“Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”
This is the third lecture in our ED 632 Social, Cultural, and Philosophical Issues class. I say this just as a note to ensure you are reading the right lecture.
I will break this talk up into two parts.
Part I: Questioning and Context
I hope you are beginning to feel as though you are really developing ‘a questioning frame of mind’.
Now, if you recall, my reason for questioning was:
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–i.e. why entities come into being as they do (or exist in our educational environments), and why we exist as teachers the way that we do. I will speak to the difference between ontic and ontological later, but let me just speak to this briefly: when we talk about objects in our environment, we refer to these as ontic beings, or ‘things’. Often these things are physical objects that we can touch. That’s easy enough. We are familiar with things. These things might also be things that seem to exist but they might not always exist as a physical entity. I know that a math curriculum exists, but it might not be written down or in my immediate vicinity. I know that my omelette-procedures exist but I have not created a physical representation of my procedures (such as a recipe to follow). In other words some things exists in our minds. But nevertheless, they have an existence. So, things and activities we have named and can point to are ontic beings. We don’t really even have to worry about the term ontic. I am just trying define those aspects of our experience that are defined enough that we can talk about them.
example 1: The Ice Cream Cone
The cream cone. Voila! — the ontic.
example 2: The Photocopier
The photocopier. Voila! — the ontic.
Okay, so we are clear on the ontic — a thing, but what about the ontological? When we talk about the ontological we are referring to aspects of our environment that exist so that those ontic ‘things’ can come into being. That’s easy enough too. Things don’t simply ‘pop’ into existence–there are all sorts of other influences that are responsible for their existence. So, simply put, not only are we interested in observing the artifacts in our educational environments, we are also interesting in considering why these ‘things’ even exist. What are the influences that brought these things into existence? For example, omelettes exists, but what had to be in place for them to exist as they do? We can easily point to a few different artifacts or things–eggs, vegetables, cheese, pans, stoves, bodies that chew, forks, the idea of cooking, combining ingredients, etc. We could talk about hen houses, farmers, distribution centers, stores.
How about a schooling examples: We have photocopiers–why do we use them in school environments? What brought photocopiers into existence in schools? We might even take a step further back in time. What predated the photocopier?
You are probably too young to remember these:
If you do remember these, you will remember doing this . . .
Smelling the sheets of paper when the teacher handed them out 🙂 Really.
So for whatever reason we have photocopiers, we have had other copiers even earlier. So there must be something in our schooling environment that makes copiers make sense.
We have rows of desks: why do we have rows of desks in our school environments?
What brought rows of desks into existence in schools?
We have classrooms filled with similar-aged students: why do we have classrooms in our school environments? What brought classrooms into existence in our educational environments?
We have standardized tests and textbooks. What brought those artifacts into existence? I am not even going to say anything about Pearson Publishing here.
Before we move on, just a word about ‘questioning.’ AKA, “A short message from our sponsor.”
Now that we are giving some thought as to how we begin to develop our awareness of those ontological aspects that bring things (artifacts) into being, perhaps we should think just a bit more about questioning and what questioning means. Lots of times I take words for granted as if I, and you, share the same meaning. And as I start to reflect on the language I use, I often realize I may be using a word out of habit rather than with clarity. This became very obvious to me as I was talking with my undergraduate students about ‘knowledge’. We all talked as if we shared some common definition of ‘knowledge’. Furthermore, the author of the book we were reading obviously assumed we all knew what he meant when he used the term ‘knowledge’. When we began asking each other what was meant by knowledge it became evident that our understandings were varied, inconsistent, and inadequate.
I think this is interesting. If I were to ask a number of mechanics what a V8 engine was, they would all give me very similar answers.
If I were to ask a number of dentists what incisors are, I am sure they would be quite specific in their answers.
Of course engines and incisors can be known differently than seemingly complex ideas such as ‘knowledge.’ ‘Knowledge’ is not a physical entity in the way a V8 engine is. But I think the thing that surprises me a little, though, is that there is a schooling discourse where it is assumed we all agree on the terms we use, but when we start probing it appears that we don’t. Anyway, more on knowledge later. Let’s let this week be more about questions and digging into the familiar and the unfamiliar, the visible and the hidden.
Questioning about questioning
When I look up the word ‘question’ in the dictionary I see a number of definitions: a sentence worded or expressed so as to elicit information; a doubt about the truth or validity of something; the raising of a doubt about or objection to something.
A doubt. A doubt about the truth or validity of something. I guess this is important for us–without any doubt we likely wouldn’t bother questioning. Of course if we are always told to believe that which we are told because it is the truth, we are less likely to have doubts and to question the validity. Parents often pull out the old “do as I say, and don’t question it, because it is true.” Actually, the words are, “Do as I say, not as I do!” Or was that just me.
In the act of questioning, there is the assumption that we are looking to find something or understand some thing that is questionable–though what that ‘some thing’ is has not yet necessarily been determined. Perhaps we are looking for an answer. But in what form? What is our orientation? What comprises the domain into which we are seeking answers or information? What assumptions are we making that might limit the answers that show themselves?
The fact that we are even willing to ask questions suggests that there might be something that is hidden from our view. Why would anybody wonder about the obvious?
“Marge, did you notice the way Sam was acting? I wonder why he was acting that way?”
“Really Nancy, isn’t it obvious? Why do you wonder about such things?
“Marge, did you notice what Sam was wearing? I wonder why he was dressed like that?”
“Really Nancy, isn’t it obvious? Why do you wonder about such things?
Is it really as obvious as we might think?
But perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps ‘it’ (all that stuff about schooling and education) isn’t as obvious as we might think. When you think about it, that’s what graduate work is about (and any type of thesis work)–that is, finding or creating new theories, new thinking, new knowledge, new understandings–correcting or making amendments to that which might not be valid. We start digging into the seemingly non obvious (or perhaps diving deeper into that which seems obvious). Furthermore, we try to generalize from our understandings. We try to find patterns.
Marge; “If I could figure out a better way to teach Sam, perhaps I could use the same tactic in the future!”
Now it seems as though we ask a lot of questions about our students. We ask, why aren’t they doing this or that well? How could I get them to do better on the upcoming standardized test? Etc. Etc. Yet have you noticed, we don’t seem to ask a lot of questions about schooling itself.
“Marge, I wonder why Dana didn’t do very well on his test?”
“Really Nancy, you are asking the wrong question? Why on earth do we have that test in the first place?
And here, at this moment, we find ourselves in an interesting place — somewhere between philosophy and science, somewhere between wonder and method, somewhere just on the boundaries of the domain to be explored.
It seems as though we take a lot of what we do in schools for granted. Have we been conditioned not to question too deeply into schooling? We are continually presented with problems that simply need fixing. A real curiosity into the world of schooling is seldom witnessed.
Nancy: “Marge, have you noticed lately how we seem to be running ourselves ragged. And some of my students don’t seem happy with the tasks I am having them do.”
Marge: “That’s interesting.”
Nancy: “What’s interesting?”
Marge: “Well you said tasks. I am wondering where the idea of doing tasks even came from? Why are we having our students do tasks? Where is the love! Where is the joy! Where is the mercy!”
This is a picture of Marge preparing to ask deep questions.
Question #1: “I don’t know Nancy, are you sure this is going to work? Hey, is someone standing on my air hose?”
Perhaps we don’t question as often as we could. And perhaps we don’t question as deeply as we could. Interestingly something I learned while researching Finnish schooling practices is that not only do teachers in Finland ask a lot of questions about their practice, but Finnish students are encouraged to question. There is a belief among many Finnish educators that good pedagogy takes place in a context of questioning. Good pedagogy relies on inquiry. Teacher talk time is thought to be ideally about 40% of the class period. The rest is student interaction and student questioning. Here in the States, our teacher talk time is closer to 80%. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
Hobbies and all things fun
Try to think of something you learned well or easily. A hobby perhaps. Or something you did after school. What role did your own questioning play? There seems to be an inherent sense of wonder built into our attempts at trying new things. “I wonder what it would be like to . . . . ? I think I will give it a try.” Or: “I wonder how she does that? I think I will give that a try?”
In our pursuit for understanding our hobby, we might memorize some fact, but to understand the reasons behind things seems to require that we engage and question. I want to learn how to make omelettes like my mom. I watch her and wonder what she is doing now? I ask her questions. Engagement and questioning is largely a product of wonder.
Wonder and meaning. AKA Bill and Mrs. Jones
In our first lecture I suggested that for us, acting as philosophers of education, wonder is of utmost importance. So we begin with wonder. But when do we wonder? Some would say we wonder to find meaning. To understand.
Sometimes when we begin with wonder we begin with meaning. We wonder what something means.
I suppose I could say I wonder what something looks like, but then its looks would have to have some meaning.
Well, let’s see if I can explain what I am thinking.
Imagine: we sit across from our friend in a restaurant listening to her talk about Bill and Mrs. Jones.
“Bill is going out with Mrs. Jones,” our friend says. “What do you mean?” we respond.
And there it is. In that brief instant we wonder, and we ask the question”what do you mean?” (Children use this all the time: they say, “why?” But of course, we are not children). We ask the question,”what do you mean?” (If we said, “why is Bill going out with Mrs. Jones we would presumably already know something about this that would suggest a different sort of wonder.) But our friend asked, “What do you mean?” Here is the moment in time that something just happened and our response was to wonder and question about Bill and Mrs. Jones. It is an experience that we all have. We know the feeling and we know the look when others wonder what we mean by something we say. It is fascinating, the moment of wonder and a desire for clarification. We search for clarity. When the question is satisfied, our brain gets a small dose of dopamine. And that feels good.
But why does this happen? Why didn’t we just respond, “Oh ya? So Bill is dating Mrs. Jones. So what?” Well, of course at times we do. At times we are told something and there seems to be little need to question or wonder. We can start to act in such a way that we simply wait to be told. But when that happens, how engaged are we? How curious are we? But in the case of Bill and Mrs. Jones, when we were told about Bill and Mrs. Jones, we did wonder. “Bill and Mrs. Jones?!” we exclaimed. We felt it. The surprise. Perhaps the disbelief. We couldn’t help but wonder, and request further clarification. Something had to be clarified. Perhaps something was not right. Perhaps something was . . . . (and before we could finish our thought . . . “Yes,” our friend replies. “Bill is ‘going out’ with Mrs. Jones.” “Not ‘going out’? we exclaim. “Yes, ‘going out.” The words hit us hard, unexpectedly.
Why were we surprised? Why did we wonder? Something must have been unusual. If there seems to be something out of the ordinary we might respond: “Going out? “What do you mean?”
What is it that engages us? Why do children feel the need to know something? When do we feel the need to know something?
Try to take note, now, as you go through your day. When do you ask why? Why did you ask why?
Think about students. When do they ask why? Why do they ask why? And how is that different that simply waiting to be told.
The Search For unusual, the “What-Do-You-Mean?”
Would it be fair to say that during our everyday conversations with people, we are more apt to ask the question, “What do you mean?” than during our school classes. I have taught many classes where students rarely ask me what I mean by something. And, I have been a student in many classes where I was not inclined to ask the question, “What do you mean?” Why is that? Are we so conditioned to simply sit back passively during classes that we simply don’t question? Do we find nothing unusual? Or do we expect that nothing should be out of the ordinary? Do we go through classes not feeling any need for clarification? Do we not have a wonder that needs quenching? Are we conditioned to think, “if it is fact, it’s fact. It must be the case.” But we know better. We are dealing with theories in education. Not facts.
How about background or context?
What are we searching for when we ask ‘what do you mean?’ Perhaps we need to know more of the background context to really understand what we have just heard. We search for meaning. If we don’t know Bill, we might ask, “what does Bill look like?” But here again, this is a way to fill in the missing context. If we ask this, his looks must mean something. Perhaps we feel that he must be very good looking if he is ‘going out’ with Mrs. Jones (assuming we know Mrs. Jones would only ‘go out’ with a good looking man).
And then in that very cafe, where we sit with our friend listening to her story about Bill and Mrs. Jones we hear a young man singing softly in the corner of the cafe.
Me and Mrs. Jones
Me and Mrs. Jones, we got a thing going on
We both know that it’s wrong
But it’s much too strong to let it go now
We meet every day at the same cafe
Six-thirty, I know she’ll be there
Holding hands, making all kinds of plans
While the jukebox plays our favorite song
Me and Mrs., Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Jones
We got a thing going on
We both know that it’s wrong
But it’s much too strong to let it go now
We gotta be extra careful
That we don’t build our hopes too high
‘Cause she’s got her own obligations, and so do I
Me and Mrs., Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Jones
Well, it’s time for us to be leaving
And it hurts so much, it hurts so much inside
And now she’ll go her way, I’ll go mine
But tomorrow we’ll meet at the same place, the same time
Me and Mrs., Mrs., Mrs. Jones
We both know that it’s wrong
Everyday at the same place
We got a thing going on, you know it’s wrong
But it’s much too wrong
Me and Mrs. Jones
“A thing, going on.” Really? What does that mean?
When do we not wonder?
When do we not wonder about something? If context is so important to meaning, when do we not question? Who are we when we don’t question? When is the context not important? When do we merely accept something without question?
If something seems to make sense, there is little need to question. When the background supports what we do, there is little need to question or wonder. If, for example, Bill was always going out with someone different, as was Mrs. Jones, we might not even question their actions. If our culture encouraged certain types of behavior–if it were completely normal for people such as Bill and Mrs. Jones to ‘go out’– our conversation might not have even occurred. If a man and a Mrs. going out was a typical part of our tradition, we might not even seem to notice.
Perhaps you were wondering why I would have posted a clip from Fiddler on the Roof and a clip of Hank Williams Jr. Now I am providing you with some more background. I am thinking about tradition. And, both clips point toward some form of tradition.
I looked up the term tradition. Here is what was listed in the online Webster dictionary:
1 : a way of thinking, behaving, or doing something that has been used by the people in a particular group, family, society, etc., for a long time
2 : the stories, beliefs, etc., that have been part of the culture of a group of people for a long time
3 : an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a religious practice or a social custom)
4 : a belief or story or a body of beliefs or stories relating to the past that are commonly accepted as historical though not verifiable
5 : the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction
6 : cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions
7 : characteristic manner, method, or style <in the best liberal tradition>
As much as I like wondering about Bill and Mrs. Jones, I think we can learn something from them when attempting to understand the way tradition (background and context) creates meaning in regards to schooling.
So, as I read the definitions of tradition and tried to consider the definitions in light of our consideration of schooling, there were a few things that struck me as interesting (you may have been struck by something different). For me it was the idea that thinking and behaving can become established patterns of thought, action, and behavior—accepted though not verifiable. Bill’s and Mrs. Jones patterns of thought, action and behavior might be perfectly acceptable given a particular tradition.
But I want to think of tradition as it applies to schooling.
Tradition as it applies to schooling. What do you mean?
This is the reason I started with the clip from Fiddler on the Roof. It gives us a reminder that there are many beliefs, actions, and patterns that do not seem to be based on some external truth or reason but rather on tradition (or in the case of education we could add theory). And, if we contrast The Fiddler on the Roof clip and the Hank Williams clip, it is apparent that traditions can be culturally very different. In addition, reason itself is dependent on background and tradition. Just think how one tradition might have one set of algorithms and another tradition might have a very different set of algorithms. The reasons we give for something are dependent on the tradition (or culture) in which we are already immersed. What we see might be based on tradition. And what we don’t see might be based on tradition. And if that is the case, is there even any truth or simply traditions of awareness.
Let us consider this for a moment: Our schooling discourse has unfolded within a tradition — a way of acting and understanding. What might this mean? If we think that reasons are neutral and logical, independent of context, we might have the idea that reason leads to some sort of truth or fact. However, if reason is couched in context, then there is nothing really neutral about it.
Is it time to throw in the ‘being human’ question?
Furthermore, do traditions encourage a limited view of human being (or being human)? The Fiddler on the Roof tradition certainly does not encourage the same types of behaviors as Hank’s family traditions. Traditions might be limiting or liberating I suppose. Perhaps traditions limit what humans living within the tradition do and think. Perhaps tradition limits what and who people become. On the other hand, traditions might very well encourage us to do things we might not otherwise do.
Traditions that are limiting
What if our schooling discourse has unfolded within a tradition that supports a limited view of being human (or human being)–what might that say about our schooling practices?
I am not asking that you answer these questions, but to simply consider them with me.
As far as schooling goes, we seem to accept what is told to us about schools, and we seem to accept that there are ways that schools should operate. End of story. I have taught hundreds of classes and very few students ever ask ‘why?’ “Why do we do this in schools? Why do we do that in schools?” It seems that we are conditioned not to question. And I also know it is easier for me if my students don’t ask why? Because for the most part, I didn’t ask why, and nobody told me why we did what we did when I was becoming a teacher. And I don’t always know why because nobody asks why. ‘Just accept it!’ we are told.
Of course as educational philosophers we have an obligation to question—to ask why? And now that you have taken the Oath of the Educational Philosopher you are obliged to ask questions as well. (Did we take that oath yet?)
Is it tradition?
So why do we accept so many schooling practices without question? Is it tradition? Have we been schooled in such a way that our schooling has become an accepted tradition?
Now, when we think about questioning, we direct our questions into a particular, established, discourse, or a domain. What I mean by this is if I were to ask a mathematical question I would seek an answer (or response) from within the domain of mathematics. If I were to question love or mothering, I would not look toward the domain of mathematics to find answers to my questions. If I have questions regarding music, I would look toward the domain of music for a response (perhaps mathematics if it pertains to mathematics, and perhaps mothering if my music question has something to do with mothers singing to children). This domain, or discourse, is metaphorically a sphere of knowledge and activity (I am using these terms loosely at this point). All the pieces (the knowledge and the activities) relating to the particular domain just seem to fit together–they just all seem to make sense. So much so that there doesn’t seem to be much point in even questioning anything relating to the field. I think it would be fair to say that the domain of American public schooling seems to fit together in such a way that everything seems to make sense (or be reasonable). This is not to say we always like it, but it seems to make sense–at least until we start asking some probing questions–some deeper questions.
This is a picture of Nancy encouraging Marge to ask deeper questions.
We started week one by asking questions regarding the artifacts of schooling. Where do we look for responses to our questions? We look toward the domain of schooling. And where does schooling derive? It unfolds from a tradition. A hunter/gatherer tradition might develop a very different form of schooling than a Western technological tradition.
So what was John Taylor Gatto telling us about schooling traditions?
When we listened to Gatto give his Seven Lesson talk, we listened to him probe into the actions and artifacts of a schooling tradition. He tried to shed light on the ‘ontological’–those aspects of schooling that shape who we become as students and teachers.
So what about Frank Smith? What is his contribution in all of this? I am referring to his Book of Learning and Forgetting
When you read Frank Smith talk of the official theory of learning, you will hear and recognize much of the domain, or discourse, of schooling. We find ourselves living and working within that domain. Normally, our encounters with the official theory of schooling seem so obvious to us that we seldom find any reason to question into it. Also, the domain of schooling is coherent enough that Smith finds it easy to contrast one domain (the official theory) with another domain (the classic model of learning). Interestingly, the current official domain of schooling is so ingrained and seemingly coherent that it is difficult to even imagine considering ideas and methods from the classic model and incorporating them into the official domain. Perhaps, even worse than that, we find ourselves defending the official theory with the excuse, “Yes, but what can we do about it?”
Back to my initial reasons for questioning:
We want to adopt a questioning mindset.
We want to become more sensitive to our school environment.
To do this we may have to remove ourselves from the obscuring, limiting, or oppressive aspects of tradition.
Listening to those who question the tradition
We can question. But to become more sensitive to our school environment–to recognize the patterns of activities and the artifacts/tools in use–we can learn from others who have not accepted the tradition. They help us step out of our tradition. They allow us to see our tradition. These voices can then be used as a comparison. It is definitely easier to recognize the intricacies, the strengths, or shortcomings, of something when you are able to compare and contrast.
“Wow, I always thought your sponge cake was great until I tasted Marge’s.”
“You have the nerve to compare my sponge cake with Marge’s?”
Note to self: be careful what, or whom, you contrast.
On page 5 you probably noticed Smith’s stark contrast between the classic view of learning and the official view of learning. And if you have read Part II you get a better sense of what Smith means by the classic view. And, and, if you couldn’t put the book down and have read Part III you are gaining glimpses of what he means by the official theory of learning and forgetting.
Let me wrap up Part I and this part of my talk of questioning and tradition.
Does all of this have anything to do with “The Logic Of The School Mind?” I think it does.
1) We probably know that context and tradition have a lot to do with the questions we ask and our ability to wonder.
2) We probably know that the context in which we find ourselves give meaning to ‘things.’ In other words, school artifacts only ‘mean’ something within a particular context. Testing means something within the official theory of schooling and would mean something very different within the classic theory (using Smith’s theories). Testing means one thing at school, but would mean something very different at home. Raising our hands to ask questions means something in one context, and would seem strange in another.
Context gives meaning. Context confers meaning. Things ‘mean’ something within a context.
Okay Dana, we got.
Okay, final point. I would like you to feel how context gives, or changes, meaning. This is important when we are trying to see how important our context is when we are interpreting what things mean. I am making this point so that we try to recognize how our school narratives and ideas give meaning to what we do.
I think this will do it. Hopefully this will show just how important context is.
Earlier I made the point that context, background, or tradition, gives meaning. Things have different meanings depending on their context. As you listened to the song Me and Mrs. Jones you had a particular feeling. Two people were in love, no big deal. But look how a slight change in ‘context’ can change how you feel about, and interpret, the song. You see, I didn’t mention to you that Bill was Mrs. Jones’ high school student. Now listen to the song again. It should have an entirely different effect because the context just changed the meaning.
Is context really that important when we talk about meaning? I tend to think so. Now I bet you have some questions about Bill and Mrs. Jones.
Part II: For Everything You Gain There’s Something Lost
I wonder if Dan Seals can tell us anything about schooling?
So, I was trying to think of a song that might help represent something Gatto was suggesting in his notion of ‘the logic of the school mind’. I think I found a pretty good song– “Everything That Glitters Is Not Gold” by Dan Seals. Now, perhaps its not the best choice, but it was something that I was able to come up with in a hurry.
You see, it seems as though, when we adopt particular schooling algorithms, methods, and metaphors, we bring something to the fore and inadvertently something recedes into the background. The song says it all: “For everything you win there’s something lost.” The idea is simple, and certainly one of the most important phrases in the song. It amounts to this: We can’t have everything. We must recognize that when we adopt one practice or way of life we often give up another–so we must choose carefully.
The idea is something that is very important in the way we think about schooling and education. That is, every time we adopt some procedure, method, metaphor, etc. we give up or lose some other way of thinking and acting. Something comes to the fore–something else recedes into the background. The mother in the Dan Seals’ song chose to follow one way of living and ended up having to give up another. In schools, we choose to adopt one form of schooling and we ultimately give up another.
It seems so obvious, doesn’t it? But I am sure you can relate to this: we sit through meetings where decisions are made to make some change without giving adequate thought as to what we should give up or what would inadvertently be lost as a result of the new practice. It is not always a deliberate change. Often we adopt practices without even knowing what we give up. I know you have experienced the same thing.
Let me share with you a couple of stories:
The KFC Story
A while back I was driving from Oregon to Alberta, Canada, to visit family. In the late afternoon I stopped at a KFC to order some dinner. My order came to $12.45. So I pulled out a $20.00 bill and reached out the window of my truck to hand the bill to the teen-age cashier. Just as I handed the cashier the $20.00 bill the power went off in the store. The cash register door opened, but the girl at the window just stared at the cash in the drawer. No numbers telling what the change would be showed up on the cash register screen. A young man came over and asked the girl what was wrong. It turned out that she wasn’t able to figure out how much change to give me. The young man was no help. (Now I know some of you are thinking I should have jumped in and said you owe me $32.45 in change). Before long there were four young workers congregating together hoping that the power would come back on so that the cash register would tell them how much change was due. Now given that I am a teacher I have to take some responsibility for this, somewhat amusing, situation. I mean, they didn’t ask to be left in the dark (math ability I mean). Then one of the kids pulls out his cell phone. Problem solved. They used the calculator on the phone to figure out the amount of change I was to receive. I should have spoken up sooner.
I think it would be fair to say that adopting one form of technology (the calculator) obscures another (the process of manual addition, subtraction, and multiplication). I am not judging–I no longer remember many phone numbers. The point is, we adopt a ‘way of being’ and we lose another. Anyway, this always seemed like a bit of an amusing story to me. Here were some young people relying on a technology that probably served the purpose well. However, one has to wonder what they were losing in the meantime.
The Academic Advising Story
Here is another story. The other week I had the pleasure of working at SOAR, WOU student advising. I sat with a number of students who had transferred from other colleges and were deciding the classes they would take here at WOU the following term. One of the students was planning on taking a 3 credit math course along with a three other 3-credit courses. “These look like good choices,” I said to her. “Twelve credits would be a full load.” Immediately she opened up her phone, accessed the calculator, and typed in 4 X 3. “That will work,” she said. I asked her what she just did. She told me she was just making sure that four 3-credit courses would give her twelve credits. And, sure enough, it did.
Is it possible that this student, too, had worked at KFC? Or, is there a trend?
These stories are true. I don’t know for sure about the one that follows—it was written in approximately 370 BC. The concern is similar (not, of course, about KFC– though I am sure the Colonel could have put together a Mediterranean dish that would have been finger-linking good, even for Phaedrus ). This was a concern about writing.
Keep in mind as you read this, Socrates and Phaedrus are living in the midst of a transition from oral communication to the somewhat new culture of writing. Socrates pulls out a fabulous story of the Egyptian god Theuth. Although the context is different the idea concerning gain and loss is obvious.
Plato, The Phaedrus – a dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus written down by the pupil of Socrates, Plato
Socrates. Enough appears to have been said by us of a true and false art of speaking.
Socrates. But there is something yet to be said of propriety and impropriety of writing.
Socrates. Do you know how you can speak or act about rhetoric in a manner which will be acceptable to God?
Phaedrus. No, indeed. Do you?
Socrates. I have heard a tradition of the ancients, whether true or not they only know; although if we had found the truth ourselves, do you think that we should care much about the opinions of men?
Phaedrus. Your question needs no answer; but I wish that you would tell me what you say that you have heard.
Socrates. At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
Phaedrus. Yes, Socrates, you can easily invent tales of Egypt, or of any other country.
Socrates. There was a tradition in the temple of Dodona that oaks first gave prophetic utterances. The men of old, unlike in their simplicity to young philosophy, deemed that if they heard the truth even from “oak or rock,” it was enough for them; whereas you seem to consider not whether a thing is or is not true, but who the speaker is and from what country the tale comes.
Phaedrus. I acknowledge the justice of your rebuke; and I think that the Theban is right in his view about letters.
Socrates. He would be a very simple person, and quite a stranger to the oracles of Thamus or Ammon, who should leave in writing or receive in writing any art under the idea that the written word would be intelligible or certain; or who deemed that writing was at all better than knowledge and recollection of the same matters?
Phaedrus. That is most true.
Socrates. I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.
Phaedrus. That again is most true.
Socrates. Is there not another kind of word or speech far better than this, and having far greater power–a son of the same family, but lawfully begotten?
Phaedrus. Whom do you mean, and what is his origin?
Socrates. I mean an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent.
Phaedrus. You mean the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which written word is properly no more than an image?
Socrates. Yes, of course that is what I mean. And now may I be allowed to ask you a question: Would a husbandman, who is a man of sense, take the seeds, which he values and which he wishes to bear fruit, and in sober seriousness plant them during the heat of summer, in some garden of Adonis, that he may rejoice when he sees them in eight days appearing in beauty? at least he would do so, if at all, only for the sake of amusement and pastime. But when he is in earnest he sows in fitting soil, and practises husbandry, and is satisfied if in eight months the seeds which he has sown arrive at perfection?
Phaedrus. Yes, Socrates, that will be his way when he is in earnest; he will do the other, as you say, only in play.
Socrates. And can we suppose that he who knows the just and good and honourable has less understanding, than the husbandman, about his own seeds?
Phaedrus. Certainly not.
Socrates. Then he will not seriously incline to “write” his thoughts “in water” with pen and ink, sowing words which can neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others?
Phaedrus. No, that is not likely.
Socrates. No, that is not likely–in the garden of letters he will sow and plant, but only for the sake of recreation and amusement; he will write them down as memorials to be treasured against the forgetfulness of old age, by himself, or by any other old man who is treading the same path. He will rejoice in beholding their tender growth; and while others are refreshing their souls with banqueting and the like, this will be the pastime in which his days are spent.
Okay, I know exactly what you are thinking. You are thinking that as soon as the KFC workers and the student at SOAR pulled out their cell phones I should have said: “this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in your soul, because you will not use your memory; you will trust to the external written characters and not remember of yourself. Your phone is not an aid to memory, but to reminiscence, and you do not posses truth, but only the semblance of truth; you will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; your will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; your will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” But alas, I simply stood and looked on in disbelief.
Now, I better fess up. I find myself using technology as a crutch now for things that in the past I would have remembered or figured out in my head. I am not one to judge.
Please keep in mind, change is not always bad. That is not the point. It has been argued convincingly that without the ability to write Plato could never have developed the long complicated arguments that he did. And, we wouldn’t even think the way we do. You see, lengthy arguments, the type that Plato (and all of us since) used required written text to record the argument as it progressed. A written argument allows one to go back and review what was written. That way one could develop their arguments and their thinking by continually reflecting back on what had been written. Two steps forward, one step back, over and over again. But for us, in this lecture, the point is simple: you adopt something, you probably give something up something else in return. It behooves us to recognize this, take it seriously, and to try to be clear on what we are giving up.
So what does all of this forgetting have to do with schooling?
I previously said:
Our procedures (traditions and context) may have diverted our actions from what would normally seem to be humanly significant to institutionally mechanistic. There are times when our own wisdom would suggest other courses of action. There are times we might feel as though the institution has hampered our wisdom.
This is reference to the idea that our adoption of school logic has obscured many other humanistic ways of existing. It is one of the things Gatto opposes so vehemently. And it is one of the things that Smith argues when he compares the official and the classic theories of learning.
This might be a time to dive a little deeper into the idea of humanistic ways of existing, and contrast it to the adoption of a mechanistic logic.
Here we are, diving into the idea of humanistic ways of existing.
A Little of This
None of this:
Just as a side note while thinking of diving:
Question: Do you know why scuba divers sit on the edge of the boat and roll off backward?
Answer: Because if they rolled forward they would still be in the boat.
So, to try to enhance the idea that humanly significant acts can be given up or obscured within institutionally mechanistic environments, I will share with you a talk by Barry Schwarz. His talk isn’t directly about schools. But it is easy to make the connection. Also, virtue can represent numerous human acts. You will easily think of many on your own.
One might question to what extent virtue resides, or even exists, within the logic of the institutional mind or within institutional procedures once the institution has established procedures. Can we have algorithms that have us act morally and virtuously?
The ‘right thing to do’ regarding the human being can be subsumed by an institutional logic that overshadows questions concerning human beings. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where a clerk is seemingly incapable of considering your own personal circumstances and making a decision based on what a computer will allow him/her to input? Have you found yourself in situations where you are acting on behalf of an institutional procedure rather than on what you believe in your heart to be more humanly appropriate? If you work in schools, you have.
Barry Schwartz speaks to this.
(turn on captions — lower right)
For everything you win there is something lost.
Perhaps Gatto was saying something similar in his seven lesson school teacher presentation. Have we have created institutions and procedures that have obscured, or even diminished our own wisdom?
Would it be fair to say that we find ourselves, at times, in situations where we relinquish our decision to the algorithms, the ‘rules’ or ‘boxes to be filled in on a screen’? Are there times that our experience, our knowledge, and our good judgement would suggest that we take an action other than the one dictated to us by the system?
Now, just to emphasize a few things Schwarz says, let me reiterate in his own words:
Referring to janitors: “Now, not all janitors are like this, of course. But the ones who are think that these sorts of human interactions involving kindness, care and empathy are an essential part of the job. And yet their job description contains not one word about other human beings. These janitors have the moral will to do right by other people. And beyond this, they have the moral skill to figure out what “doing right” means.”
“Practical wisdom,” Aristotle told us, “is the combination of moral will and moral skill.”
“A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule, as the janitors knew when to ignore the job duties in the service of other objectives. A wise person knows how to improvise, as Luke did when he re-washed the floor. Real-world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing. A wise person is like a jazz musician — using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand. A wise person knows how to use these moral skills in the service of the right aims. To serve other people, not to manipulate other people. And finally, perhaps most important, a wise person is made, not born. Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people that you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures. And you need to be mentored by wise teachers.”
“We hate to do it but we have to follow procedure.”
“Scott Simon, who told this story on NPR, said, “Rules and procedures may be dumb, but they spare you from thinking.””
“One tool we reach for is rules. Better ones, more of them. The second tool we reach for is incentives. Better ones, more of them. What else, after all, is there?”
“Moral skill is chipped away by an over-reliance on rules that deprives us of the opportunity to improvise and learn from our improvisations. And moral will is undermined by an incessant appeal to incentives that destroy our desire to do the right thing. And without intending it, by appealing to rules and incentives, we are engaging in a war on wisdom.”
“. . . familiar to you, is the nature of modern American education: scripted, lock-step curricula. Here’s an example from Chicago kindergarten. Reading and enjoying literature and words that begin with ‘B.’ “The Bath:” Assemble students on a rug and give students a warning about the dangers of hot water. Say 75 items in this script to teach a 25-page picture book. All over Chicago in every kindergarten class in the city, every teacher is saying the same words in the same way on the same day. We know why these scripts are there. We don’t trust the judgment of teachers enough to let them loose on their own. Scripts like these are insurance policies against disaster. And they prevent disaster. But what they assure in its place is mediocrity.”
“If you run an organization, you should be sure that none of the jobs — none of the jobs — have job descriptions like the job descriptions of the janitors. Because the truth is that any work that you do that involves interaction with other people is moral work. And any moral work depends upon practical wisdom.”
I hope you find this last statement as interesting as I do: “the truth is that any work that you do that involves interaction with other people is moral work. And any moral work depends upon practical wisdom.” When we think of what goes on in schools at times, can we say that there is a lack of emphasis on the importance of this point?
When we talk about “the expectations of the teacher,” or “the role of the teacher,” or “teaching practices,” or “curricular integration,” etc. etc. from which context are we considering these questions? Are we thinking in terms of schooling procedures or are we trying to consider these questions from a moral, virtuous, perspective.
What does this recognition of obscuration mean to us? What happens when we are immersed in the language and actions of school / or institutional logic whereby the institutional logic drives the narrative? What happens when we enter into the institutional logic and fail to see beyond the logic? The language of institutional logic doesn’t encourage us to think beyond the mechanistic workings of the institution. The human side of life is obscured.
If you are interested, go ahead an pull up a district’s job openings for teachers. It is unlikely you will find the job description expressing the need for teachers to be moral or virtuous or having practical wisdom. It may be assumed, but certainly not explicitly stated. But you will find that the institutional logic is explicitly stated. This is not to say that the institutional logic isn’t important. Institutions don’t run well without it. However, I think it would be fair to say that blindness to the logic is a problem. Or is it?
So Schwartz makes a rather obvious point, describing something we witness all the time, but regarding something that seems less apparent when we are immersed in institutional cultures that obscure the obvious.
Let me share one more Gatto clip with you.
Back to the Seven Lesson School Teacher
From Some Truth (or should I say theory) to Sweeping Generalizations
Let’s take a closer look at some of the things Gatto said in his talk.
As you review the following, begin to notice how the words from life are different from those being used in schooling. And, keep in mind: everything you win/gain/or adopt there is something lost/obscured/or given up.
*** Please keep in mind–these are generalizations. There are many institutions (schools) that have adopted a culture of care, love, virtue, etc.
Part One, Confusion
In Life we find: genuine enthusiasm, depth, meaning.
In Schools we find: a tool-kit of superficial jargon, superficial, disconnected facts, sequences, facts, theories, hierarchies.
In Life we find: substance, natural sequences, parts in perfect harmony, parts justifying each other, illuminating a past and a future.
In Schools we find: sequences lack cohesion and are fragmented, learning is by memory.
Part Two Class Position
In Schools we find: children are numbered, the human gives way to the numbering, numbering is profitable.
In Life we find: children are free, not compliant, and learning and understanding not efficiency-based. Advancement is self-determined and based on understanding and action in the world.
In Schools we find: compliance-based, your ‘place’ is against / contrasted with your community, test scores and grades determine advancement. The carrot of employment looms large.
Part Three: Indifference
In Life we find: we care about things and we naturally become curious, interested, and enthusiastic.
In Schools we find: piecemeal work and time constraints flatten experience. Intervals of experience promote indifference.
Part Four: Emotional Dependency
In Schools we find: Commandments dictate behavior and rewards encourage compliance. Undemocratic in nature.
In Life we find: Wisdom dictates behavior. One is not dependent on others for a confirmation of their success or to affirm their actions. More akin to Kohlberg’s levels of moral development. Democratic in nature. Self guided, self knowledge.
Part Five: Intellectual Dependency
In Schools we find: encourage obedience to experts. Students taught to be dependent. Experts determine the meaning of one’s life. Choices and decisions are made by experts. Teachers transmit what has been specified by experts. Success is determined by compliance.
In Life we find: People make meaning of their own lives. Choices and decisions are made by one’s self. Success is determined by independence, inventiveness, innovation, originality.
Part Six: Provisional Self Esteem
In Schools we find: self-respect should depend on expert opinion. People should be judged and evaluated by others. One’s worth is determined by others. People should be made to feel dissatisfied.
In Life we find: One judges one’s self. One’s self respect is determined by one’s self. People tell themselves what they are worth. Happiness is in freedom.
Part Seven: One Can’t Hide
In Life we find: Private places and private time exists. People can be trusted.
In Schools we find: Total surveillance, no private time. Trust is non-existent.
My Question to you and to myself: If Gatto is right, or even partially right, what is it that has us act and treat others in a way that seems so contrary from our regular life experiences? How is it that institutional logic can begin to obscure our practical wisdom and moral interactions with others? Have we somehow come to identify with a mechanistic institution?
We hear something similar in the beginning of Frank Smith’s book.
Frank Smith: The Official Theory of Learning and Forgetting
“The classic view of learning and forgetting . . . says . . . that we learn from the people around us with whom we identify. We can’t help learning from them, and we learn with out knowing we are learning. . . . There is an alternative to the classic view that is preeminent, coercive, manipulative, discriminatory—and wrong. It is a theory that learning is work, and that anything can be learned provided sufficient effort is expended and sufficient control enforced.” pp. 3-4
Now look at the Smith’s lists on pages 4 and 5 that help distinguish the classic from the official theory of learning. We find that there is much in common with Gatto’s writing.
To sum up
Recall the stories of the young people who obviously lost some mathematical skill by the over reliance of their cell phones. Did I ever tell you about the two people who were so caught up in their own technological methods that even their phones couldn’t get them out of the pickle they found themselves in?
Now, before I get to the response questions I would like to share with you two talks about identity. You see, as Dan Seals sang in his song, for everything you win there’s something lost. When we win, or gain, or adopt some way of thinking about ourselves, we lose or give up another. If identity is as important as Smith suggests, we should probably give ‘identity’ some thought.
The danger of a single story | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Creating Your Identity Through the Method Acting Approach | Greg Bryk | TEDxQueensU
For today’s response questions:
We have stories about schooling that tell us what to do and who we are. This relates to the idea that when I adopt a story about who I am as a teacher or a learner, or a story about what the purpose of schools is, another story is obscured or given up. Any time one story is adopted, another may be obscured. Furthermore, as many can attest, we are often told in schools who we are.
you are a good student
you don’t try hard enough
you are good at math, you should be an engineer
you have a knack for languages
if you don’t do well in school you won’t ever get anywhere in life
why can’t you be a good student like your sister? etc., etc..
you are a good teacher–your students form a nice line when walking down the hall
your students have scored well on these tests–great job!
Whether students or teachers, when we believe certain thing about others or about ourselves, we potentially limit possibilities. When the official theory of learning (See Smith) has been adopted as the context judgment might be on the basis of the official theory of learning. So, as can happens, we end up unwittingly enforcing or adopting those seven lessons that Gatto spoke about.
This also relates to the idea of how our identities are created–something Smith considers in some depth in his book. So I ask you to consider for this week’s responses:
1) To what extent does tradition and the official theory of learning (according to Smith) influence the identity of students and teachers? Can you share an example that speaks to this that you have experienced?
2) Can you think of any examples of practical wisdom, or lack of, as it applies to schooling? (See Schwartz)
3) As teachers, we have a great influence in how students create their identities. Is there something we could do (should do) as a school institution to help our students create, establish or adopt their own humanly significant identity?
Schools giveth and taketh away
I ask these questions so that we might consider not only how our schooling context shapes our own identities, but also how our work as teachers might be much more than simply helping students achieve academically. For in the schools we find ourselves a part of a system that gives and takes away–whether directly or indirectly. Whether we like it or not, we seem to be playing a role in the way we, and our students, develop identities. Surely there is something important in that.
This will be due with your first set of responses on or before the week of April 22nd.
For your enjoyment (if you have time) an article by Jason Niedermeyer. My Resolution: Getting My Stories Straight
That’s it for today.
Until next time.