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Rethinking Work…Especially Teaching

In yesterday’s NYTimes Barry Schwartz article, “Rethinking Work”, described how Adam Smith’s assumptions about workers and the importance of efficiency serve as the basis for work as we know it over two centuries later. The article suggests the need for us to reconsider the way we define work in our culture and includes these paragraph:

The transformation I have in mind goes something like this: You enter an occupation with a variety of aspirations aside from receiving your pay. But then you discover that your work is structured so that most of those aspirations will be unmet. Maybe you’re a call center employee who wants to help customers solve their problems — but you find out that all that matters is how quickly you terminate each call. Or you’re a teacher who wants to educate kids — but you discover that only their test scores matter. Or you’re a corporate lawyer who wants to serve his client with care and professionalism — but you learn that racking up billable hours is all that really counts.

Pretty soon, you lose your lofty aspirations. And over time, later generations don’t even develop the lofty aspirations in the first place. Compensation becomes the measure of all that is possible from work. When employees negotiate, they negotiate for improved compensation, since nothing else is on the table. And when this goes on long enough, we become just the kind of creatures that Adam Smith thought we always were. (Even Smith, in one passage, seemed to acknowledge this possibility, noting that mindless, routinized work typically made people “stupid and ignorant.”)

…How can we do this? By giving employees more of a say in how they do their jobs. By making sure we offer them opportunities to learn and grow. And by encouraging them to suggest improvements to the work process and listening to what they say.

Needless to say this resonated with me as one who deplores the “reform” movement that reduces he measurement of teaching to a single test score measuring skills that measure student performance on material provided in “teacher proof” curriculum guides, skills that were imposed without the direct involvement of teachers and whose suggestions and ideas are dismissed as unimportant.

For those politicians and businessmen who value efficiency over humanity, their spreadsheet analyses over the observations in classrooms, their belief that money is the primary motivator for employees, and their desire for saving money over improving the lives of children and their employees, the aspirations of teachers are unimportant…. and the consequence is that the routinized work they are creating in the classrooms will not appeal to those with creativity and intelligence.

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