Last week we were giving some thought to tradition. Obviously tradition provides the context (the rules, the actions, the meaning) for our actions. We live within our traditions–within the box. Of course we have different sorts of traditions–that seems obvious. Sometimes these different traditions clash, and sometimes living within one tradition obscures how we might potentially exist if we were to enter and live in another tradition (another box). And, as you have probably found, much of our academic writing amounts to reflections and judgments on conflicting traditions (boxes / contexts). When we read Gatto’s Seven Lesson School Teacher we heard him pointing out aspects of schooling that seem to come out of a particular tradition — one that he sees as particularly problematic. The context, according to Gatto, is the logic of the school mind.
We also made the connection between tradition and narrative (or the stories that give meaning to our lives and our actions). Of course we have also been considering how the narratives of schooling might contribute positively or negatively to the development of our identity. Probably on the surface, it is fairly easy to see some of the aspects of schooling that have contributed to the development of our identity. I, for example, believed for years that I was incapable of doing math. In fifth grade I was humiliated by a teacher who helped me believe that I would never do math well, nor would I ever enjoy math. My identity was formed, and I found that I was able to confirm her conferral all through school. It wasn’t until I read Smith’s book many years ago (you have probably already noticed the publication date) that I began to wonder if perhaps my schooling played a role in my disdain for math. And so I tried to recreate my ‘math self.’ I started to read the history of math, the philosophy of math, math textbooks. My belief in the ‘official theory’ helped diminish who I could or would become as someone who could love math. As a youngster I was given a story that made me believe that I was one who didn’t enjoy math and as one who couldn’t understand or love math. Those are the easy narratives to recognize. We all have them in one way or another. When we sensitize ourselves to the various narratives — whether we agree with them or not — we empower ourselves and the students we encounter by changing negative narratives into positive ones.
We are charged, as graduate students, to see more deeply into the obscure.
As we think about the narratives that contribute to how we think about schooling, we are thinking about what makes schooling artifacts and procedures intelligible to us? For example, in front of me I see a photo copier. Why? Why do I see a photocopier? Why is this machine so important in my schooling environment? Why is it that reproducing written artifacts has become so important? Slip into school early one morning and unplug the copy machine. Chances are you will see how important the photocopier has become. Its importance suggests that there is something in our current context that is going on that makes this an important machine. It is this hidden context (sometimes tradition or discourse) that we might attempt to uncover.
Back To Gatto
I did provide some initial commentary on Gatto’s work. My analysis of Gatto’s work was probably the type of analysis that makes sense to most of us in education. We regularly think about, and talk about, curriculum, choice, etc. These aspects of schooling, as I said, already make sense (I am emphasizing ‘making sense’ because this will be our next consideration). You see, we can talk about a variety of ‘school aspects, artifacts, and events’ because they seem to make sense. We recognize them, we see them, we experience them, and we talk about them. We usually don’t ask why we recognize them, see them, experience them, and talk about them. We just do. Nor do we ask what it is that allows these things to be intelligible to us. But when we encounter a discussion, such as Gatto’s Seven Lessons we are forced out of our comfortable, regular, school discourse. We are encouraged to consider new ways of seeing and thinking about aspects of schooling that are typically not considered, or even noticed. When we first read the Seven Lessons we may have responded, “Where did those comments come from?” Sometimes the response is, “Wow, he woke up on the wrong side of the bed!” But Gatto’s considerations are real, and legitimate. His talk is a bit jarring because it isn’t the sort of talk we have come to expect from discussions about schools. The statements don’t sound soft enough, or even right, in our current school discourse. But, as educational thinkers, we (you and I) are obliged to question further. Here is where it gets interesting. I think you would agree that Gatto sees schooling differently than what we find in the mainstream discourse. (I am not questioning where you stand in terms of what he says—some of my students disagree wholeheartedly, some agree completely, and others find themselves somewhere in the middle). At this point, rather than focusing on whether we agree or disagree, let us admit that there are different ways of thinking about schooling (the mainstream view, and other views). Hopefully we can agree that there are different narratives at play that make some aspects of schooling seem completely natural and other narratives of schooling that, when immersed in the narrative, make some of the things we do in school a bit bizarre. This, of course, is something Smith is pointing at. It is the difference that we will consider.
It is the difference that we will consider
We will begin by recognizing the difference. In time we will give consideration to the specific differences to better understand the foundation of the different views themselves.
Let me try to phrase this in a different way: Gatto notices different things (than what are typically noticed in the mainstream) when it comes to schooling. Different aspects of schooling are noticeable and intelligible.
Let me repeat this: Gatto notices different things (than the mainstream) when it comes to schooling. He seems to notice different aspects of schooling. For Gatto, those different aspects are noticeable and intelligible.
Let’s consider the idea of intelligibility for a moment: We see things and understand things because they are intelligible to us. Now, if something moves I may recognize it as an object (a foreground against a background), but if it is not intelligible to me it may remain little more than a meaningless object.
So I am suggesting that there are things that are intelligible (meaningful and significant) and things that are unintelligible. There are aspects of schooling that are intelligible to us, and aspects that remain hidden. If this is right, things have to be intelligible to us for those things to show themselves with any significance, and for us to understand them. A copy machine is only intelligible in a world that requires copies. A mathematics failure is only intelligible in a world that places some value on failures.
Beam Me Up Scotty
Imagine you found yourself on the Star Ship Enterprise and Scotty beamed you up to another planet that was inhabited by beings quite unlike ourselves. On this planet something moves in front of you. In fact you didn’t even see it until it moved. But you are familiar with things moving so you recognized it as an object. Objects are intelligible to you. Other than that you were unable make any sense of the object. It didn’t seem to have any meaning. Entities have to be intelligible to be meaningful.
Is there a name for that intelligibility?
I am glad you asked that. For phenomenologists, that intelligibility is what we refer to as ‘being.’ Beings or entities show themselves or “come into being” because they are intelligible. Being (intelligibility) allows beings (entities) to come into being (to show themselves). That is a bit simplistic or superficial, but it will suffice for us now. We might also say that if we do perceive something, it is because we already have neuronal cell assemblies in our brains to make sense of what we perceive — more on that later.
This becomes rather interesting when we consider that different things become important for us depending on “our perspective.” You have heard the statement: “she had a different perspective than I do.” Having a ‘different perspective’ is a bit like being in a different world. Different things seem to be important. That different world is what is intelligible. So we might ask why the idea of ‘sequences’ show up for Gatto the way they do (“the great natural sequences”) and show up for those of us engulfed in a school environment as a “curricular-derived-sequence” that can be dealt with rather simply? Why does ‘intellectual dependency’ show up for Gatto in such a seemingly negative way when in schools we seldom concern ourselves with ‘intellectual dependency.’ And if we do concern ourselves with intellectual dependency we seem very comfortable fostering it in our classrooms and in our teacher training programs? There are different intelligibilities at work here making some things prominent and present, and obscuring others. It might seem that I am belaboring the point. But to start to see ‘behind’ the objects — into the background — is a difficult thing to do.
Maybe an example would help.
Let me approach this from the perspective of the factory.
Smith doesn’t talk too much about the influence of factories, though he does mention the industrialization emphasis on efficiency. Let me delve a bit deeper into the influence of factories on our school narratives.
This factory narrative is an important one because it is a narrative that drives a great deal of what and how we do things in school — even if we didn’t ever think of school like a factory.
I will begin by considering what it is that allows factories, and factory assembly lines to ‘come into being.’ This will have some significance to our understanding of schooling later on, but let us leave an examination of those connections until a little later. First the factory: Question: “What is necessary for a factory to exist?” We could, of course, come up with a very long list — raw material, equipment, a place to house the factory, skilled workers, etc. But that is only part of the story.
Let me place this in a hierarchy (in our schooling discourse we seem to like hierarchy metaphors).
At the top level we have the artifacts (the entities or beings) as well as the people (also beings but of a different sort than the physical artifacts).
1) Top level: The assembly-line factory
——— hardware, workers, machinery, buildings, ———-
2) Lower level: The ideas or the ways of seeing or thinking about factories.
——— managing, objects, efficiency, assembly bit-by-bit, consumers, the creator, worker, and observer, bonuses, awards, profits ————
So, we see the factory and the things that make the factory what it is. Now, if somebody didn’t come up with the idea that objects could be assembled in pieces we probably wouldn’t have assembly-line factories. Also, if people were not able to objectify things, and think of things as objects, we probably wouldn’t have assembly-line factories. And, if somebody didn’t have the idea that efficiency was important, we probably wouldn’t have assembly-line factories (at least not in their current form). We might go deeper and ask, what it is that is necessary for the idea of efficiency to exist? And then, with efficiency, it might be desirable to ensure that the product is produced as efficiently as possible. In this case we might need a division of labor–a worker and a foreman/woman.
So, assembly-line factories didn’t just magically appear. A number of people had to see the world in such a way that objects, bit-by-bit assembly, and efficiency was intelligible. In a sense, these people had a way of viewing the world (a set of lenses so to speak) that made these factory ideas come into being. I suppose we could say that the ideas of efficiency, disassembly and assembly, and discrete objects had to be in place (part of our intelligibility) before we would have designed factories.
When we adopt a particular perspective, or, metaphorically, wear lenses of a particular kind, we are able to see the world in certain ways. In our assembly-line factory perspective, the world shows itself in ways that allows the factory to come into being. Again, if someone didn’t see the possibility of piecing things together bit by bit, or see ‘things’ in such a way that they might put together as discrete objects, we wouldn’t have much of a factory.
Looking Around at Artifacts
Now, if we were to walk into an assembly-line factory and started taking note of the artifacts, etc. (as we have begun to do with our own classrooms), we could tell quite a bit about the way people ‘saw’ the world (a world that would be suitable for a factory to come into existence and to maintain itself). We would be able to get a sense of the lenses they were wearing (or their own perspective so to speak).
As far as the production of products, factories seem to make good sense.
Another way of deriving a deeper understanding of the assembly-line factory would be to listen to the language people were using to describe and talk about ‘things’ in the factory (i.e. the discourse). We would hear talk of ‘workers,’ ‘efficiency,’ ‘management,’ ‘controlled environments’, ‘donuts.’ I must be hungry. I am thinking about donuts now.
Thus far, I haven’t made the claim that any one thing ‘caused’ or ‘causes’ the factory to ‘come into being.’ Rather, there are a number of things, events and ways of thinking, that come together to allow the assembly-line factory to come into being. It is a bit like saying that the environment was right for this to occur.
Let’s apply the factory model to everything (or let’s not)
Of course the language and ideas of the assembly-line factory model can be extended to living things. We hear of animals being dis-assembled, we hear of automation, processing, uniformity, inspection, automatic scaling, individually monitored, production, precision, care, quality, etc. You will get the idea by listening to the first 5 minutes of the following:
Hey! Let’s begin to tie this metaphor into schooling practices!
Ken Robinson talks about the production-line mentality: schooling modeled on the interests and image of industrialization, organized on factory lines, ringing bells, separate facilities, specialized into separate subjects, educating children by batches, standardization. (You have heard Gatto and Smith make reference to these ideas as well).
The Historical and Ontological Foundations
So we explore the ‘historical’ and ‘ontological’ foundations of schooling and education. I probably don’t have to say too much about the term historical foundations. That is probably familiar terminology. The events that lead up to our current schooling and educational practices can be referred to as historical. These are the stories. And, of course, as we all know, the stories told are not the only stories that played some role in the establishment of our current state of affairs. The dominant group typically has the power to promote the stories that best suit that group’s needs and desires. At times the stories of any historical period or event favor a particular group, bringing some events into focus while allowing other events to recede into the background. We try to listen to unfamiliar histories. This broadens our background and perspective.
While the idea of the ‘historical’ is familiar to you, the ‘ontological’ may not be, so probably deserves some attention. As a result of the unfamiliarity of the term ‘ontological’, it probably seems a bit more difficult to understand at first. So if it seems that I am repeating myself, it is just an attempt to bring the idea of ontology into better focus.
If we look back at my brief explanation of the assembly-line factory, I commented on a couple of seemingly different levels of awareness and understanding. One level consisted of the factory artifacts. We can refer to the artifacts in the factory as beings (things). These things, or beings, make up the factory. This is the ontic level. Don’t let this somewhat strange terminology disturb you in any way. We can keep this quite simple. We see things (or entities, objects, [perhaps activities] or beings) all around us. We are very familiarity with them. We have ‘beings’ in our kitchen, such as cups, plates, tables, chairs. And ‘beings’ in our classrooms, such as paper, desks, books, computers, etc. Notice that I didn’t include human beings (yet). These human beings will be referred to differently than the objects just described. This shouldn’t surprise us. We certainly don’t want to think of human beings in the same way we think of objects (such as a door stop, or a window). If you picked up someone and used them as a door stop, we would be quite concerned–for both you and the doorstop.
The ontological is that which makes all of these things and processes intelligible to us.
Here is another example of ‘bringing something into being.’
Capable of reaching deep into boiling pots of water or oil, early chopsticks were used mainly for cooking. It wasn’t until A.D. 400 that people began eating with the utensils. This happened when a population boom across China sapped resources and forced cooks to develop cost-saving habits. They began chopping food into smaller pieces that required less cooking fuel—and happened to be perfect for the tweezers-like grip of chopsticks.
As food became bite-sized, knives became more or less obsolete. Their decline—and chopsticks’ ascent—also came courtesy of Confucius. As a vegetarian, he believed that sharp utensils at the dinner table would remind eaters of the slaughterhouse. He also thought that knives’ sharp points evoked violence and warfare, killing the happy, contended mood that should reign during meals. Thanks in part to his teachings, chopstick use quickly became widespread throughout Asia.
Back to the Factory / One more kick at the can
We know the beings (those entities, artifacts, and activities that constitute the assembly-line factory). We can look around and see those things right in front of us. That is the ontic level.
Now, as questioners, we do wonder about the ontic (those things we see). We ask, “what do this things tell us about the way people understood the world?” We might have asked, what do chop sticks tell us about how people in Asia understood the world. How did people see the world around them to even think of developing chop sticks, or assembly-line factories–whatever the case may be?
“What is it that makes things intelligible?” In terms of the factory, how did people have to see the world so that the factory model could come into being in the first place? The assembly-line factory didn’t just spring out of nothing. Of course we can turn to history and find out the events that lead up to the assembly-line factory coming into being. For example, Joe got the money together and built a shoe factory in our town–that’s history, that’s the story. But our ontological exploration goes beyond the events and into the ways of seeing (or thinking, or understanding, or feeling, etc). For example, Joe believed in efficiency. This idea of efficiency allowed the factory to make sense. Joe put together the factory.
We want to get a sense of how people see, or experience, the world, because if we have a better understanding of how promoters of the factory understand things, we have an insight into the assembly-line factory at a very deep and significant level. We no longer simply take the assembly-line factory for granted. We realize, significantly, that the factory didn’t just come out of nowhere and suddenly appear. There were ways of thinking or seeing that allowed the factory to come into being. That’s the ontological. That thinking and seeing makes everything else make sense.
But that’s not all!
With a greater understanding of the ways in which things are intelligible, we are in a better position to make judgements. We will develop an understanding, and insights, that might otherwise remain obscure.
And what if all this just seems too far out there Dana?
I wouldn’t worry about it. You may not be able to define it exactly, but I think you will know it when you see it (schooling that is).
How about Frank Smith?
One of the things that works really well with the Smith text is how he contrasts two different intelligibilities: One intelligibility brings forth the classic model; the other intelligibility brings forth the official model.
One way of viewing the world is such that learning is seen to be: continual, effortless, inconspicuous, boundless . . . . (see the list on page 5)
Another way to view the world is such that learning is seen to be: occasional, hard work, obvious, limited, dependent on rewards and punishment . . . etc. (see the list on p. 5)
And, as you are probably finding, as you read his text, Smith provides some good reasons as to why these two different perspectives exist.
Do things really have to be this way? Question asked, question answered.
Or, Who really asked that question?
Whenever we come across questions about schooling and education we usually find ourselves caught within a ‘language game’ where the answers to our questions have already been answered.
John: “Say Sally, does it really have to be this way?
Sally: “I think you know the answer to that question already John.”
The language and context in which we dwell already determines how we view the situation and come up with answers to our questions. The questions make sense given the context. It is almost as if, given our orientation, it makes sense to ask certain questions. Perhaps that is one reason we have difficulty questioning our practices and changing our practice.
John: “Say Sally, do we really have to put our students through all of this state testing?
Sally: “I think you know the answer to that question already John.”
Quite often, as you know, when something is not working our response is to do more of the same, only harder.
John: “Are you saying I have to keep doing the same thing?”
Sally: “Yes, John, only do more of it, faster, and better! Now get moving!! NOW!!!”
But what if we start by asking, “does it have to be this way?” Should we take a cue from George Castanza: if what we are doing isn’t working, perhaps we should be doing the opposite.
At least by asking if things have to be this way we are more apt to look toward the edges, the boundaries, or even just beyond the walls of the box. That’s how science evolves–not by following authority or tradition, but by moving the thinking toward the boundaries of what we already know.
We can begin to develop an awareness of what it is that makes aspects of schooling intelligible. Then we can begin to question whether our views of reality are the views we actually want to value and hold.
And then, and I think this is the fun part, we can begin to step outside the box and to begin to look at things in new ways. Should students write tests? The correct answer would seem to be yes. Should students be doing homework? Again, the correct answer has been already given. Etc. Etc. Etc.
But should they? And why? Why? How do we see the world so that these school aspects even make sense?
Becoming Sensitive to Narratives
This week I ask that you consider practice your “narrative recognition” skills. I have three short videos here. Each school deviates somewhat from our traditional public schools. Each environment, while different, is educationally significant. Can you pick out some of the narratives that are (and were) in place for these different educational environments to come into being? In other words, what narratives had to be in place for these schools to be created?
I hope you enjoy these. Every time we see something different or unique we are offered ideas that we might incorporate into our future teaching.
Please submit this response after completing your session six response along with your session three through six responses.
Until next time.