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!
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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