Education Opinion

Venn Diagram Your Life—And Your Teaching Practice, Too!

By Marilyn Rhames — December 07, 2011 3 min read
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An education consultant planted a seed in my mind several years ago about the usefulness of the triple Venn diagram. She showed the school staff one similar to the one on the left and argued that students learn best when all three rings—the curriculum, the state standards, and the teacher’s creative pedagogy overlap. The problem, she explained, is that the darkest, shared patch in the center is almost always the smallest, making the overwhelming amount of what we teach void of one or two essential elements that make up quality instruction. As a result, a typical teacher’s lesson is either not engaging, or does not address the state standards, or is not being taught within a cohesive and systematic curriculum. In theory, the most effective teaching occurs when all three rings are most tightly merged together. Such instruction is a skill developed over time and with intentionality.

Don’t ask me why, but that principle really resonated with me. (I could argue that she could have made a quadruple Venn diagram by adding an assessment ring, but why complicate things?) I think what I love the most about the Venn diagram is that it causes me to acknowledge—even appreciate—the differences while also compelling me to seek—even nurture—the commonalities for the sake of the greater good.

I know I’m a total nerd for doing this, but I often apply this theory to my personal life and to the world around me. A Venn diagram is not just a teaching tool; it has amazing real life applications. Take my marriage, for example. I really love my husband and I know he really loves me, but sometimes conflicts arise and there’s no mediator hanging out in my kitchen to help us resolve it. That’s when I use my internal Venn diagram ... no, seriously. It causes me to listen more, and I find myself slowly inching my ring closer to the middle.

And since my family strives to enjoy a debt-free, cash-only lifestyle, my mind often plays tricks on me come payday. What’s a girl to do when there’s a 50 percent off clearance sale at Carson’s, with coupons for an additional 20 percent off? I make my handy dandy mental Venn diagram, of course! In fact, I never go to the mall without it.

But since I’ve been studying education policy more intensely these past 18 months, I’m noticing stark similarities in the Venn diagram I once made about American politics. The diagram is warped—practically unrecognizable as a Venn. It looks more like chain links being pulled apart in a game of tug-of-war. Or perhaps like two parents locked in a bitter divorce, arguing over who gets sole custody of the children, who themselves feel pressured to pick sides while trapped in the middle. There is little to no overlapping ... little compromising “for the greater good.” I see lots of visceral, name-calling, demonizing. “I’m right and you’re wrong"; “I’m smart and you’re stupid"; “I care and you don’t.” And exactly who is trapped in the middle? Our schools. Our teachers. Our students. The very future of America.

There’s a proverb that goes, “A three-fold chord is not easily broken.” Maybe that’s why I cherish the triple Venn diagram. There’s so much wisdom in those three little cute little interlocking rings. When there’s a triad working together, while also maintaining their individual independence, something great—dare I say magical—happens. Please excuse me for getting a bit emotional. I think I’ll go now and write an ode to the brilliant British logician, mathematician, and philosopher,
Mr. John Venn

Stained glass window in the dining hall of Gonville and Caius College, in Cambridge (UK), commemorating John Venn, who invented the concept of Venn diagram and was a fellow of the college. The text on the windows reads: JOHN VENN; FELLOW 1857-1923; PRESIDENT 1903-1923. Photos and caption source: Wikipedia.org

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