Wednesday, April 18, 2007

"Those who can, do. Those who can't,....."

Back in the day when I was going through the teacher training program there was a curious and hard lesson I learned about being in the field of education. I don’t really like other teachers. There may be a few exceptions floating around in the world but I can’t say I personally know any. I don’t like hanging out with them. I don’t like engaging them in conversation. I don’t like the way they talk to people around me. It’s pretty comprehensive.

There are a lot of reasons for this but I believe it boils down to one contradiction. People attracted to the field of teaching feel like they have some great knowledge or insight that they believe they have to impose on others but they tend to be afflicted with some kind of intellectual feebleness. Now it may be argued, and quite correctly that this applies to myself. I am as guilty of inflated ego and thinking I’ve got the huge brilliant idea as any other person who’s gotten into this business. Oddly, and perhaps inappropriately in knowing this I do not take discouragement but hope. It is a hope that both grows in depth and in term as I come to realize how much there really is to learn and how possible it is to learn it. (There's a little bit of Zen-ness, if you will, related to this that I will forbear going into for now.)

My critics will have already realized that I did not confess to being feeble-minded as well as arrogant, a point only too consistent with itself. But it is the issue of intellectual capacity and recent experiences I’ve had with it that have motivated this post. Recently my teacher training was resumed in an on-line format to the end of obtaining my license to teach in a special ed context or at least to keep the feds off my school’s back for a while. Personally for myself I don’t have a particular interest in special education. It doesn’t exactly jive with where I’ve imagined myself going over the next few years but as can be seen from my last post, studying it has enlightened me on several levels with respect to what I actually do have an interest in. A really important thing I’ve learned a lot about is the general intellectual quality of folks in education, a sort of reminder of what it was like to sit in classes with would-be teachers.

The first and most generalizable observation I made was that discussion board posting was pretty terrible. Without detailing the gratuitous spelling and grammatical errors, I found the vast majority of participants to be of relatively low quality. The very vast majority of writing did one of two things: state platitudes about the way things are supposed to be done based on the author's wealth of personal experience or regurgitate parrot-like things written elsewhere (either in the readings or other posts to the discussion board). This exemplifies perfectly what I’m talking about. They are so convinced they already know the answer no one approached the discussions with a questioning mind seeking to challenge any assumptions. They are both arrogant and feeble of mind. To flatter one’s self with the belief in being a critical thinker and then to so readily internalize everything the “authorities” say… to me it is among the most bitter hilarities.

Part of the course involved a group project, some kind of writing and lesson planning. During the first week of the class a couple of people posted with their ideas about what to do for the project. Honestly I didn’t like them too much. So, I kind of waited to see if anyone was going to agree or suggest something else. I’m not really motivated to take charge of groups where I don’t know any of the other people in them. Eventually, I had to go to the island. While I was away others posted and they sort of created a division of labor for work on the assignment. When I got back and read about what they were doing and stated my intentions to help with the project, I pretty much got the cold shoulder. This is a somewhat understandable situation but consistent with the usual teacher belief in self-superiority. It was sort of like, “if this guy isn’t going to be to class on time he will get no fruit cup.” The sort of consensus was that I would make final comments and that would be the extent of my participation. I felt a bit uneasy about this until someone posted a portion of the assignment as she had completed it. After reading it I went from uneasy to worried.

Now I want to clarify one thing. I’m a good enough writer to know that content exceeds mechanics in importance. The stuff that I read may have had some mechanical problems but it was the content that had me squirming like an electrified night-crawler. The lesson was supposed to be for a specific content area but nothing in the learning exercises related to it. It’s not that the components were bad per se they were just completely inconsistent with the proposed learning goals and stated function of the lesson. I posted my comments and waited for more to appear.

As the wait for material became prolonged and my group members posted to me about how I should only need to do simple proof-reading my anxiety increased. I feared I was about to be graded on the work of others, work that would make me feel very ashamed for its poor quality. So I posted again, almost begging that people offer their drafts for my comments. I was hoping that I could get early drafts so that major mods could be accomplished in time to produce good papers without unnecessary work. One of the group members wrote back chiding me for my concern and lack of gratitude that “all the work had already been done for [me].” Eventually this individual posted her share of the work commenting that she was very confident that it would at most require very minimal revisions. It was horrible.

First of all, it had many grammatical and spelling issues. There were many parts that were unintelligible as far their meaning. Add to that the fact that much of the language was adolescent in nature. The organization made no sense. It was as if she had taken bits of information from all over and then lumped them into random groups for fun. A lot of the information was very redundant. There were parts where I had a really hard time understanding exactly what it was that her sources had said. I looked them up for myself and my horror only grew. This person had made incredibly childish errors in interpreting the meaning of the texts she had read. She was so screwed up that she thought an essay among her sources was an empirical study.

I wrote my comments. And rewrote probably more than half the paper, still feeling that the thing belonged on a roll in a bathroom stall. It was so bad, I didn’t want to embarrass her by publishing it to the discussion board so I e-mailed it to her privately, warning that my critique was pretty harsh and asked for her response for improving the paper. She was pretty offended and reprimanded me for unwarranted perfectionism. “I don’t know what you think is so bad about my writing. It was good enough to get me my masters degree.” I almost cried.

She told me she had not read the whole revision, was attaching her limited comments, and then was off for a vacation. All of that would have been fine except that she did not attach her comments. So, here I was stuck with a paper on a topic I didn’t like, taking an approach I didn’t like, producing a revision my partner didn’t like. She didn’t even have the wit or grace to tell me what needed to be fixed before she disappeared in a self-righteous puff of smoke.

After returning from her vacation she posted nasty comments towards me on the discussion board and the teacher stepped in to moderate. Meanwhile, there was work to do on the other parts of the assignment. Their work was posted and it was not that bad but needed some real fixes. Although they were much less oppositional about having my suggestions, they were quite stubborn about not taking them. As I said, they already know what they are doing. How could anything I say further improve on their already perfect work? It’s preposterous. Ignore the fact that my comments are about things like internal inconsistency, logical errors, and truly confusing instructions. My observations aren’t substantive enough to pay attention to. Either that or these educators of children don’t understand consistency, logic, or clarity in communication.

So, these are the sorts of people teaching our youth. No wonder the question is seldom asked, “Is our children learning?” How can they learn from people who don’t know how to learn themselves? I don’t believe kids can learn how to read good and do other things good if their teachers can’t read good themselves.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Some Thoughts on Being an Agent of Oppression

My strange sort of fanaticism towards education reform has likely irritated my friends over the years. On one of my phases in this process I pestered everyone with the question, “What do you think should be the goals of our education system?” This was during a time when it occurred to me that one of the great problems in our education system is the fact that governmental institutions and much of the public want to burden schools with accomplishing a huge range of tasks. Frankly it was a range of things that goes way beyond what ought to be expected of any organization as small as a school is. Consider the task of trying to provide a “free and reasonable” education that will prepare every student within a certain geographic region, regardless of SES, native intelligence, linguistic and cultural background, or disability status to go to college, enter the vocational workforce, and participate in a democratic society. Muse upon accomplishing this under the constraints of arbitrary state mandated curricula, a variety of standardized testing regimens, students’ capacities and inclinations as human beings, and parental expectations. Do not fail to remember the fact that there is nothing in the universe that guarantees overlap between any of these factors let alone consensus. Add to this the requirements placed on schools that they provide not only mere academic curricula but opportunities for sporting, social activities, and counseling. When I think on it, I conclude that it is actually quite natural for schools to have become something that many people feel are garbage. Who could possibly orchestrate this sort of mess successfully? Some authors have claimed that compared to other organizations and cultural institutions schools have undergone surprisingly inadequate reforms appearing in form and function much as they might have fifty or even a hundred years ago. This horrid lack of vision and clarity of direction is perhaps first among a range of factors resulting in this retardation.

Whether or not this is so, the resulting product is a form of oppression inflicted upon the students in these schools and ultimately upon the great community that is released from their smothering socialization. You may ask what oppression I may be referring to when speaking of institutions that facilitate learning and climbing of the social ladder. Part of my answer would be that the so-called learning provided by schools is more illusory than real. Furthermore the career advancement achieved this way, rather than truly qualifying people for the work they do, creates in our society an addiction to the system and reinforces the indoctrination and oppression created thereby. The end results are self-perceived excellence in a reality of incompetence. (I'll talk about this more later when I post a rant about my recent experience with special educators in an on-line class.) People walk away with a belief that they understand their fields and are capable critical thinkers when in reality they've swallowed whole every bit of rhetoric and dogma that has been forced down their throats.

Lately my work with my students, my study for my special education licensure, and my reading from a little theorist called “Paulo Freire” have led me to the conclusion that I am in fact an agent of oppression for my students and consequently for society as a whole. Huzzah!

Part of what has underscored this for me has been working with the IEPs I referred to in my last post. One of the major components of an IEP is a set of goals determined to be appropriate for the given student and his suite of special needs. The goals deal with academic performance, socio-behavioral issues, and reference long term education and career goals. Two things about this process really stuck out for me. First, and perhaps most important in terms of my becoming an instrument of oppression, is the fact that the student almost never has any input regarding these goals. And when they do, it is frequently overridden by the various “agents of interest” who write these plans. Keep in mind that I’m not talking about the second grade here. I’m talking about 17-year-old kids on the brink of legal majority. I’m not only talking about kids too old to be sensibly left out of the process of making their life decisions, I’m talking about kids for whom this system didn’t work. Whether they are disabled or not there is something about them that doesn’t fit the mold and if our objective was to try and help them attain whatever kind of success we can considering their challenges we ought to be more vigilant in consulting with them on what that success should mean. Instead we almost invariably create programs that will try to force them back into the mold as best we can. What this tends to mean is that instead of helping or even letting them develop talents where they are able, we cut off a limb here and a digit there and shave off some of that part over there. And all of this is done under the pretense of what’s in the student’s best interest and providing a “fair” chance.

There’s a principle in this aspect of the IEP that cuts both ways. Just as its nominal function is to provide a mode of education suited to the individual student but in reality attempts to force a conformity, the fact that it is only provided for students with special needs reveals the oppressive nature of the education system. How can it be argued that only one small class of students deserve or can be benefited by an individualized program? Philosophically it is clear that the expectation is for the majority of students to willingly conform to a system simply because they are able. It ought to be reasonable to assume that all students are unique and educational resources should be equally in place to help them meet goals, build on strengths, compensate or overcome weaknesses. But the reality is that the students themselves are not the source of our established learning goals. The political battles for control of their minds is, the battles between business interests, parents, colleges, and government bodies. The debate over teaching intelligent design in schools is an example of this. Though everyone will claim they want children to learn critical thinking skills, when it comes down to it atheists and creationists alike will tend to choose indoctrination to their own paradigm before taking the risk that students may come to believe something else if allowed to study the issue out for themselves. The task of schools is not to develop diversity of talent but to enforce a narrow range and capacity for thinking.

The last bit of oppression I wish to discuss deals with what I see as an issue of human nature. Yes we are forcing all kids to become the same. But there is a reason that it must be seen as forcing in many cases if not most. It is because of the kinds of things we are trying to teach them. Frankly, how many of you in your professional lives have had to solve a system of inequalities lately? No one? Didn’t think so. And yet, one of my students has been working on doing that very thing all week. Can you imagine any reason for it? I can only vaguely imagine certain contexts where it could be used and they are contexts that a very diminished minority of students will ever end up in. So why does everyone have to learn it? Is it because if they spend more time learning algebra they will have less time to study things that would actually make them productive? Or is it to prevent them from developing disciplines of thought that would make them aware of their oppression and move them towards producing social revolution? I recently read in one of the Dune novels an idea about governments investing in learning and discovery. The gist was that governments must always curtail how much they invest in these things in order to maintain a stable society. If they did not, then people would discover or invent things of such magnitude and at such a rate that the government would be unable to maintain control of everything. Is there some unconscious fear residing in our society of letting our kids get too smart and learn too much?

The other component of this "forcing" we do to kids by the things we teach them has to do with their development. Taking myself for an example, in my high school days I felt much the same as my students in many ways about the type of things we were supposed to be studying in school. Using math as a most salient example, in high school I hated it. I believe that I was developmentally unprepared for it. It was not until I was about half-way through college that I reached a point that I could find doing math enjoyable unto itself, and even later that I found its usefulness sufficient to motivate me to study it of my own volition. We do not in our system listen very much if at all to what students are telling us about what kind of learning they can and need to accomplish most during their given stage of development. I hypothesize that the kind of learning high school students need is more about social life, developing independence, and morality than it is about factoring polynomials or identifying the organelles of a cell. That is not to say that there is no value in learning these sorts of things. I merely question the timeliness of it and its emphasis in what a kid is supposed to accomplish to get through school.

So there you have it. I’m an oppressor. I force kids to sit in a classroom and learn a bunch of stuff they have neither the interest nor inclination for. In many cases they lack the ability for it. And to make it all worthwhile, it is stuff they will never use in their lives after they leave my classroom. I’ve successfully created a lower class of individuals whose potential for contribution to society, however limited to begin with, has been completely squandered. And just so you know I did it all correctly, my students suffered through the whole thing. Huzzah!