Wednesday, July 22, 2015


My last post, Part I on the contradictory effects of controlling systems of schooling, was written in response to Alfie Kohn’s questioning of the educational truism that puts classroom management ahead of teaching:  the conventional wisdom that before you can teach, you have to establish an orderly classroom.

He referred to my analysis, discussed in my book Contradictions of Control:  School Structure and School Knowledge, showing that a highly controlling environment can actually suppress learning in unexpected ways. 

Before I get back to my own findings, or to the ways a controlling paradigm has been central to debates in Congress to replace NCLB with something called the Every Child Achieves policies, I’ll let Alfie Kohn’s words take us back into the classroom setting to consider what we lose when we think top-down, standardized schools are creating good spaces for learning:

Alfie Kohn, speaking of the premise that classroom management  has been seen as essential to teaching and learning:  “But what if that wasn’t entirely true? What if, at least for some teachers and administrators, an orderly classroom was the ultimate goal? And what if the curriculum and the model of teaching were actually chosen with that goal in mind?
“I first encountered this unsettling possibility some years ago in a book called Contradictions of Control. Its author, Rice University Professor Linda McNeil, had spent a lot of time observing in classrooms and thinking about what she saw. Rather than treating discipline as ‘instrumental to mastering the [academic] content,’ she concluded, ‘many teachers reverse those ends and means. They maintain discipline by the ways they present course content.’”

Kohn continues, “Once I let that idea sink in, I had to admit that a traditional curriculum (lists of facts to be memorized and skills to be practiced) and a traditional approach to pedagogy (lectures, textbooks, worksheets) make it much easier for a teacher to maintain control over students. Just compare that sort of classroom to one in which kids are encouraged to construct meaning and understand ideas from the inside out — an approach that’s collaborative, open-ended, project-based, and driven by students’ interests. If the first model suggests a rehearsed solo performance by the instructor, the second offers instruments to everyone in the room and invites them to participate in a kind of jazz improvisation.”

And then Kohn asks a vital question about the ways we assess children’s learning:  Are we really capturing what children are learning, or is the assessment system more of a system to manage and control? And if the latter, what are we losing in the process?”

“Once that mechanism is in place, the question becomes: What can be reduced most readily to a letter or number: test results or extended projects? Assignments completed by individual students or by groups? A focus on facts or on complex and inventive explorations of ideas? If you test students on factual material, it’s easy (or at least easier) to make them do what they’re told. By contrast, as one educator noticed, ‘If assessment focused on more complex and ambiguous goals, such as independent interpretation and analysis, the teachers seemed to fear that…classroom control could be undermined.’ Which is precisely why many of them preferred old-fashioned tests.

“”….this inversion of the conventional wisdom helps us make sense of practices and policies that otherwise seem mystifying. And given that the demand for conformity and compliance is integral to so many aspects of school life — including elaborate systems of rewards and punishments to elicit obedience — we have to take seriously the possibility that this is indeed an end in itself.”

Kohn may be right that for many teachers, a more controlled, prescribed, worksheet-based model of teaching may bring efficiencies to the management of the classroom itself. 

The larger question is what kind of system of schooling turns teachers into compliant distributors of packaged information (which may or may not rise to the level of “knowledge”)?  Why would school be transformed into a system of controls that reduce an educated professional to a de-skllled conduit of externally derived, reductivist material?  Why would anyone who knows anything about children and the excitement of learning create a system that runs on fear, fear of  of non-compliance? And to what end?

The recent debates in Congress on what kind of federal legislation should replace No Child Left Behind is a case study in the inversion of educational purposes:  far more debate has centered on mandates, sanctions, compliance indicators and jurisdiction over these, than on a serious investment in our children’s education.  Whether the federal government can withdraw funds from schools or states for non-compliance with testing requirements, and who decides how test scores are used for such accountability measures, has displaced any proffer of a vision for creating and sustaining equitable, educationally robust, empowering educational experiences for our children.

Watching even liberal Democrats (Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown, WHAT were you thinking??) vote against parents’ rights to out their kids out of standardized testing, shows that our collective purpose of educating children for their personal development and for their active participation in our democracy has been hijacked by the data-mongers, the anti-kid folks who are very close to normalizing a completely uneducational definition of schooling!

For me that understanding takes us back to the larger social issue:  who, or what, benefits from a system of schooling that is highly controlled, even standardized?  Who, or what, might benefit from a teachers too vulnerable, or too inadequately prepared and professionally supported, to resist and refuse the contradictions of such controls?  

And what possibilities open up for our children and our schools when school governance and school management are structured to support, enable, and equitably provision all our schools, rather than control them through standardized trivia that serves no child but is evidently in service of forces aimed at weakening the public’s schools.

In future posts, I’ll explore the larger social control issues at work here, as well as highlight exciting ways teachers and students can join in learning that is credible, empowering, and too complex and messy to be “managed” or “controlled.”

No comments: