Multiplicity and Misunderstanding in Education

Preface
This post, which is essentially a review of the summer issue of Education Canada, might turn out to be some statement of purpose for Not Left To Chance. My main concern today is a proposal for study in a local graduate program. Of course, being afflicted with a philosophical disposition, I tend to space out when defining a field.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to work out a focused study. My interest is literacy and I have a very practical agenda. I want to study tested methods for improving literacy so I can become a better teacher.

A little background: At some point in my efforts to change the world by changing a local media scene, I decided that education could be the field where the work of changing the world holds the most potential. I enrolled in the local Faculty of Education and a year later was a qualified teacher. At that point I went back to work in local media.

A little more background: The time and place of my turn toward the field of education was Harris’ Ontario. Education was overtly politicized by the governing body and teachers and their unions were essentially destroyed. It was a bad time for education in Ontario, and in the spirit of full disclosure, a good time for a middling student to get into a Faculty of Education.

My first complaint is with the education I received. I recall one telling incident every time I bring up teacher education. The lecture based section was led by instructors who told you what to do in the classroom. Once, and only once, I questioned a teaching practice. The instructor looked at me, (it wasn’t like I was out of line, the instructor had asked if there were any questions) and said “This would be a higher level discussion.” then continued with the lecture as if no question had been asked. Teacher education generally exercises only lower level recall skills.

And the practicum was just as bad. The student teachers who could most closely ape their mentors were highly rewarded. I learned to mimic tone, gestures and catch phrases for positive appraisal. This wasn’t as foolproof as it sounds. An outside appraisal was also part of the student teacher’s report. My outside appraiser was a retired principal and a strict disciplinarian. During his first appraisal I was being mentored by a teacher with a soft touch. This retired principal gave me a near failing review. Luckily for me, when he came around for my second appraisal I was aping a strict disciplinarian who was retiring from teaching at the end of the year. My second and final outside appraisal was a glowing report, with stars and extra comments written in the margins to note my striking improvement.

In most teaching positions this kind of education/training isn’t a problem. In front of a group of similarly socialized students, you perform an act prescribed by governing bodies and the results sought appear. As long as you are doing what you’re told, remain dependent on outside regulators for instruction, you’ll be a success at the job of teaching. The direction of education is left to policy makers. Teachers have learned not to question, their success is dependent on their ability to unquestioningly do what they’re told. You could clearly see that dependence in Harris’ Ontario. Teachers were powerless to defend the work they do from a government that didn’t have the best interests of education written into their policies. Grudgingly, the teachers followed the governments new prescription.

And in the end what did it matter? Literate households and communities continued to produce reading ready children. Schools continued to stream the children of professionals into academic areas while the kids from lower socio-economic backgrounds were streamed into holding cells. All the exercising and testing helps to reinforce the stigma and heighten awareness of who has what and who doesn’t.

In middle class neighbourhoods differing social situations and physiological states lead to a diversity in the classroom. Teachers in these situations, drawing on their training will have many successful students and a few challenges. These challenges are what interest me. You can generally predict based on social situation which children will succeed in school. The curriculum and teaching methods were formed around normal socialization. Outside the norm, the methods fail. The one or two kids socialized outside that norm will not connect with the methods. The teacher will pass 28 kids and fail 2. The systems/methods failure labels the child.

And still some more background: One thing led to another and I got call from a principle in an isolated community. A teacher hadn’t returned from a vacation and they were in a bit of a bind. Two days later I was in this isolated community. I quickly realized that my training was useless. Most teachers in the community had been flown in from the outside, most thought the problem was the kids. It was clear to me that I was the problem. I’d like to say that I modified my method and achieved some result, but that’s not what happened. I never really connected with the kids. I tried, and something was happening toward the end of the first year, and then the second year with a different class I started all over again. I was isolated, inexperienced, an outsider and in a school that had modelled itself on “normal” schools.

That said, I did learn a lot, and have been haunted by the problem since. I was in a classroom filled with kids less socialized-in-preparation for traditional teaching methods than the one or two that fail in middle class neighbourhood schools. I don’t have the answer, but this drives my desire to research different methods of improving literacy. I do have an experience that informs my critique of traditional methods, and also witnessed first hand the uselessness of traditional methods in the same situation, as employed by a teacher with 25 years experience.

The teacher with 25 years experience successfully employing traditional methods, however, put the failure on the kids. While it was clear to me that the school was failing, I was also incapable of solving the problem. The problem in this case is that the school isn’t a learning environment. In this case with grade eight students testing at grade three levels, the failure to create a learning environment was clear and documented. The problem in city schools is that the diversity of the student body makes all propositions untrue. Different children relate differently to a school environment. My concern is that the constructed school environment fails to bring about learning in some children. These children could learn in a differently constructed environment. Some sort of change is needed for these children to learn in school.

And now the review: The latest issue of Education Canada, themed Encouraging Subversion, acknowledges a need for change in the system. The editorial does a good job of capturing the mechanistic quality of the debate, but unfortunately sums it all up with one line: “That’s the way it’s always been.”

Perhaps an educational revolution is in the works, if so, you won’t find it written in these pages. Maybe it’s there somewhere behind the words in the conclusion to Andy Hargreavesarticle The Long and the Short of Educational Change. I don’t expect the germ of revolution to grow out of our national debate.

One article that clearly illustrates a major problem in the direction advocates of educational change are heading is Catching The Knowledge Wave: Redefining Knowledge for the Post Industrial Age. (The article is available as a PDF download here.) I’ve written elsewhere about the wave jumping phenomenon, but here the wave catching is clearly conscious.

First, the author Jane Gilbert has some interesting current projects. Take this passage out of one recent report:

Schools are highly complex organisations that are, for all sorts of reasons, set up to deliver their services to groups of students. Because they are set up in this way, it is not easy for them to deal with children who don’t fit conventional patterns, and as a result these children (or, more accurately, their families) tend to be seen as problematic. Turning this around, it is possible to argue that it is because schools are organised in the way they are that these children are seen as problematic and/or deficient: that is, that it is the schooling system that needs to change, not individual children, if this “problem” is to be solved.

Writing the awareness of different patterns within society, should lead to critique of the capitalization of knowledge hiding under cover of a “social shift.” But in the Education Canada article Gilbert presents the desire of corporate media and the resulting government policy as a rational for reorganizing education.

The media is full of references to the knowledge economy and the knowledge revolution; business discussions now routinely talk about knowledge management, knowledge resources, knowledge clusters, knowledge work, and knowledge workers; and policy documents argue for the need to ‘catch’ the knowledge ‘wave’.

She goes on to write “[Knowledge] is now understood as being more like energy, something defined by its effectiveness in action, by the results it achieves.” This definition confuses knowledge with agency, or equates the two.

According to Lyotard, learners will be encouraged to develop an understanding of an organized stock of public and/or professional knowledge (‘old’ knowledge), not in order to add to it, but to pursue ‘performativity’ – that is, to apply it to new situations, to use it and replace it in the process of innovation. They will be encouraged to understand the rules or established procedures of a discipline, profession or trade, not in order to follow them, but in order to see how they might be improved.

How do you read Lyotard? Is he critical or advocating? And isn’t this exploration for improvement already the intended direction of the experimental scientific method? Knowledge in this passage exists in the ‘old’ sense. Knowledge isn’t performativity, an understanding of a body of knowledge becomes performativity. “With a creative hand they reach for the future, and all that is and has been becomes a means for them, an instrument, a hammer.”

In the Knowledge Age everyone needs the kind of knowledge and skills traditionally only provided in post-secondary education. We need new ways of organizing education based, not on the one-size-fits-all, production-line model, but on new models that allow flexibility, multiplicity, and new ideas about ability. Secondly, we need a new way of thinking about what we teach and why we teach it, a new way of thinking about the traditional disciplines that underpin the school curriculum.

What needs to be understood about the Knowledge Age is its increased complexity. To say that we are in a post-industrial age gives the meaning that the industrial society is no longer in existence. Just recently I drove through the mountains from Vancouver to Dinosaur Provincial Park. On the way I saw that railways are still moving goods across the country and cattle ranchers still use horses to do their work. Perhaps what’s happening here is a desire for change, a desire for a new way of thinking that’s uncritically married an accepted or legitimate call for change.

People’s understanding of time, space, and place are changing, and the boundaries between countries are breaking down. We are developing new forms of information, new ways of presenting information, and new forms of money. There are new more complex forms of personal identity, and people are connecting with each other in new and different ways.

All this while people continue to connect as they always have. People continue to go to church. In certain zones of our society the alphabet is an unworkable concept. It’s just not true that everyone needs the skills traditionally provided in colleges and universities. Some jobs involve hanging headless bleeding chickens by their feet on a conveying wire. What Gilbert is expounding in the preceding passage could be called folklore. Schools needn’t be concerned with changing to keep up with social folk tales. The preceding passage expresses a reality that’s suspect. Another writer could easy fill space with tales of thickened political boundaries. Again today, right now there are children two weeks away from entering the foreign culture of their neighbourhood school where they’ll learn nothing but an affirmed sense of alienation.

A question: Would teaching methods successfully developed to improve literacy in children from non-literate backgrounds be useful for teaching children from literate homes? In other words, if teaching methods were based on the needs of non-literate children, how would the learning of pre-literate children be affected?

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