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

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Cooperative Learning and Media Literacy

This was week number eight of fourteen of my D'Youville experience, officially marking the second half of the academic portion of teacher's college. I had a number of assignments due this week (more on that below) and I wrote a midterm exam in Learning Theories (a.k.a. Introduction to Educational Psychology). This exam caused a lot of stress for most of my classmates, primarily because of the highly abstract nature of the subject matter. I feel good about my performance on the exam and when I couple that with the marks I've received thus far, things are going just as I hoped.

Mind you, I find it difficult to imagine that the grades I receive in this programme will make any difference whatsoever in my job prospects—I have been placing a greater importance on the process then the results and I think that will pay high dividends both during the interview process and when I'm working in the classroom.

To follow-up from last week's post about the little social we had in residence: a number of people received letters from the residence administration regarding noise infractions and other transgressions. These little surprise notes just sweetened the memory of the get together, adding a humorous feeling of deviance to the whole affair. You will be relieved to hear that I did not receive a warning and my record is still squeeky clean. (Whew!)

On the academic front and beyond the Learning Theories exam (which seemed to dominate all conversations), two themes emerged. The methods and utility of cooperative learning and media literacy were discussed in a number of classes this week.

The subtleties of implementing cooperative learning, which is also known as group work, was the subject of both my Reading and Writing Across Content Areas and Curriculum Planning courses. When students are asked to work in small groups issues of personal responsibility, methods of assessment, trust among students, role assignment, and when to use groupwork all emerge in a way that needs to be addressed. After almost six hours of instruction and discussion on this matter its clear to me that, as with everything else in this business, a group activity which is not properly planned by the teacher will result in students failing to acheive the educational goals of the lesson.

It is very important that as the organizer of the activity, the teacher needs to have a clear idea of how all students in the group are going to participate or at the very least learn the content. The dual emphasis on individual student responsibility for the content and shared responsibility for every member of the group being involved is key to this. The way to ensure that both priorities are met is through a properly conceived activity plan and assessment. To my mind, the assessment phase of the work—whether that is a presentation, a report, unit test, etc.—is where the individual responsibility pays out, but it does not guarantee that every member of the group will actually learn what they need to. The planning I've described above is definitely the science part of the process, the art comes with figuring out how to create an atmosphere of trust and shared responsibility among students that may or (more likely) may not be friends. I think that if the class is conducted in a manner which promotes these ideals, the planning pays off double.

For the record, the five tenets of cooperative learning (according to Professors McClary and Traverse) are:

  • Positive Interdependence - everyone in the group is needed and needs all others
  • Individual Accountability - each person must be able to demostrate knowledge
  • Promotive Interaction - creation and maintenance of trust in the group
  • Interpersonal Training - teaching skills like eye contact, active listening, complimenting, etc.
  • Group Processing - self evaluation of the group work process

Finally, I want to just quickly touch on media literacy in the high school curriculum. I wrote a little reflectiion piece on this issue based on some readings that I received in my Social Studies Methodology class and one really important idea emerged for me. As a future history/computer science/APS/philosophy teacher I'm thinking more and more about strategies and content that will work across curriculum areas, and I think that media literacy is a very effective magic bullet here.

Though media literacy has typically been handled by English departments, I think that including a media unit in any content area would be a huge boon. It stimulates critical discussions, it allows for analysis of current and controversial topics using a structured methodology, and I think it is incredibly important for today's students in a way that it wasn't 20 years ago. Arming students with a critical eye toward media of every kind arms them with the ability to handle the vast amount and variety of information they are faced with every day.

Read the report!

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Higher Order Thinking

Taking my lead from Mr. Hare, I've been trying to update on a weekly basis, but I'm having real difficulty making it regular. Wednesday morning? Thursday afternoon? I'll work it out, so your patience is appreciated.

There was a major social highlight this week for me in Buffalo. One of my neighbours in residence threw a gathering wherein students from different cohorts were able to meet each other and share a few drinks. It was a great feeling to be back in an environment featuring cinderblock walls, industrial carpet, ratty furniture, fellow students, shared bathroom facilities, and fizzy drinks. I had a number of multisensory memories that took me back to Saugeen-Maitland when Pulp Fiction and Sarah McLachlan reigned.

The major assignment due this week was for Learning Theories. First, we were given broad categories (a learner's movement from dependence to interdependence to independence, language/communication/mediation skills, etc.), then we were to choose a phenomenon within one of the categories. We then found ten empirical research articles from peer-reviewed journals on the chosen phenomenon and finally we annotated the ten articles, tying it in with some analysis.

I decided to look into how higher-order/conceptual/metacognitive thinking emerges in adolescent students. Here I'm talking about how children go from learning to count and read and socialize to how a grade 10 student learns to question their own and other's beliefs and actions on everything from justice and equality to problem-solving approaches. Admittedly, this is huge topic area and I found my work was really cut out for me. The final result was satisfying and I came to a couple conclusions about the emergence and encouragement of abstract thinking in all disciplines.

Before I get to that though, one quick observation. Though I admit to enjoying this kind of work — it's a good assignment for those of us who enjoy a bit of research on theory — I really question the value of it in teacher's college. Clearly, exposure to the work in learning theory and cognition is vital for any teacher (though most teachers probably forget the majority of this stuff as soon as the final exam is written); however, a 15 page report on ten different academic articles seems a bit much, especially when you consider that the time and energy spent on this could have been directed toward something more practical like designing lessons that tap into particular ways of learning for example.

That being said, a few themes emerged from my research which I'm keen to share. To quote myself (oh boy!):
Teachers provide a wealth of modeling behaviour to students through instructional style, choice of educational experiences designed for the students, and even the types and formats of assessment. Some common themes that emerged [on the subject of encouraging higher-order thinking] ... were the importance of teaching and assessing toward multiple intelligences — with diverse learners in mind — and the impact of choices teachers make about the language and activities they use in the classroom.

It is clear that higher order thinking is directly related to a diversity of intellectual experiences. There is just no denying that fact. Homogeneous learning and assessment creates homogeneous thinking — and homogeneous thinking is inevitably simple knowledge recall and basic comprehension. Making the student's experiences at school as varied as possible is a great way to ensure you're pushing thinking skills without it feeling forced (for all involved in the process).

Bloom's taxonomy formed the theoretical basis for my paper. For those in the know, Bloom is pretty basic stuff — for those of you who don't spend your days the way I do, I recommend looking into his work as it is the source for the language we use when we think and learn about thinking and learning.

Read the assignment!

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Experience and Education

Coming back on Monday from reading week, I had a fair number of assignments and tests to deal with. This week was also the deadline for submitting my student teacher placement requests. I've gotten firmly on the horse by arranging for both of my placements already. I will be at LCI first and ECI second — Mr.Koczij equals psyched.

The stand-out this week, as far as material covered, was definitely the arrival of John Dewey on the scene after so many weeks of allusion, innuendo, and hushed whispers. This week in the Philosophy of Education course we discussed Dewey's seminal 1937 Education and Experience wherein he attempts to right the course of education reform in the United States. After his groundbreaking work in outlining a progressive vision for education at the turn of the century, he finds the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of a shapeless, wandering, uncontrolled style of instruction. His short — and razor sharp — resetting of the progressive course is pure pleasure to read. A few excerpts for your reading pleasure.

On the merits of a progressive education:
One may safely assume, I suppose, that one thing which has recommended the progressive movement is that it seems more in accord with the democratic ideal to which our people is committed than do the procedures of the traditional school, since the latter have so much of the autocratic about them. Another thing which has contributed to its favorable reception is that its methods are humane in comparison with the harshness so often attending the policies of the traditional school.

On the absurdity of emphasising content knowledge as preparation for the future:
When preparation is made the controlling end, then the potentialities of the present are sacrificed to a supposititious future. When this happens, the actual preparation for the future is missed or distorted. The ideal of using the present simply to get ready for the future contradicts itself. It omits, and even shuts out, the very conditions by which a person can be prepared for his future. We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything.

The reference to extracting the full meaning from each present experience is really the core of this man's thoughts on education and the message is an inspiring and powerful one for educators. Having the responsibility for planning (creating? designing? each has its own subtle angle on the process) an environment within which students are able to experience and construct knowledge is the central task of teaching. Dewey's formulation of the environment as the place where learning happens is just right I think. It forces me to consider that the environment is perceived and experienced differently by different people. It forces democratic and inclusive thinking. And when that is combined with his emphasis on the teacher's responsibility for creating such an environment, there's little doubt why his ideas really are infused within every discussion we have as we consider the art of teaching. Dewey finds, in classic Pragmatist fashion, the most concise and intuitive way to combine the power of empiricism, the scientific method, and clear social structures with the beauty of freedom, creativity, and discovery.

To paraphrase Whitehead for teachers: All of Western educational philosophy is but a footnote to Dewey—his shadow falls over all of us.

As a final idea and slightly off topic, Dewey's discussion of freedom in a social context is beautifully done, and I'm including it below, just for those really interested in reading more of this man's great ideas.
Without taking up this extreme position, let us note some examples of social control that operate in everyday life, and then look for the principle underlying them. Let us begin with the young people themselves. Children at recess or after school play games, from tag and one-old-cat to baseball and football. The games involve rules, and these rules order their conduct. The games do not go on haphazardly or by a succession of improvisations. Without rules there is no game. If disputes arise there is an umpire to appeal to, or discussion and a kind of arbitration are means to a decision; otherwise the game is broken up and comes to an end.

There are certain fairly obvious controlling features of such situations to which I want to call attention. The first is that the rules are a part of the game. They are not outside of it. No rules, then no game; different rules, then a different game. As long as the game goes on with a reasonable smoothness, the players do not feel that they are submitting to external imposition but that they are playing the game. In the second place an individual may at times feel that a decision isn't fair and he may even get angry. But he is not objecting to a rule but to what he claims is a violation of it, to some one-sided and unfair action. In the third place, the rules, and hence the conduct of the game, are fairly standardized. There are recognized ways of counting out, of selection of sides, as well as for positions to be taken, movements to be made, etc. These rules have the sanction of tradition and precedent.

If you're interested in education as an art, science, or career and you haven't read John Dewey's Experience and Education for yourself, do it. You'll thank you later.