected the big questions. We’ve never demanded the enduring experiences. And because Sir Newton knew what he was talking about: that an object at rest tends to stay at rest.
If we want to bend the trajectory of this country — if we want to become less certain; if we want to feel more connected — then classrooms are where we can start. Students will inherit the reins soon enough. We say that we want them to learn how to think. Is it time to give them something real to think about? In this era of intellectual rigidity and techno-isolationism, should we prioritize questions that don’t converge on an answer and which students must consider together? Lots of people disagree about the role that school should play. I ask these questions sincerely. But if they sound rhetorical, I guess you have your answer.
Inertia is a powerful force. It can keep us from appreciating the other possibilities that exist. But what happens when we expand our field of view? When we put aside the expectations and standards and systems that we’ve constructed around education over time, what is the version of teaching that we see?
Let’s find out.
Close your eyes. Picture your classroom. In the middle of the room is a large circular table. You and your students are seated around it. Now picture the entire system of education that we’ve constructed around that. The walls of the classroom. The hallways of your school. The district office on the other side of town. Picture the entire system, like a series of concentric circles radiating from the table where you and your students sit.
Can you see the whole system? Do you have that picture in your mind?
Good. Now let’s begin to deconstruct it, piece by piece. Let’s take away the building in the state capital where the department of education meets. Let’s take away the school buses. Poof, they’re gone. The principal’s office at your school. The cafeteria. The library. The lockers. All of those have vanished. The bell signaling the end of the period. The lights hanging from your ceiling. The SMART Board. The posters on the wall. One by one, those all disappear. And now the classroom walls disappear. The floor tiles disappear. Every backpack. Every laptop. All the pieces we’ve come to picture when we think of our educational system: all those pieces are gone. And all that remains in the space and silence is you, and a table, and a group of students seated around it.
Seated around the table, your students are looking at you, patiently waiting for you to start class. There are no textbooks anymore. You get to decide which questions to ask. What is the question you want to ask?
Do you want to ask students how the shape of an airplane wing affects how far a plane can fly, then construct a model to find out? Do you want to ask about the nature of nature? Would you like to measure the symmetry of leaves and discuss whether symmetry is evidence that our reality is a simulation? (After all, that would be a good way to save on computing power.)
The table is yours. Do you want to ask students how they might address a community issue like homelessness? How to make it easier for people to walk to work? To conserve water? To keep the elderly company? Do you want to discuss how genes get passed down, then ask students whether parents in the future should be able to select the traits of their children or modify them with CRISPR?
Do you want to ask students how what they see on television affects how they feel, and whether they think there’s a correlation between violent video games and violent behavior? Do you want to ask whether humans are developing new technologies faster than we can keep up with the consequences? Whether we should colonize Mars and what resources we would need to take there? Whether students would want to go?
You can ask anything. What question are you most excited to ask?
Now imagine you ask it. You put it on the table. How are students responding? Are they seated around the table discussing the question as a whole group? Or have they stood up to reorganize themselves into smaller debates? Are students writing something? Are they measuring something? Building something?
You posed the question, and now students are running with it. Observe what’s happening around you. What are you seeing? What are you hearing?
Shift your focus to inside of you. How are you feeling? Students are discussing the question you wanted to ask. How does that feel?
Now, very slowly, and with your eyes still closed, let’s begin to reconstruct the system of education that used to exist.
Allow the classroom walls to fade back in. The floor tiles are reappearing. The lights are hanging from the ceiling again. The SMART Board is on the wall. The textbooks are on the shelf. Outside the classroom, the hallways are back. The lockers. The front office of your school. The sign-in sheets. The American flag. The visitors coming and going. The district office. The state buildings and state tests. It’s all faded back into existence.
Like pressing play on SimCity, the system is moving again. The yellow buses are gliding down the road. Students are riding them again, their backpacks full of crumpled papers. All of the pieces are back, and they’re moving just as they used to.
The system of education looks exactly the same as it did before. But having gone to that empty space — having asked the questions you wanted to ask — do you see the system a bit differently now.
You can open your eyes.
I know that many of you are tired, and understandably. The anger of our politics has infiltrated school board meetings. Loneliness-inducing technologies are coming to play a larger and larger role in learning. It’s an exhausting moment.
Even if you’re still relatively new to teaching, I know that many of you feel overwhelmed already by the system that we’ve created. Budgets that make it hard for you to afford the resources that you want. An endless avalanche of intervention after intervention. And all of this to sustain a version of school that prioritizes certainty, accelerates solitude, and which was already pretty forgettable to begin with.
It’s a bit much. No wonder so many teachers are leaving. And not just teachers, but principles. And instructional coaches. And curriculum coordinators. And (very nearly) some curriculum writers. This is a difficult moment for all of us.
But most especially, it’s a difficult time for you. And I’m sorry.
And yet in spite of all of this, I cannot think of a better time to be a teacher. Not because there’s something unique about teaching today, but because there’s not. The frustrations that you’re experiencing right now are specific to this moment in time, yes.
But the version of education that you envision when you close your eyes? The rush of energy you feel when you picture yourself asking the big questions and posing the memorable challenges? That experience is timeless. There will always be new frustrations. We will always invent new ways to address them. But no matter what we construct around education, the essence of teaching will always be found in the taking away. When we remove all of the structures that we’ve come to expect when we picture our educational system, we’re reminded that the pieces that remain are the only ones we’ve ever really needed: you, a table, and a question. There’s nothing modern about that. That’s as old as Socrates.
By all means, use the Chromebooks; they have their place. Ask the questions that aren’t really questions; they’re part of it, too. (We have to have something to grade.) But don’t just leave it at that. Ask the real questions: ones that you don’t know the answers to; ones that may not have answers; ones that require open-minded conversations that decalcify certainty, require civility, and build community.
If students are destined to forget 11,960 hours, contribute some of the 40 they’ll remember. Education is inertial. There are questions that you’re expected to ask. But if you also make time for the ones that you want to ask, you can be our inside outside force.
I, for one, am rooting for you. So are lots of people. Your students. Their parents. Your principal. Even the state officials who write the tests and codify the standards. Lots of us want school to feel meaningful. We may have lost sight of how big a classroom can be, but deep down we want it to be better. We want to be better. And you’re the one to show us how.
The version of school that we’ve chosen to prioritize will at times fatigue you. Given the chaos surrounding education today, some of you may be rethinking whether you even want to stay. That’s a fair question, and one we all have to answer for ourselves.
But in those moments of doubt — in those moments when you feel utterly exhausted by the cacophony and complications of the system we’ve built — just think back to the space that remained when you took the pieces away. Remember what you did there. Remember how you felt there. And above all, remember this: that place isn’t somewhere you have to go. If you’re a teacher, it’s where you already are. You have the room. You have the table. What is the question you most want to ask?
It’s been a tremendous honor to share this letter with you. I hope you found the first letter a good use of your time. And I hope you found this follow-up a good use, as well. In keeping with my favorite telescope for observing the world, I’d like to end this with one last bit of math.
The length of the average human stride is approximately 2.5 feet. We meet this afternoon in a hotel ballroom in Philadelphia, 0.85 miles from Independence Hall. We are, quite literally, 1776 steps from the room where we founded this country. In the years since, we have as a nation experienced our challenges and successes. We fought a Civil War. We expanded civil rights. We landed on the moon. We’ve endured — we continue to endure — the coarsening of rhetoric and the calcification of intolerance and a daily scourge of shootings which only serve to punctuate just how far we still are from fulfilling the promise that we once declared in this city of brotherly love.
Will we make it as a country? Will our experiment in self-governance succeed? Or will we suffer the same parabolic fate of every other empire that came before us? I don’t know. I really have no idea.
But if we do end up succeeding as a democracy, I have every confidence that it will be because of you: the teachers in this room and the teachers beyond it. As a citizenry, we have written grandiose narratives about the founding of our country: the philosophies that motivated it; the divine whisper that inspired it.
But in truth, what happened in Independence Hall nearly 250 years ago was not the manifestation of a vision. It was the asking of a question: We’re starting a new nation. How do we want it to work?
Our country was founded on a question. That is our true constitution. That is the conversation that launched this experiment. And it’s exactly the one you get to continue today in your classrooms with your students: We are the inheritors of a nation. How do we want it to work?