Pedagogical Time Travel

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Yesterday I attended two professional development sessions (one online, one in person) hosted by the school district here in Szolnok. The presentations were clear, eloquent, and heartfelt. The content, to my surprise, brought old back memories of professional development sessions in New York City in the years 2005-2009 or so. In particular, there was extensive mention of learning styles, 21st century skills, cooperative learning, and positive feedback. (I did not hear a word about the Danielson Framework, growth mindset, or grit, which came into prominence a little later.)

I have long questioned and criticized the extremes to which the above concepts have been taken in the U.S. (Some of them are questionable from the start.) I don’t see Hungary taking them to extremes any time soon, nor do I see any intention to do so later.  So I am not particularly worried at the moment. But I found the situation interesting and thought-provoking.

Many Hungarian educators and others believe that the current system here is too rigid, stressful, and punitive, and that Hungary needs to prepare students–at many levels and with many different needs–for the demands of the current world and workplace, as well as for democratic participation. I recognize all of this. But it is possible to transform the system without knocking it down entirely. One of the strengths of Hungarian education is the substance of the curriculum. Granted, there’s too much cramming and too little choice–but high school students learn history and literature, physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, foreign languages, geography, art, music, drama, ethics, civilization, physical education, and more. In class discussions, I have found that they are able to draw on their knowledge from other subjects when making arguments or analyzing a text. It would be a shame to lose most or all of that. As I have argued many times, you can’t think critically if you don’t have something to think about. You also need patience with challenges–including the discipline of reading carefully, working on a problem until a solution comes through, or listening to an extended presentation.

My own teaching is a combination of the traditional and the “progressive” (for lack of a better word). I believe strongly in subject matter but also believe in taking time with texts and ideas, hearing different perspectives, pursuing a greater understanding. I bring literature, music, and drama into my language teaching–because language is nothing without them. I am also continually criticizing my own work, adjusting it, thinking about ways to do it better, and learning from colleagues.

This is possible at Varga because students do have a basis (and ample focus and patience), and the school is supportive. When the basis or support is lacking, the cohesion breaks down. You might have a class of 25-35 students, 10 of whom are eager to take on any challenge, another 10 of whom are happy to do what is required to pass, and another 5-15 of whom are so far behind, or so unused to sustained concentration, that they disrupt class unless given something basic to do. So you are told to differentiate. But differentiate what? In the U.S., the curriculum writing is often left to the teachers themselves–so that there is no unified understanding of what students are supposed to be learning. Only those schools and districts that set out to develop a curriculum, or that adopt one from elsewhere, actually have one. This is especially true in English; while many schools have book lists in common, there is not one literary work that you can assume students will have read by the end of high school. I have managed in such situations–for years–but much of my energy went into preparing materials, managing the classroom, calling parents, and getting through the day. And even with that, I taught students language, literature, drama, and philosophy, directed plays, and more. (Columbia Secondary School was and is different–it does have curricula, and the students have a foundation.)

It is interesting to see education from several sides and through time. You can do all sorts of interesting things in class–and with homework assignments and projects–when you have a foundation and good working material, and when you put thought into your approach and respond to what is happening. So I see good in what Hungarian schools are trying to do right now. I also see good in what they already have. Is there a way to bring together the best of both–to make the curriculum and pedagogical approaches more flexible, without losing the substance or falling for a fad? Yes, it is possible; good schools over the centuries have done this. Yet it cannot be taken for granted, nor does it ever reach stable perfection. It will go sharp and flat, we will flub a note or two, and we must retune, practice, and play it, again and again.

 

Image courtesy of NBC News.

 

The Dialogue of Thought with Others

I have not yet read Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind, but it will be among my next books. In an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement (quoted by Cynthia Haven), Jon Nixon writes, “For [Arendt], thinking was diametrically opposed to ideology: ideology demands assent, is founded on certainty, and determines our behaviours within fixed horizons of expectation; thinking, on the other hand, requires dissent, dwells in uncertainty and expands our horizons by acknowledging our agency. It is the task of education — and therefore of the university — to ensure that a space for such thinking remains open and accessible.”

What kind of thinking is this? We talk often about “critical thinking” but don’t define it carefully enough. According to Arendt, it is the “dialogue of thought.” It is both introspective and responsive. Both aspects are essential.

Let me play with this idea a bit. If your thoughts are introspective but without dialogue, you end up in a rut; you have nothing to temper or shake your view of the world. You go around and around with the same thoughts; maybe you negate them, maybe you insist on them, but you get used to seeing them swirl around, clockwise and counterclockwise, the same ones over and over.

If you are only responsive, then you have no response at all; you depend so much on what others say that you cannot understand their words. You seek wisdom but then accept or reject it flatly instead of taking it in. You seek knowledge but apply it without imagination or play. You fear the opinion of others but crave it at the same time.

The life of the mind, the kind Arendt holds up, requires a combination of aloneness and dialogue — but what combination? It is unique for each situation and person; it does not stay constant but must be recalibrated again and again. It breaks apart and comes together. There are moments of clarity and rapport and longer stretches of fumbling. The very search for the right proportions is individual and particular; my thinking will not be like anyone else’s, but its very character makes it capable of dialogue. In other words, to have a life of the mind, one must be prepared for constant and subtle dissent: not the opinionated kind, but the kind that allows for the unusual.

Depend on the opinions of others, and your thoughts become rags, with no firmness or fineness of their own.

Insist on your own opinion, and your thoughts become sticks.

The ideal, though, is not a pair of knitting needles with yarn, although that has its own place. There is no instrument or product here, at least not the kinds that can be delimited. There is only life, and in life there is everything.

The Great Sin of Introducing a Text

Yesterday I had some of the liveliest classes of the year. My eleventh-grade students are about to read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, an intensely beautiful and challenging philosophical essay. In preparation for this, I devoted a lesson to Mill’s life and thought.

I began by asking my students whether happiness could be measured, and, if so, how. (Many students jumped into the discussion.) Then I told them about Mill’s life—his upbringing, early work in utilitarianism, intellectual crisis, emergence from the crisis, relationship and collaboration with Harriet Taylor, and more. I brought in excerpts from his Autobiography and the first three stanzas of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (which he had read during his crisis). I asked them to consider what Mill might have found in this particular poem. At the end of the lesson, I posed the question: if there were a mean between utilitarianism and romanticism, what might it be? Throughout the lesson, hands were flying up and dialogues mounting.

Under the Common Core, teachers are admonished against providing background for a text before the students actually read it. The rationale is that background information can interfere with the students’ direct reading and interpretation of the work. Supposedly, if you tell them too much up front, they will rely on what you told them instead of focusing on what the text actually says.

I understand this concern–but it doesn’t hold in all cases. For instance, nothing I told my students, and no ideas I drew out of them, will help them comprehend and interpret the following:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life and enslaving the soul itself.

When reading this passage, we will focus on the words and phrases and their logical interrelation. We will examine the contrast Mill draws between social tyranny and tyranny at the hands of government. We will discuss the very concept of the tyranny of the majority—and ask why Mill considers it so insidious, pervasive, and dangerous. Almost all of the discussion will focus directly on the text—but we will draw important ideas and questions out of it.

Why, then, would I introduce students to Mill’s life in the first place, if there’s so much to be found in the text itself? Am I not wasting precious instructional time?

I would say no, for several reasons. First, Mill’s life is downright interesting—his strict classical education, his contact with Jeremy Bentham, his early work in utilitarianism, his crisis, his ultimate synthesis of utilitarianism and romanticism, his relationship and collaboration with Harriet Taylor, and much more.  Why shouldn’t students learn about something as intriguing as this? His intellectual crisis and emergence are intriguing in themselves—especially for teenagers, who may have experienced crises of their own.

Second, David Bromwich refers to Mill (in his essay “The Life and Thought of Mill,” which appears in the Yale University Press edition of On Liberty) as “the thinker of all the nineteenth century in whom romanticism and utilitarianism were most nearly joined.” It’s a great philosophical exercise to imagine how romanticism and utilitarianism might be joined—and that’s part of what we did yesterday. (One student suggested, strikingly, that they could be joined in optimism.) Later, after they have read On Liberty (or most of it), we can reread certain passages, and consider how they might contain a synthesis of romanticism and utilitarianism. That will come after students have seen and discussed what’s actually in the text, and it just might bring things around full circle (though it won’t be complete, as there will still be open questions).

Third, this is not a literacy class, but a philosophy course. Its content includes texts, ideas, and some intellectual history. I don’t think anyone would fault my course for lack of complex texts or careful textual analysis—we have spent entire lessons working through Locke’s syntax, for instance—but the course holds more than that. This is normal for a course in a subject; it needs no special justification. College courses focus on subject matter. Professors present and interpret the subject, and students must still read and think a great deal on their own. If part of the goal of the Common Core is to prepare students for college-level work, shouldn’t there be room to teach a subject?

Third, part of the point of education is to foster the exercise of good judgment. How do we show students how to exercise good judgment, unless we ourselves strive for the same?

Superintendent Tells Principals What to Think

Aphronesis, CA—In an emergency Sunday-morning meeting, Superintendent Regina Streng announced to 500 principals that they would henceforth be told what to think about subjects ranging from politics to pedagogy to pineapples.

“Many of you are under the mistaken impression,” said Streng, “that, as school leaders, you should be exercising independent judgment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your job is to exercise the judgments we provide for you.” A murmur swelled up in the hall; she waited until it subsided.

“We need unanimity and teamwork,” she continued, “in order to move forward with reform. Remember that you are setting an example for classroom teachers, who must be team players at all times.”

“Isn’t teaching an intellectual profession by nature, and doesn’t intellect involve independent judgment?” asked a principal in the crowd.

Streng laughed. “In a few select cases, that might be true,” she said, “but let’s face it. We’ve invested significant resources in reducing the intellectual substance of teaching, and our efforts have largely paid off. Do you think a composer or physicist would want to spend all day teaching kids how to make ‘mind maps’ or how to choose the right multiple-choice strategy? Of course not. That’s the way it should be. Research has shown that effective teachers are not intellectuals, especially when the emphasis is on non-intellectual tasks.”

“But what about the students?” asked another. “Aren’t they supposed to be learning critical thinking? How are we supposed to teach it, if we don’t practice it ourselves?”

Streng nodded sympathetically. “I hear what you are saying,” she replied. “Many have raised that concern, and it’s a real concern, but it’s based on a misconception. You see, the kind of critical thinking we want kids to have is the kind that’s employable in the 21st century. That is, all thinking “outside the box” should follow the rubric laid out by the employers. They will often call for it—don’t get me wrong—but they will specify just what kind of critical thinking it should be, how it should be structured, and what it should contain.”

The noise grew to such a level that the moderator, Susan Sandstrom, stepped up to the microphone. “Just a reminder that we called this meeting in order to accomplish essential tasks,” she said. “Superintendent Streng has given up her valuable personal time for this occasion. Now we must move on to the how-to part of the session.”

A website appeared on a large screen behind the superintendent. “We have created a database of correct opinion,” announced Streng, “which is one hundred percent current and searchable. If you are ever in doubt about what to think about a political candidate, for example, you need only enter his or her name in the search box—let’s see, I’m typing in Fred Berenger—and here you have the result. ‘Dangerous obstructionist. Not to be trusted or supported. Not to be mentioned by principals or teachers.’ We have staff continually updating the database, so that it includes the most recent issues, even the weather.”

“Oh, what are we to say about the weather?” cried a jubilant voice.

“Let’s see, let’s see. Weather, May 19, 2013. ‘The current weather does not affect performance on upcoming state tests.’ There you have it. But that reminds me of another feature of this website. It doesn’t just tell you what to think and say. It tells you how to say it.” She clicked on a link to “power words and acknowledgment phrases.” “Now you never have to be at a loss for words or send out mixed messages,” she said. “You can even display the ‘power word of the day’ on monitors throughout your school.”

Sandstrom returned to the microphone. “Thank you so much, Regina, for bringing us together today. Principals, let’s all give Superintendent Streng a triple ‘woot’! You will receive free login instructions on your way out.”

A few faint ‘woots’ were heard in the crowd, but they weren’t triple. Superintendent Streng commented later that a follow-up training would be needed, as many principals were still stuck in independent thought.

What Makes Man Human, and Where Was the Teacher?

It is difficult to interpret one’s childhood events correctly. There’s the danger of distorted memory, superimposed details and meanings, admixtures of other people’s interpretations, and so on. So I haven’t commented, so far, on the “What Makes Man Human?” uproar I started in fourth grade, even though I have thought about it often. (Actually, I wrote about it once—and then deleted what I wrote.)

My school had adopted the MACOS (Man: A Course of Study) curriculum. We learned about the Netsilik Inuits and their way of life. We studied various animals: salmon, baboons, and so on. Parts of this were quite interesting. But then the teacher posted a piece of chart paper on the wall with the question “What Makes Man Human?” Students were to list their answers below the question. As I remember it, this list generated some excitement.

I found the exercise silly, so I added No. 20 to the list: “Nothing—human is just another word for a person.”

My classmates reacted with outrage; several took it upon themselves to chide me and erase my entry. Just where the teacher was at this time, I don’t know. I wrote about the incident; it’s the only writing from that time that I still have.

Afterward, I was encouraged by adults to pursue this matter further: to demonstrate that humans were not as distant from animals as we commonly assume. I took on this challenge for a little while, but that was not my original point. At the most obvious level, I was pointing out the redundancy of the question. If “man” and “human” are synonymous or close to synonymous, then it makes no sense to ask what makes man human.

At another level, I think I wanted to shake things up. I realized that the answers would be predictable, so I wanted to throw in a justified surprise. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate this at the time, but I remember the desire to break through the humdrum predictability of it all.

I understand, looking back, why my classmates were so upset. They had taken this assignment seriously and were offended that I had not. Beyond that, they may have taken my response as an insult to humanity itself. They may have thought I was saying that there was no such thing as a human being. They had every reason, in that case, to be ruffled.

But the irony is that they responded by erasing my words. One human attribute is the ability to challenge common assumptions and to break from the norm. (Animals have this ability too—take, for instance, the lone penguin in Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World—but it’s more pronounced in humans, or so it seems.) My classmates decided that my response was not acceptable and therefore had to be obliterated. If they thought I had demeaned humanity, well, they demeaned it doubly.

I recognize that I was being provocative on purpose. I recognize, also, that my classmates had good intentions; they took the assignment seriously and were trying to do it well. The problem lay in the posing of an important-sounding question that was supposed to evoke humdrum responses. When, under the pretext of “critical thinking,” you squelch that very thing, you create a mental trap. The only way to think critically, under such conditions, is to criticize the very undertaking—and the student who does so will not be thanked by peers.

Where was the teacher? That is my lingering question. The school had a cozy and lax atmosphere; we wandered around and did what we wanted, more or less, as long as we completed certain activities. I was somewhat miserable, not because I needed to be told what to do, but because I missed the exchange with a wise adult. Peers were not good judges of each other or of subject matter. Their judgments were often based on what made them comfortable or uncomfortable as a group.

I see similar problems in schools today. Students need an adult’s guidance; they need to be lifted above their immediate judgments and preferences. Teachers offer perspective, among other things; they help students see the value of things that fall outside the norm. If anything makes man human, keen questioning does, and this takes vision, practice, and gumption.