Inception: The Ideas That Matter

What’s the most resilient parasite? An idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.

~ Cobb, in Christopher Nolan’s Inception

The basic theme of the movie Inception is that ideas are incredibly powerful, but that placing them in people’s heads is very difficult. You can’t just put an idea in someone’s head that you want them to have because they will immediately recognize it as foreign and reject it; rather, you have to put more foundational ideas in minds, and then let them grow into larger ideas.

This seems to be an important lesson for those of us trying to change things in schools.  We need to get to the ideas that serve as the foundation for the practices we know our students need.  As I get ready to return to work this week, this idea of the challenges and power of inception has been resonating in my mind. It hits three questions that have been bouncing around my brain all summer:

  1. Seven years after I first entered the classroom, what are the two or three ideas I have about teaching that are most worth fighting for and spreading?
  2. As I become department chair and step into a pedagogical leadership role for the first time, what ideas are going to be most valuable for new and struggling teachers?
  3. As my school enters its seventh year, how do we spread to new and resistant staff members the ideas that have made us successful?

In other words, what are the ideas that serve as the foundations for good teaching, and then, how do you place these ideas in peoples’ heads and let them grow into philosophies, commitments, and pedagogies? I am not going to attempt to answer the latter question in this post; I don’t have the answer, though I will be exploring it personally and in this space throughout the year. As for the former, I have some thoughts.

Let’s take the example of Standards Based Grading, which I have written about a lot this summer. A basic thesis for SBG might be, “Teachers should communicate clear standards to students, and the only thing for which students are assessed is their level of achievement on these standards” (see Matt Townsley’s blog for a longer, documented version). However, that’s what I want teachers to do, it’s not the idea I want them to have. The idea behind this might be that “All assessment should be formative,” or “Teachers should need to be transparent when they are exerting power over students” or some combination of the two. These are the ideas I want teachers to have, because these ideas can then be transferred to other areas of teaching.

Similarly, another thought I spend a lot of time with is, “High stakes multiple-choice exams should be eliminated.” My advocation for this action is rooted in stronger ideas: “The most important assessments should be authentic performance tasks,” “Transferable skills matter much more than knowledge,” “Depth is more important than breadth,” as well as the two ideas in the previous paragraph. If more people had these ideas, there wouldn’t be a need to have a debate over high-stakes exams.

As I start the school year, here is my very provisional list of what I think are the five most important ideas that I would like be able to plant in more teachers’ minds, Inception-style. These are the ideas than build cities, pedagogies, and the schools students deserve:

  • School should not be preparation for life, rather school should be life (paraphrased from John Dewey).
  • Teaching is an act of love where we welcome students into our shared world, giving them the opportunity to do things with it unforseen by us (paraphrased from Hannah Arrendt).
  • The ability to access, evaluate, synthesize, and communicate knowledge is more important than having any specific body of knowledge.
  • Teachers’ jobs are to help students learn, not to teach.
  • Students learn best through a social constructivist, inquiry-based method in all subjects at all ages and abilities

What am I forgetting? What are yours?

(For an excellent essay on the ideas that are implied by some of teachers’ “worst” practices, read this excellent essay by former NY Teacher of the Year John Gatto, “The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher”.)