Friday, January 29, 2016

Metaphors We Teach By, Part Four: On the Rhetoric of Change in Schools, Plasticity vs. Flexibility

Change is Hard

Me w/ Pat Bassett at Oakridge
Pat Bassett recently visited my school to deliver a talk on "The Big Shifts in Education,” and much of the discussion that Mr. Bassett encouraged us to explore focused on identifying the shifts and changes taking place on our campus as well as the ones we anticipate or desire to take place as the future continues to unfold. I remember one of Bassett’s slides that day projecting the provocative declaration: “If you’re not a school of the future, you won’t be a school in the future.” That’s a statement that should make one stop and think, perhaps inspiring a feeling of excitement and opportunity, while also leaving some of us with a lingering sense of anxiety. But why is that the case? Because change isn’t easy, and oftentimes it comes with many discomforts and unexpected mishaps. So what do we do to work through that? What kind of language do we employ to make sense of the difficulties that come with growth? It’s an important question because the language we use directly shapes and models the ways we make sense of important concepts such as change as well as concepts involving the relations of power. [1]  

Oftentimes when we implement a sudden change in our classroom procedures, policies, or routines, students react with resistance and hesitation, perhaps even distrust, because they too feel like they’re out of their comfort zone and fear the prospect of an unpredictable mishap. Change is hard, plain and simple. When thinking about such situations, what language does a teacher employ to get students to cope with the adjustment? How do we mobilize a class of students or an assemblage of personalities to move towards the change we want to happen? One might enact the figure of authority, for instance, and demand compliance: “You will do what I’m asking because I’m the teacher and I said so! Just trust me.” This of course relies on a model of central-command authority, which has its costs emotionally and relationally speaking. But what about strategies that are less coercive? One that comes to mind is the commonly-voiced idea of being flexible. The person or teacher who invokes this notion of flexibility no longer commands authority in the same straightforward way; instead this person coaches, encourages, and/or reasons with the frustrated student, gently urging him to recognize that the change being implemented is necessary (and therefore inevitable) and the student must understand, as a result, that the best response to the inevitable is to be flexible. Here we have the model of the facilitator/manager who molds and bends the student through intervention, encouragement, and persuasion, reminding the person to flex with and conform to that which is inevitable... Flexibility here serves as an interesting rhetorical figure, for it suggests the properties of being bendable and stretchable, as well as something that conforms or molds to stronger forces/harder objects. In other words, it too gives shape to a model that necessitates the exercise of unilateral power.

To empower students and encourage critical thinking, I think we need a more symmetrically balanced model of give-and-take that does not enforce the figure of flexibility upon the weaker partner, and I believe this is true for all modalities of relationships in a school (in other words, for all the siloed binary pairings of teacher-student; faculty-admin.; department-to-department; division-to-division; etc.), especially when coping with or embracing change as an educational community. How do we empower a student body or a staff to take ownership of the change in process? First of all, we need to think about the politics of our metaphors. What does it mean to be flexible? What if we thought about the connections & relationships of a school community, not as being made functional by the participants’ promise to be flexible, but as being shaped by the principle of plasticity?

On Plasticity as an Emancipatory Metaphor

Many people have a tree growing in their heads but the brain itself is much more a grass than a tree. 
-G. Deleuze & F. Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 15

In Catherine Malabou’s What Should We Do With Our Brain?, she explores the implications of a neuroplastic model for the brain, but she approaches her topic from a more literary-philosophical point of view, which makes her keenly aware of the ideological assumptions that accompany one's word choices, metaphors, and modes of articulation, even in the realm of the sciences. She writes, “Any vision of the brain is necessarily political. It is not the identity of cerebral organization and socioeconomic organization that poses a problem, but rather the unconsciousness of this identity” (52). In other words, any metaphor or mode of verbal representation we employ to make sense of what we mean by “brain” reflects certain assumptions and biases of how we think politics, power, and the social. As stated in the previous post, our models and metaphors reveal our assumptions, values, and desired outcomes as a society, a culture, or a given group of people. (I think of how functionalism for instance as an approach to philosophy of mind came hand-in-hand with our increased fascination with computing as a model for intelligence and problem-solving.) Malabou mentions one common vision for the brain which likens it to a rigid command center, “which gives rise to so many unsettling metaphors in the register of command and government: a controller that sends orders down from on high, a central telephone exchange, a computer…” (4-5). Of course, she discusses this in order to explore a newer, alternative model for brain-functioning, namely one that relies on the metaphorical notion of plasticity, which describes something as both receiving and giving form (commands), thereby having the ability to constantly connect, modify, repair, and re-map. 

The receiving and giving of form is what distinguishes plasticity from flexibility. Malabou explains it further stating, “The word plasticity thus unfolds its meaning between sculptural molding and deflagration, which is to say explosion. From this perspective, to talk about the plasticity of the brain means to see in it as not only the creator and receiver of form but also an agency of disobedience to every constituted form, a refusal to submit to a model” (6). “Neuroplasticity” as Google defines it is “...the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.” In other words, new research about the plasticity of the brain shows that the brain is less of a rigid command center and more of an ever-changing neuronal network whose form adapts, molds, and adjusts in response to the environmental exposures and encounters during its history and development as an organ. Our brain and its neuronal functionings also help shape the workings of the brain as well as its environment both in and outside the biological system of the body, meaning “…neuronal functioning and social functioning interdetermine each other and mutually give each other form, to the point where it is no longer possible to distinguish them” (9). We have not realized the entire reach of this useful concept, says Malabou, for neuronal plasticity entails freedom from unilateral demands for compliance. It's a give-and-take model and this means “ is not just a matter of uncovering, in the name of brain plasticity, a certain freedom of the brain but rather… to free this freedom, to disengage it from a certain number of ideological presuppositions that implicitly governs the entire neuroscientific field and, by mirror effect, the entire field of politics” (11). Plasticity helps us envision how relationships could function in a more egalitarian, horizontal manner and therefore shifts our mindset in terms of how we cultivate partnerships for change. 

IMAGE CREDIT: Esther Beaton/Australian Geographic
Most of the time, however, we still rely on compliance to push things forward: “[Although] the brain is plastic [and] free, we are still always and everywhere in chains” (11). Catherine Malabou argues that “, the true sense of plasticity is hidden, and we tend constantly to substitute for its mistaken cognate, flexibility… [and] the problem is that [flexibility] grasp[s] only one of the semantic registers of plasticity: that of receiving form. Indeed, what flexibility lacks is the resource of giving form, the power to create, to invent or even to erase an impression, the power to style. Flexibility is plasticity minus its genius” (12). When we want to implement change, whether it be in a classroom or among a whole staff, we need to be more “genius” like our plastic brains by empowering all participants transparently and collaboratively. And I suggest we need to conceive of all campus-wide relations in terms of plasticity, as opposed to flexibility or other modalities of power relations. Like the wasp and orchid, plasticity is about aparallel evolution. [2] 

-When I suddenly decided to “gamify” my class last year (in the middle of the semester), it demanded a lot of adjustment out of my students, so it was important to be transparent, communicative, and open to student feedback and intervention. I constantly asked them for ideas and suggestions for improvement, and we molded to each other in the process of our shared exchange while embarking on this new experience together. 
-Recently, the leadership at my school has done a great job embracing plasticity over flexibility as we continue to challenge each other to embrace certain changes to serve our students even better: (1) Today, we’re hosting an “unconference” on campus where teachers freely lead and facilitate sessions that they deem most necessary and relevant for our needs as a school in relation to professional development. Usually the agenda for PD comes from the top-down. (2) Additionally, this semester we are launching several teacher-led (as opposed to department or divisional heads) research & design teams to discuss changes needed to meet our long range vision and goals as a school. 

It’s great to see the aparallel evolution of certain campus silos such that they are working together in a way where collaboration takes the place of compliance.  Jacques Ranciere put it nicely when he said, “He who bends others best is he who bends best himself” (85). My challenge to myself is to replace the demand for flexibility with the model of plasticity both as a teacher and as a collaborative colleague. Otherwise, relationships become a struggle for power, which reminds me of something else Pat Bassett said the other day: “Education is relational, not transactional.”
"Dendrites" -

Works Cited:

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Print.

Malabou, Catherine. What Should We Do With Our Brain? Trans. Sebastian Rand. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. Print

Ranciere, Jacques. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.