Order Teachers and Chaos Teachers

Last week I questioned the unceasing vigilance of the forces of standardization in education. Re-reading it, I had to wonder – why is there such a disconnect between the adults in the system, and in our buildings, who want to standardize everything and those of us who want things to be a bit looser and more organic and, well, real? Could all of this be a gigantic personality conflict? (I sometimes think everything is just a big personality conflict…) In order to figure out this disconnect, I looked into one of the great psychological insights of our time.

Is it intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation? No – although it will come as no surprise that I prefer the former. Is it the Myers-Briggs personality types – and the Logisticians (ISTJ-A) are at war with the Adventurers (ISFP-A)? Is it our conflicting thinking styles? Are the Concrete Sequentials pushing for dominance over the Abstract Randoms?

All of those psychological ideas offer some real and often useful insights. I think it’s pretty clear the extrinsic, logistician, concrete-sequential sorts have the upper hand currently. But am speaking of a more elemental, simple, and pop-culture oriented psychological concept. I believe that what is happening in education right now is best explained as a struggle between Order Muppets and Chaos Muppets.

This tongue-in-cheek concept was proposed by Dahlia Lithwick on Slate in 2012, and it has become part of the zeitgeist since then. I think it may be a useful concept in looking at what goes on in school systems. It could also be fun. I have a deep and abiding love for the Muppets since childhood. And my teaching career began near the end of a Muppet era – I finished my student-teaching on the very day Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, died prematurely in his mid-50s.

So – what are order Muppets and Chaos Muppets?

Chaos Muppets, according the original article, are Muppets who, well, thrive on chaos. They “are out-of-control, emotional, volatile. They tend toward the blue and fuzzy. They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter C. Cookie Monster, Ernie, Grover, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and—paradigmatically—Animal, are all Chaos Muppets.”

Order Muppets, also according to the original article, are the opposite. “Order Muppets—and I’m thinking about Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle, Kermit the Frog, and the blue guy who is perennially harassed by Grover at restaurants (the Order Muppet Everyman)—tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running.”

I’d like to take some exception to Kermit as an Order Muppet – I think he is a special case, which I’ll explain later. But on the whole, there is perhaps some truth to this ideas as far as the personality types we find in schools. I have met a lot of Sam Eagles, Burts, and blue guys who are attached to data, to order, to standardization. At the end of a planning meeting where we had mapped out an entire quarter in even greater detail than the curriculum map in order to be better able to move in lockstep, I saw an Order Muppet/assistant principal proclaim, “And now you don’t need to think about what you’re doing for the rest of the quarter! It’s all set!” (Order Muppets can be excitable – it’s just excitement about… order.) In true Chaos Muppet form, my head nearly exploded.

Chaos Muppets in education, on the other hand, want to go with the flow. They believe that half of their lesson plan walks in the door with their students. They believe in responsiveness, creativity, and following students’ (and their own) curiosity wherever it goes.

Interestingly, I think both Chaos Muppet Teachers and Order Muppet Teachers have their upsides and downsides.

I have met teachers I perceived as Chaos Teachers who were really quite random: their goal was just fill up the period and fill up the gradebook with whatever worksheets or activities they could get their hands on. I have me teachers I saw as Order Teachers who were like Ditto Man in the movie Teachers: they handed out worksheets in an orderly fashion, often the same worksheets for years. They just doled them out in an orderly fashion. Neither type of “worksheet teacher” is ideal.

I have met Chaos Teachers who were fantastic at improvisation – they could read a room, see where students were struggling, and improvise a brand new lesson to address the deficit. These teachers were incredibly resourceful, insightful, and inventive. I have met order teachers who thought out a clear progression of skills for students – starting with a strong foundation and gradually building on it in ways that made sense to students. Two completely different approaches, yet both yield great results.

But right now, Order Teachers – or at least Order Administrators, seem to have the upper hand. There seems to be a vision for teaching that goes something like this: we have to teach standards, so we should analyze the textbook to see which activities teach the most standards and put those on a map for everyone to follow, so everyone is teaching as many standards as possible! I have witnessed this approach in person. The problem with this kind of Order, of course, is that it does not take actual students – Order Students or Chaos Students – into account. It thinks about checking off standards to get them checked off instead of actually thinking about how real students will react to these activities. In the end, order doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make things more coherent, engaging, and relevant to kids. But order, it seems, is all many Order Administrators care about. Everything must be orderly. Everyone must move in lockstep. They see all students as compliant Order Muppets, when in fact, a whole lot of them are Chaos Muppets who can’t stand so much order. No wonder they act out.

The Order Teachers have one way of producing order: focusing on standards to raise scores on assessments. Effective Chaos Teachers, on the other hand, have a whole bag full of chaotic tricks up their sleeves. They have cookies. They have chickens. They have rubber duckies, experiments, drums, and explosions of one kind or another if all else fails. They do whatever it takes to get students where they need to go. They drive Order Administrators crazy. Or they get driven out of the profession by Order Administrators.

Like most binaries, this one is actually false. Yes, some people are overwhelmingly Chaos Muppets or incredibly Order Muppets. But many of us are somewhere in between. Which brings me to Kermit – the frog who stands in the gap.

Yes, Kermit seems like an Order Muppet – he runs the show on The Muppet Show and has to keep all the moving pieces – as well as the rolling, rocketing, karate-chopping, screaming pieces – moving. But he is capable of a little chaos himself. Ever see him scream in frustration, opening his pink mouth and waving his spindly green arms in the air? Ever notice hoq despite his seeming love of order, he somehow fits in with both the order and the chaos? Kermit bridges the gap.

Some types of Order breed chaos: when a plan is put together for the sake of having a plan, that leads to chaos. Some types of chaos breed order: when teachers are truly responsive to the needs of students, it may look like chaos, but there is usually a more organic order to such teaching.

In the end, the Order Muppet/Chaos Muppet debate is a lot like the debate over whether to be a Discovery Writer (to make things up as you go) or to be a Architectural Writer (plan everything out). Discovery Writing, a more chaotic process is more organic and spontaneous, and allows writers to let characters react to things without being held to a predetermined plot. Ray Bradbury was an advocate. Architectural writing, a more orderly process, plans out the plot from the start so that the author can speak with authority and set things up to “land” in the conclusion. John Irving remains an advocate.

If teaching is like writing – and I have stated before that I think it is – then my teaching is somewhere in between. My inner Order Muppet believes in building skills in an engaging, systematic way that has a clear trajectory and end in mind. My inner Chaos Muppet is willing to make course adjustments, go off on tangents, allow my students to have some say in where we go, and to discover new things by accident.

Kermit has a plan in mind, but is willing to go with the flow. And he plans the show to be full of variety, not the same old act every time.

When Sam the Eagle gets his way, The Muppet Show gets boring, stodgy, too full of Wayne and Wanda. When Crazy Eddie gets his way, The Muppet Show simply explodes. But right now Sam the Eagle is in charge.

We need some Kermits at the helm.