According to the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, there is a gap between the signifier and the signified; in other words, when we say something, it often fails to truly convey the essence of what we mean. In this inadequacy–the gap between the word and what lies beneath it–there is room to play. With that in mind, I’d like to return to playing with another metaphor to talk about education.
On my dark and snowy drive to work early this morning, I listened to a story on NPR about “alarm fatigue.” The story explained the necessity of alarms in a hospital, as well as the detriments.
“Alarm fatigue is when there are so many noises on the unit that it actually desensitizes the staff,” says Deborah Whalen, a clinical nurse manager at the Boston hospital. “If you have multiple, multiple alarms going off with varying frequencies, you just don’t hear them.”
In many ways, a hospital is like a school and vice versa. There are varying tiers of neediness, differentiated staff roles, outside accountability, diagnostic and responsive treatments, budget constraints, and the constant threat of catastrophe hovering heavy on the minds and hearts of stakeholders (at least in a turnaround school environment).
I for one can attest to the escalation of “alarm fatigue” in the education world. Every assessment means everything. Every lesson carries the burden of the world. Every moment with students holds within in it the potential for good or evil. Every piece of data is earth-shattering.
Just this week, after administering another assessment, my colleagues and I were discussing how the students tend to dismiss this test and not put forth effort. To which I responded so quickly and naturally it even surprised me: “Of course not; when you’re inundated with assessments, how do you know which ones matter? Which ones to try on?”
When so many alarms are sounding, how does one distinguish the “real” emergency from the “manufactured” emergency, or the “false” emergency, or…
To address this I’d like to further the hospital metaphor. We all must turn our attention from the alarm–from the data–to the patient–to the student. When my Mom was in the hospital, she had many monitors beeping and clicking and whizzing. I valued those. But what I treasured more was how the people–the nurses, the doctors, the custodians–utilized those machines as a way to serve my Mom, the patient, the person. The brief moment of eye contact, the timely response to the call button, the warm hug, the bringing of a heated blanket, the wet washcloth, sometimes even the switching off of the monitors so we could talk or be in peace, this in the end provided more for us than the endless chatter of alarms.
Whalen says it’s a clear case of less is more.
“I think less is better,” Whalen says. “If you have more and more data, more and more alarms, more and more technology — [it’s] bad data in, bad decisions made.”
Bad data. Bad alarms. Bad decisions. When we are tirelessly toiling under the weight of the next failed assessment or discouraging data, we allow those to become the means and the ends, rather than the means to the ends.
I only hope those in power see the liability of “alarm fatigue” in education, and that we return to a renewed focus on treating–teaching–the student. Only then will we all find healing.