When the journalist Tom Junod talked about the beloved TV host Mr. Rogers on CBC, he said that Mr. Rogers is kind but “challengingly so” (CBC Radio, 2019). “He wanted something from me,” Junod said, “I don’t think he was just looking to be nice to me and then let me go” (CBC Radio, 2019).
This got me thinking. Junod is talking about being kind and challenging at the same time, and that is not a simple act of addition. But what might being challengingly kind look like, to oneself and to others? To answer this, I try to think about what might not be challengingly kind. Simply dropping standards to ensure no child left behind is not challengingly kind, as it encourages empty kindness without challenges. Neither is treating disagreements between different people’s ideas as personal conflicts, as it begets challenges without kindness. Then, what about differentiated instruction, a popular teaching practice in schools, which enlists different resources, means, and even goals to tailor education to different learners? The whole point of differentiated instruction is to enable all learners to be both challenged and successful. Isn’t this a great example of being challengingly kind? I am not sure. Actually I have come to question it.
I was in a university lecture about space medicine once. The speaker was the Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk. Dr. Thirsk has spent the longest time in space among all Canadians in history. At one point during the talk, I felt uplifted, along with the hundreds of people inside the auditorium. I realized that all of us are in this mission together. A space mission, as grand as it is, cannot be done without humans working together. It requires us to abandon any arbitrary separation between individuals or groups and embrace it as a project of humankind. There is no mine, yours, or theirs—only ours. In
Thirsk’s talk that uplifts us into space, there was also a call to lift us out of our individual spheres to join something bigger than ourselves. I am not religious, but at that moment, I felt a connection to the divine. There was a sense of security, belonging, and serenity as I was with many others together; meanwhile, there was also a sense of honour, enchantment, and awe as I was part of something much bigger than myself. The moment was spiritual. During the questions and answers session, an audience member asked Thirsk how his space journey changed his political view. Thirsk answered with a story. At the beginning of his time on the space station, Thirsk said, he looked for his hometown. Days later, he looked for Canada, and then North America. Eventually, a particular place did not matter anymore. “We are all connected,” Thirsk said, and he wished politicians could see that too. At the end of the night, I asked Thirsk what is keeping his hope in humanity up. Thirsk answered that he has worked with many others with diverse backgrounds in NASA and he knows that humans, when working together, can achieve great things.
This experience of sensing that we are all connected and working together to achieve something larger than any individual can achieve alone, I think, is what gives Thirsk hope. Meanwhile, I realize such experience is lacking in societies and schools that are obsessed with the self. Differentiated instruction cannot help to reduce but, instead, will enlarge this gap if it continues to glorify competition and individual achievement. These obsessions with individuals reflect a failure to differentiate between personal growth and individual success.
Personal growth is different from individual success. All lives demand growth. Growth entails change and comparison. Yet comparison does not mean competition, in the same way that differentiation does not mean discrimination. When we grow a plant, we notice its growth by comparing it with its past. Individual growth does not really need comparison with others. It just needs an observer sensible enough to notice a difference and change. Such an observer can be oneself, given that a human is capable of stepping outside of the self to do self-reflection. However, just as we can become so familiar with something that we no longer sense it until we lose it, so too can we lose our sensitivity towards ourselves and only become self-conscious again when some changes occur. Comparison arises naturally while we interact with our environment, alerting us if any change happens. It affords the difference needed to trigger our minds to work (Bateson, 1979/2002). Each encounter with something different from what we are familiar with offers us a chance to notice ourselves while noticing the others. Just as “have” and “have-not” coexist (Laozi, 4 B.C./2001), so too does “self” exist when there is a “not-self.” The boundary between self and others appears during interactions and comparisons. So, we can say that interactions and comparisons with others benefit personal growth through being uplifted out of oneself and prepared for self-reflection.
While personal growth is an observation in relation to oneself, individual success is often an observation in relation to a standard. A close tie between success and hierarchy is suggested in the Latin root of success, i.e., successus, which is derived from the verb succedere “come close after” (“Success”, 2020). A game of coming close after something can be a competition with self or with others. Yet, in a society in which individual successes measured by a few social standards are glorified, coming close to these standards means winning over other individuals. A relentless pursuit of individual success can then become a game of dominating others, legitimizing social hierarchy, eliminating diversity, and perpetrating the logic of survival of the fittest. Winning over others requires quantifying and standardizing; however, not all kinds of success can or should be measured using numbers and grades, and not all successes can be measured against universal and fixed standards either. As Biesta (2009) warns us in the Good Education in an Age of Measurement, what is measured can turn around and become what is valuable. In a world where some success indexes such as wealth, popularity, efficiency, and productivity are measured more frequently and more conveniently than connectedness, kindness, thoughtfulness, responsiveness, and spiritual fulfillment are, it is not surprising to see pervasive manipulative social media and relationships that turn trust, kindness, and collaboration into instruments to increase accumulation and production. In a society that worships winners and belittles losers, it is not surprising to see people feeling insecure and anxious about lagging behind, no matter how successful they have become.
The need of personal growth and its accompanied comparison with others takes us out of ourselves, yet overstressing individual success and competition with others confines each of us in a lonely orbit circling our individual selves.
The above differentiation between individual success and personal growth is important. As long as differentiated instruction anchors itself upon individual success instead of personal growth, such practice is not challengingly kind. Differentiated instruction is not kind enough if it perpetuates a game of winning. It is not challenging enough if it pays insufficient attention to the uplifting experiences which help one to transcend from the level of individual self to the levels of human self and planet self.
My issues with differentiated instruction are not with providing individualized supports and promoting diversity. Nor do I reject using others’ growth as inspirations for personal growth. It is another issue that differentiated instruction could be used to support moving classes online, cutting public educational funding, and increasing class size, which ironically, in turn, makes differentiated instruction an empty slogan. Here I note that if we humans were to grow well together with our planet Earth, the emphasis on individual learners in differentiated instruction seems incompatible with this direction. It is a misuse of opportunities for transcendence, when learners are put together in one class to mainly compete with each other and when a few players get most of the spotlight in a group activity. More transcending and uplifting educational experiences are needed. A promising start is a focus change from individual learners to living learning systems (Capra, 1996) that are greater than the sum of their parts and thrive in diversity. Sometimes, a subtle change in questioning, such as rewording “How can we become the best in the world” as “How can we become the best for the world” (Brown, Isaacs, & The World Café Community, 2005), could be sufficient enough to invoke shifting attention from the individuals to the collectives.
This need for more transcending experiences grows greater as the world becomes more and more intertwined. If the natural disasters caused by climate change have not taught us about our connectedness with others (including nonhumans), the current COVID 19 pandemic definitely is making this loud and clear. Sink or swim, we are all in the same boat together. If it needs the arrival of an alien (Moore & Gibbons, 1986) to shake us out of our self- obsession and join together with our planet Earth to form a grander being, would it be too late?
Bateson, G. (2002). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press. (Original work published 1979).
Biesta, G. (2009). Good education in an age of measurement: On the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), 33–46.
Brown, J., Isaacs, D., & The World Café Community. (2005). The world café: Shaping our futures through conversations that matter. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Capra, F . (1996). The web of life: A new scientific understanding of living things. New York: Doubleday.
CBC Radio. (2019, November 22). ‘He wanted me to see that I was a good person’: How a writer’s friendship with Mr. Rogers inspired a movie. CBC. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/day6/impeachment- fallout-in-ukraine-starmetro-shuts-down-new-pokemon-neil-gaiman-remembering-mr-rogers- more-1.5367148/he-wanted-me-to-see-that-i-was-a-good-person-how-a-writer-s-friendship-with- mr-rogers-inspired-a-movie-1.5367152
Laozi. (2001). Tao Te Ching (D. C., Lau, Trans.). Hong Kong: Chinese University Press. (Original work published ca. 4 B.C.)
Success. (2020). In Lexico online dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.lexico.com/definition/success
Moore, A., & Gibbons, D. (1986). Watchmen. New York: DC Comics.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Lixin Luo
Dr. Lixin Luo is a recent graduate from the University of Alberta and a former high school teacher in Toronto. Considering learning as a nonlinear and unpredictable process through which both the learner and her environment co-evolve, Lixin is interested in the abundant possibilities of recursive curricula, which centre on re-encountering previously encountered ideas with an orientation towards newness and change along their formation. Her doctoral study focuses on what recursive mathematics curricula might be like in theory and in practice.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2021 issue.