Posts Tagged ‘Critical Literacy’

Is this the future of reading?

June 13, 2010

Weapons of Mass Instruction

May 29, 2010

I can’t claim any credit for the catchy title of this post. It is taken from the 2009 book of the same name by John Taylor Gatto. The subtitle is ‘A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling’. I referred to Gatto in my earlier Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy, since he is associated with the latter term. Having got my hands on a copy of the book, I would now like to return to this topic.

This post also links with another thread in the blog. In my last post, I embedded a talk by Sir Ken Robinson, in which he spoke of the need to move away from an industrial model of education to a more organic one: education must be customised and personalised to the people who are being taught. This sentiment is very much in keeping with Gatto.

Gatto contends that the roots of compulsory schooling lie in a model of social engineering developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, rather than in the professed ideals of universal education. By contrast with earlier eras (even the immediately preceding one of independent school authorities), modern compulsory schooling is concerned with uniformity, with grouping by ‘class’, and all with the force of the law. Consider the following extract:

contemporary school planners treat children as categories: black, white, Hispanic, other; gifted and talented, special progress, mainstream, special education; rich, middle-class, poor, and with multiple subdivisions of each imaginable category, rather than as specific individuals with specific intellectual, social, psychological and physical needs.

The rhetoric of collectivization leads quickly to treating groups and sub-groups as averages. This makes managerial labor much easier, but guarantees bad results no matter how many resources are devoted to improving the lot of the group … The logic of collectivization seeks to disconnect each child from his or her own unique constellation, particular circumstances, traditions, aspirations, past experiences, families, and to treat each as the representative of a type. (129)

Compulsory schooling as a form of social engineering is inseparable from an economy based on consumption and, by implication, the avoidance of over-production. By removing children from their family and community contexts, and forcing them to remain in a classroom as part of a group of age-peers, school induces passivity and what Gatto calls the ‘artificial extension of childhood’:

The same young people we confine to classrooms these days once cleared this continent when it was a wilderness, built roads, canals, cities; whipped the greatest military power of earth not once but twice, sold ice to faraway India before refrigeration, and produced so many miracles — from the six-shooter to the steamboat to manned flight — that America spread glimmerings of what open-source creativity could do all around the planet.

In those days Americans weren’t burdened by a concept of the phony stage of life called ‘adolescence,’ or any other artificial extension of childhood. About the age of seven you added value to the world around you, or you were a parasite. Like all sane people, so-called kids wanted to grow up as soon as possible — that’s why old photos show boys and girls looking like men and women. All that takes is carrying your share of the load, and a few open-source adventures and presto! You are grown up. (39-40)

The book gives many examples of individuals who, one way or another, escaped the tyranny of compulsory schooling and forged lives of independence and success. From George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Warren Buffet and Richard Branson, to name some of the more celebrated cases. Chapter 2 contains many others and I am grateful to New Society Publishers for permission to copy this chapter and link it to this post (see below).

Prior to his resignation, Gatto was a multi-award-winning high-school teacher of thirty-years experience, and his views carry the weight of that experience. There are many anecdotes from his career, including several humbling ones where he acknowledges the lessons that particular students taught him. Although he resigned out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the schooling system, he does provide some positive suggestions intended to minimise the harm done by compulsory schooling.

Chapter 6, for example, begins with a critique of television and computer entertainment as factors that help to maintain children in a state of passivity and consumption. Gatto realised that merely exhorting children to avoid such devices would have no effect. In order to combat the tendency, he developed what he calls his Guerrilla Curriculum. The principle was that by keeping children actively involved in real-world experiences, they would come to see their erstwhile spectator roles as less interesting. It should be understood that this was no attempt to create ‘engaging’ lessons in the conventional sense:

Plunging kids into the nerve-wracking, but exhilarating waters of real life — sending them on expeditions across the state, opening the court systems to their lawsuits, and the economy to their businesses, filling public forums with their speeches and political action — made them realize, without lectures, how much of their time was customarily wasted sitting in the dark. And as that realization took hold, their dependence on the electronic doll houses diminished. (93)

From Gatto’s description, what we have here is more of an induction into the adult world of action than the schooling to which we have grown accustomed. And it worked!

The biggest surprise for me was how easy this was to accomplish, it took neither talent nor money; anyone could duplicate my results, I won’t deny its hard work to try to pull off the trick with 130 kids a year, but a lot of effort is wasted in finding ways to circumvent the dead hand of school administration. In a system more congenial to learning (and less to social control) the thrill of doing the labor would more than outweigh the effort required. And, of course, if everyone in the society were on the same page about the necessity of developing intellect and character in the young (not weighting them down with chains), the work would be … child’s play.

Over the years my students launched so many useful projects and earned so many plaudits and prizes that I found myself showered with awards from the school establishment which had no idea how I got such results. When I tried to explain to the awards committees how little I had to do with the achievements, I suspect it was discounted as obligatory modesty, but these days when I have nothing more to prove to myself about who I am, I sincerely hope you’ll believe me. Take your boot off the downtrodden necks of your children, study their needs not your own, don’t be intimidated by experts, re-connect your kids to primary experience, give off the game of winners and losers for a while, and you’ll get the same results I did. Maybe better. (96)

Gatto tells us that he ‘stumbled upon a formula to change the destiny of students, one at a time’ (101). The first step was to build a personal profile for each student, relying not on school records but on data from ‘parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, friends and enemies — anyone who could provide intimate information to the emerging personal narrative’ (101-2).

Once a profile was created, the second step was to add a personalized Wishes and Weaknesses component. I asked each student to list three things each wanted to be knowledgeable about by the end of the year — that was the wishes part — and three weaknesses he or she wished to overcome, deficiencies which led to humiliation (I get beat up all the time) or failures of opportunity (I want to do modeling work but only the rich kids know how to present themselves to get that) — that was the weaknesses part. I exercised virtually no censorship and whatever the individual kid’s priorities were became mine. I didn’t consult with a single school administrator to put this program in place, nor with any other teacher — only with parents from whom I extracted promises of silence.

I know this sounds like a hideous amount of effort, and politically impossible in a large urban school, but it was neither: it required only will, imagination, resourcefulness, and a determination to scrap any rules which stood in the way … Acting in my favor was the fact that with this new curriculum each kid was motivated, worked much harder than I legally could have asked him or her to do, and recruited outside assistance with resources no classroom teacher could match. And now for the first time each had a personal reason to work hard, one that was self-grading. (Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction, 102)

Finally, Gatto (in an echo of Ivan Illich — see Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy) sees some hope in the emerging social phenomenon of online interconnectivity:

Thanks to a 24-year-old college dropout named Mark Zuckerberg who created Facebook, and others like him who founded YouTube, MySpace and other social networks still unmonitored by political authorities or academics, thanks to the World Wide Web and the Internet as platforms for individually generated connections, the power of school as a great dis-connector has been weakened.

These vehicles enable people without any particular status, to hook up with one another; they even allow mixtures of nobodies and somebodies to exchange ideas and plans; they provide a fountain of information which replenishes itself constantly; they encourage creativity among masses consigned by schooling to become reliable consumers. Even though this new force is still in early childhood, already it has caused governments to surrender a great deal of power over their own currencies. It has emboldened accumulations of capital to move at the speed of light from one country to another, destabilizing conventional markets, making national loyalties conditional and patriotism questionable. Thanks to the vast new ball of connections, official truth in every conceivable area is subject to verification by a promiscuous collection of uncertified critics armed with the tools to back up their contrarian critiques.

Thanks to the Internet, the concept of mass schooling by experts is nearly exhausted. (113)

Weapons of Mass Instruction is distributed in Australia by Footprint Books. I purchased my copy from The Book Depository.

Chapter 2 can be viewed, printed or downloaded from here:

Weapons of Mass Instruction – Gatto (Chapter 2)

Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy

May 10, 2010

As teachers, we are encouraged to instil in our students a critical attitude towards the text (in the multi-modal sense, including television, film, web pages, music, art and other forms of expression). This attitude is covered by the term Critical Literacy. Such a critical approach is what we expect of all functioning members of a democratic society, which is why we want our young people to imbibe it. By the same token, therefore, we teachers should adopt a critical attitude to our own profession and our working practices. Unsurprisingly, there is already a body of literature devoted to this topic, which is referred to as Critical Pedagogy.

Critical Pedagogy reminds us that all institutions are marked by relations of power: this applies to education as much as to government, industry, the military and the media. Indeed, it could be argued that education plays a special role in the transmission of power relations to future generations, given the immaturity and malleability of the minds in question. The power that teachers exercise over their students is easily recognised, but there are also power relations between junior and senior teachers, between teachers and the principal, between the principal and the school council or board, and between the individual school and the system to which it belongs. This is not to say that power is bad in itself, just that we need to take a critical attitude towards its exercise, whether by ourselves or by others.

I was reminded of this by an interview with John Taylor Gatto. Gatto spent thirty years teaching in the New York public schooling system, and was named New York City Teacher of the year in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. Gatto is critical of compulsory schooling, defends homeschooling and unschooling, and has published books with titles like Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (1992), The Underground History of American Education (2001), and Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling (2008). A basic summary of his ideas, in his own words, can be found here.

John Taylor Gatto

John Taylor Gatto (1935-): American author, former school teacher, and social critic

This in turn brought to mind a book I read when I was studying philosophy in Dublin twenty years ago. Ivan Illich first published Deschooling Society forty years ago this year. The book still sits in my bookcase, but the Wikipedia article reminds me that Chapter 6 is entitled ‘Learning Webs’ and suggests the use of computer technology to support independent learning:

The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity.

A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.

Ivan Illich

Ivan Illich (1926-2002): Austrian philosopher, Roman Catholic priest, and social critic

Illich died in 2002, and so survived long enough to witness the development of the Internet, but a quick search fails to find any specific comments by him on it. One blog post opts for a negative verdict, while a 4 May comment on the Facebook page devoted to Illich, suggests a more positive interpretation – Leigh Blackall asks:

Tell me Illicheans.. what would he say about social media and networked learning through such popular internet? On the one hand I see him as dismissing it as false, but on the other, in particular chapter 6 of Deschooling, he would surely embrace it?

And Christian St responds:

This came to my mind instantly when reading Deschooling society. Illich proposes computer-aided peer matching based on the common interest to discuss a certain book, article, film etc… In my opinion, this has Web2.0 written all over it. The next step after peer matching is to arrange a face-to-face educational meeting. I wonder if providing the possibility to “meet” via chat or videoconference is somehow contrary to Illich’s vision. Surely face-to-face communication is ideal, but it severely limits the choice of potential peers.

Philosophy and Critical Literacy

April 30, 2010

With all the discussion of teaching Critical Literacy skills to children, I thought it would be timely to draw attention to an item from The Philosophers’ Magazine. The article – ‘Get ’em while they’re young’ – goes into some depth, and I have provided lengthy extracts below. One of the main points is that there are multiple advantages to doing philosophy with children, including the ‘incidental’ development of critical thinking skills, i.e. these skills are acquired implicitly as part of the process, rather than explicitly taught.

It is important to note, however, that philosophy is not merely the acquisition of thinking skills. As noted in one of the comments after the article, there is a connection between ‘mental skills and self (critical) monitoring of thinking processes, together with the social aspect of thinking together’. I would add that philosophy also has its own history and subject matter, and children can be introduced to these things as opportunities present themselves.

This naturally leads to a point of debate in the article: whether philosophy should be taught by specialists. My own answer to this is: ideally, yes, but it would be difficult in the primary school, and we expect primary teachers to teach a whole range of subjects, without necessarily being a specialist in any of them (though it is a bonus if they have some particular expertise). Some teachers will find they have an aptitude for philosophical thinking, just as others have an aptitude for art, music, maths or literature.

A related blog that touches on these issues can be found here.

There has been anecdotal and scientific evidence that exposing children to philosophy at a young age can have lasting academic and social benefits but, although there does appear to have been a steady growth in the subject’s popularity over the past 20 years, philosophy is far from being a mainstream subject in primary schools.

“There are many reasons why thinking hasn’t been at the forefront of the way teachers teach,” says Lizzy Lewis, Development Manager at the Society for Advancing Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education (SAPERE), an educational charity dedicated to promoting the use of philosophy for children and communities throughout the UK. “A huge emphasis has been on assessment, on SATs (Standard Assessment Tests), and on literally memorising information and knowledge for tests. So there hasn’t been much time or thought given to how children learn and enabling them to really deal with problems or issues or to really work things out for themselves.” But Lewis says there is a growing backlash to this content-based approach. “Particularly in the last five years there has been more awareness of thinking skills approaches. And this is why we’ve had more and more demand in terms of training in schools: this is what teachers want, it’s what children want and, to some extent, it is what the government is saying is needed.”

Research by East Renfrewshire Psychological Services in 2006 found that under-achieving 11-year-olds exposed to GSD [Guided Socratic Discussion] significantly increased scores in areas including problem solving, generating alternative solutions and decision-making. Another 2007 study from Dundee University suggested an average rise in IQ levels of 6.5 points in students who had been exposed to philosophy at a young age. Another report, also from Dundee University, also showed that an hour of philosophical enquiry each week in primary schools very effectively promotes emotional and social developments as well as increasing cognitive ability, critical reasoning and dialogue skills. The study stressed that although such developments can take place in mainstream classes of 30 pupils lead by teachers with little previous philosophy experience, the role of the teacher would have to move away from being an “expert instructor” to instead being a “curious facilitator”.

[Peter Worley of The Philosophy Foundation] argues that for children to do philosophy properly, it is important for the facilitator to have specialist knowledge. “It’s not just subject knowledge – philosophy is a kind of tricky thing to identify, it’s not easy to know when philosophy is actually being done and what kind of thing philosophy is, it’s quite subtle,” he says. “So if you want to be able to get a group of children moving towards more philosophical kinds of discussion as opposed to just sharing ideas and discussing what they think about stuff, you need to have someone there who is able to identify when that starts to occur or who is able to ask the right kind of questions to bring it about.”

Worley says that attendants of The Philosophy Shop training course are required to have a philosophy degree but not necessarily any teaching experience. The two-day intensive training course focuses mainly on the pedagogical aspects of delivering a philosophy session to children and this is followed by a period of observation and assessment in classrooms. “We don’t hide the fact that our prospective consultants have a good deal to do before they can feel confident in front of kids, but our training does include working with real children in real schools while being observed, and other philosophy with children programmes don’t do that. In short, the lack of teacher training can be an obstacle but it can also be very liberating as they don’t have lots of habits to un-learn.”

Lewis argues that demanding that teachers have an in-depth knowledge of philosophy would vastly restrict the number of teachers who could get involved, and that a good knowledge of pedagogy is equally important if facilitators are to engage children in the subject. SAPERE offers a two-day Level One course that is designed to introduce philosophy to teachers who may never have come across the subject before, and to provide class materials so teachers can begin to facilitate philosophy sessions in their schools. The content of SAPERE’s Level Two and Level Three courses is increasingly philosophical, but Lewis says many teachers become very interested in the subject and also go on to complete further academic philosophy studies elsewhere. “I think if we did it the other way around and required that everybody had some philosophical training, we’d get far, far fewer numbers of people coming. I think we make it less intimidating and much more accessible doing it that way and it does seem to work.”

This approach also enables teachers to apply P4C-style approaches in classes beyond philosophy sessions. “Teachers in schools talk about it transforming how they teach, transforming how the children question and transforming the kind of dialogue that happens. We don’t promote it as a subject, we promote it as a way of learning and teaching,” Lewis says. “So if a teacher is using P4C in one session a week, it changes the teacher’s approach and you start to see philosophical questions and philosophical inquiry throughout the curriculum, and that’s one reason it is so effective because it’s transferable. So the skills the children use – if they’re increasing their reasoning or they’re challenging assumptions and they’re practicing that on a weekly basis – then that’s going to come out in their science lesson, that’s going to come out in their geography,” Lewis says.

Lewis says that SAPERE is more concerned with the skills that children can learn through philosophy than it is with the subject of philosophy itself. “It’s primarily about promoting thinking skills – critical thinking – in children, enabling them to be more aware of how they learn and to foster good questioning and more independent thinking, as well as the philosophical skills of reasoning, making judgements and reflecting on their thinking so they’re much more aware how they think,” she says. “We’ve never really thought that P4C should be another sort of government-packaged initiative in schools. Our aim is to make it as widespread as possible, but I think P4C is much more a way of learning and teaching rather than a particular subject, and that’s where the distinction is between Philosophy for Children and philosophy as a subject.”

Worley agrees that philosophy is the ideal subject for children to learn thinking skills because rather than being taught a set of skills for thinking that must be memorised, philosophy allows children to practice good thinking skills without being taught them. Another bonus is that philosophy allows everyone to participate and practice these thinking skills regardless of any prior exposure to the subject: “Unique to philosophy, certainly in the Socratic tradition, is that one does not need knowledge of the subject in order to do it; one does need a good guide in the form of a facilitator but knowledge of the subject is not necessary to engage with philosophical questions,” Worley says. “Teaching thinking skills would be different; one needs to know how to apply them to be able to do it successfully. In philosophy a more implicit approach can be used to teach thinking skills: it reverses the direction of fit so that a consequence of doing philosophy is that one learns thinking habits (skills) rather than learning thinking skills so that one can think better.”

Worley says that because it is the ideal subject for learning thinking skills, philosophy is a foundational subject in the way that the Three R’s are. “We’re arguing for the Four R’s,” he says, “reading, writing, arithmetic and reasoning. We want to try to argue for the importance of a good thinking program in the national curriculum because of the sense in which the Three R’s depend so much on that which underlies them and that would be concepts. Because concepts are the framework on which the three R’s are built, I argue that a good thinking program is essential as part of a national curriculum program.”

McCall agrees: “Philosophical reasoning and wondering is difficult; it isn’t easy but it’s fundamental almost to being a human being,” says McCall. “These questions are age-old questions and they still have tremendous value to consider, to inquire into, today. I think this kind of thinking supports and even underlies many other disciplines as well. In terms of education we know from the development of children that the ones who have been through sustained Philosophy with Children improve in almost every other academic area. So it’s a fundamental basic really,” she says. “Philosophers are traditionally asked awkward questions and to come up with alternative answers, and it really breeds independent thinking. If we want a generation of people who will begin to tackle and solve the problems we have, we need people who think for themselves and who think differently.”

Catherine McCall
The Philosophy Foundation