The Conversation That You Get

4 min read

In a classroom setting, as in life, a gulf often exists between the conversation we want to have and the conversation that we get. Understanding why that gulf exists - why what we wanted isn't what we got - can be frustrating and painful.

Yesterday, Grant Wiggins wanted to have a conversation about school climate, and how the general practice of separate lunchrooms and bathrooms for students and teachers could impair the relationships between students and teachers.

However, to make his point, Wiggins compared separate facilities to apartheid. Jose Vilson and Tressie McMillan Cottom did an effective job describing the myriad issues with Wiggins' original post.

Fortunately, I was able to retrieve a cached version of Wiggin's original post from Google. You can read this screenshot, or download the html files.

In the opening of his original post, Wiggins framed his argument in this way:

This is very brief post – a tiny little provocation – that has been bugging me for years

Wiggins, by way of this "provocation," is inviting a conversation. At some point between putting up his original post and his more thorough rewrite, Wiggins added the following postscript:

PS: Many commenters, offended by the use of ‘apartheid’ have completely missed the point – including the question mark at the end – so, I’ll make it another way:

As of today, the administration will have a fancy executive washroom and dining room for their own use; not for teachers.


Odd how few angry commenters thought about the students’ situation. In fact some tweeters compared my call for shared facilities to be more like work camp and prison. That tells me a little about their view of kids.

This postscript dismisses people objecting to Wiggin's use of the word "apartheid," in a discussion he started, as people who don't think about kids. This dismissive attitude carries into the comments. In one comment, Wiggins affirms the correctness of his apartheid comparison:

I do NOT think the term apartheid goes to far. Students are truly treated as second class in many schools, especially high schools.

Eventually, Wiggins rewrote his post. However, after his rewrite, he began editing and deleting comments from the thread. I asked about the deleted comments and was told that "the posts deleted reflect the prior post which was edited."

Fortunately, I kept a browser tab open from when many of the original comments were still intact. You can see the screenshot, or download an html copy of the page.

Despite what Wiggins said, many deleted comments are relevant to any version of the post. By deleting comments and attempting to rewrite the history of how this transpired, Wiggins undercuts the sincerity of his apology. Many of the deleted comments show thought and caring. They were left by people with years (decades, in some cases) of experience. And, with a click of the mouse, they are gone - the conversation Wiggins invited and received was removed by Wiggins himself.

Other people have addressed the complete inappropriateness of the original apartheid metaphor. However, Wiggins' reaction to the justifiable pushback was a phased process - first, he strongly defended his stance in the comments, then he added a postscript dismissing people objecting to his use of metaphor, then he rewrote the post, wrote an apology, and started deleting comments.

Wiggins had an opportunity to model learning through conversation and experience. Instead, he opted to delete his way out of his mistake, all while claiming that people criticizing him would be better off focusing on "fixing things." There is incredible value in smart people candidly admitting errors. We don't see it often. In education, we hear a lot of rhetoric about the value of failure, and how we can learn from all experiences. We talk a lot about taking responsibility for our actions.

Sometimes, learning means admitting the value and worth of the conversation that you get.