Changing teaching

What now feels like a long time ago, I wrote on anti-teaching and my curiosity towards the book Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. Well, as chance would have it, I got the book for Christmas, and now I have had my curiosity sated. Well, actually more like whetted.

Written in 1969 by two former high school teachers turned professors of education, it remains a very thought-provoking book, seeking to tear down some of the fundamentals of the school system as we know it and rebuild it with a different focus.

Their starting point is that that the degree of social and technological change itself has changed through the 20th century:

… we’ve reached the stage where change occurs so rapidly that each of us in the course of our lives has continuously to work out a set of values, beliefs, an patterns of behaviour that are viable, or seem viable, to each of us personally. And just when we have identified a workable system, it turns out to be irrelevant because so much has changed while we were doing it.

Based on this observation on the increased pace of change, which we can only confirm for the last 35 years since the book was written, Postman and Weingartner seeks to identify the central values necessary to prepare students for life in a world of constant change.

They argue that in such a situation, you can’t teach textbook material, because the text books will be outdated by the time the students graduate, instead they find it most relevant to teach the students to reflect and and make up their own minds on the changes around them. To think for themselves:

We are talking about the schools’ cultivating in the young that most ‘subversive’ intellectual instrument – the anthropological perspective. This perspective allows one to be part of his own culture, and at the same time, to be out of it. One views the activities of his own group as would an anthropologist, observing its tribal rituals, its fears, its conceits, its ethnocentrism. In this way, one is able to recognize when reality begins to drift too far away from the grasp of the tribe.

This intellectual instrument they call a “crap detector”, borrowing a term from Hemingway describing the single most important characteristic necessary to become a great writer.

Having stated their goal as the development of fully functional crap detectors, they commit the rest of the book to discussing which changes will be necessary in the school system to accommodate such a change of focus.

Heavily inspired by Marshall McLuhan, they go on to state that with teaching, too, “the medium is the message.” Which implies that that the critical content of any learning experience is the method or process through which the learning occurs. They connect this John Dewey‘s maxim “learning by doing”, arguing that you only learn what you do, and if learning consists of sitting quietly, passively absorbing, remembering and regurgitating information as required that’s also what you’re going to learn to do.

As an alternative to this sort of traditional schooling, Postman and Weingartner roll out a long list of suggestions all focusing on changing the dynamics in the classroom to help the students define and shape their education in ways that they can take an interest in. Most central is the Inquiry Method of teaching which they sum as the following:

– The teacher rarely tells students what he thinks.
– Generally, he does not accept a single statement as an answer to a question.
– He encourages student-student interaction as opposed to student-teacher interaction, generally avoids acting as a mediator or judging the quality of ideas expressed.
– He rarely summarizes the positions taken by students on the learnings that occur. He recognizes that the act of summary or “closure” tends to have the effect of ending further thought.
– His lessons develop from the responses of students and not from a previously determined “logical” structure
– Generally, each of his lessons pose a problem for students.

It will be too much to go into detail about these points here since these points pretty much make up the bulk of the book, but a really good example is Frank Miceli’s essay “Education and Reality” which is included in the book. It doesn’t appear to be available anywhere else, so I’m tempted to scan it in and make it available here.

What is more interesting for me is to compare these ideas, written well before I was born, to the schooling that I have received over the past 20 years. And I find that my first ten years of school did heed much of this advice quite well, and I guess I have my wonderful grade school teacher to thank for that.

But after that, as I went through high school (Gymnasium) and my first years at university, I can see what I didn’t realize at the time: All of the good skills that I had learned asking questions, wondering and engaging with what interested me slowly withered while my head filled with facts that I couldn’t place or find good use for, yet I was told would be relevant for me to learn (as I wouldn’t be the best judge of that?)

Slowly I resurfaced. Found my own way and learned stuff that interested me, though often in spite of my teachers rather than because of them. And now, as I embark on my thesis, I feel like I’m back where I started with my advisor asking me to only focus on the stuff that really interests me, asking me hard questions and not offering any closure. Asking for my anthropological reflections to be my guide.

And I’ve missed it. That honest interest in me. In what I want to do. Not that impersonal distance of “I am just here to present the facts. I can’t make you learn it” as if you can separate the activity of “teaching” from the students “learning”.

It’s funny to see now, that many of the ideas that Postman and Weingartner suggested now have been integrated into the big Danish high school reform that was initiated last year. Now, 10 years after I began high school, my little brother is in his first year there, experiencing the reform first hand with all of its many inter-subject projects and redefined subjects. And he does work very hard at it, learning German, maths and all the other relevant things on offer.

And while what is learned may be much the same as before, the teachers feel overworked, stressed and haunted by bureaucracy, trying to adjust to the new inter-disciplinary projects and the new wide-open directions each lesson suddenly can take as the students ask unexpected questions. In a recent opinion piece in the Danish newspaper Politiken, four high school teachers illustrate some of these issues.

For instance how students are unable to learn new languages such as Spanish, French or Italian at any decent level because of the new inter-disciplinary project courses which take up to 6 weeks where the students won’t receive any language training and most likely will forget most of what they’ve learned already, forcing the teacher to start over with refreshing and rehashing old lessons before moving on.

Or for instance how the new Antiquity Studies subject (which deals with “long and short lines of European culture”) now allows connecting Plato with American Psycho or relating Woody Allen’s Match Point with Sophocles’ King Oedipus which puts such a strain on the teacher to familiarize himself with more than 2500 years of history in order to confidently draw such parallels.

These concerns are genuine, and shows that many of these high school teachers simply aren’t prepared for such a reform as advocated by Postman and Weingartner and to some degree implemented by the Danish Ministry of Education.

The central idea behind this is that it should be the concerns, interests and ideas of the students that should be central to the education, not the whatever curriculum the individual teacher has decided upon beforehand.

Most of the people I know from university can’t remember much of their beginner language from high school, mostly because they learned it, but never since have had active need for it. A high school language teacher should seize the opportunity to make intensive inter-disciplinary language courses, ending up with a field trip to a country where that language is actually spoken so that the students can become interested and make actual use of it.

No student would expect their teacher to know all of 2500 years of history by heart. But that is also beside the point. The Inquiry Method is based on the teacher and the students learning together. There is no need to have all the answers beforehand. Most people in real life don’t – why should teachers be any different?

The central problem seems to be that most high school teachers (and generally all university teachers) are deeply in love with their own subject and their own interests which makes it extremely difficult for them to engage themselves in what might interest their students. To teach is no longer simply to dispense facts on your favourite subject, but to go on a journey of discovery and to learn with your students.

Perhaps most importantly, teachers will have to do away with idea that students can’t teach them anything. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil.”

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