In this UnBoxed interview, Judith Warren Little, Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, describes her entry into the profession, her lifelong curiosity about the conditions of work for teachers in schools, and her hopes for constructive dialogue within and across sectors about the aims of education.
How did you get started in education?
I was not one of those people who played school and knew from early on I was going to teach. But I went to high school at the Park School of Buffalo, and Park was a transformative experience for me. It was one of the first independent country day schools in the United States, founded during the Progressive Era by Mary Hammett Lewis, who wrote a wonderful book about her experiences there, An Adventure with Children. I came to Park from a very large junior high with some excellent academic teaching but an emotionally vicious student culture with the usual cliquishness, where the adults seemed to take no responsibility for shaping a respectful peer culture. Instead, Park School valued the twin aims of cultivating individual interests and building community. I keep looking for schools and workplaces that do those two things.
Later, I had a teaching credential in Secondary English in Boulder, Colorado. English teachers were a dime a dozen. I couldn’t find a job, and I wasn’t really sure I wanted one. So I was living in the mountains, driving a school bus and tending bar at the ski area on the weekends, and since I had a teaching credential, I could substitute. I would drive the bus into the school lot in the mornings, and if they needed me to teach, they’d yell out the window and I’d go and teach. Never during that time did anyone—principal, assistant principal, or teacher—ever come by the classroom to see if I needed help or if I was murdering the kids, or anything. I thought, “This is a very odd occupation and an odd kind of workplace. Do I really want to do this?” Eventually, I went back to graduate school in sociology and soon found myself right back in schools looking at how they’re organized to support or not support kids. As a result I became very curious about schools as workplaces for adults, and I’ve been there ever since.
How do you think schools could support teachers better so that they don’t feel isolated in the profession?
My entire career has been built around that question, in a way. In graduate school, I worked as a research assistant with a team doing research on the ways that schools contributed to or helped prevent delinquent behavior. We were working on the assumption that if schools built kids’ attachment with each other and with adults and helped them develop a sense of a future, then their chances of being successful in school were higher.
While doing that work I became more and more interested in what the school was like as a place for adults to work in a way that could be satisfying and effective. Eventually I got funding for a study about the contribution professional development was making to schools’ ability to succeed with big external changes, in this case court-ordered desegregation in a large urban district.
I found that the schools that were succeeding and making good use of professional development were ones that had built robust cultures of collaboration. They had norms of collegiality and experimentation, and these had to go together. If you had people who were very tight as a group but didn’t have an ethos of experimentation, they became pretty smug, and they resisted external ideas, and it was hard for new teachers to break into the group. If you had experimentation but not collegiality, you’d see a lot of individual teachers trying stuff and getting frustrated. The successful schools had the two really strong norms of collegiality plus experimentation—the willingness to support each other in trying new things. The big insight was, whoa, it’s about trying to foster those professional relationships in schools. So that was surprise number one.
The second surprise was how hard it is to build that culture in schools that are built for the individual teacher with 30 kids in a room. All those years ago, when I wrote the first piece on collegiality, I found that people resonated with those ideas terrifically. Then they said, “But we have such a hard time doing it.” That’s been the next preoccupation. How do you help people do this?
How does the current emphasis on standardized testing and teacher accountability square with creating schools that promote collegiality and innovation?
They are in terrific tension right now. In the schools where I’ve seen really fantastic things develop, it’s been a matter of people being constantly attentive to what’s going on with kids. What are the kids struggling with? When they actually succeed in, say, understanding a difficult concept, how did they manage to do that? What are the progressions toward real understanding? People in such schools develop or adopt some kind of language for talking about kids in a generative way.
Lani Horn has a wonderful paper called “Fast Kids, Slow Kids, Lazy Kids,” about how powerful our category systems are in defining our world and constraining or opening up possibilities. For example, the language of fast kids/slow kids is so constraining. Effective collaborative groups have a way of interrupting those taken for granted ways of thinking about what kids are capable of, and instead creating opportunities that really allow kids to connect with each other and with ideas. They pay constant attention to what kids can do, and they think in “what if” terms. What if we tried this, or this? And they continue to scrutinize their own practice.
Lani and I did some research where we followed self-identified collaborative groups of teachers. These are people who really care about doing right by kids, and yet in most of them, the fast-slow language is endemic, and it’s very hard to interrupt that. Leaders in one particular group were helped greatly by professional development they got at Stanford in Complex Instruction, really monitored themselves and helped beginning teachers adopt new ways of talking about kids and examining where that language comes from.
The identification of a child as fast or slow really starts in the early grades. If you can read fast or do number problems fast, you become the fast kid, the smart kid. Fast means smart. The leaders of this group had a way of exposing that origin, and then saying to beginning teachers, “What you have to do is construct tasks. First of all, you find the thing that the ‘fast’ kid is slow at, something that requires real work to get into. Say you design mathematical tasks that don’t just easily lend themselves to a fast solution.” There are lots of ways to be smart, lots of ways to enter into a problem. But it’s hard work to keep yourself attuned to how you’re thinking about teaching, learning, and students, particularly where there is so much emphasis on standardized testing.
You mentioned that your experience at Park was transformative. What other moments have shaped your thinking about teaching and learning?
Well, certainly that first study about professional development and change, because it evolved in ways that I just hadn’t anticipated and gave me some insight into how important it is to grow an organization. Beyond that, I wouldn’t point to particular moments so much as how important it’s been for me to work with my own students, how much I learn from them, and how much they’ve changed my thinking. My colleague Lora Bartlett is my former student. I remember the day she first said, “We get the teachers we organize for.” I thought that’s a great way to put it. So I always feel like my thinking is influenced by the kinds of questions that students pose.
The experiences that allow people to really connect and learn across difference have been important for me, and it saddens me that these are so uncommon. I think that’s one of the places where digital technologies come into play, where you can bring together people from all over the world, making our walls more permeable and our experience more connected.
One of our faculty members, Glynda Hull, has a project, Kidnet, that uses a platform called Space to Create (Space2Cre8). She links students and their teachers in four countries, two developed countries and two developing countries. Her aim is to find out, given that platform, what happens in terms of cross-cultural, cross-national communication and relationship building. I think if we look down the road a generation, that will be the world people live in. Right now it resides in these small, special projects, but looking forward, the world could be connected in many more robust ways.
How about students from different neighborhoods in the same city being connected so that they can work and learn from each other?
A number of my colleagues have studied the patterns of connection or isolation in neighborhoods and schools. What happens in education is so bound up with what is happening in communities more broadly. Districts for years did busing and devised various plans to diversify schools, in tension with kids and families feeling any connection to a local school. Meanwhile, cities that have experienced middle class flight have a limited pool to integrate in the first place. So I guess if I think about that kind of connectivity, I can’t separate what’s going on in schools with what it would take to re-diversify and revitalize cities and communities.
Could online communities be part of the solution?
I don’t know, but what’s making me very curious is that people are working with that. One of the questions that comes up here at Berkeley is how do you do online some of the things that we find difficult and important to do face-to-face? In our leadership program, one of the important things is to be able to have difficult conversations about sensitive issues. How do you build the kind of trust that allows for and invites those conversations and the kinds of critique and challenge of oneself and others that are required? That’s an open question. I know that there are people who would assert you could never do that online. I’m not willing to make it an assertion. I’d rather make it a curiosity. What can we do online that’s important to do?
What are you thinking about in your work right now?
If you look at what’s going on across our school, there is a set of commitments that are shared about education in a democracy and about really robust environments for learning and for building a social fabric. But I don’t know that we’ve really thought a lot as a group yet about where we take those shared values and turn them into a vision for what we’re going to work on and who we’re going to work with over the next ten years. That’s the question we’re asking right now: what’s the strategic vision? One project that we really commit to is building leaders—leaders in the teacher workforce, leaders who lead and run schools, leaders in communities and community organizations. That’s a strategic emphasis for us that we’re really working on and seeking partners in.
Another piece is that for the 25 years I’ve been here, I’ve been surrounded by colleagues who are doing great individual research and building partnerships in the community, but we haven’t worked collectively on big problems. Part of my vision for the school is that we do more to have a collective presence around these big issues and figure out what people from different backgrounds and different kinds of training bring to the table. That involves, in part, reaching out to other departments and schools on campus, which we’ve been doing, and also outside to other organizations, including the charter schools and edupreneurs as well as our longstanding partners in districts and schools.
When you think about the national dialogue on education, what do you wish people were talking more about?
I’d like for us to come to terms with what we really mean by an educated person. It’s deeply discouraging to me to see the way in which we have so narrowed our vision of what we want for kids and who we think teachers are. The relentless teacher bashing, for someone who studies teachers’ work, is truly discouraging and upsetting. The vision of what we want for children and young adults and what we therefore want for the adults who work with them, those things are missing from the conversation. Can we think about schools as places that could be really joyful? You hear about rigor, accountability, all of those kinds of terms, but we don’t hear language about those who inhabit schools really making a contribution in the worlds that they live in and feeling accomplished and being able to point to accomplishments.
I wish we could get ourselves thinking about how we produce a society we really want to live in and schools that we would be eager to go to as places where good work is going on. I’d like to see more curiosity in the conversation and less certainty about what’s good for others. We have to think about how to reinvent school as a place very different from what we’ve had in the past. We need a wide debate and discussion and set of innovative impulses around that problem—not just a lobbing of competing positions at one another, but actual conversation and curiosity about what education could look like in the future.