Irate Educator

Pound Foolish: The Policy of Narrowing Educational Choices

Irate Educator

Brandon is the Editor-in-Chief and President of Maglomaniac. He is the author of the Eat Your Serial title Ten Years Gone: Pomp and Circumstance, as well as the columns Child's Play, Nerd's Eye View, Letters to Jeremy, Irate Educator, The Audio Files, and The Dao of Ninjape, among others.

In John Dewey’s pedagogical creed he states that through the process of education, a student “becomes an inheritor of the funded capital of civilization”. Today’s anti-educational focus on standardized test scores and teacher punishment over student enrichment fails detrimentally to invest that capital. In terms of stewarding the “capital of civilization” we are pound-foolish. In classrooms students are given academic tools but the measure of their proficiency doesn’t allow students to put their tools to craft. What use are tools if they are not used in a practical manner? Imagine if carpenters, after learning how to appropriately use a claw hammer were tested, not on their ability to build something with that tool, but instead were measured by their ability to label the parts of the hammer and write a four paragraph essay on how to remove a nail. Certainly, it is nice to know that knowledge exists, but wouldn’t the greater assessment of skill be the use of the tool in the correct context? Better yet, allowing the tested to prove their work in a way that is expressive, thoughtful, and creative would allow them to show not only their skills or talent but also what they might produce given the opportunity.

In education, we have the language of thoughtful education–even creative education–misappropriated in rigid ways that limit communication with communities of learners, educators, and parents in the act of teaching. The needs of communities are disconnected from the mandates of the classroom. This divorce of instructional goals and community needs is a huge roadblock in stewarding any kind of civilization. How can students inherit the wealth of human discovery if they aren’t allowed to connect them to the streets on the other side of the school yard? Practice of skills–or even usefulness of skills–is thrown out the window. What is emphasized is a bastardization of theory and practice that has little carryover into the college and career world we are purportedly preparing our students to be successful in.

This mess comes from a fatal misreading of educational perspectives. The approach of Interactive Curriculum–an approach to curriculum that involves listening to the needs of students and communities–has had its language lifted and applied to antithetical top-down edicts and prescription of skills in exclusivity, as well as bottom-up overuse by some college campus students too entrenched in their world views to engage in meaningful dialogue. Philosophers, researchers, and experts have recommend that engaging communication with pupils, parents, and communities is not only essential but paramount in importance to ensure a living and breathing endeavor in education espouses individually and humanity. The policy makers, check cutters, and the unmindful-at-large have instead transmogrified the idea into hard lines in the sand, “big data,” standardization, and closed ears.

The narrative of communication—of language as a social tool—as discussed by both Dewey and Frerie has been blocked instead by prescription and proscription of practice. I see this in my own classroom experience where we are encouraged to have the freedom to set our schedules but are also dictated mandates of minutes per content area. This is effectively like giving a child the freedom to paint anything they want as long as it has two yellow cats, green grass, and a pink house. It takes a vast amount of creativity  in order to express individuality and thoughtful tailored practice in those circumstances. All too often those of us in classroom practice who attempt to influence our own styles on such mandates are then told that the painting (as it were) should also be in the style of a Rembrandt and not any other. While the language around these mandates is steeped with the airs of differentiation we are actually stifled by the mandates of standardization.

In short, the practices we are given are highly restricted and duplicitously framed in language of creativity, an Orwellian approach to educational dictates if ever there was one. Capitalizing on the teachable moment—despite the expressed desire of communities, parents, practitioners, and students themselves–is frowned upon while party-line policy serves as a fence more than as a roadmap to educational success.

Student expression is often channeled, funneled, or suppressed through so many filters that it has  become pantomime of either the imposed curriculum or of preconceived notions. Some students in many regards don’t know what they want—not for lack of ability to identify their needs but for lack of opportunity to consider it. The curriculum doesn’t offer validation or challenge to ideas that are relevant to them (or presented in ways that are relevant to them) and they either tune out, rebel, or comply. Worse yet, if they have considered it we haven’t provided them with the venues to express or explore their interests.

For example, allowing elementary students the opportunity to choose even their own reading materials is soaked in the language of choice but is often narrowed. Effectively, students choose the books “we” want them to. Imposed book choice rules such as “two on level, one above level, one non-fiction, and one interest,” narrows the scope of information based on skills that have not been developed because of a great lack of exposure. This limitation just in reading is indicative of the hoops students must navigate to arrive at some semblance of choice and agency in their educations.

In my own classroom, I let the students choose one or two books based on their interest. I do not constrain them to books at their level only (though students who choose books that are too easy are questioned and students who choose books that are too hard are offered dignified ways to return them without feeling defeated). The idea is that, in order to instill a love of learning–in this case reading–students have to be active in guiding their educations. Without the opportunity to choose, not only do students loose out on safe opportunities to make decisions, they also miss out on opportunities to enrich themselves.

That is of course not to suggest that students should be the organizers of the entire affair of schooling. Nel Noddings, leaning on Diana Baumring, wrote:

“Insisting on every inferred need we have established is authoritarian. Giving way whenever such a need is challenged marks us as permissive. Neither style is characteristic of the best teachers or parents.”

Creation of curricula that are driven by communication of ideas, expressed needs, along with research and prescription (inferred need) is a necessary balance. However in the shadow of the “college lie” and the current fashion of belittling vocations and skilled labor, there is little room to open up opportunity for Doll’s “Four R’s” to reform our approach.

The lack of dialogue that is actually possible with policy makers—as evidenced in the so-called committee on the Common Core organized by New York’s Governor Cuomo, with few educators and many private interests—is just as filtered as student responses in an apparently Danielson driven classroom. In fact, in a system such as New York’s, in which “Charlotte Danielson” has become both a noun and an adjective it seems surprising that communities, students, and teachers have little control. Danielson writes extensively about educator/community partnerships, but in reality meeting the mandates of what New York State specifically has done with her Framework for Teacher Enhancement is impossible.

What Danielson outlines as best practice is capitalizing on the opportunities for students and educators to make interactive choices about curriculum, routines, and environment as they arise in either planned or unexpected situations. The reality is that her research, as well as the language and the trappings of interactive curriculum at large, are examples in a long list of misappropriated ideas used to limit and direct practice towards a more “authoritarian” inferred curriculum paradigm employing language that would make Orwell’s “Big Brother” proud. Danielson’s suggested practices for effective teaching have been turned into practices to trap so-called “ineffective” teachers—with all the indicators of efficacy defined by policy makers with an axe to grind against public education.

That said, the idea of interactive curriculum—one defined by a partnership of the learner and the learned—is one that is more than mildly intriguing. In fact, if the idea could survive praxis it might just be the greatest approach to “fixing” schools yet. What better way to increase the stock of the “funded capital of civilization” then by giving its inheritors a voice how to raise the stocks’ value?

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