Monday, January 08, 2007

I was thinking today about the enormous power of ramification, especially as it applies to teaching. A ramification occurs when an action, decision, judgment, or thought has a consequence, usually unintended, that may complicate the situation or make the intended result more difficult to achieve. This process happens continually in every aspect of life. Each of our actions, decisions, judgments, or thoughts has innumerable ramifications -- small and large deviations and swervings that cause other deviations and swervings, which cause others, and so on ad infinitum. In fact, the word “ramify” itself comes from the Latin word for root, suggesting a plant that sends off stems, twigs, and branches as it grows. What’s intriguing is that each of our experiences is like a plant in this sense, except that the ramifications of our experiences are without end. A plant eventually withers, dies, and its spreading comes to an end. In human life, this never happens. Even the smallest idea, word, or action causes a ceaseless – you might say eternal – series of effects. It’s like a pebble dropped into an ocean with no shores: the ripples never stop.

I often think of this as I am going about my work as a teacher of adolescents. Each word I speak to them, each gesture I make, each passing glance, is like that pebble. I may say a sentence to a class with a particular purpose in mind, but I can’t possibly know all the trillions of ramifications it will have. The consequences of that sentence will begin branching out as soon as the words are spoken, and they’ll still be branching hours, days, weeks, even years from now. Lives will alter because of that single sentence. The world will be a slightly changed place for all eternity because of those few spoken words. And of course, the same is true for every sentence, action, gesture, or glance, whether by me or by my students. In Room 2, we’re all continually remaking the world just by being alive and lively – by dropping pebbles into the borderless sea of life. The ripples of our actions cause other ripples which cause other ripples, and so on. The branches keep dividing and multiplying forever.

Some teachers might feel a bit overwhelmed, even discouraged, by this realization. After all, it seems to imply that we really have no control over what effects our teaching has. If the ramifications of our words and actions are random, uncontrollable , and endless, why even bother trying to organize lessons with specific goals? My answer is simple: Because the ramifications are precisely what make teaching such a thrilling enterprise. We and our students are, each moment, at the center of enormous power. Every one of our actions, however slight and seemingly trivial, starts an endless unfolding of effects, consequences, results, and outcomes. Each thought and action makes us unbelievably powerful creators. True, we can never know exactly (or even slightly) what we have created, but that’s part of the great pleasure this work holds for me.

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