Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Shifting out of Neutral?

This week is my spring break/Easter break/March break. Thus, I gave myself a little more time to write my entry for last week's classes. Taking the pressure off myself has often resulted in better quality work—let's hope that's the case for this entry.

A few weeks ago, I submitted an annotated bibliography on research in the field of higher order thinking and I was overjoyed to receive a grade and comments that were highly flattering (including a compliment on font choice for the paper [which was primarily Bembo, with Bembo SC used for the title on the cover page]) but well deserved, if I do say so myself. I also did well on the dreaded exam, crowning my most satisfying week (from a marks perspective) at D'Youville so far.

On the social side, a large group of us in our cohort got together Monday night on the Canadian side in Fort Erie for some snacks and drinks at a chain restaurant. It was really fun to find that most of the discussion was around teaching—the content of the programme is clearly having an impact on all and I very much enjoyed continuing an argument that I started in our Philosophy of Education class.

We were discussing the reconstructivist school that emerged out of dissatisfaction with Dewey's progressive programme. The reconstructionists believed that teachers have a moral responsibility to educate toward social reform. They wanted to expand the progressive notions of democracy in the classroom to the point where the power aspect of the teacher-student relationship ceases to exist. The classroom becomes an environment where experience and discovery are the vehicles toward total social change.

The difference between progressivism (associated with Dewey) and reconstructivism (associated with George Counts and Paolo Freire) lies in the perceived purpose of education. Both argue for a programme of child-centred and social learning creating an environment which fosters critical thinking. Both are also constructivist in their epistemology (i.e. creating knowledge and meaning as opposed to receiving knowledge and meaning). However, the purpose of reconstructivism is to deal with problems affecting communities (such as poverty, inequality, suffering, governance, disenfranchisement), while the purpose of progressivism is limited to learning in and of itself.

When I was first introduced to reconstructivism, I noticed that there was a lot of discussion about the fact that schools and teachers need to be involved in social reform. But social reform to what? What is the end vision for the process? Are problems tackled one at a time or are root causes addressed? Is this curriculum based? Who sets the curriculum? Has there ever been a society which, as a part of its basic make-up, educates its young to radically change things that the previous generations have done? Are students made aware of the fact that they are involved in an education of social change?

One question that I was able to confidently answer was whether or not a reconstructivist classroom would be taught from a political point of view. Reconstructivism clearly requires the teacher to educate with opinions that she would be eager to share.

The whole issue brought up some very troublesome questions for me. I have been of the opinion that my political beliefs should remain totally opaque to students. Intuitively I feel that remaining neutral in the classroom allows for a free exchange of ideas—where a student can feel confident that his beliefs and conclusions are as valid and valuable as any other student's. It seems to me that taking sides ('shifting out of neutral') results in one point of view receiving explicit primacy over all others. The logical counter argument to this concern is that the curriculum as it presently exists and the teacher's own opinions naturally create a point of view but works insidiously by remaining hidden behind a veil of neutrality. I get this concern. It makes sense to me. But it's an argument which relies on generalities and a situation that isn't necessarily true.

I really wonder if I can teach in a truly neutral way, if I'm actually able to do it. I feel like I have enough training in argumentation and epistemology to be able to sniff out a bias that I'm sending out—but can I actually work against that bias in any real way? The defence of neutrality depends on bias being actively eliminated (this is so basic as to seem trivial).

There are softball issues like poverty is bad and it hurts people and exporting our problems to other parts of the world is a dumb idea in the long run and expressing opinions on these are harmless if not redundant. But when it comes to the morality of abortion or the death penalty (about which I have strong opinions) and the evils of World Bank and IMF policy (about which I don't have a strong opinion) are out of bounds for me. My goal is to present information and provide experiences that help students to form their own opinions and then question those opinions. It seems to me that this requires either total silence on possible positions to take or a balanced presentation of all positions. Thus, total neutrality.

One possible reason for me leaning toward a neutral stance is that I don't feel confident enough about my beliefs on how things should be. It seems to me that a reconstructivist would be someone who has a very clear idea of how he thinks the world should be. He needs to be a utopian, a dreamer, and someone who is damn sure that he's right. He needs to know where he wants society to go and how he wants it to get there. These people are very special. They're unique, because it's easy to have an opinion, but if you're going to be a reconstuctivist, you need to have a very well thought through opinion. You need to be able to defend it and have had to defend it in the past. Otherwise you have stupid people saying stupid things. Neutrality might be the hiding place of the ignorant, but it is preferable to turning the blackboard into a pulpit and subjecting students to unconsidered opinions.

I haven't closed the door on these thoughts. I think that my experiences in student teaching and beyond will have a greater impact on the teacher I become than these ruminations will. But I think that all of this must be considered. My initial attitudes could set me down a particular course, and I want to make sure that's a place I feel comfortable going.

I might be just too cautious. I'm not sure that my approach is the right one (which is typical of someone who wants to remain neutral). But, if my assumption that a neutral teacher leaves students understanding and considering all points of view, then my contribution to the world could be to help create a generation of disengaged thinkers. Yet, and very ironically, if I do actively espouse my world-view in the classroom, it will be one heavily informed by neutrality and balance—once again helping to fill the world with fence sitters. Damned if I do, damned if I don't. Oh well, I've gone on a bit too much on this matter.

Let me end this with a quote which speaks to my responsibility when it comes to forming opinions and acting on them. It is taken from a fine collection of works by Thoreau given to me by a good friend.
It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man's shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too. See what gross inconsistency is tolerated. I have heard some of my townsmen say, "I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico—see if I would go"; and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute. The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war; is applauded by those whose own act and authority he disregards and sets at naught; as if the state were penitent to that degree that it hired one to scourge it while it sinned, but not to that degree that it left off sinning for a moment. Thus, under the name of Order and Civil Government, we are all made at last to pay homage to and support our own meanness. After the first blush of sin comes its indifference; and from immoral it becomes, as it were, unmoral, and not quite unnecessary to that life which we have made.
Henry David Thoreau from Civil Disobedience