I found an interesting passage in a recent New Yorker article about cutting health care costs by improving preventive care to the patients whose care accounts for the highest percentage of cost.  The author, Atul Gawande, is explaining a proposed approach for providing care onsite to residents in a high-cost building.  The residents are hearing about the plan from a trusted doctor, Jeffrey Brenner.  “This doctor’s office, people were slowly realizing, would be involved in their lives – a medical professional would be after them about their smoking, drinking, diet, medication.  That was OK if the person were Dr. Brenner.  They knew him.  They believed that he cared about them.  Acceptance, however, would clearly depend upon execution; it wasn’t guaranteed.”

Acceptance wasn’t guaranteed.  The success of this program lay at least in part in its creators’ capacity to offer a compelling enough invitation to accept.  Acceptance is a chronically overlooked component of teaching and learning relationships as well.  Unfortunately, our educational system operates inside of the assumption that if we could get the delivery (curriculum) just right, and get the right people to deliver it (teachers), it would work.  We pour all of our reform efforts and resources into those two realms, with no regard for the other side of the equation.  None of that is worth anything without acceptance on the part of the student.  Like leading a horse to water.  If we could just get the quality of the water high enough, we tell ourselves, we’d have hydration. We step over the drinking.  But what if it’s not the water?  What if it’s the leading that’s not working?  Or something else?  What if it’s the horse?  What if he’s not thirsty?  Or what if he’s so thirsty that he’s also dehydrated and needs electrolytes which he knows are not present in water?

With every student, there is the possibility of acceptance or rejection.  We do almost nothing to invite and work toward acceptance, because we’re too busy working on the outcome we want and its delivery.  When our teaching advances are rejected (disruptive behavior, underachievement, depression, anxiety), we pour still more resources into convincing students to behave better, work harder, feel better.  We’re usually unsuccessful, in large part because the problem exists several steps earlier in the process. We’re barking up the wrong tree.  No, that’s not quite it.  It’s worth barking up the curriculum reform tree, and the good teaching tree.  It’s just that also, we’re failing to bark up the tree that makes all that other barking worthwhile.

What would it take for kids to accept what we’re offering?  We’d certainly have to start by recognizing that there’s an acceptance/rejection dynamic in place. We’d have to let go of the notion that failure can only be the result of inadequate curriculum, poor teaching, and disordered learning.  Without consideration of the actual human whose attention, cooperation, and buy-in is required for the success of any learning situation or relationship, all the resources we pour into reforming and helping are wasted.

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