The sum of the whole is greater than its parts

Pixelated BuildingI did some reading yesterday across a lot of different areas as I was conducting some research for a couple of different projects.  I ended up at a research overview of effective teaching practices.  I read all 42 or so pages because this is what I think about all the time, both for my own teaching practices, but also as I’m involved in supporting the teaching practices of others.

Embedded in a passage about teacher evaluation, the phrase, “the sum of the whole is greater than its parts” in relation to evaluation stuck out to me.  It was a discussion about creating rubrics and axes against which to evaluate teachers.  What sometimes happens is that teachers do things on “the list” in a “check the box” kind of way.  (Students do this, too.  It’s human nature to some extent.)  I have witnessed this, and struggled to push people to avoid approaching their work in this way.  I’ve had many a conversation where I’ve either had to assure people they’ve checked off all the boxes or had to convince people that just because they’ve checked off the boxes doesn’t mean they’ve reached teacher nirvana.

I wish I’d had this insight about the whole earlier.  Because it is about how the parts are fitting together.  Checking off the boxes without having them inform each other doesn’t make you better at your job.  I’ll use a simple and common example.  One box is that teachers must participate in professional development regularly.  So, teachers go to workshops and conferences.  If they don’t reflect on and apply what they’ve learned, they’ve checked a box, but they may as well not have because it’s having no impact on their work.

There’s a way in which truly effective teachers connect all the dots.  They operate a little like Neo in The Matrix where they can see how things are connected and move forward accordingly.  It takes time and energy to get to this point.  It also takes being embedded in the school.  You can’t just show up the way one might to work in a factory, do your job without really thinking about it, and then go home.  It’s what makes the job so challenging, but it’s also what makes it so rewarding.  When it’s going well, when you’ve connected all the dots, you make an impact on people.  You can see it working.

How to fully explain this, I don’t know.  But at least I have a metaphor to work with.