πόλλ' οἶδ' ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ' ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα
(“A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing”)
Archilochus, 600 BCE
Greek poet and hirsute chap Archilochus coined the term; Isaiah Berlin framed his eloquent criticism of Tolstoy with it; even statistician-to-the-stars Nate Silver borrowed it for his site’s logo. We are, one way or another, foxes or hedgehogs. The criteria for these terms has changed to fit different philosophical scenarios, but ultimately the message is consistent: foxes approach new situations as unique and rely on fluid intelligence; hedgehogs approach new situations as familiar and rely on previous experience.
To put it even more bluntly: foxes rely on ingenuity; hedgehogs, instinct.
I’ve been fascinated by this thought since I read Berlin’s essay, despite my hesitation towards binary categorization. Could it be applied to the classroom? Of course, even the aforementioned scholars acknowledge that a “true” hedgehog or fox is rare; we all assume characteristics of both depending on the situation. However, I think it’s safe to say that we lean hard in one direction or another most of the time.
This categorization also makes for a fun parlor game:
The 2016 Yankees, hedgehogs; the 2016 Cubs, foxes.
Beyonce: fox; Adele: hedgehog.
Luke is a hedgehog; Han is a fox.
Tyrion Lannister, Sansa Stark, and Daenerys "Mother of Dragons" Targaryen are foxes; Jon Snow, Jorah Mormont, and Brienne of Tarth are hedgehogs. Arya Stark wanted to be a fox but knew deep down she was a hedgehog. Cersei Lannister pretends to be a hedgehog but is clearly a fox. (How many more months??)
But what about the typical classroom today?
Before we can address that question, let’s establish, for the sake of this exercise, what foxes and hedgehogs look like in our student population. It's important to note that this is not an argument as to whether our students are naturally more inclined towards one side of the spectrum than the other; rather, this is a reflection on how out students have adjusted their approach to survive and succeed within the constructs of our educational system. Our students as people are almost certainly hybrids of both, but it is my belief that our students as students have developed an academic approach grounded in one of these two philosophical approaches. Again, as with the contemporary examples above, very few students would identify as extreme foxes or hedgehogs (although I was well-acquainted with a certain extreme hedgehog back in my day), but they would most likely subscribe to one of these two approaches.
The “Hedgehog” student…
The “Fox” student…
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that throughout the vast history of American public education, the system was designed for little hedgehogs: “This is what a classroom looks like; here is how to get a good grade; here is how to behave; keep your head down and follow directions.” The homogeneity of classroom experiences both within subject areas and throughout entire school buildings conditioned students to equate physical, philosophical, and curricular uniformity with How Learning Happens in a broader sense. “School”, as has been often discussed, was first and foremost a vessel for societal and economic conformity, and was designed as such. Either hedgehogs entered school and found a system that was conducive to their pre-existing mentality, or students were molded into hedgehogs through the experience.
But if you haven’t noticed, it’s hard out there for a hedgehog lately. Global economic flattening, a lethargic manufacturing economy, the evaporation or emigration of entire industrial sectors, and the allure of hiring labor from emerging markets has rendered many rule-following, hard-working hedgehogs unnecessary. As Glenn Reynolds writes in The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself, "How many 19th century business models do you see flourishing, here in the 21st?" The populist angst of this most recent election cycle--on both the left and right--is in large part a result of the betrayal of the promise educational institutions made to complicit students: "Do what we tell you, get good grades, and stay out of trouble, and you’ll have your American Dream."
Instead, foxes rule the realm. The sharing economy and rise of creative technology has created a boon for adaptive, nontraditional problem-solving. Entire industries, such as the livery and hotel sectors, have been upended seemingly overnight by a few lines of code. Robots invest your money, websites buy your groceries, and soon, drones will deliver your toothpaste. Schools that genuinely wish to prepare their students for post-academic success must recognize this fact and adjust accordingly.
Additionally, hedgehogs have never been more vulnerable. Fake news sites, near-subliminal product placement in television and film, and echo chambers on college campuses have reinforced the "hedgehogian" approach of receiving all statements as fact, especially when these statements confirm one's own biases. A recent Pew report found that 62% of American adults get their news primarily from social media; even more damning: 44% get their news primarily from Facebook, which has recently faced renewed criticism that its passivity with regard to bogus "news stories" has unfairly swayed its users' beliefs. By maintaining the belief that "since it looks like news, it must be true," individuals have allowed private interests to compromise their understanding of the world.
The ubiquity and immediacy of the Internet cannot be understated as well, specifically with regard to its role in the contemporary classroom. The classroom teacher cannot fall back to his or her role as dispenser of information any longer; those that do are undoubtedly setting themselves up for irrelevancy. As the late, great comedian Mitch Hedberg once quipped, “The depressing thing about tennis is that no matter how good I get, I'll never be as good as a wall.”
Veteran high-school English teacher Michael Godsey recently reflected on his advice to an aspiring educator in his powerful Atlantic article, “The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher”, saying "[I]f you want to be a teacher, you better be a super-teacher."
“When I did some research to see if it was just me sensing this transformation taking place, I was overwhelmed by the number of articles all confirming what I had suspected: The relatively recent emergence of the Internet, and the ever-increasing ease of access to web, has unmistakably usurped the teacher from the former role as dictator of subject content. These days, teachers are expected to concentrate on the "facilitation" of factual knowledge that is suddenly widely accessible.
To be clear: there is nothing “wrong” or “bad” about being a hedgehog. I am a hedgehog about a lot of things, most glaringly when I’m driving. No, Google, I don’t care if that route shaves seven minutes off of my trip; I don’t want to take a different exit. Accordingly, there is nothing inherently “right” or “good” about foxiness; it is simply a different way of looking at the world. What is undeniable is that our world is following an accelerating trajectory towards a fox-centric viewpoint, and we as educators should be in the business of preparing our students for a world that exists and will exist, not one that has been supplanted by innovation. Effective instruction is predictive, not nostalgic.
In my class, there are no letter grades; there are no assigned seats (but there is a sofa); you can read the books in any order you’d like; I don’t teach every student at the same time; you don’t “do assignments”, you “demonstrate skills”; you assign yourself homework (if you want); there are no deadlines, other than the last day of the school year (and even that is philosophically problematic...*another post for another day*); you can write about whatever you want; you can read whatever you want; there is no extra credit; you set your own schedules; you choose when and how to show me that you learned something; you are allowed to submit work as many times as you’d like, and only the strongest work counts.
As you would imagine, hedgehogs struggled mightily with this approach. Gone were the familiar, comforting structures of a “typical” English class. No longer was there the promise that the approach that got students to this point would translate to the new environment. In fact, I made this explicit on day one: we are doing something different here.
The few foxes in the room ran with it, grabbing books from the shelves and crafting personal narratives within the first few weeks. The more adaptive hedgehogs soon followed suit, albeit with a healthy (and welcome) dose of skepticism. But still, months in, there were several hedgehogs who refused to budge. In a deep way, I admired their persistence: witnessing a student so adamant about anything is something to celebrate; however, I knew (and perhaps they did as well), that this refusal of and reluctance towards authentic, flexible, adaptive learning would not only hurt them in this school year, it could potentially compromise their future scholarship, employment, and overall happiness as well.
This new classroom approach was, to these hedgehogs, an affront to the assumed dynamic between teacher and student. It placed new demands of transparency and measurable growth on students. It eliminated the grade inflation often present in environments with class participation and communal group work grades. In short, this class defines student success differently: not as one who “does school” but as one who demonstrates growth in learning.
It's entirely expected that most students would resist this approach; when we design our classrooms in the mold of our inherited educational system--that of conformity, uniformity, and subordinance--any variation invokes the anxiety of the unknown. I was a textbook hedgehog student: I wanted to know what to do to get the A, exactly how long my paper should be, and which topics would be on the test. Nothing gave me more trepidation than walking into an English class to see the desks arranged in a giant circle. This fear was borne not out of a biological resistance to the philosophy but an entirely understandable sense of unease. Without belaboring the point, we are presently seeing a resistance to immediate and comprehensive societal change playing out at the national and global level. While the specifics may be different, this is behaviorally very similar to the response to fundamentally changing the classroom dynamic.
English teachers are especially guilty of this: often the "foxiest" lessons happen in their rooms. However, the only way to normalize this approach is to treat it not as a "fun thing we're trying out today" but as the "Way We Do Things Here." Regardless of whether our students are naturally more like the hedgehog or the fox, when a system historically presents one approach as implicitly correct, the individual has only two options: rebel and fail, or conform to survive (call it "institutional adaptation.") No wonder so many of our peers shudder when they reflect on their high school experiences: they barely made it out alive!
Again, the takeaway of this should not be that foxy learning is in some way “better” or “more correct” than hedgy learning. Assigning a qualitative value to the two dimensions is irrelevant; ultimately, students should be able to adapt to and thrive in both types of environments. What is apparent, and becoming more and more evident every day, is that while there is no way to predict the future, we can infer based on myriad economic indices that the vast majority of the career paths that our students will want to follow prioritize an adaptive, flexible, and curious approach. Tragically, many of the careers we are implicitly and, in many cases, unconsciously preparing them for will by that time be automated, outsourced, or extinct. To deprive students of this exposure in the interest of familiarity is dangerous for both their short- and long-term success.
We want all of our little animals, the foxes and hedgehogs alike, to thrive in the wild; our practice should ensure that they are exposed to both environments and are given the tools and experiences necessary to succeed, now and throughout their lives.
Note: This post is the topic of my upcoming NCTE/CEL presentation "The Hedgehog and the Fox: Lessons Learned from a Year in the Open Classroom" on Sunday, November 20th, 2016 at 4:30 pm in the Georgia World Conference Center room A404. I encourage you to check out the entire conference program; hopefully I'll see you there!
As I write this, over 400,000 people around the world are in their eighth hour of the 2016 National Novel Writing Month contest.
For those unfamiliar, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo if you’re into the whole brevity thing) is a month-long exercise in near-manic writing: to “win” (a distinction that comes with no prize other than a printable certificate from the official website) a participant must craft a novel of at least 50,000 words during November. Many ideas that started as NaNoWriMo projects have turned into award-winning novels, including Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and Wool by Hugh Howey. If my onboard Mac calculator is to be believed, this works out to exactly 1,666.66 words per day, an amount that is ominously, and awesomely, metal.
I first found out about this competition seven or eight years ago through that student. You know the one I’m talking about: violently large book in hand at all times, at least one item of Dr. Who-themed clothing, fervent fan-fiction aficionado, Edward Cullen-acolyte, etc. As a relatively new English teacher at the time, I assumed that NaNo’s appeal would forever be limited to a student like her: intrinsically-motivated, recreational readers and writers willing to stay up all night for the warm fuzzies of creating a fictional world in which to dwell, even for a moment.
And so it remained. Over the years, I had a student attempt the competition once in awhile; on a rare occasion, I heard of a student winning (reaching 50k words), but these were rare deviations from the norm.
But then, in 2015, twenty-five students attempted the challenge. Twenty-one students won. They printed their certificates and carried them with pride. They smiled as their picture was taken for the local newspaper. They began revising, revisiting, and reimagining their novels.
This year, sixty of my students are attempting the competition.
How did this happen?
A great deal has been written about the benefits of cultivating intrinsic, or internal, motivation in the classroom. Excellent books such as Drive by Daniel Pink celebrate the merits of pursuing goals not solely due to a compensatory reward but rather because they engender inner purpose. Purpose (along with its contextual brethren “meaning”, “worth”, and “calling”) is one of those words that just feels right. Of course, we’d all love to, at least in theory, follow a course that kindles our inner-selves.
We, as conscious and empathetic educators, attempt to translate this to the school environment. “Don’t read this poem because there’s a grade attached” we suggest, “read it because poetry is the wellspring of the lyrical heart.” (I’m not quite sure what that means, either, but it certainly sounds like something I would have said…) We divorce our texts, discussions, assignments, and curricular units from “arbitrary, artificial” grades to emphasize the timelessness of artistic qualia. We read dramatically, tear up, and sigh audibly over particularly breathtaking metaphors. We do this, and bless our naive hearts, we absolutely mean it.
And then one of two things happens:
Intrinsic motivation is important—essential, in fact, to any sort of long-term appreciation, pride, growth, and satisfaction—but the way we are encouraging it in the classroom often does more harm than good, because our classrooms (in all but the rarest of exceptions) operate within a transactional, extrinsically-focused system.
We can blissfully wax poetic about following the music of one’s heart all period long; students are still constantly reminded, in both explicit and implicit ways, that they are being externally quantified, ranked, and evaluated.
The good news?
We can use this potentially defeating awareness to tangentially foster internal validation in our students: the extrinsic motivator as a crowbar to crack open the door of genuine, intrinsic appreciation.
My class follows an open-curriculum, skill-based grading model. One set of skills, worth approximately ten percent of the year’s grade, focuses on narrative and creative writing. Last year, I sensed an opening...
I wielded the extrinsic crowbar: after introducing the concept of National Novel Writing Month, I mentioned that any student who attempted, and successfully completed, the competition would automatically receive full credit (“mastery”) on their five narrative writing standards. They were also given the freedom to work on their novels in class every day throughout the month.
“And remember,” I prodded further, “your novel is going to be atrocious; that’s the point! High-speed writing. Smoke coming off the keyboard. Don’t hit delete. Quantity over quality. That sort of stuff.”
“So...we just write a bad novel...and we get the points?” A student cautiously inquired.
“Absolutely! Well, don’t try to write a bad novel. Just don’t dwell on the quality as you’re writing.”
“And it can be about anything?”
These are always dangerous questions. “Yes! Well, no. Not anything. You know the things you can’t write about...I mean…” I could feel the sales-pitch slipping away from me.
Little did I know the wheels were already in motion. Students verbally shared novel ideas all period, gaining enthusiasm as the conversations expanded. The fear of wasted time or compromised grades had been assuaged. Before the end of the day, a dozen students told me they had signed up.
To drive the point home, the next day, I had the aforementioned student who had previously won the competition come into class and guest-lecture on her experience with NaNoWriMo. By greasing the wheels with the extrinsic reward, I sensed that my students were far more receptive to her pitch than they normally would have been; they viewed this student not as an “other” but as someone who they could aspire to emulate, given the structural support and extrinsic compensation.
As Daniel Pink writes in Drive (and in his wildly popular TEDtalk on the same topic) “the best way to use money as a motivator is to take the issue of money off the table.” Students’ “money” is the grade; by taking any grade concerns off the table by fairly compensating them for their efforts, these students were free to challenge themselves in ways they hadn’t imagined possible. They also attempted something they would most likely not have even started had there still been a lingering concern that their involvement would negatively affect their grades. By “crowbarring” extrinsic compensation into an inherently intrinsic challenge, students are given the agency to take an authentic, and rewarding, risk.
Long after the grade has been forgotten, those students will be able to say that once, during one crazy November, they wrote a novel. At the end of this month, I hope sixty more of my students will be able to join them.
Matt Morone (@MrMorone) is a high school English teacher, NCTE/CEL Member-at-Large & NJ state liaison, #CELchat organizer, faculty advisor to Outside/In literary magazine, 2016 Princeton Distinguished Secondary Teacher of the Year, constant reader, novice blogger, avid music fan, and sandwich aficionado.
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