Monthly Archives: March 2013

David Sirota on the Corporate Invasion of Education

All you need to know about profit motive in the corporate education “reform” movement.

Thanks David.

Testing and the New Morality

Those hoping to receive unemployment benefits in Florida must now pass a 45 minute reading and math test. (And, lest you comfort yourself with the illusion that these kinds of laws are limited to Florida, be sure to read about the article here.)

I can’t get over this.

This requirement reduces a person’s worthiness to their ability to pass a test.

It conflates people’s whole being, their basic humanity- which by itself should make them (and their dependents) deserving of the right to eat, to pay for heat and shelter- with their ability to pass a test. Unemployment benefits are simply a stop-gap measure that allow people to feed themselves and their family members when they don’t have a job that allows them to do so. Not so in Florida. If you can’t pass a test, no food for you. Because food and shelter are necessary in order for most people to continue breathing in the long run, I don’t think I exaggerate in pointing out that the function of this logic is to say that, if you can’t pass these tests then you don’t deserve to live.

These policy makers have made a moral decision- the judgement of who is of value– and obscured it by framing it as an economic decision- the judgement of who has earned the right to live. They have equated intellectual ability with human worth and used the hobgoblin of ‘economic efficiency’ as an excuse to do so.


Educators, does this sound familiar?

It seems to be the logical extension of a testing movement (which is in itself a symptom of “no excuses” approach to reform and poverty) that objectifies and values students (and their teachers) in accordance with their test scores.

What’s next?

Read more about the right wing framing of poverty here.

The Obstacle of Control

I encourage you to read the article, How Can Teachers Prepare Kids for a Connected World? by Katrina Schwartz.

The article explicates the importance of what Henry Jenkins calls PLAY, which stands for “participatory learning and you.” This is meant to capture a sense of exploratory learning and an experimental approach to teaching and learning that helps students make connections to the broader world, and to a collaborative future world.

One of the things that stuck out to me was the obstacle to this approach that Schwartz named.

“One of the biggest challenges for teachers attempting to implement PLAY’s pedagogy is letting go of some of the control that teachers are taught to maintain over their classrooms. A teacher-centered approach can stifle the creative, experimental, and sometimes accidental learning that can be transformative.

‘What we hear a lot is teachers describing our approaches as messy, as getting out of control,’ Jenkins said. ‘But the teachers who let it get a little messy are finding something very powerful.’ Students might not be learning exactly the same thing, but they involve themselves and their passions in the learning, instilling a sense of ownership. But an apparently uncontrolled classroom can be hard to explain to an administrator who drops in, making it feel risky to teachers who are often alone in the fight to change public education.”

Allowing students to make choices, allowing them to “involve themselves and their passions in the learning,” necessitates teachers letting go of the process. But it also involves others seeing this teaching/learning process differently. Administrators need to be looking for things other than, for instance, tightly “managed” student behavior on their classroom visits. Just as importantly, we all need to recognize how the testing culture feeds this desire for control, and thus deadens the learning experience of students. After all, underlying testing is the assumption that we have a clear understanding of what should be learned, i.e. teacher ‘control’ of content. And what about the issue of “accountability?” Right now, teachers are “accountable” to administrators, who are “accountable” to the public as measured through test scores. This accountability at its core is an attempt at control.

We all need to move beyond the system of rewards and punishment (the system used to maintain control, elicit compliance, manage results…) that Alfie Kohn so eloquently eviscerates. Can we begin to encourage teachers to let go of control for the sake of student learning without recognizing that the system they operate within asks for more and more control?

The Importance of the Teacher: Learnification Part 2

I continue to think about the role of teachers in this new age of content availability. If content is available to anyone at any time, in any place, what is the role of the teacher? If we think of the role of teachers as providers of content via instruction, then clearly this role becomes obsolete. We need to imagine teaching in a much broader way.

Gert Biesta is one of those who is helping me think through this issue. He has written an important piece called Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher. Biesta criticizes ‘learnification,’ and carefully analyzes the important role of teachers. Biesta shows that, despite the increasing availability of content, the role of the teacher necessarily remains central to education. (For a recent example of learnification on steroids, see Sugatra Mitra’s Ted Talk. I don’t want to discount all that Mitra says, but clearly learnification is at work when teachers are so irrelevant that they can be replaced by British grannies. Be sure to read this excellent analysis of Mitra’s talk by Audrey Watters.) Biesta writes, “The quickest way to express what is at stake here is to say that the point of education is never that children or students learn, but that they learn something, that they learn this for particular purposes, and that learn this from someone. The problem with the language of learning and with the wider ‘learnification’ of educational discourse is that it makes it far more difficult, if not impossible, to ask the crucial educational questions about content, purpose and relationships.” In other words, the language of ‘learning’ allows for the assumption that the relationships between learner and content, learner and purpose, and learner and teacher are irrelevant. Parker Palmer puts it another way in Good Teaching: “‘Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.’ Good teaching, whatever its form, will help more and more people learn to speak and listen in the community of truth, to understand that truth is not in the conclusions so much as in the process of conversation itself, that you want to be ‘in truth’ you must be in the conversation.” Purpose here is assumed in ‘things that matter.’ Content is organized around a ‘truth.’ And relationship occurs all over- between the learner and teacher in community, and between the community and its search for truth. The learner here is not an individual unmoored from purpose or community, as many of our current corporate reformers would have it, but a student deeply embedded in purpose and relationship with others.

The language of learnification obscures these relationships. It privileges learning as a process without recognition of the context it necessarily must occur within, the nexus of relationships that connect us to each other, and to ‘truth.’ The danger of this is that this language makes teachers disposable. Because the language of learnification obscures these relationships, it creates a void that allows for the ‘extractivist’ mindset. Because the questions around purpose, content and relationship are hidden, we are left with only seeing the ‘learner’ from the embedded neo-liberal paradagim- that is, the market as the only measure of value. (Please see this wonderful article which deconstructs extractivism, Dancing the World Into Being.)

Biesta continues in addressing the core task of the teacher, that is of helping a student work through his/her resistance to the ‘other.’ Biesta writes, “Teaching ‘works’ with something that is strange from the perspective of the student, not because what is given/received s necessarily incomprehensible, but because it is something that is not a projection of the student’s own mind, but something that is radically and fundamentally other. The encounter with something that is other and strange- that is not of one’s own making- is an encounter with something that offers resistance (and we could even say that it is an encounter with the very experience of resistance).” Left to his/her own accord, the learner will likely resist this encounter with the other, will not grow through this encounter, will not widen perspective enough (or learn) to let the other (object) become incorporated (subjectfied). The teacher’s task is to help the student work through this resistance. This task is complex, it can’t be done merely via technical means. Technical answers (i.e., teacher ‘skills’) are always enacted by living people, and as Bill O’Brien has said in a quote that I love, “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.” Who the teacher is matters- there is no way around this if we imagine learning as anything more than the regurgitation of content. And this is the core issue that education reform avoids. Most education reform is simply a misapplication of technical answers to a very complex, difficult human issue. (And note that I did not use the word ‘problem’ at the end of that last sentence.)

Biesta puts it this way, “…the research that sees teaching as an intervention working towards the perfect production of certain pre-specified outcomes seriously misses the point of what I have suggested teaching is about. The problem with these lines of thought is that they miss what I have suggested to be at the very heart of teaching, which is the need for concrete situated judgments about what is educationally desirable, both with regard to the aims of education and with regard to its means…and while certain competencies may constitute a necessary condition for good teaching, they can never be a sufficient condition as there is always a need for judgement about which competencies should be utilized in each particular and unique educational situation.” (Emphasis added)

This need for judgement is tied to the need for wisdom, “…a quality of or ‘excellence’ that permeates and characterizes the whole person.”

That is something that increased test scores, more virtual learning, or a charter school just can’t address

A Theory of Change

The Allied Media Project is a fantastic group of people in Detroit working with artists, teachers and students through the lense of critical pedagogy. In a nutshell, this is education tied to the broader purpose of positively transforming students and their communities. A little bit different from the generally accepted, all too simplistic purpose of education for narcissistic economic well-being.

This is what AMC calls their “theory of change.”

“Media-based community organizing is a process of speaking and listening as a community in order to investigate the problems that shape our realities, imagine other realities and then work together to make them real. When we use media in this way, we build new kinds of relationships internally, interpersonally and within our communities. We transform ourselves from consumers of information to producers, from objects within narratives of exploitation and violence to active subjects in the transformation of the world… It is most succinctly expressed through the verbs: CREATE, CONNECT, TRANSFORM.” (Emphasis added.)

Allied Media.jpg 2
I love the idea of transforming ourselves ‘from consumers of information to producers,’ from ‘objects’ to ‘subjects.’ Isn’t this the core of an education for citizenship.?

Note some of the the assumptions in this theory:
* Organizing is a process of speaking and listening.
* Investigating the problems of our realities together leads to re-imagining alternatives.
* The transformation is of ourselves (students, teachers, community, etc.) from passive recipients of media (other people’s narratives with our role in these narratives pre-determined) to agents of our own media (stories/narratives that shift us from being objects of others’ desires, to subjects acting from our own desires).

Powerful stuff.