As I said, I’m just entertaining this idea. I’m not formulating policy. Just thinking out loud. And all of this obviously relies on huge generalizations about school. But still: seems like something worth investigating. So I’ve been pursuing the idea. Among the books that have proven useful during this investigation is Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. It’s a book about design, but any planned effort to impose order is design. So, to the extent that teaching is designing for learning, it can be usefully connected to the way we design and think about school--including the way we think about the consequences of our school designs.
The main argument of the book is that a designer has a responsibility to think clearly about what problems the design attempts to solve, and that designers elevate actual human problems ahead of egocentric whims of personal expression, novelty, or profit. For instance, Papanek argues that the automotive industry’s design emphasis on exterior and interior “styling” over safety has been (and remains) irresponsible design. Also by this reasoning, electric can openers are bad design: in comparison to manual can openers, electric ones are larger, more expensive, incur ongoing operating expense (electricity), are difficult to repair, and ultimately create more waste. Furthermore, it is irresponsible to manufacture a false consumer need for this badly designed product. The book argues for seeing the consequences of design choices clearly. It’s about asking not whether we can design something, but whether we should.
But he says that asking these sorts of questions is difficult because we live in a society that places a very high value on conformity, and our creative responses to problems have been blunted or stifled by this conformity. Under such pressure, innovative solutions are sometimes dismissed as mere eccentricity. According to Papanek, mass production, mass advertising, automation, and media manipulation all pressure us to conform our behavior to certain standards of propriety and correctness. And this conformity of behavior has led to a conformity of thought.* He goes so far as to claim that our society actually penalizes highly creative individuals for nonconformist autonomy.
But people do, as people must, have new ideas--even if they don’t express them. Where do they come from? Papanek says that new ideas come from making associations between diverse areas of multidisciplinary knowledge. When we shift the way we see similarity or difference, it changes everything, and we’re free to let our mind make new connections, new ideas. It’s less an act of invention than an act of perception--of seeing new similarities or differences (or similar differences or different similarities) where we hadn’t looked for these distinctions before. (This view is very similar to views of creative thinking put forth in Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, David Bohm and F. David Peat's Science, Order, and Creativity, and Rudolf Arnheim’s Visual Thinking, among others.)
But here’s where it tough for those of us living under the thumb of strongly conformist expectations: if we’re myopically focused on externally imposed ideas of “correctness” or “propriety” or “suitability” of a particular concept, we’ll never be able to perceive anything beyond what we already know. We’ll be stuck. New ideas are effectively blocked.
These blocks come in a variety of forms, and Papanek lists them out. I found it really useful to see them broken down into different categories. Here are the different types of blocks and a brief description of each.
So that’s the list of blocks. Pretty good, right?
When I look at this list of blocks, some of them strongly resonate with me as being fruitful avenues to explore. (Professional Blocks? Teachers, take a second and recall the last professional development day, and tell me that our professional thinking isn't completely atrophied by habit and routine.) And even beyond the blocks themselves, the general frame of mind Papanek demonstrates feels like a useful (and fresh?) way to think about school. To me, it feels fresh to examine school operations in terms of their consequences, and then to remind myself to look for all of the consequences--not just the ones I want to see, and especially the ones I’m blocked from seeing in all the ways described above. It feels fresh to explore the possibility that a way to foster creative thinking in school is to start checking the ways that we (teachers) may be interfering with it--to ask not what should we do, but what should we stop doing?
Again: I’m just trying to see where this idea leads; I’m not building to some Master List of bad school design. But I am interested in distancing myself from additive innovation (the perennial “roll-outs” of curricular add-ons: new tools, techniques, and doodads) and instead embracing subtractive innovation as a way to foster better thinking.
For instance: I’ve already described elsewhere my decision to abandon the TV news format with my media production students. Part of the reason for doing that was to free them from some of the arbitrary constraints of the format that have little (or nothing) to do with solving problems that a public media is poised to help solve. But a secondary point of interest for me has been seeing what happens when I remove something rather than adding something. (To be clear, I’m drawing a distinction between TV news as a format and professional journalism as an ethical framework of public service. I don’t think there is anything inherently journalistic about news desks, live feeds from darkened buildings, jovial sports guys, or suit-and-tie celebrity anchors.)
To me, it didn’t make a lot of sense to say, out of one side of my mouth, “We don’t know what the media will look like in five or ten years” and out of the other to say, “Do it like this, because this is how it’s done.” If I want students to learn to think in terms of responsible media, I need to let them frame both the solution and the problem. I need them to overcome (among others) the professional and associational blocks of “TV news” as an a priori informational structure (which it is not. TV news is an invention, just as imperfect as every other human invention). Their efforts to think this way obviously entails a lot of false starts, a lot of dead ends, and occasionally some bad solutions for which they must take responsibility. But it also involves fresh perception of the purpose and possibility of student media. And it often includes surprisingly good ideas. And when they’ve been at the center of the process that begins with a problem and ends with evaluating (and revising) the solution, the entire process yields fresh perception of the media problem space. They can see things more clearly. Sometimes my students come up with amazing content; sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they win awards; sometimes they don’t. But if you accept the idea that my students are less concerned with producing a news show than with learning how how media and journalism work (including their technical, social, and ethical aspects), then it seems as if the class has a few more possibilities now, that it’s a bit less blocked. Maybe in this way less is more.
If you’ve made it to the end, let me present this equally possible scenario: I’m completely wrong about all of this and I've been wooed by a vast mistake. Either way, I’m sharing this in the interest of starting a dialogue, of starting a conversation, of encouraging thought. Join if you want.
*(In this, his argument echoes many mid-century critiques of corporate culture, most prominently Whyte’s Organization Man, but also Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd to some extent.)
Charlie Huette is a public school teacher who also keeps a notebook. He dreams about making school just a little less terrible. Many of the posts you find here are based on notebook entries. You can learn more about Charlie by visiting the about page.