On the fourth day of a two-week summer institute, in the haze of post-lunch hour fatigue, I watched something magical and uncomfortable transpire. And I don’t think I’ll ever see the role of the teacher the same way again.
Center for Inspired Teaching founder Aleta Margolis, the lead facilitator for the institute, brought the 28 participants to the middle of the room, with each person seated in a circle. “We’re going to start back up with a simple group exercise,” she began. “Our goal is to bring the group closer together, sharpen our individual awareness, undertake a significant challenge together – and count as high as we can as a group.”
A few people tilted their heads inquisitively. Did she just say we’re going to do a counting game? “There’s only one rule,” Aleta continued. “When two people speak at once, we have to start over as a group. OK. Let’s begin.”
Despite several attempts, the group could climb no higher than six. Awkward laughter filled the room with each failed attempt, and more than one person shifted embarrassingly. Each time this happened, Aleta, in the same measured voice, calmly and clearly repeated the same opening line.
Eventually, after a few more rounds of frustration, the group happened upon an innovation – people raised their hands when they were ready to say a number. The results improved, but still the group could get no higher than fifteen. Then the group ad-libbed another innovation – simply going in a circle.
In seconds, the group reached 100. Mission accomplished! Or was it? No one seemed to feel much of a sense of accomplishment. “That way is no fun,” said one woman. “There’s no challenge at all.”
Aleta asked another question of the group. “When does it enhance the experience to make something easier, and when does it enhance the experience to make something more difficult?”
A young teacher volunteered an idea. “If our goal is simply to count as high as we can, going in a circle is clearly the most efficient way. If it isn’t, however, this method inhibits our ability to achieve other goals.”
“It’s like with test scores,” added someone else. “If that’s our only goal, we can take some short cuts to raise our numbers. But if we have other goals, it’s more complicated. We can’t only focus on one thing.”
Aleta returned the focus to the game, but not before adding a few more rules – no hand signals, and no patterns allowed. “Let’s see what happens, and let’s see what skills it takes this time.”
As the game resumed and frustration mounted, I found myself becoming more aware of how subtly but relentlessly the activities of the Inspired Teaching Institute are designed to build in the participants the skills of close and careful observation – and a form of observation that can occur without judgment. What difference did it make, after all, how high the group could count? The point was simply to see what the exercise could reveal about human behavior. And yet I watched the ways in which, for whatever reason, this simple afternoon warm up activity had provided the perfect platform for the participants to grapple with the challenge of closely observing something, and participating in it, without judgment.
“What skills are you needing to use to be successful at the game?” Aleta asked.
One participant articulated a growing mood of discomfort in the room. “I don’t like this game anymore,” she shared, “because I spoke twice when someone else spoke, and I feel like I’m letting the group down.”
“What skill might it take to get yourself back in the game?” Aleta asked.
“I think you need to feel like you’re in an environment that makes it safe to take risks and make mistakes, and that’s hard to do,” said another participant.
“Let’s try playing again in a moment,” Aleta added, “but before we do I want everyone to have the following questions in mind: First, what skill does it take to get to a position of fearless participation as a learner? And second, when it comes to this game in particular, how do you know when to go?”
The game resumed, and familiar challenges returned; the group could still count no higher than 15. “Why can’t we do this?” screamed the body language of several participants, clearly frustrated with the slow pace of their progress.
Aleta, sensing the rising level of anxiety, asked everyone to take two deep audible breaths. “Now let’s consider those two questions.”
“I think the essential skill is not getting angry at yourself if you screw up,” said one woman, before another wondered aloud: “If we had simplified the game, how might that have changed the tenor of this conversation we’re having? Would it be more or less rich?”
I typed furiously, struggling to keep up with the comments and the collective effort to unlock what was leaving people feeling so frustrated. As I did, I thought how notable it was that even on the fourth day of an institute that has intentionally and steadily given a group of adults myriad opportunities to work intimately with each other and develop a trusting climate, the default emotion the game evoked was the fear of being judged for “failing”.
“I’m starting to wonder if my role as a teacher needs to be more about staying open,” opined one teacher, “so I can be more receptive to everything that happens in my classroom. It doesn’t mean there stops being right and wrong answers. But maybe it means I need to shift the way I view the pursuit of knowledge itself, and allow in my own mind for a greater possibility of interpretation. If I do this, will it help my children feel safer to be more curious and fearless about what we study?”
Aleta wrapped up the activity by writing a short statement on a piece of butcher paper: Uncomfortable v. unsafe.
“This is the most uncomfortable you’ve been since we started our work together,” she offered. “But look at how rich the conversation has been. Just remember – in this institute and in your own classrooms there’s a crucial distinction between feeling uncomfortable, which is the space where real learning occurs, and feeling unsafe, which is the space where we shut down and no learning occurs.”