Monday, July 26, 2010

Insights on What Is Actually Taught In Classrooms - Part 1

Education is something that matters deeply to me, because what one learns profoundly impacts the way one functions in life. Education is something that matters to individuals and something that matters to society as a whole. Even within the blogosphere, education is something that people are currently contemplating. Not long ago, Dave in Hawaii wrote a blog summarizing some of the key things that are taught in schools, according to John Taylor Gatto.

While my inquiry into the ideal method of education is still far from complete, the insights that Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner offer in their book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, strike me as profound and novel. Inquiring minds will find these excerpts are excellent food for thought.
"The medium is the message" implies that the invention of a dichotomy between content and method is both naive and dangerous. It implies that the critical content of any learning experience is the method of process through which the learning occurs. Almost any sensible parent knows that, as does any effective top sergeant. It is not what you say to people that counts; it is what you have them do. If most teachers have not yet grasped this idea, it is not for lack of evidence. It may, however, be due to their failure to look in the direction where the evidence can be seen. In order to understand what kinds of behaviors classrooms promote, one must become accustomed to observing what, in fact, students actually do in them. What students do in the classroom is what they learn (as Dewey would say), and what they learn to do is the classroom's message (as McLuhan would say). Now, what is it that students do in the classroom? Well, mostly, they sit and listen to the teacher. Mostly, they are required to believe in authorities, or at least pretend to such belief when they take tests. Mostly, they are required to remember. They are almost never required to make observations, formulate definitions, or perform any intellectual operations that go beyond repeating what someone else says is true. They are rarely encouraged to ask substantive questions, although they are permitted to ask about administrative and technical details. (How long should the paper be? Does spelling count? When is the assignment due?) It is practically unheard of for students to play any role in determining what problems are worth studying or what procedures of inquiry ought to be used. Examine the types of questions teachers ask in classrooms, and you will find that most of them are what might technically be called "convergent questions," but which might be more simply called "Guess what I'm thinking" questions. Here are a few that will sound familiar:

What is a noun?
What were the three causes of the Civil War?
What is the principal river of Uruguay?
What is the definition of a nonrestrictive clause?
What is the real meaning of this poem?
How many sets of chromosomes do human beings have?
Why did Brutus betray Caesar?

So, what students mostly do in class is guess what the teacher wants them to say. Constantly, they must try to supply "The Right Answer." It does not seem to matter if the subject is English of history or science; mostly, students do the same thing. And since it is indisputably (if not publicly) recognized that the ostensible "content" of such courses is rarely remembered beyond the last quiz (in which you are required to remember only 65 percent of what you were told), it is safe to say that just about the only learning that occurs in classrooms is that which is communicated by the structures of the classroom itself. What are these learnings? What are these messages? Here are a few among many, none of which you will ever find officially listed among the aims of teachers:

-Passive acceptance is a more desirable response to ideas than active criticism.
-Discovering knowledge is beyond the power of students and is, in any case, none of their business.
- Recall is the highest form of intellectual achievement, and the collection of unrelated "facts" is the goal of education.
- The voice of authority is to be trusted and valued more than independent judgment.
- One's own ideas and those of one's classmates are inconsequential.
- Feelings are irrelevant in education.
- There is always a single, unambiguous Right Answer to a question.
- English is not History and History is not Science and Science is not Art and Art is not Music, and Art and Music are minor subjects and English, History and Science major subjects, and a subject is something you "take" and, when you have taken it, you have "had" it, and if you have "had" it, you are immune and need not take it again. (The Vaccination Theory of Education?)

Each of these learnings is expressed in specific behaviors that are on constant display throughout our culture...
Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner present a compelling case that what is taught is school isn't primarily the content that comes to mind when we think of the various subjects that are hypothetically being taught. Instead, the most powerful and enduring lessons that are taught in classrooms are ones concerning structure and method. Personally, I find it no coincidence that my own personal experiences with formal education yield similar observations.


  1. Yes, Postman has been spot-on with virtually all of his observations about not only education but the influence of technology upon our common humanity. I love everything I have read by him, which I have read, by the way, with a critical eye, and not with passive acceptance.

    Having said that, Postman is a bit overblown in his thesis. Yes, he has stated what is generally true, but it is not just the schools that are the problem. Parents have stopped encouraging active learning in their children. I certainly do not believe that classroom settings where a teacher lectures and the students listen necessitates passive learning. Postman is wrong about that. A student can choose, as I have chosen, to be an active learner in any kind of classroom structure. Further, most schools have now realized that they don't like lectures, so students are served up "group work" and "discussions" and "projects," and guess what, there's a heckuva lot of time wasting, chit-chatting, and non-learning going on in these types of structures as well.

    Part of the problem is class size. Part of it is that classes are mixed sex classes rather than single sex. And part of it is an unwillingness to give students "bad grades" when they fail to show active engagement. Further, there is a lot of uneven learning going on in classrooms. Some students simply aren't that bright, and thus, teachers have to dumb things down so that Johnny can pass his class. Also, the problem begins in the elementary years, when students SHOULD be accepting uncritically what the teacher is saying, because this is the stage when they need to be gathering great gobs of facts about every subject so that when they are in middle and high school and college, they will have the raw materials with which to ask good questions and to engage in their own learning. The elementary stage is the stage for fact-inputting, and the teacher and parents are the ones doing the inputting. Of course children can learn to ask good questions, and they often do. But we have come to expect less and less recalling of facts (like learning times tables cold, as I did) and then we wonder why they aren't intellectually and spiritually curious when they get into the upper grades. It's a complex issue, I think.

    Thanks for the post.

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