Welcome back to our ED 632 class. I hope you were able to ask lots of questions regarding the schooling environment last day.
Ever wonder about familiarity?
Etymology of Familiar:
From Old French famelier “related; friendly,” from Latin familiaris “domestic, private, belonging to a family, of a household;” also “familiar, intimate, friendly.” a dissemination of familialis, from family.
From late 14c. as “of or pertaining to one’s family.” Of things, “known from long association,” from late 15c. Meaning “ordinary, usual” is from 1590s.
Last week I started my first lecture with a clip from Bug’s Bunny and a clip from Seinfeld performing the Bug’s Bunny song. A number of years ago when I was watching an episode of the Jerry Seinfeld show and saw Seinfeld performing the Bugs Bunny theme song, what he was doing made perfect sense to me. He was performing the opening clip of the Bugs Bunny show—a cartoon that I grew up with. I was so familiar with the Bugs Bunny opening scene that as soon as he put his body into a marching stance and sang the first word “overture” the “Bugs Bunny” neurons in my brain began firing and I was experiencing (in my brain) the Bugs Bunny opening clip while Jerry Seinfeld was singing it.
For many of you, especially those of you who have never seen the Bugs Bunny show or a Seinfeld show, would have found my reference to this in my opening lecture very strange, and unfamiliar. Those of you who had familiarity with Bugs Bunny and Seinfeld, or should I say the “Bugs Bunny/Seinfeld neurons” would not have found my beginning strange. Of course you might have wondered why a “university lecture” would start with a cartoon and comedy clip. While the clips may have been familiar, the context might have seemed odd.
Given your age, if you were one to watch television cartoons, you would probably be familiar with cartoon openings such as the opening from Arthur, Dragon Tales, Spiderman, or Sponge Bob Square Pants. Or children’s-show openings such as Life with Derek, or Hannah Montana. If you are unfamiliar with the openings I mentioned I am sure you can think of an opening you are very familiar with. If you know the ones I mention they are familiar to you. You are familiar with them. You probably have a feeling of closeness, or even intimacy. You have an association with them.
We shouldn’t, of course, get too hung up on the example I use. Each one of us will have our own examples of familiarity with experiences, whether visual, auditory, tactile, pleasant, unpleasant, confusing, etc. etc. etc..
What interests me is this idea of familiarity. And, as an educator, I am interested in the the reason why we talk more about “learning” than about “familiarity.”
The etymology of “learn.”
Old English leornian “to get knowledge, be cultivated; study, read, think about,” from Proto-Germanic *lisnojanan (cognates: Old Frisian lernia, Middle Dutch leeren, Dutch leren, Old High German lernen, German lernen “to learn,” Gothic lais “I know”),
There is something interesting here. Notice the emphasis on “method” in this definition. “To get” knowledge. “To be, or become” cultivated. “To study.” “To read.” “To think.”
I think of helping my child learn how to ride a bicycle. And yet I want her to become familiar with our neighborhood so that she can find here way home.
How is this different from familiarity?
I want to become familiar with the culinary wonders of the world, but I want to learn how to make an omelette.
Did I say omelette?
Let us go by way of the omelette.
“By way of the omelette?” you might ask.
Yes, I choose omelette not only because I am hungry while I am writing this, but also because all of us have probably made an omelette at one time of anther.
So the question I pose is this: how is making an omelette like teaching? Or what might omelette making tell us about teaching?
Perhaps more than one might think.
As you know, many people follow a particular recipe and method for making their omelettes.
Step by step, from start to finish, we follow our recipe and end up with that delectable, tasty, fluffy, omelette.
We might even follow the same steps every time we make our omelette.
When this is the case, when the steps we follow have become so routine and expected, are we in control of the omelette recipe, or is the omelette recipe in control of us?
Of course there might be some variation in the way we go about the steps, but at what point would we say that the recipe is beginning to dictate our actions?
Did I mention “algorithm” yet?
Part 2: Algorithms
I have been thinking about algorithms lately. You are probably very familiar with algorithms in math.
From something like:
Or providing students with an algorithm to do math calculations:
We might have a set of rules for solving a problem in a finite number of steps:
In medicine we find step-by-step protocol algorithms, such as algorithms for management of health care problems:
We have cultural algorithms, such as “a set of instructions for solving a problem, especially on a computer. An algorithm for finding your total grocery bill, for example, would direct you to add up the costs of individual items to find the total.”
Of course we have assembly line algorithms too:
In fact we have so many algorithms in our lives that we may not even realize how they are shaping our lives.
By the way: Few people realize that the German Short Haired Pointer was initially bred to point out algorithms.
(photo circa 1830, Mitzi pointing out a hidden algorithm)
Herein lies an interesting question. To what extent do we control our algorithms and to what extent do our algorithms control us?
Now I don’t want to come right out and suggest that our “teacher roles” or “teaching expectations” might have something to do with algorithms. Or do I?
Here is a TED talk by Kevin Slavin entitled ‘How Algorithms Shape our World.” Now, Slavin will talk about our cultural algorithms. You probably know already that I am going to make the connection to schools. But first Kevin Slavin:
There are a number of things Slavin said that I find particularly interesting.
Slavin says, according to mathematical algorithms, that there is a:
transition from being something that we extract and derive from the world to something that actually starts to shape it — the world around us and the world inside us. And it’s specifically algorithms, which are basically the math that computers use to decide stuff. They acquire the sensibility of truth because they repeat over and over again, and they ossify and calcify, and they become real.
Yes, algorithms shape our world, and they acquire (along with our actions and movements in compliance with the algorithms) “the sensibility of truth because they repeat over and over again, and they ossify and calcify, and they become real.”
It is probably not a great leap here to think of some similarities between Slavin’s consideration of mathematical/computer-based algorithms and the algorithms that drive our schooling practices.
It is as if the algorithms with which we couple our bodies derive a life of their own, at times imperceptibly, and at times beyond our own understanding: “And that’s the thing, . . . we’re writing things, we’re writing these things that we can no longer read. And we’ve rendered something illegible, and we’ve lost the sense of what’s actually happening in this world that we’ve made.”
Back to schooling: Is it possible that we have lost sight of what is happening behind our actions?
Then there is the idea that algorithms begin working against each other:
A few hours later, it had gone up to 23.6 million dollars, plus shipping and handling. And the question is: Nobody was buying or selling anything; what was happening? And you see this behavior on Amazon as surely as you see it on Wall Street. And when you see this kind of behavior, what you see is the evidence of algorithms in conflict, algorithms locked in loops with each other, without any human oversight, without any adult supervision . . . .
With this, I am thinking about how differing school ideologies begin competing against each other, and we get caught up in it all.
Finally, Slavin leaves us with the idea that algorithms can leave us feeling somewhat helpless or out of control:
You feel it most when you’re in a sealed metal box, a new-style elevator; they’re called destination-control elevators. These are the ones where you have to press what floor you’re going to go to before you get in the elevator. And it uses what’s called a bin-packing algorithm. So none of this mishegas of letting everybody go into whatever car they want. Everybody who wants to go to the 10th floor goes into car two, and everybody who wants to go to the third floor goes into car five. And the problem with that is that people freak out. People panic. And you see why. You see why. It’s because the elevator is missing some important instrumentation, like the buttons. (Laughter) Like the things that people use. All it has is just the number that moves up or down and that red button that says, “Stop.” And this is what we’re designing for. We’re designing for this machine dialect. And how far can you take that? How far can you take it? You can take it really, really far.
“People freak out when there is only machine dialect, no human controls,” Slavin says.
At times teachers and students feel as though they are manipulated, confined, lacking control. Or is it just me?
Isn’t there some truth in the statement that we follow algorithms, often because we are told to, and often without even knowing we are following them. Besides, algorithms are a good thing aren’t they? Don’t they help us in our quests for efficiency? Shouldn’t we let “the experts” tell us the best procedures and processes for accomplishing what we are expected to accomplish? Surely we gain something?
But do we lose something in this bargain? Do we lose our authenticity, our responsibility, our moral or ethical values, our connectedness to others, our flexibility?
We know that algorithms are useful, but when do they become a bad thing? What if we took this to the extreme?
At times we follow algorithms because we are told to follow them. But surely we can control ourselves, especially if we feel as though we are not acting in the best interest of ourselves and others. But can we? To what extent might we simply do what we are told? Is it in our human nature to want to be told what do do?
This is a shortened version of the Milgram Experiment. You might recall this from your psychology class.
Objectification. AKA turning something or someone into an object.
It makes me wonder how objectification plays into something like the Milgram experiment. Surely the person administering the electrical shocks would have to objectify the subject (turn the subject into an object) to administer a high voltage shock. I wouldn’t do this to my child. But I can’t objectify my child. This can’t be an authentic human engagement–can it? I can’t imagine a mother administering painful shocks to her child even if told to.
But what I also find interesting is that one might even suggest that the person administering the electrical shocks has become objectified. The shocker seems to willingly become an object to be manipulated by the researcher. “I am your object master, I will do what you say.” (Keep in mind, I am pushing these ideas toward the extreme).
I don’t know about you, but that makes me question the extent to which anything (and anyone) that/who enters into an algorithm has to become an object for the algorithm so must be objectified.
I should say that one more time, because it is easy to let that last statement slip by. And I think is is important. I will make it bold:
What is the extent to which anything (and anyone) that/who enters into an algorithm becomes objectified (or an object for the algorithm)?
If I were to walk up to one of my young students, pick them up, walk over to a door, and use them as a door stop, that would seem to be the height of rudeness. I would be treating the student as an object, for my own purposes. But interestingly, some philosophers have made similar claims in the way we can become objectified by the technologies we use. We are waiting, standing by, for the next algorithm to tell us what to do.
One more time?
Perhaps there is something curious about our technological age–we take on the role of ‘standing by’. We stand by, on reserve, waiting for the next instructions–waiting to be told what to do next. Automotons of sorts. Mechanical. Technological.
So, perhaps it is best to keep the algorithms hidden. Surely companies such as Amazon and Facebook wouldn’t go out of their way to share with us how algorithms operate to shape our thinking and actions. Perhaps it is best to keep the algorithms concealed so that we believe that we control our actions and thinking. I am sure you are well aware that tech companies hire people to create the sorts of algorithms to control us for the financial benefit of the company. I think we all know that.
How about schooling algorithms? — You knew I would get here.
How about schooling algorithms? I think you will agree, we usually hear a very glowing discourse regarding schooling. Perhaps that is best.
But what happens to us when we become “poly-morphic” thinkers? What happens when we begin to see other potential variations of schooling? When we dig, we can easily find glimmers of algorithms that bring about the ‘less savory’ aspects of schooling. You may recall Woodrow Wilson’s comment to businessmen regarding the role of schooling: “We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”
And then there was Ellwood Cubberley, 20th-century educator and university dean who wrote, “Schools are in a sense factories in which the raw materials (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. School boards must be non-partisan, teachers knowledgeable, and school superintendents should operate with the efficiency of industrialists.”
And then, of course, William Torrey Harris, U.S. Commissioner of Education: “Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.”
That is an interesting term to use–subsumption. Subsumption of the individual–scientifically defined. Subsume: “to include or place within something larger or more comprehensive : encompass as a subordinate or component element.”
Perhaps it is not politically correct anymore to come right out and talk about what we would now deem to be disturbing. Or is it disturbing? Do we know all of this?
When we encounter any school environment, can we begin to see some of the driving algorithms in action? Yes, I think we can.
But perhaps it is not easy.
Teacher of the Year
This week I would like to introduce you to a man who won the New York Teacher of the Year award twice, and taught for 30 years in the public school system. He is someone who loves education, but doesn’t much care for the institution of schooling. His name is John Taylor Gatto. This is the speech he gave when being awarded Teacher of the Year. As you read his speech I know that many of you will find it a bit disturbing. Some of you will feel angry with what Mr. Gatto says. I know that. Some students have told me so. But in all fairness I have to make something explicit before you read this because without knowing Mr. Gatto’s other writings, it might be a bit out of context for you. You might feel as though he doesn’t like teachers. It is important here to know that Mr. Gatto is very supportive of education and teachers. But he started questioning, and came to many conclusions regarding unfortunate ways the institution (the system) treats students and teachers.
You might say that he started seeing some of those hidden algorithms. Or you might say that he was examining the hidden curriculum.
Please remember that I often try to introduce you to individuals with theories about schooling and education that do not agree with the dominant discourse. I do not choose these authors because I want them to make us feel good about what we do. I choose them because I want them to help us discover that which is hidden from us–that which lies hidden within our culture and traditions. We don’t just pick questions to consider in any happenstance manner. Our questions grow out of our confrontations with subject matter. This is going to be especially important as we begin to consider the ontological foundations of education (more on this next week too).
Nor do I choose these writers because they have a seven step process on how to make schools better. You see, “The Seven Step Solution” can also distort our understanding.
Nancy: “Listen Marge, if you can’t come up with something better, preferably in 5 steps, don’t question what we are doing!”
Marge: “I guess I better not question.”
Jim: “Hey Tony, Why doesn’t Gatto just tell us the seven steps toward better schooling?”
Tony Robbins: “I don’t know. I would.”
So much of our schooling discourse has revolved around the idea that we have problems that need to be fixed, and they can usually be fixed in about seven steps. If only it were that easy! But schooling is complicated, and understanding schooling is challenging indeed. We have to see our environment clearly before we try to understand our environment. We are not taking this class to be told the seven steps we should follow. We are working through this material so that we can see some of the hidden aspects in our understanding of schooling. If we have a clearer understanding, we should be in a better position to determine how we might point toward better courses of action as far as schooling, teaching, and educating–in other words, we might derive some wisdom and possible action. We become the wise ones–not because we have seven problem-solving steps, but because we have insight and clarity on our educational/schooling environment. So we listen to others in an attempt to allow them to show us what they see. Furthermore, we are in a better position do graduate work (coming up with new, insightful, knowledge) if we get glimpses into that hidden realm that contextualizes what we do.
What does this do for us as graduate students?
As a graduate student, if I am trying to develop new understandings and new knowledge, I have to step outside the box. In some cases I might have to be nudged or pushed outside the box. Kind of like this:
Or maybe like this:
If nothing else, I need to be helped to see things differently than I do now. I think Mr. Gatto might help.
Mr. Gatto is very supportive of education and teachers.
As I said, Mr. Gatto was a school teacher for many years himself. So as you read his talk, try not to misunderstand what he is saying. Mr. Gatto is opposed to “Systems and institutions” that operate for the sake of the “system” and then drag us along with it.
Why are we going to read this? By the way, when are we even going to get to his speech?
I am glad you asked that. I mean the part about reading his speech. We are working to get glimmers of the schooling environment that might not be readily apparent to us. Mr. Gatto looks at aspects of schooling that we don’t normally talk about. That’s not to say that every thing he says is right. And that is not to say that what he says doesn’t apply to my school or my teaching. However, it might apply to some schooling. And if we don’t talk about something, we might not see it. Perhaps he views the school environment from a different lens. To use a Marshall McLuhan aphorism, he is trying to help us see the water from the fish’s perspective.
So if Mr. Gatto isn’t opposed to teachers and education, what is he opposed to?
Mr. Gatto is opposed to a tradition that privileges efficiency systems and compliance-based institutions.
Mr. Gatto is opposed to “Systems and institutions” that operate for the sake of the “system.”
Mr. Gatto is opposed to systems and institutions that limit our own personal freedoms.
Is he right to suggest that the school environment is a system and and institution? Is he right to suggest that systems and institutions limit our own personal freedoms? Are people’s personal freedoms limited in school environments? What is a system-produced (or politically-produced) phenomenon? If you have ever wondered why on earth you are doing so much testing when you think that it is unnecessary, then you may be witnessing a system-produced (or politically-produced) phenomenon. We know the ontic being (the test) but we might not have questioned into the ontological (that which makes testing seem to make sense).
There are a number of aspects regarding the “school system environment” that Gatto brings to the surface that we might want to see more clearly:
Interestingly, none of these really seems out of place in our school system. Interestingly, perhaps few of us ever really question where any of these ideas came from in the first place. They just seem normal–part of our tradition. Imagine, Hank Williams, a veteran teacher, singing:
“Why do I test?”
“Why do I give grades?”
“Why did I sequence every move my students make.”
“It’s just a school tradition.” (Something like that).
Becoming attuned to these aspects of schooling is great for us. As we become more aware of these aspects of schooling, we are in a better position to begin to ask the questions as to why many students and teachers experience schooling in particular ways. We might begin to ask, “why are things the way they are?” We might begin to see some algorithms.
Now, let me emphasize that you don’t have to agree with what Mr. Gatto has to say, and you don’t have to like what he has to say. Regardless, there is something powerful in developing the ability to see that which is often obscure from our view. Mr. Gatto forces us to look more deeply at the system of schooling, and he helps us begin to tease out the educational aspects of learning from the systematic techniques of the institution.
Please don’t make this mistake. And if you just skim his talk, you might.
I would like to share something else with you before you read this: Some of my students in the past have misinterpreted something in Gatto’s talk. So I know they were just skimming his talk. When they read Gatto saying that “he confuses students”, or that “he teaches provisional self esteem”, etc., they presume that he is intentionally teaching students to be confused, compliant, etc.. This is not what he is saying. Gatto is saying that there is a system in place that creates environments that are detrimental to students and teachers–a system in place that is designed in such a way that teachers are expected to teach in a manner that many students find confusing. And, as a teacher working within the system, he was expected to enforce the system without question. So, he doesn’t deliberately confuse students and he doesn’t think we should confuse students. Confusion is forced upon them (and us) as a result of the nature of the system. We often end up teaching not what we believe to be right, but what is expected by the institution.
Please take some time to read Gatto’s Seven Lesson School Teacher — link below.
Here are this week’s Response Questions given before you read The Seven Lesson School Teacher
For today’s response:
1) Please provide a brief summary of the seven lessons that Gatto talks about.
2) If Gatto were to talk about algorithms, what might a few of those be?
One more thing. Gatto is suggesting that there is something called institutional logic. What is institutional logic (Gatto also refers to this as the logic of the school mind)? You might think of this logic as those algorithms running in the background, telling is what to do, how to think, and how to act. You might think of that logic as the reasons why we do what we do. But what is it when we don’t know what the reasons are?
Gatto’s Seven Lesson School Teacher.
Call me Mr. Gatto, please. Twenty-six years ago, having nothing better to do at the time, I tried my hand at school teaching. The license I hold certifies that I am an instructor of English language and English literature, but that isn’t what I do at all. I don’t teach English, I teach school — and I win awards doing it.
Please read John Taylor Gatto’s Seven Lesson School Teacher
You will notice that his talk is in three parts. Please do try to read through Part I at least. Thanks.
So, what did you think of what Gatto had to say?
If you felt like this:
it will be important to try to change your stance to this:
Yes, that’s better. Deep breath:
Yes, that feels better. So let’s question (don’t send these to me. I’m just talking out loud. We are just thinking about these questions).
Does Gatto have some valid points?
Is there some truth to what he says?
Is he pushing us to look deeply into our schooling environments, even if we don’t want to?
Is it difficult to think that we might be complying to institutional logic?
If there is an institutional logic, where does it come from? This is the question that foreshadows some future discussions regarding the ontological foundations of education (there is that ontological term again).
To re-cap, for today’s response (To be included in your first class response due the week of April 22nd)
1) Please provide a brief summary of the seven lessons that Gatto talks about.
2) If Gatto were to talk about algorithms, what might a few of those be?
Thanks for considering these ideas.
Why are we doing this?
So who do we become by doing this activity? Well, by doing this we can more clearly see the ‘institutional influence’ and the power/control structures at play in our “roles” as teachers. This is something we will explore further next week. We become more sensitive to the institutional influence. We become more sensitive to narratives that tell us what we should be doing. We become better questioners.
Just think of all the things we do without questioning. You know the saying, it wasn’t the fish who discovered water. When you are immersed in a world (a way of living and seeing) much of the environment simply fades from view. We are the fish–the school environment is our water.
We want to adopt a questioning mindset. We want to become more sensitive to our school environment. We want to start to begin to orient ourselves to the ontological foundations of schooling (why entities come into being as they do, and why we exist as teachers the way that we do). If this third aspect sounds a bit strange or unfamiliar, it will become quite understandable as we begin to work through our course. But first things first. Try developing your sensitivity to the school environment. Perhaps think of yourself as becoming a connoisseur, picking out the fine nuances, just as a wine connoisseur might pick out various qualities of wine. Or perhaps you will think of yourself as a archeologist uncovering aspects of schooling that largely remain hidden from view. Perhaps you want to think of yourself as jumping on the star ship Enterprise and flying into those hidden dimensions of schooling to discover the unknown.
Until next time, have a great week!