More on Teaching as a Subversive Activity

As part of my ongoing research for my Ed.D. thesis on the concept of digital literacy and what it means to be ‘educated’ in the 21st century, I’ve been revisiting musings on the purpose of education.

One of my favourite education-related books of all time is Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Whilst some of the examples in the book are no longer so culturally relevant, the main thrust of it was so ahead of it’s time that today, nearly 40 years later, we’ve still not caught up!

Here’s my paraphrase of one of my favourite sections. It comes towards the middle of the book in a chapter entitled ‘New Teachers’. Postman and Weingartner set out to ‘put before you a list of proposals that attempt to change radically the nature of the existing school environment.’ (p.137):

1. Stop buying textbooks

I’m absolutely with Postman and Weingartner on this one. As they put it, ‘texts are not only boring but based on the assumption that knowledge exists prior to, independent of, and altogether outside of the learner.’ The authors were writing in 1969, before the Internet. How much more is this the case in 2008? Of course, as with most things discussed here, such a move would have to be done en masse – either whole-school in the case of an independent school or academy, or local authority-wide in the case of state schools.

2. Get teachers to ‘teach’ subjects other than those in which they are ‘specialists’

I like this one. I teach ICT, although I don’t particularly enjoy teaching it. I’ve also taught English and Geography in my four-and-a-bit years of teaching. My degree was in Philosophy and my MA in Modern History. I think it’s really important for teachers to see the ‘bigger picture’ and not develop a parochial attitude towards their subject.

Postman and Weingartner talk of ‘the desire of teachers to get something they think they know into the heads of people who don’t know it’ and how teachers teaching subjects other than their specialism would put a stop to this. I think there’s less of the lecturing and narrow-mindedness these days due to there being more of a focus on skills, but I still think things could be shaken up a bit.

3. Transfer all primary school teachers to secondary schools and vice-versa

This would be great! Not only would we get much more of an insight as to what goes on, but we’d get a chance to experiment with different approaches. I read the blogs of a few primary school teachers (including Tom Barrett’s) and my wife teaches part-time in a primary school. I have somewhat of an insight, but I’d love to have an opportunity to teach, say, Year 5 or Year 6 for a week. I think that’s all it would need to be to still be an eye-opener! :-p

4. Make every teacher who thinks they know their ‘subject’ well to write a book on it

Thankfully, I don’t think this is necessary in the 21st century. Those who feel like they need to force their opinions on others can just blog… ๐Ÿ˜‰

5. Dissolve ‘subjects’ and ‘courses’

Hmmm… not entirely sure about this one. I can see the reasoning behind it – it would potentially ‘free [teachers] to concentrate on their learners’. As I was reading recently, the lack of trust of teachers has led to a situation where anything that can’t easily be measured and assessed isn’t valued. That needs to stop in order for us to bring creativity back into the average classroom.

6. Limit the amount of words teachers are allowed to utter in declarative and interrogative sentences

Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I can see the point.

7. Prohibit teachers from asking any questions they already know the answers to

This would lead to a vastly different approach to teaching and learning. To use an awful phrase, the teacher moves from the ‘sage on the stage’ to the ‘guide on the side’. That is to say that the teacher wears his or her learning credentials and ability on their sleeve. With the type of (online) real-world publishing available these days, there’s no need for rote and stale learning.

8. Declare a moratorium on all tests and grades

Hallelujah! I’m forced to teach to the test. My GCSE History results were poor last year, therefore I’ve got to focus on exam skills, hammering home content as well week after week. At Key Stage 3 we have at least three tests per year for which I’ve got to prepare students. They’re very content-heavy and I see most classes for one 50-minute period per week, so I’m somewhat hide-bound.

Comment-only marking and fewer, lower-stakes tests would liberate me. I’d really start to enjoy my teaching again, seeing it as a learning journey with students. ๐Ÿ˜€

9. Require teachers to undergo some form of psychological counselling

At first this sounds like Postman and Weingartner having a dig at teachers. That’s actually not the case. I like to think of myself as a fairly reflective person, having studied Philosophy for most of my adult life. One does come across colleagues, however, who seem to have chosen teaching for all the wrong reasons, or have stress/relationship/other issues. As the authors put it, the purpose would be ‘to give teachers an opportunity to gain insight into themselves, particularly into the reasons they are teachers.’

10. Classify teachers according to their ability and make the lists public

Harsh! In the USA, some states pay teachers more based on the qualifications they hold. Independent schools in England certainly take it into account when employing people. Qualifications have only a tenuous relationship to ‘intellectual ability’ (whatever that is) but at least it shows a willingness to continue learning.

11. Require all teachers to take a test prepared by students

This is a great idea! It would mean that teachers would have to stay up-to-date (in some respects) with youth culture, which would in turn inform their teaching. ๐Ÿ™‚

12. Make all classes optional and withold teacher’s pay if no students choose to go to their classes

They do this, I believe, at the controversial Summerhill School. As with some of the other points above, it would require a whole different mindset and a debate on the purpose of education which we haven’t had for a long time. It could have the negative side of making teachers who pander to the whims and fancies of teenagers the most popular. However, if there are some sort of checks and balances, I suppose it could work…

13. Require teachers to take a one-year leave of absence every fourth year to work in a field other than education

Postman and Weingartner pour scorn on those who ‘simply move from one side of the desk (as students) to the other side (as teachers)’. Well, I’m one of them. I’d love to have experience in another field, but find it difficult to know where to look and feel it would damage my career (such as it is) were I to come back into teaching. Such a scheme would, as the authors state, ‘evidence, albeit shaky, that the teacher has been in contact with reality at some point in his life.’ Of course, one has to define what ‘reality’ is and I’m not so sure that the authors’ recommendations of ‘bartender, cab driver, garment worker, waiter’ are so relevant these days… :-p

14. Make teachers provide some sort of evidence that he or she has had a loving relationship with at least one other human being

Well… I can sort of see the point. But really?

15. Require all the graffiti found in schools to be reproduced on large paper and be hung in the school halls

These days, especially given the current fad for ‘student voice’, learners have lots of opportunities to voice their opinions. I don’t believe this particular suggestion would be helpful! ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

16. Certain words and phrases should be prohibited

The authors suggest the following: teach, syllabus, covering ground, I.Q., makeup, test, disadvantaged, gifted, accelerated, enhancement, course, grade, score, human nature, dumb, college material, and administrative necessity.

I’d add the following: Ofsted, value-added, Fischer Family Trust, performance management, and residuals

CONCLUSION

I enjoyed going through this list again. My 3 recommendations from it:

  1. Allow more flexibility in teaching – primary teachers in secondary, and vice-versa. Teachers from one subject sitting in and team-teaching where appropriate in subjects where they are not ‘experts’.
  2. Create meaningful assessments, ones that don’t reward regurgitation and aren’t high-stakes.
  3. Stop schools’ reliance on textbooks. I’d plough the money into 1-to-1 netbook programmes for all students!

What are YOUR thoughts?

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  1. โ€˜texts are not only boring but based on the assumption that knowledge exists prior to, independent of, and altogether outside of the learner.โ€™ No, they assume that INFORMATION exists prior to, independent of, and outside the learner.

    BTW, I just read Dan Meyer’s posts on “What can you do with this?” (click on that category in his sidebar). It includes this food for thought: “Textbooks suck at this. They’re perfect for below-average teachers with limited imagination and limited love for their own content areas, the sort that need a pick axe, a shovel, and a map to the goldmine handed to them before it’ll occur to them to start digging. It’s kind of an indictment that this has been such a profitable business model for so long.” http://blog.mrmeyer.com/?cat=70

    • I think that *everyone* assumes information exists independent of the learner. I do think that the prominent view in education is that you can have ‘repositories’ of knowledge. In reality, knowledge is actually socially *constructed* rather than syphoned off into the brains of learners.

      I think we’re actually in agreement. :-)

  2. โ€˜texts are not only boring but based on the assumption that knowledge exists prior to, independent of, and altogether outside of the learner.โ€™ No, they assume that INFORMATION exists prior to, independent of, and outside the learner.BTW, I just read Dan Meyer's posts on “What can you do with this?” (click on that category in his sidebar). It includes this food for thought: “Textbooks suck at this. They're perfect for below-average teachers with limited imagination and limited love for their own content areas, the sort that need a pick axe, a shovel, and a map to the goldmine handed to them before it'll occur to them to start digging. It's kind of an indictment that this has been such a profitable business model for so long.” http://blog.mrmeyer.com/?cat=70

  3. I’ll speak briefly to point #3: Transfer all primary school teachers to secondary schools and vice-versa.

    I have taught upper intermediate (in our district, this is Grades 5, 6, and 7, or ages 10 to 13) for my entire career. If left on my own with a group of five- or six-year-olds, they tend to start crying, but I do enjoy the half-hour drop-in sessions when I take my classes down to the primary wing for buddies once a week.

    In the first year of my career I was offered a summer job that I hadn’t even applied for to teach English 11. Although I first refused the job out of fear, I ended up taking it, and have taught secondary in the summers ever since. This has helped my teaching in both the elementary school and in the secondary school, as it gives me a deeper insight in the differences between the developmental stages of students, and a perspective on where my current elementary students are expected to go in their learning, and where my summer secondary students have come from. It allows me to see the bigger picture, to use an overworked cliche, and explore teaching methods and strategies in both settings that traditionally come from the other setting.

  4. I'll speak briefly to point #3: Transfer all primary school teachers to secondary schools and vice-versa.I have taught upper intermediate (in our district, this is Grades 5, 6, and 7, or ages 10 to 13) for my entire career. If left on my own with a group of five- or six-year-olds, they tend to start crying, but I do enjoy the half-hour drop-in sessions when I take my classes down to the primary wing for buddies once a week. In the first year of my career I was offered a summer job that I hadn't even applied for to teach English 11. Although I first refused the job out of fear, I ended up taking it, and have taught secondary in the summers ever since. This has helped my teaching in both the elementary school and in the secondary school, as it gives me a deeper insight in the differences between the developmental stages of students, and a perspective on where my current elementary students are expected to go in their learning, and where my summer secondary students have come from. It allows me to see the bigger picture, to use an overworked cliche, and explore teaching methods and strategies in both settings that traditionally come from the other setting.

  5. I think that *everyone* assumes information exists independent of the learner. I do think that the prominent view in education is that you can have 'repositories' of knowledge. In reality, knowledge is actually socially *constructed* rather than syphoned off into the brains of learners.I think we're actually in agreement. :-)

  6. As you say, I'd love to have the opportunity to teach for, say, a term in a primary school. I would learn so much! ๐Ÿ˜€

  7. Not to mention that in the sciences (where I teach at a community college level), textbooks are out of date 12.5 seconds after they're published! I'm the only faculty at my college that does NOT use textbooks!

  8. Not to mention that in the sciences (where I teach at a community college level), textbooks are out of date 12.5 seconds after they’re published! I’m the only faculty at my college that does NOT use textbooks!

  9. I’ve just been reading this too. Scarily still very relevant. However I think that #14 is very important!

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