I had an experience recently that reminded me of the fact that you and I teach and learn with an accent.
Wisconsin is my current home, but I am living in Connecticut for my semester sabbatical. We found a wonderfully welcoming church to attend during our time here. A couple of weeks ago, after the Sunday morning service, I was speaking with a woman who lived in New England most of her life. She proceeded to tell me how much she liked me talking during morning Bible study. I liked to think that she was referring to my great wisdom or something admirable like that, but she was not. She continued by explaining that my accept is so…cute (I think that was the word that she used). My immediate reaction, the one that I did not say out loud, was “I do not have an accent!” …especially not a Wisconsin accent. I mean, I grew up just outside of St. Louis. I say “don’t” not “do-unt.” I call it a “drinking fountain,” not a “bubbler.” I do not say “dem,” “dat,” “dis,” or “dere.” I do not call traffic lights “stop and go lights,” and when I travel to the northern part of the state, I definitely to not say that I am going “up Nort,” at least not seriously. As such, I do not have a Wisconsin accent. At least that is what I thought, but who am I to disagree with everyone in the state of Connecticut. They hear it so I have it. I have no doubt about it.
We are not very good at hearing our own accents. We live with them, and that familiarity makes it nearly impossible to notice. I like the way someone explained it on Quora, “We can’t hear our own accents, or even the way our voices sound to others, because we can only hear ourselves speak within the resonance chamber called our skulls.” If you read the response on that link by a New Zealander, it was only when that person got out of New Zealand, visited other places, and afterward heard the New Zealand accent of others anew that this person could hear the accent.
As I thought about this and read that post on Quora, I immediately resonated with idea. This is exactly what happens to us in education! We do not hear our own teaching and learning accents. We might think that we do, but we are still within the metaphorical “resonance chambers of our skulls.” I think of a few immediate implications for this.
This is just an illustration, not a proof, but it does remind me of the importance for feedback and accountability. Other people can hear and see things about me and my work that it is hard for me to see. They can give me valuable feedback that will allow me to grow and improve. Some might be afraid of what they hear, afraid of criticism or rejection, but if we can work through that fear, we are on the path to growth and improvement.
Exploring the Possibilities
I write and talk about this one all the time, but in the example of the New Zealander, that person could not hear an accent until leaving, living around people with other accents, and then returning. There is similar value to broadly exploring the possibilities for teaching and learning. It is why I often encourage people to read widely, talk to others who do things differently in education, and if at all possibly, go see for yourself (even if it is just watching video clips of what is happening in other places). I do not suggest this as some sort of brainwashing or conversion strategy. It is because this sort of exercise allows us to see what we are doing in education in a different light, plus there is so much that we can learn from others.
There is no expectation or obligation to change our accent. We just get a chance to learn about others, come to rediscover our own, and then we can decide what to do next.
Humility and Moving Beyond Assumptions
This allows us to move beyond hearsay and assumptions about ourselves and others. We make constant judgement about our own practices and those of others. We define our practice as rigorous, relational, compassionate, academic, proper, and any other number of descriptors. Sometimes we come to believe that our approach and practice equals one of those words.
“If you want to be compassionate, then you must ______________.”
“If you are committed to academic rigor, then _______ is a critical practice.”
“Educators who care about students always __________.”
“Good schools _________________ students.”
We make these judgement all the time, and some of them hold up even after exploring the breadth of practices and possibilities. Others do not. I firmly believe that there are some absolutes and many other near absolutes when it comes to quality teaching and learning, but by exploring the breadth of possibilities, becoming increasingly aware of my accent and how it differs from those of others, I also appreciate that there are flaws with many of my judgement and assumptions.
We Need More of This
We need more of this in education. Otherwise we are constantly critiquing one another without learning from it. We are missing out on some incredible learning opportunities. We are losing the chance to discover promising ideas and practices for teaching and learning that align closely with our core convictions. We are losing the chance to value the work of others and to develop an even clearer understanding of that which really matters in education.
That is why I do what I do. I firmly believe in this process. That is why I observe, interview, read, and learn from countless methods and philosophies in education. Comparative education studies is one way that people get at this by examining education practices from around the world. The same tools are valuable within a given country or system. I call it comparative methodology studies, examining the practices, affordances, and limitations of these practices; learning to hear the different accents in the field.