Professional Development Opinion

Lessons From a Fish Market

By Deanna Burney — November 14, 2001 6 min read
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A Seattle fish market is showing up in school districts, bringing a message of passion and purpose to teaching and learning.

In Seattle, few tourists leave town without stopping at Pike Place Fish, where selling fish is pure theater. The unlikely entertainment provided by the garrulous hams in bright-orange rubber overalls is a sight to behold. Perhaps you’ve seen them on the TV sitcom “Frasier” or in the film “Free Willy.” As they hurl massive fish through the air, banter with one another, and hug their customers, these vendors maintain a long-standing tradition of well-integrated teamwork and customer service in the extreme.

Now, via a 17-minute video plainly entitled “FISH,” the Seattle fish market is showing up in school districts, bringing a message of passion and purpose to teaching and learning, using buzzwords and phrases like “play,” “make their day,” “be there,” and “choose your attitude.”

You may ask how this fish-market film can possibly be relevant to school culture. There are no explicit references to professional development or instructional improvement anywhere in the video, so what can it offer educators? It offers a powerful yet light- hearted model of a learning community. And, in my opinion, we need as many such examples as we can find. The unconventional setting of this model is a refreshing departure from some of the school-based rhetoric with which we are all too familiar.

The fishmongers share how they reinvented their very public workplace—how they made it (and keep it) fun and effective. They know each other’s strengths, and they have the opportunity to learn simply by observing one another’s “practice” on a daily basis. Most important, they are connected to a coherent set of goals that provide direction, meaning, and a measuring stick for their work. This market is effective because the values, behaviors, and norms of its employees are well-aligned. Through a subtle but nonetheless powerful social code of expectations, participants in this unusual community learn the nuances of the work and keep it (if you’ll excuse the wordplay) “fresh.”

Maintaining teaching's relative isolation means that all of the things teachers do well go unobserved, unanalyzed, and, as a result, rarely replicated or celebrated.

An important point to remember in thinking about the applicability of this community’s experience, and that of others, to our public schools is that it is neither the nature of the work nor the particularities of the goals that make a learning community strong. The key to success lies in coherence around the work and goals. While it is true that reaching a consensus on mission may be more difficult in some contexts than others, the foundations needed to realize that mission coherently—communication, leadership, and self-evaluation—are universal.

In public schools, we need to think about learning communities in ways that deepen teaching and learning—deepen our knowledge of content, of each other as adults, and of our children and their families and communities. Everything we do needs to focus on the core of schooling: how children learn, how teachers teach, what gets taught to whom, and how schools are organized to support teaching and learning.

How should we be thinking about our work? I believe all of us need to begin with ourselves. We cannot be effective members of a team without first assessing where we are as individuals within the larger context of the school community. What is it that we are doing that we need to stop doing, and what is it that we are not doing that we need to start doing?

In 1945, when Henry Atwell made his famous survey of 200 New York teachers, more than 60 percent said they wanted certain practices and resources: a professional library, a supervisor who acts as a consultant or technical adviser, demonstration lessons, grade conferences to discuss common problems, visits to outstanding schools, participation in the formulation of school policies, individual conferences with the supervisor, intervisitation of teachers, after-school conferences for open discussion of problems, and in-service courses and workshops.

Why is it that 56 years after the Atwell survey, many of us are still talking about this wish list instead of doing something to make it a reality? Why is it that we seldom experience the kind of daily conversations and observations of practice with colleagues that those in many other professions enjoy? The Seattle fishmongers have figured out that they become more effective in their jobs by observing one another’s daily practice. How can we possibly question whether teacher practice and student performance might benefit from similar opportunities to observe and learn?

Why is it that teachers seldom experience the kind of daily conversations and observations of practice with colleagues that those in many other professions enjoy?

We have teachers in our schools with more than 25 years’ experience in classroom practice. Do we say that they have 25 years worth of experience, or one year’s experience done 25 times over? Maintaining teaching’s relative isolation means that all of the things teachers do well go unobserved, unanalyzed, and, as a result, rarely replicated or celebrated. It also means that the things teachers need help with are rarely addressed. Not surprisingly, teachers in the vast majority of schools where this culture of isolation is the norm feel unappreciated for their successes and adrift in their struggles.

So, we have to look at ourselves. Should observation be established as a vehicle for improvement, or is it a once- or twice-a-year compliance function? I suggest that our present mode of operation not only results in individual suffering, but in institutional ineptitude as well. The growth of the teaching profession depends on honest conversations about what we see in classrooms, about the practice itself. It depends on our admitting what we don’t know.

In many schools, the focus is the individual—the individual student and the individual teacher—which creates competition. In one sense, of course, this reflects an American cultural bias toward independence. Much of our society places strong social value on self-sufficiency and competitiveness. Relying too heavily on this ethic, however, can run contrary to what we know about learning: Learning and knowing are mutual acts. We operate as if the individual is the prime agent of knowing, when in reality, learning requires many eyes, ears, hearts, and minds. There must be continual discussion, and “pushing back” in conversations about what people think. This is the essence of a learning community.

We also need, moreover, to examine our understanding of community. Community must become a central concept in how we teach and learn. We need to balance our individual needs with the requirements for the collective good.

How can we do this? A first step may be to stop leading “double” lives. We should take time to know ourselves. Many of us are only too familiar with what a double life is. We see instructional practice that is not good for children and remain silent. We are aware of what we don’t know, yet pretend to know it. A first step toward ending this duplicity is to have the courage to risk thinking thoughts out loud, and to permit those thoughts to be influenced by others.

At the core of an honest learning community is the concept of “informed dissent.” There is no real knowing without it. All too often, though, we link dissent with conflict. And since conflict makes people uncomfortable or uneasy, we avoid it.

We need to take time to know ourselves, and to share with colleagues what we know and don't know, by making our practice public every day.

Informed dissent means having the capacity and the will to confront issues without condemning each other as people. It is listening to the voices of the very people with whom we might not agree, and hearing them in deep and powerful ways. It means becoming comfortable with conflict in order to check our perceptions, look at our biases, examine our inferences, and begin to discuss exactly what we observe in classrooms, based on what we know. It means discussing our points of view honestly and making our practice public.

I used to remind my students that each of us is born into this world with a unique set of “fingerprints.” No matter what a person’s religion, ethnicity, culture, or gender, each of us has individual gifts and talents to give the world. We are here for a reason. We have something to contribute and to accomplish. With each of us bringing forth our gifts and talents, the whole becomes greater than its parts.

So what can we learn from “FISH”? That we need to take time to know ourselves, and to share with colleagues what we know and don’t know, by making our practice public every day.

Deanna Burney is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s school of education in Philadelphia.

A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Lessons From a Fish Market


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