The Brilliance of Specificity

About 10 years ago I read that painting your walls light colors makes your house feel bigger. I thought that sounded miserable and lonely, and assuming the opposite to be true I painted most every room in our house with the darkest paint that my wife would allow. I wanted my house to feel like a cozy, smokey, corner bar. If possible, I would have even tried to find an old guy with a cheap beer and a cigarette to sit in the corner and tell outrageous stories, but that seemed far fetched and complicated. It also seemed like that would be a little boring for the old guy.

After nearly a decade of enjoying a dining room that was kind of the deep color of burnt mustard, my wife and I decided to opt for a more modern look last summer. We were going to paint our dining room some kind of white and expose some brick on the fireplace. I wish I were writing a blog about brick fireplaces and choosing white paints. Yesterday, I read something about using old pallets in to make a wall, and it had thousands of comments. That stuff is pure gold. I'm not though, I write an education blog.

We went to Home Depot and picked out what seemed like 45 different versions of white to paint on little sections of our wall to try and decide which slight variation would make us the happiest. It felt like some kind of painfully boring scene that should have been in “This is 40,” where two married people debate the stylistic differences between “Honey Milk” and “Crisp Linen.” It would be better for the health of marriages everywhere if there was only one option of white. But there are millions of options leading us to say really ridiculous things that we thought we never would’ve said.

“This one looks a little bit more silky. Do you see that?“

Or “I kind of like the softness in this one.”

I had no idea what I was talking about.

In other words, I’m impressed, and kind of annoyed, by the specificity of paint colors. And to be more specific in a blog that is actually about specificity, I always find things more interesting when they are more intricate and directed. Interesting things, as Malcolm Gladwell says, often include “brilliant levels of specificity.”

The most interesting teachers, the best lessons, and the most helpful feedback pays close attention to these little and complicated decisions that happen every day, in most every minute, of classroom life.

One of the most helpful observations I ever had was done by a behavioral specialist and a few teachers who wanted to observe my more relational style of classroom management. I thought the lesson was terrible, complicated by a distraction when a student returned to our class a few minutes late after missing a week because he was shot in his leg while standing on the sidewalk near his house. 

It was a few minutes into the period, and all of the other students became immediately fascinated with how he was doing and feeling. I wanted to protect the student from the barrage, but I was also worried that I was failing at managing the moment and was probably feeling a little embarrassed. I refocused and quietly asked the student if he was comfortable talking about the whole thing. He was fine with it, and we spent the next 10 minutes asking him what it was like to get shot. Most all of us had heard these stories before, but it was an interesting moment of vulnerability where the student shared some fears and hard truths about his own life. He even showed us the scar just above his knee which was starting to heal.

Then, I tried to pull together what was left of an English lesson. I don’t even remember what we did during that class period. I just remember the feeling after class when I knew the observers were going to debrief my classroom management, or lack there of. I remember thinking kids weren’t really focused, and they were probably kind of off task, and that I had probably disappointed the behavioral specialist who was hoping to see something great.

I expected them to say “thanks, but no thanks. Now we know what NOT to do when trying to manage a classroom.”

Instead, the behavioral specialist gave me really specific feedback. She said I handled the gunshot situation perfectly, and that it was probably the only logical move at that point in the classroom. Not only was it my only route back to instruction, it was an important nod to the humanity that is necessary in good teaching. If she had stopped there, it would have been helpful feedback. But then, she said something that was even more helpful.

She talked about the way I checked with the student before diverting our lesson to talk about his incident. She said it was quiet, and the language I used demonstrated concern for him and the extent of our previous relationship. She said it set up the next 10 minutes of class carefully and expertly, and allowed for a helpful conversation about a terrible thing.

In her specificity, she helped me understand something about my teaching. I often wish that I had more magic when it came to construction of knowledge and understanding. I marvel at teachers who help students understand what they are learning and metacognition. I beat myself up for my tangential style and worry that students are missing everything. But I think that I do some things very well, and the moment that she noticed highlights one of those things.

There is brilliance in specificity. We just have to notice it.

We do our profession a grave disservice with sweeping generalizations, blanket compliments, and vague critiques. They make us sound unprepared and unintelligent. Instead, we should spend time discussing the little things that so many of us do so well. And we should discuss these things with microscopic clarity.

We could talk about how a certain teacher expertly handles pacing and organization. Another teacher may transition with the ease of a gold medal relay team, passing the baton of the classroom perfectly at opportune times. There are teachers who use humor with precision, tossing out jokes and pulling the class back like a seasoned comedian. Some teachers never miss a student, noticing with sensitivity when a student is struggling with content or some other dark corner of their life. I saw a veteran teacher once who seemed completely in control of her reactions and emotions, casting an ease and comfort over her entire classroom. One of my teachers in middle school used student work to boost our morale, telling us at moments that we were capable of excellence and making us all believe a little more. I had a professor in college who gave perfectly curated notes of feedback, and each of us in his class soaked up each word of advice.

And the list goes on. Teachers do these tiny and specific things extraordinarily well, demonstrating our excellence and challenging others to do the same. But we miss these things when we simply say it was a good or bad lesson, or that they are a good or bad teacher.

This year, I hope to notice the brilliance of specificity a bit more in my own classroom. And teach others to do the same.