5 Ways to Break Out of the Matrix

Breaking Out of the Matrix

“You know the question, just as I did,” said Trinity.
“What is the Matrix?” Neo asked.
“The answer is out there, Neo.  It’s looking for you, and it will find you if you want it to.” answered Trinity.

What is the Matrix?

The Matrix, released in 1999, is a sci-fi movie that tells the story of a computer hacker, Neo, who is searching the web for the answer to a very specific question …. What is the Matrix?  He is contacted by Morpheus and Trinity who operate outside of the Matrix.  They tell him that the Matrix is a system that simulates reality and that he, and everyone else in the “world”, is not actually experiencing real life.  Neo is transported outside the Matrix where he discovers his true power . . . the ability to fight it and win.

In educational terms, the Matrix is the institutional authority that we know as the Industrial Age school system.  It is the system that

  • enforces arbitrary rules that were written for the preservation of the system rather than for the good of the children it claims to serve.
  • stifles teacher creativity and autonomy by making them focus on teaching to minimum competency, low-level standardized tests as well as insisting that they teach the same content at the same time in the same way.
  • labels students which limits their own expectations for their futures.
  • rewards conformity and compliance while discouraging those with new ideas and innovative teaching techniques.
  • allows only bureaucrats to make systemic changes with token input from students and teachers.
  • changes too slowly for these times of rapid technological innovation and disruption in nearly every part of our lives.

Of course, I am not inditing every school in the country.  There are some amazing, progressive schools that allow their teachers and students to take risks, experiment, and thrive.  However, too many school systems are either unwilling or incapable of addressing the aforementioned list of charges.  They are complicit.  They are guilty as charged.  They are the Matrix.

How has the Matrix survived?

 “I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.” — Morpheus

Almost always, it is the teachers and students who understand the problems (and the solutions) the best.  So why don’t they change things?  Well, it’s just not that simple.

It’s not simple for a teacher, who is told that their evaluations, job security, and thus, livelihood are determined by their students’ performance on standardized tests, to not teach to the test.  It’s not simple for a teacher when their lesson plans must conform to the preferences of their supervising administrator, rather than what they know is best for their students, or they risk poor evaluations, additional work, and undesirable teaching assignments.  Finally, some teachers are what I like to refer to as “retired on the job.”  Content with their current level of performance or tired of trying to fight the system, these teachers simply count down the years to retirement.  They take the path of least resistance which is compliance to the system rather than work to get better.  They often have a fixed mindset about their capacity to improve.  “This is the way I do things and at this point in my career, I can’t change it.”  Of course the sad irony is that these are the same teachers who are supposed to advocate lifelong learning and growth with their students.  Apathy and acquiescence are imperative for the system’s survival.

Those same administrators who pressure teachers to conform must also answer to their bosses when test scores, discipline and attendance records are shared with the community.  Poor marks lead to lower enrollment, parent complaints, and possibly lower property values.  The system often puts up obstacles that teachers do not realize when asking for changes in school policy.

Furthermore, parents, who were taught within the system, are resistant to drastic changes despite the latest research supporting those changes.  They want their child taught the way they were taught even if it didn’t necessarily work for them either.  They complain about the reduction or elimination of homework, the replacement of textbooks with digital resources, and the use of standards-based grading in place of letter grades.

How do I know if I am part of the Matrix?

“The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.” — Morpheus

I know this struggle all too well from personal experience.  My job is to help teachers change their lessons from teacher-centered to student-centered, from lecture and drill to application and inquiry, from boring and tedious to empowering and life-changing.  I want them to challenge what they’ve learned about teaching and question the efficacy of what they’ve done in the past.  I ask them, “What experiences do you want students to have in your classroom?”  But too many teachers are fighting to maintain the Matrix.  Too many think that this article is NOT about them but those other people when it is precisely about them.  So how do you know if you are one of them?

Teachers who are part of the Matrix

  • plan lessons with state test preparation in mind rather than student engagement, empowerment, voice, and choice.
  • do not participate in or seek out professional development opportunities other than to accrue points mandated by the system.
  • do not apply anything presented in professional development classes because they “know what they’re doing.”
  • use the same lessons each year despite students’ demonstrably negative experiences.
  • make excuses for not changing their practices such as insufficient support, lack of technology, or not enough time.
  • blame others for their intransigence such as administrators, colleagues, or students.  They may often say, “My students can’t handle that.”
  • refuse to change their teaching methods despite exposure to research-based evidence and model lessons.
  • do not take advantage of expertise in their building, such as specialists, colleagues, or administrators, to get help implementing new strategies.
  • teach the same lessons as their colleagues despite the differences between their students or the teacher’s style of teaching.
  • teach at a pace outlined by their curriculum guide despite knowing that their students need more time to learn certain units.
  • criticize colleagues who try anything new or innovative in their classrooms.

Now I know that some of these items are legitimate problems that are not necessarily the teacher’s fault.  He or she may truly be in an environment with little technology, a lack of trust and support between administrators and teachers, and an overwhelming set of mandates that sap time and energy away from any attempts to innovate.  My message to them is to be solution oriented about these issues.  For example, get access to more technology by asking businesses to donate, writing grants or DonorsChoose campaigns, writing or speaking at school board meetings about the problem, etc…  Does your school lack a culture of caring and trust amongst the teachers?  Ask to start a sunshine committee to plan events for the faculty to attend together.  Recognize special events like birthdays, marriages, and newborns at faculty meetings.  Join or start a principal’s advisory committee to offer teacher’s a platform for their legitimate grievances regarding mandates and school policies.  Be transparent with the rest of the faculty by posting minutes and resolutions to issues raised.

As Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

How can I free myself from the Matrix?

“You have to let it all go, Neo. Fear, doubt, and disbelief. Free your mind.” — Morpheus

I have asked this question in various forms to highly respected people in the world of education such as Dave Burgess (@burgessdave), Matt Miller (@jmattmiller) and Jamie Casap (@jcasap).  They all say the same thing.  Start small, be okay with failure as an inevitable symptom of success, and share what you’ve learned with your colleagues.  I asked Dave Burgess how teachers can take risks in an environment with administrators who only values test scores, discipline, and fidelity to the curriculum, pacing guide, and the collective group think of the other teachers in the same subject.  He said that only success will change their minds.  He said no administrator can argue with dynamic, engaging lessons, happy students, AND excellent results on tests.  He encouraged teachers to invite their administrator to observe these new types of lessons so that they could explain their methodology and show their amazing results.  Finally, by having their colleagues observe these innovative lessons, a positive feedback loop of ideas and innovation can result.

Here are 5 ways to break out of the Matrix.

  1. Learn new teaching methods and tools – It’s hard to chart a new course if you don’t have any navigational skills or knowledge.  Ask your instructional specialists (like me), observe and collaborate with your innovative colleagues, follow Twitter feeds of innovators, watch YouTube videos, read books and blogs, listen to podcasts, go to conferences.  Read my Professional Learning Community Starter Kit blog post to get started.  Have a goal in mind.  What are you dissatisfied with in your classroom?  Do you want students to experience more project-based learning, more collaboration, more chances to be creative?Honestly, the best professional development will usually come from two sources . . . your innovative colleagues and the resources that you seek out.  Trust me, there are some amazing teachers in your school.  Ask around.  Listen to who the students talk about with excitement and go talk to those teachers.  Swallow your pride, be humble, and ask their advice or to observe their classes.  They’ll be excited to share with you!
  2. Start NOW – Don’t wait until the right time of the school year or the right topic,.  Just start trying some of the tools and techniques you have learned.  NEWS FLASH! There will NEVER be a perfect time to start.  Make a goal to try one new lesson every 2 weeks or whatever you are comfortable with.  As Kasey Bell (@ShakeUpLearning) says, “Innovate like a turtle.  Slow and steady.”
  3. Be okay with failure – Let’s get this straight right now.  Many things you try for the first time WILL fail!  This happens to everyone, even the authors of those great books you read.  That’s why they wrote the book . . . to help you as much as possible to avoid the same mistakes they suffered through.  Be okay with failure.  It is simply a symptom of success.  If you let it affect you too much, you will inevitably fall back to your old lessons and thus continue being part of the Matrix.
  4. Ignore the peanut gallery – Negative people will ridicule you to your colleagues.  Remember, these people are part of the Matrix and you are breaking out.  Don’t let their lack of imagination, self-awareness, self-reflection, and creativity with regard to their own teaching ruin yours.  You are on a journey of self-discovery, innovation, and eventual success.  Where are they going?  Nowhere.  And when people eventually recognize your fantastic results, those colleagues who doubted you will be asking for your advice.
  5. Know yourself and your students – self-reflect on your lessons, your delivery, and your students experiences and opinions.  Record yourself teaching and watch it with a trusted colleague to get feedback.  Create a Google Form student survey so they can give anonymous feedback about your lesson or just ask them as a group at the end of the lesson.  Get to know your style and how your students learn.  Put simply, every teacher (and student) is different.  What works for someone else may not work for you and vice versa.

Additional Advice on Breaking Out of the Matrix

Neo’s final words are a message to the system via a phone call.

“I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid… you’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”

Take a deeper dive into breaking out of the system by reading Mandy Froehlich’s (@froehlichm) excellent 4-part series, “Hierarchy of Needs for Innovative & Divergent Thinking”  She gets detailed about what is needed to truly change the culture of a school to maximize innovation,

I would love to hear from you.  Please leave a comment below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.