Or an Attempt to Alienate the Teachers in my life
I asked my husband if I could share this on Tumblr. It is something that he wrote on his Facebook page. It’s an insightful look into education that begs the question, “What are we wishing to accomplish?” A read that I would recommend for all educators. I’m sharing this with the tumblarian community as well, because I feel that we should be a force for inquiry as much as possible.
Super proud of this guy. Today is our one year anniversary. So in celebration, here is some academicy writing to read. :)
I recently heard a comment from a former colleague on Facebook about the nature of education. It was, at once, both startling and a tired cliche. I don’t need to restate the comment,but it was the standard, “why don’t kids just behave themselves?!”and then appeal to the authority of their age, education, job title,or whatever.
So, I’d like to make a rather rambling post about the nature of education, what its goals are and what they could be. Consider it public therapy.
Most of my own thinking on education comes largely from the work of Paulo Freire and, to a somewhat lesser extent, John Dewey. Freire’s work in Brazil, initially teaching illiterate peasant adults how to read and then later expanding into theoretical work, is predicated on several different ideas:
A condemnation of the existing Banking Model of Education. The Banking Model, probably the most widely used conceptual framework in education (whether acknowledged or not), is the belief that the student is a vessel to be ‘filled’ with knowledge, imparted by the teacher. That is to say, the teacher ‘deposits’ knowledge into the student and then the student becomes ‘educated.’ (I will return to this later, at length.)
Freire then enjoins us to consider the development of praxis. Praxis can largely be understood as experiment-based learning that encourages the learner to ‘play with’ ideas, concepts, etc, etc, to best understand them on their own terms. Freire describes this as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.” This does not mean the establishment of a procedure-heavy experiment in which the students are innately preordained to come to the same conclusions that the instructor seeks, but rather to allow the process to be genuine and subject to real experience.
Further, Freire seeks to redefine the relationship between student/learner and teacher. Instead, the circumstances should be better understood to be that of student-learner and teacher-learner. An example of this might be bringing in something of study and placing it between myself (the teacher-learner) and the students (the student-learner.) I have done this in the past by using the chair the students are seated in. I ask them to write down everything they can about the chair they are sitting in and then we discuss it. The students often discover a surprising amount of things about the chair and through it, the world. A few examples:
The chair manufacturer is a company in Arkansas. We looked the company’s history up and saw how the company closed its original factory in Arkansas and shipped production to China. We then found the plant where the chairs were made and the horrible human rights abuses taking place, including worker suicide, etc. We then looked at the community in Arkansas where the plant had closed and saw the economic difficulties there and the resultant social problems that emerged as a result (homelessness, poverty, family break-up, drug use, etc.) We had an interesting discussion about the merits of socio-economic hierarchy, international trade and its effect on working people around the world, and the impact of poverty on communities and individuals.
We discovered what the chair was made out of. We looked up plastics, its history, and where it comes from. From there we were able to look up how the United States switched to producing synthetic rubber/plastic, largely as a result of the Japanese occupation of the world’s best rubber-producing regions during World War II. We looked up what other alternative technologies were created in that period to cope with the war. Then we looked at the environmental concerns from synthetic plastic/rubber production. An interesting discussion about World War II technologies, international environmental concerns, and resource competition followed. This last part dovetailed into a discussion about oil use in the West, covering topics from war, international relations, environmental concerns, and the like.
We wondered about the chair’s quality. Most of the students complained about how uncomfortable the chairs were and wondered at alternatives. We looked at the chairs provided at other public schools and noticed they were roughly similar. However, we then looked up the quality of seating provided at wealthy, private schools. Of course, these exclusive schools provided a much higher quality of seating (wood, cushioned, etc) to their students than the public schools. We discussed why this might be and why their school district might provide a relatively low-quality seat to their students, while elite schools provided better. This turned into a discussion about class, economics, falling school budgets in particular and neoliberal economics in general. We also discussed the price of college tuition as a result, its growth, and the merit of a college education.
The above is only three of the things we noticed about the chair. We had better than a dozen things we noticed and were able to discuss. This was only one example from a mediocre teacher in North Texas. Imagine the possibilities of genuine examination and connections occurring with a sincere, sustained focus.
On a philosophical level, Freire asked what the goal of education was. In the United States, our education system was formed largely during the early Industrial period with the goal of making a more pliant working-class. Previous to this, workers often balked at the rigid control their employers had over them, the set schedule, the meager wages, and the expectation that they went from being citizens in the street to automatons in the workplace. This commonly broke out into resistance, sometimes on a large scale, notably the Lowell Mill Girls Strikes, the Great Strike of 1877, Ludlow 1914, The Battle of Blair Mountain, and other scenes.
In an attempt to prevent such actions from taking place, schools were redesigned to follow a rather grim (and unwarranted) interpretation of the Biblical phrase to, “Train up a child in the way they should go, and when they are old they will not depart it.” The education designers built schools that were run like factories, with chairs in neat rows, a series of bells/whistles to drive students (workers) from one room to the next, given a very rigid schedule, etc. etc. The goal, as the reformers themselves stated, was to bring the values of workplace obedience into the population.
Today, study after study indicates that Americans are more likely than their other First World counterparts to be obedient to authority.
Freire, instead, argued that education should not be simply a matter of making children into ‘objects’ in the classroom, but rather ‘active’ participants in their own education. Why would we want to turn students into quiet, obedient objects that simply absorb the information given to them, when they might actually be made to uncover and construct knowledge for themselves?
Student resistance/disobedience naturally follows. Under traditional Banking Education, students are force-fed a steady stream of information that they largely regard as irrelevant to their lives. To get to such ends, students are required to abandon their individual interests and to submit to the point where they have to ask if it is permissible to use the restroom. Any resistance to this is commonly crushed with further appeals to authority, up to, and including, the law.
This is particularly depressing when one understands that people actually want to learn. Any check out line at your local grocery store will include a myriad of magazines that are studded with quizzes on the cover. Admittedly, these are often simply tripe, but it indicates a desire for both knowledge and a certain degree of self-reflection. But, even if it is only ‘tripe,’ does that not also indicate an interest in larger views? As an example, I had a female student stumble in my classroom, because she was wearing high heels. We stopped whatever we were talking about and began talking about her shoes and the problems they created. We discussed practicality vs ornamentation, why were such shoes even appealing in the first place, gender issues, female beauty standards, and even briefly touched on the (thankfully, largely abandoned) practice of foot binding in East Asia. Underneath the pointless tripe on the surface, there were a lot of issues there and the students were engaged and opinionated about. You’ll be glad to know that the student in question later told me that she tossed all of her high heels to the back of her closet and switched to more sensible footwear. That was a genuine learning experience that came out of something the students were already interested in.
This is somewhat reflected in the work of the silly education gurus that pop up every once in a while, including Harry Wong, Chris Biffle, Robert Marzano, etc. insofar as they suggest that one “meets the students where they are at.” Often this means little more than ‘dumbing-down’ assignments for students who struggle with traditional academic work and giving more difficult work to students with stronger academic skills. (It also goes by the jargon term ‘differentiation.’) A more genuine approach would be the give the students a genuine ability to shape their education, to understand the world, and to not necessarily turn kids off to the prospect of learning.
That is my quick-and-dirty distillation of Freire’s work. It is incomplete and oversimplified, but that’s thegist of it. In all, it lays out a program whereby the student-learner can have a genuine experience and learn about their world, with the goal of changing it for the better.
Instead we treat education as nothing more than vocational training and it shows. The greatest indicator of a student in school is their personality traits, not their ability. The personality traits that are more rewarded in public schools are“perseverant, dependable, consistent, identified with school,empathizes orders, punctual, defers gratification, externally motivated, predictable, and tactful.” Those traits more punished are, “creative, aggressive/assertive, and independent.” This is not to suggest that the that those traits rewarded are inherently bad, but they do model a more obedient figure, whereas those punished are those of a more independent, creative person. (The above study is laid out more fully in Bowles and Gintis’s work “Schooling inCapitalist America.’ Excerpt available at[http://www2.webster.edu/~corbetre/philosophy/education/bg/bg-ch-5.html])
This suggests that we are not teaching students to be independent citizens with critical thinking skills,but rather obedient workers or simple technocrats. This is terribly damaging to students, needless to say. I teach both AP and regular courses at the high school level. In my AP courses and some of my“best students” are paralyzed by fear of failure, chase grades more than learning, and cannot carry out creative work nearly as well as my General Education students. In fact, those students who have succeeded the most in their education want extremely detailed instructions of how to complete a task and have no interest at all in the knowledge’s implications. I often lay awake at night, fearing that I am doing nothing more than helping to create automated technocrats and not citizens or scholars or even fully realized human beings. This is not hyperbole.
And it is carried out at the highest levels. Arnie Duncan, the Secretary of Education, is a perfect example ofthis. While he lauds educational systems that are the highest ranked in the world, (most notably Finland, which has a more laid-back model of education, shorter school days, shorter school years, does not begin until the child is nearly 7 years old, is less hierarchical,has students refer to their teachers by their first names, etc),while pursuing the exact opposite policies. In fact, Duncan, despite his praise of the Finnish model, recently urged American politicians to consider adopting policies more similar to that of India and China, lest we lose our “competitive advantage.” This includes longer school days, longer school years, more rote learning, and firmer school rules. I would remind readers that China and India are both internationally ranked much lower than Finland and even the United States. This suggests that he is not interested in learning so much as the furthering of unpleasant values in our schools. Duncan, further, has no actual experience in the classroom.
I would like to end by saying that none of these ideas are original to me and I have provided links to further resources at the bottom. Also, I would like to express that I often feel the frustration with students who are ‘difficult,’ and I am also not always very effective at carrying out what I have listed above. I have also complained about parents and the lack of ‘discipline’that students bring with them. However, I have always tried to keep an eye on the larger goals of what education should be and worked imperfectly to implement those in my classroom.
I won’t lie and say that no judgment towards others in implied in this. I recognize that such judgment, however, is not necessarily justified and not prudent to dole out. Consider this a public admission of a weak character.
Okay, I’m off my soapbox and off to mow thelawn.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Dewey,John. The Child and the Curriculum,Moral Principles in Education,Democracy and Education. All three are available for free as kindle classics downloads.
Shor, Ira. Critical Teaching and Everyday Life,When Students Have Power, and Empowering Education.
Bowles, Samuel and Gintis, Herbert. Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life.
Willis, Paul and Aronowitz, Stanley. Learning to Labor: How Working ClassKids Get Working Class Jobs.
Knopp,Sarah. Education and Capitalism.
Ravitch,Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System. (Her blog can be found at : http://dianeravitch.net/)
I’m posting vintage coke as a response to this:
I wonder if there will ever be a day that the whole world will find their happy place and be happy.
How do you answer that? I chose to go with optimistic harmonies.