Saturday, January 18, 2014

Adult Learning Doesn't Have to Hurt Like a Pencil in Your Eye

The image below started circling around my end of the internets a few weeks ago.   It depicts a pencil as a metaphor for the people we find in our workplace.  I saw this and immediately latched onto it.  I thought, "right on, I see all these people in my work."  Immediately, I was able to start putting people into the categories outlined in the graphic.  I was thinking, "so-and-so is totally an 'eraser', and whosey-dinkle is absolutely a 'hanger-on.'"  Then, quite suddenly, I stopped. I was ashamed.  


I felt guilty because I realized that I was passing judgement on the people in my life, all of whom have their reasons for landing in one place or another in their learning.  I also realized that, given the context and in any given point in my learning, I too have fallen into different categories outlined by the metaphor. Moreover, I had my rationales for doing so. What I started to internalize was the danger in having such a metaphor to describe the learning continuum.  It elevates individuals and attaches criticism to others, but most of all, it takes the humanity out of the process of learning and undermines the community that exists in our teaching profession.  

Of course, no metaphor is perfect.  Sometimes, they fail to fully illustrate all of the things that could be happening and all the contributing factors that may explain any given scenario.  For example, this pencil metaphor is really just a snapshot of a pencil at one point in time, but we know that pencils do not stay in the same form throughout their existence.  I would like to expand on this alternate interpretation of the metaphor, as it highlights what I see as the real issue here.  For me, it's a metaphor about labels, and maybe it could be more a model about identifying problems.   

The truth is that erasers get smaller and worn, ferrules get damaged, the wood is diminished, and the lead is inevitably dulled.  Some pencils never achieve their purpose, because they get broken and discarded.  Perhaps those are real analogies for what happens to the groups represented by each section of the pencil metaphor, or perhaps not.  Maybe the diminishing nature of the pencil is a problem in and of itself.  

I'm sure there are those who feel they are the ones being shoved into the blades of the pencil sharpener (another metaphor just waiting to happen).  Surely there are "sharp" folks and leaders that get ground down and cast off as part of the cost of production.   At the same time, the erasers are getting rubbed away as mistakes are undone.   So, this reduction in the mass (knowing that I am speaking quantity of people, not mass) of the pencil is reminiscent of the overwhelming problems in teacher retention.  

Perhaps I'm just straining the analogy, but one can never reconstruct the pencil, so the result is obtaining a new one.  Thus, the process starts again.  How is the cycle broken? To answer, I must depart from the metaphor for a moment to say that through trust and connecting educators with the best choice professional development to meet their needs, perhaps metaphors like this will only exist in memory.  
You see, an inherent flaw with the metaphor is that one cannot train a pencil.  Pencils do not have free will or the ability to make choices.  It's only a tool that is moved by some unseen hand in this picture.  No teacher would say that they are just being manipulated from the all knowing holder of the pencil and the marks we leave are just the will of the invisible hand.  Yet, there are inescapable initiatives and currents in education that guide our path as the hand does guide the pencil.   But these influences are neither here nor there, they just are.   Sometimes these influences are exactly what keeps people in the categories illustrated.  Sometimes we take the lead and charge into the solving of a problem, and sometimes we shelter in place.  Perhaps part of the the solution lies in addressing how we help educators maximize their potential.  

So, the key here is to call out what is human in this story presented by the inanimate pencil. Pencils have no free will - yet we do. The fluidity missing in the pencil metaphor is enabled through the providing of opportunities for choice, and trusting in teachers that will allow them to take risks. It's also about how we meet the needs of teachers and how we identify those needs.  Most of all, it is about the community that supports teachers.

Kelly Tenkely takes a similar perspective in her blog, Dreams of Education, where she argues that "we need a new era of professional development," suggesting school-wide PD be about building culture.  She asserts that "we aren't dealing with widgets.  We are in the business of people, and growth, and life."  She connects strong cultures with allowing space to honor individuality. You see, we are not pencils (or pencil parts).  Pencils don't have culture, nor do they acknowledge the uniqueness of each other.  Maybe the key is to focus on community and cherishing what each person can contribute. Based on our skills and interests, anyone can be the lead depending on what he or she is leading and how it aligns to that person's skills and interests.

So, what do I take from the pencil metaphor?  The reality for me is that the it is just a snapshot, and it doesn't reflect the true fluidity of adult learning, behavior and motivation (points to which Jessica Raleigh spoke so well in her blog).  It is really more of a model, and models are supposed to be used and adapted as problems are identified.  In this case, the model does sponsor some debate (and has allowed me to wax philosophic for a time) as to how to handle the problem, which may be its only purpose.

What I am leaving with here is that humans and professional learning are never static, and there is a danger in applying models like the pencil metaphor as unchanging truths.  Human nature is a funny thing, and while I may initially cling to a paradigm to start my thinking, as I dig deeper, I generally find that the snapshots never really deliver the full story.  More so, the real danger is the dismissive nature of placing labels on a person.  It generally places all of the responsibility for failure to adopt new methods on individuals and fails to force us to be accountable to each other in the ways we support our colleagues.  Most of all, I fear it generates a divisiveness that can sabotage the community it takes to be truly successful in educating children.


  1. I'm noticing a theme! Last month, you wrote about a marked change in your own life, but you also talked about change in education. This month, you wrote (rather beautifully, I'd say!) about change in educators. The pencil metaphor, while mildly amusing, also really does manage to be a bit insulting. As you so aptly pointed out, it also implies that adult learners that encounter change in his/her profession can only manage to react to it in a completely predictable and inflexible way. I’ll be honest…the first time I saw the pencil, I immediately tried to place myself in the spectrum. I couldn’t do it; I came up with a few “it depends” scenarios before I finally gave up. It was immensely refreshing and comforting to me that you believe that we can support each other and advocate for ourselves in a way that is far more empowering. As an educator that very much remembers spending entire days sweating next to an overhead projector and going home with rainbow-colored fingerprints all over my face, I have seen myself jump from place to place on the pencil as reforms have entered and exited my classroom. Some were very worthwhile, others were not. Regardless, I have experienced and witnessed change in myself and others over the years, and I am constantly amazed and inspired by the flexibility, strength, and intelligence of teachers. Thank you for thinking so too!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Valerie. I believe that JFK is first attributed the quote, "a rising tide lifts all the boats." In his case, he was speaking of the economy, but this analogy can be applied to school culture. Student engagement, teacher satisfaction, parental involvement (and much more) have correlating influences on student success, and all of these things can be raised through a swelling of community and culture in the school. To that end, a strong culture demands that people be talking to, sharing with and trusting in one-another. Wouldn't that be a great way to do professional learning? What if teachers were trusted to talk about best practices and share what's working? If the cultural tide is raised, what other boats could be lifted?


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