Education Opinion

School Change, Resistance, Futility, and Not Being Borg

By Peter Gow — August 12, 2013 4 min read
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Twenty years ago Star Trek: The Next Generation featured a “race” of baddies called the Borg. Essentially humans wired into a “collective” computerized brain, the Borg simply absorb other species of humanoids to serve their rather sad--they never seem to be having any fun at all--joined consciousness. Possessed of super-weapons, the Borg respond to defensive stands by coldly repeating, “Resistance is futile.” That’s where the meme, if not necessarily the line, comes from.

Lately I ran across a discussion thread on an education listserv that has bandied this meme about. In this context, it makes me a little itchy.

The discussion is generally about why teachers are uncomfortable with change and how school change agents--as many of the participants are and have been for quite a while--can address this discomfort. The outcome, school change, is likely to be inevitable; resistance may in fact be futile.

But my Trekkie mind is drawn to images of the Borg. They’re clad in rubbery black, with wires and tubes protruding from places where healthy humans oughtn’t to have protrusions. Bionics cover their arms, and one Borg eye is enhanced, often by an electronified lens screwed onto the face like a diabolical monocle, its auto-zoom sounding horribly like my dentist test-revving his drill.

The Borg are the Singularity, gone all wrong: individuality is gone--humans merged with machines, the Borg can’t actually deal with the first-person singular, and what is human has been subsumed by their technology. Human impulses, needs, and feelings have been replaced by whatever flows through all those tubes and wires. It’s a critique of our technological obsession that has been floating around since the Age of Steam, and it makes us want to scream at each Borg “unit,” echoing the title of Jaron Lanier’s book, “You are not a gadget!

In the end the Borg collective is subverted, as is so often the case in Star Trek, by an infusion of emotion into its consciousness. Individualism, empathy, and even self-interest come into play, as does (ironically, perhaps) altruism. Earth is saved. (If you’re not a Star Trek fan, think A Wrinkle in Time, whose climax comes about in the same sort of way.)

It might just be that we educational change enthusiasts sometimes look to our more skeptical colleagues like the Borg, especially when we start to get all enthusiastic about this or that new technology or a bit too gleeful about some pedagogical approach that will disrupt (disruptors are actually the weapons used by several Star Trek species) all of education. Joined together by social media in our sometimes (admit it!) overly self-congratulatory networks with their obscure jargon of hashtags and acronyms, do we not at times perhaps seem like an alien species, disrupting and transforming all before us?

We know that this disruption and transformation must happen, and I think most teachers understand it, too. But the resisters fear something, and we need to keep in mind what that is if we are to help them move forward into the brave new world--or next generation--that we are extolling.

Mediation experts are always reminding change agents to consider the interests of the other perspective. What do they want? What do they need? Borg-like inexorability ignores these human yearnings. Teachers want schools to be places where people (including themselves) are not just learning but happy, where everyone is nourished emotionally and where individuality is both permitted and honored.

Schools’ professional cultures have too long permitted and honored individuality by in a sense ignoring it, offering environments in which there has been too little attention paid to what is actually happening in classrooms and how each teacher (in particular) might best be supported and given opportunities to grow and develop. Laissez-faire is a lousy way to foster improvement, but it has enabled the misguided idea that being left alone is the path to professional fulfillment and even institutional success.

Schools that have truly transformed faculties and practice have been really good at reaching out, at engaging even skeptics in the collaborative work of understanding where the school must go and why. This work is about conversation, exploration, even debate and occasional dispute. It’s about focusing realistically on promise, on what will be better for kids, better for teachers, better for the school; it’s about recognizing that there will be hurdles and drawbacks in even the most future-forward systems. In an open and authentically curious culture, resistance can be a catalyst for change that is even more transformative, and sometimes more radical, than what the planners had originally hoped for.

Yes, there will always probably be a few shell-backs, hard-core resisters who won’t be moved, and schools will have to figure out what to do with them. But these are rare cases; teachers don’t want to be that way, really.

We don’t want resistance to be futile; we want it afterward merely to seem wrong-headed, non-adaptive, even silly--something that people got over en route to more complete and more human lives and learning experiences for themselves and their students. We need to remember not to be Borg.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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