Posts Tagged ‘Critical Pedagogy’

On grades: we can measure anything, but so what?

August 11, 2010

James Bach, son of author Richard Bach, dropped out of high school and taught himself computer programming, which led to a successful career in that industry. His Goodreads profile reads as follows:

I am the second son of author Richard Bach. I’ve been on my own since 14. I quit school at 16. I taught myself computing, and became a software testing expert.

I have made my way among educated people as an educated man, but I have shunned institutional education. I developed methods of teaching myself what I need and want to know. So can you.

I’ve done all this while suffering from a mild disability: I have almost none of what my teachers used to call “self-discipline.” Instead of discipline, I am driven by passion. Now that I’m in my forties, I want to share what I’ve learned about learning.

He has written about self-education in the autobiographical Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion Can Lead to a Lifetime of Success.

In this post over at Cooperative Catalyst he provides some interesting reflections on the problems of using grades as a means of evaluating educational progress. It’s also worth reading the comments.

It may be the case that we can measure anything, but it’s more important to ask what the measurement actually tells us. In reality, it may not tell us anything useful.

The valedictorian’s speech

August 9, 2010

I am, once again, grateful to Steve Miranda for posting this commencement speech by Erica Goldson, who graduated from Coxsackie-Athens High School in New York State as the valedictorian:

There is a story of a young, but earnest Zen student who approached his teacher, and asked the Master, “If I work very hard and diligently, how long will it take for me to find Zen? The Master thought about this, then replied, “Ten years . .” The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast — How long then?” Replied the Master, “Well, twenty years.” “But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?” asked the student. “Thirty years,” replied the Master. “But, I do not understand,” said the disappointed student. “At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?” Replied the Master, “When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.”

This is the dilemma I’ve faced within the American education system. We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn’t you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I’m scared.

John Taylor Gatto, a retired school teacher and activist critical of compulsory schooling, asserts, “We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness – curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids into truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then. But we don’t do that.” Between these cinderblock walls, we are all expected to be the same. We are trained to ace every standardized test, and those who deviate and see light through a different lens are worthless to the scheme of public education, and therefore viewed with contempt.

H. L. Mencken wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim of public education is not “to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. … Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim … is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States.”

To illustrate this idea, doesn’t it perturb you to learn about the idea of “critical thinking.” Is there really such a thing as “uncritically thinking?” To think is to process information in order to form an opinion. But if we are not critical when processing this information, are we really thinking? Or are we mindlessly accepting other opinions as truth?

This was happening to me, and if it wasn’t for the rare occurrence of an avant-garde tenth grade English teacher, Donna Bryan, who allowed me to open my mind and ask questions before accepting textbook doctrine, I would have been doomed. I am now enlightened, but my mind still feels disabled. I must retrain myself and constantly remember how insane this ostensibly sane place really is.

And now here I am in a world guided by fear, a world suppressing the uniqueness that lies inside each of us, a world where we can either acquiesce to the inhuman nonsense of corporatism and materialism or insist on change. We are not enlivened by an educational system that clandestinely sets us up for jobs that could be automated, for work that need not be done, for enslavement without fervency for meaningful achievement. We have no choices in life when money is our motivational force. Our motivational force ought to be passion, but this is lost from the moment we step into a system that trains us, rather than inspires us.

We are more than robotic bookshelves, conditioned to blurt out facts we were taught in school. We are all very special, every human on this planet is so special, so aren’t we all deserving of something better, of using our minds for innovation, rather than memorization, for creativity, rather than futile activity, for rumination rather than stagnation? We are not here to get a degree, to then get a job, so we can consume industry-approved placation after placation. There is more, and more still.

The saddest part is that the majority of students don’t have the opportunity to reflect as I did. The majority of students are put through the same brainwashing techniques in order to create a complacent labor force working in the interests of large corporations and secretive government, and worst of all, they are completely unaware of it. I will never be able to turn back these 18 years. I can’t run away to another country with an education system meant to enlighten rather than condition. This part of my life is over, and I want to make sure that no other child will have his or her potential suppressed by powers meant to exploit and control. We are human beings. We are thinkers, dreamers, explorers, artists, writers, engineers. We are anything we want to be – but only if we have an educational system that supports us rather than holds us down. A tree can grow, but only if its roots are given a healthy foundation.

For those of you out there that must continue to sit in desks and yield to the authoritarian ideologies of instructors, do not be disheartened. You still have the opportunity to stand up, ask questions, be critical, and create your own perspective. Demand a setting that will provide you with intellectual capabilities that allow you to expand your mind instead of directing it. Demand that you be interested in class. Demand that the excuse, “You have to learn this for the test” is not good enough for you. Education is an excellent tool, if used properly, but focus more on learning rather than getting good grades.

For those of you that work within the system that I am condemning, I do not mean to insult; I intend to motivate. You have the power to change the incompetencies of this system. I know that you did not become a teacher or administrator to see your students bored. You cannot accept the authority of the governing bodies that tell you what to teach, how to teach it, and that you will be punished if you do not comply. Our potential is at stake.

For those of you that are now leaving this establishment, I say, do not forget what went on in these classrooms. Do not abandon those that come after you. We are the new future and we are not going to let tradition stand. We will break down the walls of corruption to let a garden of knowledge grow throughout America. Once educated properly, we will have the power to do anything, and best of all, we will only use that power for good, for we will be cultivated and wise. We will not accept anything at face value. We will ask questions, and we will demand truth.

So, here I stand. I am not standing here as valedictorian by myself. I was molded by my environment, by all of my peers who are sitting here watching me. I couldn’t have accomplished this without all of you. It was all of you who truly made me the person I am today. It was all of you who were my competition, yet my backbone. In that way, we are all valedictorians.

I am now supposed to say farewell to this institution, those who maintain it, and those who stand with me and behind me, but I hope this farewell is more of a “see you later” when we are all working together to rear a pedagogic movement. But first, let’s go get those pieces of paper that tell us that we’re smart enough to do so!

Primer for ed reformers

July 23, 2010

I’m very grateful to Steve Miranda for bringing this brilliant Washington Post article to my attention. Guest blogger, Marion Brady, is described as a ‘veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author’. Here he really gets back to basics, applying some common sense in the face of bureaucratic expert-speak. Several of the points remind me of John Taylor Gatto. It’s well worth reading the article in its entirety, but here are the core points:

* Learning, real learning – trying to make more sense of what’s happening – is as natural and satisfying as breathing. If your big reform idea requires laws, mandates, penalties, bribes, or other kinds of external pressure to make it work, it won’t work. You can lead the horse to water, and you can force it to look like it’s drinking, but you can’t make it drink.

* The ability to think – to infer, hypothesize, generalize, relate, make sound value judgments, generate brand new knowledge, and so on – is the main thing humankind has going for it. If thought isn’t tested, it won’t get taught, so if your reform effort depends on standardized tests, you’re in big trouble. That’s because nobody knows how to write standardized, machine-scoreable test questions that say how well a kid can think. Nobody.

* Saying to kids, “You’ll need to know this next year,” is a waste of words. If they can’t see the usefulness, right now, in their own lives, of whatever you’re trying to teach, they won’t learn it. Information may go into short-term memory long enough to pass a test, but that’s it.

They won’t allow what they think is useless information to permanently clutter up their minds. Think I’m wrong? What percentage of the American history you studied in elementary school, middle school, high school, and college, do you still remember well enough to, say, cite precedent when you argue the case for or against a particular Wall Street reform?

* If the success of your reform effort depends on really smart, knowledgeable teachers or administrators, go back to the drawing board. The percentage of those in the schools is about the same as in other professions, which means there will always be a major shortage. Respecting educators enough to get out of their way and let them do their work without being micromanaged by amateurs would increase the percentage of good ones, but not enough to assure the success of your reform proposal.

* Are you convinced national standards for school subjects is a good reform idea? Forget it. First, they lock in our 19th Century curriculum. Second, the human brain doesn’t make sense of experience by clicking between school subjects. Third, in the real world, everything connects to everything, and the connections are at least as important as the facts being connected. Fourth, standards should say what kinds of kids we want, not which facts we think they should have in their heads. Fifth, trying to standardize the young (especially now that the Chinese are determined to de-standardize them to encourage creativity) is a recipe for disaster. Kid creativity has declined steadily since No Child Left Behind was put in place.

* If concern for the achievement gap drives your enthusiasm for reform, know that differences in scores on standardized tests aren’t going to go away as long as the test items are written by adults who’ve grown up in the dominant culture. Too many of the items will be stacked against minorities, a fact that will remain hidden because of test secrecy and dominant-culture hubris. Complicating the problem is the fact that the gap triggers self-fulfilling prophecies which perpetuate it.

Those six insights are a start on a primer.

Here are eight more that experienced teachers think you need to know:

* Kids are a lot smarter than today’s education makes them seem.

* They learn more in small groups working together on a challenge than they do competing one-on-one.

* Without emotional involvement there’s no learning (and boredom doesn’t qualify as an emotion).

* Humans really do learn more from firsthand experience than from books and teacher talk.

* The brain uses a “master” information organizing system, and understanding it is important.

* For kids, passivity is unnatural, so sitting still hour after hour is anti-educational.

* The revolutionary implications of the new accessibility of information aren’t being taken into adequate account.

* Both teachers and learners are more powerfully motivated by the satisfactions of doing useful, high-quality work than by winning competitions.

Is giftedness innate?

June 24, 2010

In ‘Brightening up: how children learn to be gifted’ (The Routledge International Companion to Gifted Education, 2009), Guy Claxton and Sara Meadows oppose the dominant conception of ‘gifted and talented’ and argue instead that ‘both the research base and practical and moral considerations should lead us to exclude ideas of innate and unchangeable degrees of “giftedness” from our educational practice as incorrect, inhuman and counter-productive’ (3).

They begin by pointing out that ‘brightness’ or ‘giftedness’ are ‘inferences and attributions, not statements of self-evident fact’ (3). By examining the ‘behaviours and dispositions’ on which these inferences and attributions are based, they set out to ‘explore the ways in which they might have been learned, and thus could be subject to further systematic modification’ (3).

Soon after children begin school, judgments are made about how ‘bright’ they are. Claxton and Meadows offer the following list of behaviours and dispositions that are used by teachers to make the attribution of ‘bright’ (3-4):

  • Physically alert and energetic
  • Strongly oriented to adults and alert to their presence
  • Facial expressions
  • Sensible responses for the classroom context
  • Ability to maintain focus
  • Articulateness
  • Quick on the uptake
  • Ability to sit still and listen to adults
  • Greater ease and fluency with peers
  • Ability to remember and make links to what has happened
  • Proactive and inquisitive
  • Greater perceptiveness about sensory details and patterns
  • From this it is clear that ‘bright’ is a ‘portmanteau word that contains a number of ingredients … [and] being “bright” is not a single thing; it is woven together from a number of separable developmental achievements, some social, some perceptual, some cognitive and some linguistic’ (4).

    The writers then go on to suggest the sorts of environmental influences on young children that could account for the observed behaviours and dispositions associated with ‘brightness’. In the years between birth and school, children are immersed in surroundings and relationships that will influence them in multifarious ways:

    The habitual ways in which carers scaffold, guide, interpret, comment on and evaluate children’s activities set up corresponding habits and expectations in the child, some of which may be education-positive and others not. (When you tell an outrageously exaggerated story, do grown-ups regularly laugh and clap, or tell you off for bragging or lying? How often do you have a story read to you and discussed with you? Are you allowed to play with things around the house or are you continually told ‘don’t touch’?). Recurrent rituals sow and water the seeds of certain ways of thinking and talking. Family mealtimes, for example, are an important arena in which habits of debate and discussion are displayed, and a child’s ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ as fledgling debaters may be invited and shaped — or not (Pontecorvo and Sterponi 2002). All the time, adults model ways of solving problems such as trying to remember where possessions have been left (Tharp and Gallimore 1988) or how to understand other people’s feelings (Meadows 2006). They are continually teaching through their actions how to react when things go wrong, what to do with leisure time, what is worthy of note and what things (that may be perfectly obvious and interesting to the child) get regularly and strategically ignored (Billig 1999).

    Thus the habits of thinking, remembering, noticing and talking that go to make up ‘brightness’ are, as sociocultural researchers have long known (Vygotsky 1978), highly socially contagious. If we push our attention back to individual differences at birth, or focus on heritability studies in twins or adoptees, or look at the problems associated with genetic disorders (Meadows 2006), we see that there probably is some inherited ingredient to ‘brightness’. People do seem to differ somewhat in their genetically underwritten ‘mean position’ on such dimensions (Plomin and Daniels 1987). But there is such a wide indeterminate zone around that mean position, that effectively it is your environment and your learning that most influence where you actually end up. Genes do programme development but they operate in continual interaction with environment and experience, and their programmes are generally flexible.

    Most researchers (e.g. Resnick 1999) now believe that young minds are better thought of as ‘developing muscles’ than ‘fixed-capacity engines’. The mind is made up of many interwoven strands which get stronger with exercise. Like musculature, minds have a genetic element to them. Different people are born with different physical ‘potential’, different ranges and aptitudes. But the training which these muscles receive determines whether they get stronger, much more so than differences in ‘potential’. In practice the hypothetical ‘ceilings’ set by genetic differences are so far away from where a child currently is that there is no excuse for anyone to impute ‘lack of innate ability’ when a child finds something hard to master. There is plenty of room for virtually everyone’s physical fitness to improve, and likewise there is plenty of room for everyone to get brighter, whatever portfolio of capacities and dispositions their genes and their early years has provided them with. Of course those early years have a big influence on the kind of learner you might become. But a child’s learning style and capacity is not fixed: far from it. We conclude that it is strategically practical and morally preferable to focus our attention as educators on how children’s minds might be capable of development, rather than on what is immutable. (5)

    As Meadows puts it in The Child as Thinker (‘The heritability of intelligence’, 176-84): ‘The genes you inherit from your parents may determine the potential you have for intelligence, but the environment in which you are reared determines how nearly you reach that potential.’ (182)

    Despite a broad consensus about the learnability of ‘brightness’, the idea that intelligence exists in a fixed quantity persists, and it influences educational policy and practice. Once attributions of ‘bright’ or ‘dim’ are made, expectations are created and reinforced in children, parents, peers and teachers alike. Such expectations are not merely damaging, they are simplistic, since they take into account neither variations over time nor the fact that intelligence is highly individual and variable:

    The fixed-pot view of ability is often associated with a restricted and rather academic view of intelligence in general. Yet recent research tells us that intelligence is as much about thinking slowly as it is about quick answering, and that true intelligence should not be confused with verbal fluency or mere cleverness (Claxton 1997). Yet there are still schools where ‘slow’ is used as a euphemism for stupid. Students with more practical or creative forms of intelligence can, as Sternberg … puts it, be ‘essentially “iced out” of the system, because at no point are they much allowed to let their abilities shine through’.

    Like adults, any group of children will vary widely on their current levels of achievement and performance (CLAPs) on any kind of skills or subject matter. To deny the fixed-pot theory of ability is not to deny these differences; it is merely to deny a particularly common but pernicious way of talking about them, how they came to be, and what can be done about them. (6)

    People with high CLAPs, whether it be in quiet listening or physical clowning, have got there because they have done a great deal of learning and have learned how to learn in effective ways. Across a wide range of activities — sports, musicianship, writing, chess, oratory, electronic games — if you want to be outstanding, you need to invest around 10,000 hours of good practice (Ericsson and Charness 1994).

    If you track their histories carefully, you find that the ‘gifted and talented’ have generally been lucky enough — and obsessive enough — to have the support and opportunities required. Mozart’s father immersed his children in music from their infancies, carefully marketed their ability to perform and to compose, opened up every opportunity to be a musician and persuaded his own employers to employ his son. Some small seed of their particular ‘talent’ may be there initially in the form of a mild interest or even a small aptitude, but that seed could equally well have been sown by a chance event, or even by the unjustified attribution of talent by a proud parent. Your elder siblings might have ‘bagged’ being good at sports and socialising, so you are looking around for something to be good at in your own right, when along comes a second-hand violin. The reason that virtuosi are so rare is because most of us don’t put in the hours. We lack the desire, the emotional support, the material resources, and we have too many other interesting things to do. (6-7)

    As Charles Darwin astutely observed, almost everyone is born with the ability to be bright, and to be G&T in something. Some children do not get that ability fed. And some get the joy of learning knocked out of them by too much chaos or too tight a prescription of what it means to be “good’, or by an education system apparently driven by assessment and labelling. And for some of those it will be hard or even impossible for them ever to catch up completely. Nevertheless our job is surely to help them develop the ‘zeal and hard work’ that will enable them to emerge as gifted and talented in their own unique ways.

    We can coach everyone in the generic skills of learning … Everyone can be coached in how to persist more in the face of difficulty; how to make more use of their imaginations to get ideas; how to learn more productively alongside others; how to capitalise more on the resources around them; how to be their own critical friend; how to look at a situation through other people’s eyes; how to choose and create the right kind of challenge for themselves and move on positively from it (Claxton 1999a, 2002).

    Summing up the research in this area, Lauren Resnick (1999, p. 39) put it like this:

    Students who, over an extended period of time are treated as if they are intelligent, actually become more so. If they are taught demanding content, and are expected to explain and find connections … they learn more and learn more quickly. They (come to) think of themselves as learners. They are (better) able to bounce back in the face of short-term failures.

    According to recent research on ‘student voice’, what adolescents want from school is respect, and responsibility (Flutter and Rudduck 2004). Give them the opportunity, and many of them will find and engage with learning challenges that are well beyond what the prescribed curriculum demands — just as many of them are already doing on their bedroom computers in the evenings. They say they like challenge. They like stretching their learning muscles, provided they see demanding exercise as a way of getting stronger, not as exposing their ‘weakness’. And they know when things are getting too easy and it is time to make it more difficult for themselves. Working with the giftedness in young people should not be about the busy teacher finding an endless succession of new mind games to entertain the fast-finishers. It should be about giving young people the support they need to take on challenges that interest them, and to build their own learning power in the process. Those with both high and low CLAPs can be encouraged to stretch themselves, without having to be labelled and stigmatised. And this applies, we are sure, to learners of all ages, in school and out of school, and from birth until death.

    Yet the pressure on teachers to use students’ CLAPs to infer ability, to use these bogus judgements as a basis for predicting future performance, and for schools then to be judged on whether these targets have been reached, remains strong. There is even a current suggestion on the [UK] Department for Children, Schools and Families website that we should identify gifted and talented students when they are eleven, hive them off into a ‘distinctive in-school teaching and learning programme’ and put them on a special national register, and censure secondary schools that do not ensure they all end up with distinguished first degrees from Oxford (or equivalent) — without any recognition of the avoidable damage that would result …

    Why is the idea of fixed ability so tenacious? Perhaps it is because the education system has always been concerned with sorting, grading and labelling young people and their educational outcomes, and with finding justifications for so doing. Or maybe ability attributions are attempts by harassed teachers to reduce the overwhelming complexity of a room of 30 young people to something graspable. Bright, average and weak; motivated and unmotivated; well- or badly-behaved; high- or low-achieving: however inadequate these filters are in capturing anything very interesting about students and their lives, perhaps they are necessary filters and defences. If this is so, they come at a high price. And it may be time to find alternative ways of supporting teachers, ways that do not damage students or distort their psychology so much. As Hart et al. (2004) point out, it is perfectly fine to arrange your students, for practical purposes, into those whose CLAPs are above average, average or below average. But to transmute these pragmatic and provisional groupings of how people are behaving right now into labels that can stick, and harm, for life … that has to stop. (7-8)

    Claxton and Meadows conclude with the following suggestion:

    In ten years’ time, the antiquated and dysfunctional idea that ‘giftedness’ is an innate, abiding and situation-independent quality of a fortunate minority of young people must have been removed from the discourse of educational practice and policy. It must instead be widely recognised that this idea exists primarily as a stress-reduction device for teachers, one that comes with unacceptable side-effects for the majority of young people – both those who are designated ‘gifted’ and those who are not. In its place must come a more humble and pragmatic commitment to helping all youngsters (a) stretch their mental capacities (whatever level those capacities may currently be) i.e. become more ‘gifted’ and (b) discover the domains of human achievement they would most like to become good at i.e. become more ‘talented’. We must accept that transitory levels of achievement in any sphere, including sociolinguistic fluency, reflect composites of learned habits, and provide only poor guides to future learning and performance. (9)

    A Fable

    June 4, 2010

    I am grateful to Derrin Cramer of Thinking Ahead for bringing this to my attention.

    One time the animals had a school. The curriculum consisted of running, climbing, flying and swimming, and all the animals took all the subjects.

    The duck was good in swimming, better than his instructor, and he made passing grades in flying, but was practically hopeless in running. He was made to stay after school and drop his swimming class in order to practice running. He kept this up until he was only average in swimming. But, average is acceptable, so nobody worried about that but the duck.

    The eagle was considered a problem pupil and was disciplined severely. He beat all the others to the top of the tree in the climbing class, but he had used his own way of getting there.

    The rabbit started out at the top of his class in running, but had a nervous breakdown and had to drop out of school on account of so much makeup work in swimming.

    The squirrel led the climbing class, but his flying teacher made him start his flying lessons from the ground instead of the top of the tree, and he developed charley horses from overexertion at the takeoff and began getting C’s in climbing and D’s in running.

    The practical prairie dogs apprenticed their offsprings to a badger when the school authorities refused to add digging to the curriculum.

    At the end of the year, an eel that could swim well, run, climb, and fly a little was made valedictorian.

    Originally printed in The Instructor, April. 1968.