Teaching Opinion

Maybe You Already Know Enough

By David B. Cohen — January 03, 2016 4 min read
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I live within an hour’s drive of some spectacular coastline, though I don’t head out to the Pacific Coast Highway as often as I should. The scenery, wildlife, and fresh air always do me good, and it’s a fairly easy drive. The first part of the drive is north on Highway 280, and from there, we have options. Highway 84 is more direct, though its narrower twists and turns actually take a few minutes longer than the alternative, Highway 92. The extra miles to reach 92 pay off with less driving through hills and mountains, meaning that for some destinations, the longer distance drive will actually save time. I know many of the beaches and small towns along the coast, and generally don’t need any maps or directions, but recently, I made an interesting mistake heading out to the coast.

On New Year’s Day, my family and I headed for Año Nuevo State Park, a destination aptly named for a January 1st excursion, and known for its elephant seal colony. We’ve been there before, though it’s probably been close to a decade since our last visit. As we left home, I wanted to double check if Año Nuevo is north or south of San Gregorio Beach, the terminal point of Highway 84. Though pretty sure the answer would be south, meaning a left turn at the coast, I typed our destination into a well-known navigation and traffic app to confirm, and to see how long the drive might take. I was correct about the direction, but was surprised to see a suggested alternate route that might save a little time. Because we had a reserved time slot for a guided walk (necessary to see the elephant seals at this time of year), I was feeling some pressure to shave minutes off the drive: I decided to try the new route, setting aside nearly two decades of experience driving in this area.

You can probably see where this is going. I wish I had seen it coming, but the family minivan was deep into the narrow roads above Portola Valley when our journey went wrong. I’m not sure what the first problem was. Did I miss a turn? Did the app suggest a weird shortcut that made no sense? I don’t know. Trusting in my sense of direction - go uphill - I took a few guesses at crossroads before stopping to ask for help. A local resident out for a walk informed us that we were heading towards a dead-end. By the time we returned to Interstate 280, we had actually backtracked a mile south on a northbound drive, and were half an hour late, with enthusiasm fading.

Somewhere in app’s terms and conditions, disclaimers, or other fine print, I’m sure there’s some kind of warning that directions are for planning purposes only and that it’s up to the driver to confirm. And if we had made an earlier start and removed the time pressure, I might have taken a couple extra minutes to look more carefully at a curious route I’d never driven before. But I didn’t.

The thing is, I wasn’t even looking for detailed directions. I just wanted to confirm that at the end of the road, I needed to turn left. If I had just looked at a map, printed or digital, I’d have been fine. But I chose the wrong tool, and then I let confidence in technology override my personal knowledge and experience.

Maybe, like me, you’ve had an analagous experience involving teaching. You learn about a flashy mobile app, a new website, yet another tool that works with Google Drive. It could be low tech, reading an article or blog post, attending an education conference or EdCamp session, learning about other teachers’ fantastic lesson plans and projects. Sometimes, the New Thing really works, providing greater efficiency, enhancing the quality of your teaching and your students’ learning experience. Sometimes though, driven by a sense of inadequacy or nagging doubts about myself, I find I’m spending time trying to figure out a novel way to do something that was already working. How many minutes, or hours, go into creating an account and setting up preferences and coming up with directions and orienting students to use a tool that doesn’t offer a substantial improvement over paper and pens and scissors and tape?

I’ve long prided myself on being constantly curious, but now I’m wondering if there might be some value to being able to turn off the curiosity sometimes. What if I just let myself go a week or two without questioning if I’m good enough at my job? What if my lessons and curriculum are already in fine shape for the next unit of instruction? Maybe I don’t need another app, widget, extension or plug-in.

I think I was already heading towards this realization before my circuitous drive to the coast. The constant searching and reflection have started wearing me out lately. I’m not abandoning the effort to improve, to capture the spark that will ignite future learning - but maybe there’s also a time to stick with what I know, and trust that I can get where I’m going.

Photos by David B. Cohen.

The opinions expressed in Capturing the Spark: Energizing Teaching and Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.