I have been writing about school reform, technology, and the history of teaching for nearly four decades. I have found the act of writing satisfying but never easy. A few nights ago something happened that puzzled and exhilarated me. It was not the first time that what I experienced at 3:30AM occurred. And it probably won’t be the last.
I am in the midst of finishing a first draft of a book called “Teaching History Then and Now.” It is about my teaching history at two urban high schools in the 1950s through 1960s. I reconstruct what history I taught and how I taught it. Then I push the fast-forward button and return to those very same high schools and describe the seven teachers I observed teaching history in 2013-2014. In my blog, I have tried out early drafts describing some of the classes I saw (here and here). For the past two weeks I have been working on the last chapter of the book where I finally answer the central question that drives the entire study: Over the past-half-century, what has changed and what has remained the same in the content and pedagogy of high school history? In that last chapter I draw together conclusions of what I found in teaching history then and now while teasing out implications for reform-minded policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and anyone else interested in improving schools.
While at first glance the primary question for the entire study seems straightforward, it is not. In answering the question, others pour forth: Have changes in teaching history occurred as a result of policies made by decision-makers (the policy-to-practice journey that is all important to school reformers then and now)? Or have changes occurred as a result of teachers, acting as gatekeepers to their classrooms, making choices of what and how to teach? Or some combination of both? But that’s not all. Here’s is the kicker–I ask what does the teaching of history then and now have to do with how tax-supported public schools function in a democracy. All of that–what may appear as a jumble of unrelated questions to readers–has been circling in and out of my mind as I worked on the final chapter. In drafting this final chapter over the past few weeks I have been dissatisfied with my initial conclusions and implications for school reform. I felt there was little overall coherence in my argument; it was too fragmented and the chapters felt unrelated to one another. I was frustrated by the lack of a satisfying connection that would tie everything together. I was stuck.
And then a few nights ago, the underlying connection that tied all of the separate pieces I had constructed about teaching history then and now, the different meanings of “change” and “stability,” the implications for decision-makers, teachers, and researchers, and the contradictory role that change and stability play in keeping public schools supporting democracy came together for me. At 3:30AM.
Rather than get into the substance of the flash insight I had in the middle of the night, I want to describe what I did and reflect on how solutions to problems seemingly come out of nowhere.
I know this to be true. Over the years, I have awakened in the middle of the night with ideas, turned to my night table and jotted down notes. Sometimes I went to the computer and wrote for awhile. The next morning, more often than not, I would read what I had written down and, you guessed it, I would toss it out. But not this time. I clicked away on my computer until 5AM, re-read it, and then went back to bed for a few more hours of sleep. After getting up, I read it again and liked it. I now had the spine and connective tissue that drew together what had been disparate chapters into what felt like an internally consistent and coherent book. Where did that flash idea come from that awakened me?
I am not a brain scientist. I am sure some readers know far more than I do about the different stages of sleep and how the brain consolidates the day’s experiences when sleeping. I am just as certain that neuroscientists and brain researcher, could explain where my insight came from and why I awoke. I cannot. It is a wondrous mystery to me. It also exhilarated me when I found all the pieces of my book falling together. The book is still a first draft and revisions will occur in the next few months but this experience left me both puzzled as to how it happened and thrilled that it did.