Monday, February 21, 2011

57 flavours?

Last summer I attended two courses* in London. One thing that struck me quite forcibly, while there, was how teachersconfidence seems to reach a low point after a certain number of years on the job: even though they want to, they feel they can no longer grow because they feel the system they work within - no matter what it is - limits them.

On both courses we were told we would be asked to share "nuggets" of knowledge with each other at the end. I quickly identified the "nugget" I wanted to share, but as the course went on and I saw myself and my colleagues as students, I realized I was going to change it!

The original "nugget" came from an experience I had last year, when my good friend Adriana and I took an online course on Differentiation. One of the assignments we had to do was based on a Malcolm Gladwell essay on spaghetti sauce (seriously!).

Gladwell told how, for many years, makers of spaghetti sauce had tried to find the "perfect" sauce. They did surveys, they compared which sauces people preferred, and they gradually arrived at a point where they were all selling almost exactly the same sauce, which they thought of as the "best".

But then a marketer had a new idea. What if, he thought, there was a group of people who would prefer a different type of sauce? Then he could prepare a sauce to suit their taste and, even though most people would prefer the usual sauce, he would have the best sauce for those people! He tried it, and he was right - and successful. With each new sauce he could "pick off" the customers who were "odd" enough to think this new sauce was better than the "best" sauce. As the big sauce companies saw what he was doing, they all did the same. By designing different sauces, they could satisfy their customerstastes even better than they could with one sauce. Even though a relatively small number of people preferred any particular one of the new sauces, for those people it was better than the "best". Today, of course, there are tens of different spaghetti sauces, and each of us can select the one we prefer.

When I got to the course in London and was told I would have to share a "nugget"' I thought I would share that one. Now, most teachers (including Adriana and I), when they read that essay, think of the students as the product, the spaghetti sauces. Each one is different, and thats what is so special about them, and as a teacher you have to be able to cater to all of them. But as I sat in a classroom in London, a student instead of a teacher for the week, I saw the story a little differently, and it changed the way I presented it at the end.

I now proposed this interpretation: the children are the customers, and the school is a brand (like, say, Barilla), and we, the teachers, are the spaghetti sauces, the products. The school wants to add each of us to its collection because each of us has something they cannot find in any product (teacher!) they already have. When they hired us, it was because we were the best complement, among all the teachers they interviewed, to the portfolio of teachers they already had. We were the perfect new product, the missing flavor! Each of us brings something unique, something that no other teacher in the school already has, something that adds a little "zing!" to the brand and rounds it out.
But as soon as this new product arrives, it encounters other products and sees that it is different to them, that it doesn’t really "fit in". We need to remember that the new product is there because it is different. We don’t need to be the same as the other products. We cannot forget that the brand does not need us to be the same as each other; it needs us to be a little different, so that we can satisfy the customers' different needs - whether for content, or teaching style, or personality. And, of course, we must never forget that each of us is an amazing product, one the school has selected for our uniqueness.

* The courses were,Inquiry-Based Learning in the International Classroom,“ and “Classroom Assessment Strategies,“ at the Teacher Training Centre in Each ran for 5 days, from July 1-5 and from July 7-11.