Saturday, June 18, 2022

A Dissertation Narrative: What's the Real Purpose for Pursuit of the Doctoral Degree?

Even some college professors in Educational Leadership Departments view everything people do through the lenses of Business and Utilitarian perspectives. I am reminded of this when I recall an event before I completed my doctorate, where one of my professors asked, "What is your dissertation about?" At that time I did not have a title, but told him that I was doing a historical some kind critique of using value-added measures to determine teacher quality. I was not really sure what I was doing anyway. After all, my doctoral experience was a journey of traveling down false paths and backtracking, not a linear journey from A, the beginning to Z destination. I allowed my reading and thinking to guide me. His immediate reaction? "What the hell are you going to do with that?" Obviously his question was well-intended, but it betrays the business-minded cultural underpinnings of an Ed Leadership program. He had in mind a linear process that ultimately would lead to some kind of fulfillment of personal ambition.

The dissertation experience in his eyes should have been about the utilitarian purpose of promoting career and future business prospects, not genuinely trying to add knowledge to the field, following where curiosity leads, or trying to call attention to an educational practice through critique. I am afraid that such thinking as this professor demonstrated is really indicative of how many educational leadership professors think in administration programs. You earn the degree to further your career. Sure, this is part of the reason. In my case, however, as I read and explored and read some more and explored, the ultimate product of the end my dissertation journey was the only possible outcome.

Several years out from graduation, I can really appreciate the experience, and not entirely for its potential to advance career or ambition. For now, through the doctoral process and through the act of wrestling with a dissertation, I know that I think more deeply and critically. My reading has broadened enormously as evidenced by my own library. But most of all, I exist in a field that is in need of individuals willing to live and do the work, but also be willing to ask difficult questions. I don't denigrate those who pursue higher education degrees entirely through professional ambition. That's as good a reason as any. But I also will always value both the journey and the product I produced at the end of the doctoral process. It's existence changed me forever.

What Really Bothers Politicians and Government Leaders About the Arts and Humanities? It's About Their Power

 “Without symbols of art, in all their many manifestations—painting and music, costume and architecture, poetry and sculpture—man would live culturally in a world of the deaf, dumb, and the blind.” Lewis Mumford, Art and Technics

Anyone notice how those same individuals who are seeking to disenfranchise voters, enact voting laws to increase the odds that their candidates get elected, and gerrymander voting districts to ensure their party's choices get elected, are the same individuals in our state legislatures trying to remodel education to get rid of subjects such as the arts and humanities, or at least sanitize them of anything they deem a danger to their power and ideology? 

The real reason for this is because, as Ruth O'Brien (2010) points out, "The humanities and arts play a central role in the history of democracy..." (p. ix). And that "great educators and nation-builders" of our past "understood how the arts and humanities teach children critical thinking that is necessary for independent action and for intelligent resistance to the power of blind tradition and authority" (p. ix).  If your goal is to remain in power no matter what, then anything, including the arts and humanities, which have the ability to instill within students, the ability and desire to question their government and their government leaders' actions, must be discarded. This political revising of these curriculum areas really explains why our state governments, in the hands of mostly men, whose desire is keep that power, are scrupulously attacking our schools and seeking to rewrite arts and humanities curriculums that promote unquestioning, blind acceptance of a version of the country's arts and history that deifies that country's status in the world.

These politicians know too well, that it has been through art and the humanities that those who are dissident and think differently, have in the past called attention to those who discriminate and enslave others; who promote their own self-interests above all other human beings; and who declare the environment theirs to dominate and exploit for profit. These subjects and their products have the potential to engage students in the learning process of "imagining the situations of others, a capacity essential for a successful democracy, a necessary cultivation of our "inner eyes" (O'Brien, 2010, p. ix).

Some of our current politicians and state government leaders in their efforts to rewrite school curriculum  want to "blind the inner eyes" of our young in order to solidify their power. They are rapidly and stealthily remodeling and revising education. They want a history that allows the inner eyes of children be directed toward only those events that paint an image of our nation as the "City on the Hill" and the "best country in the world," established by God to be a beacon to that world. That's why any historical content that counters this narrative is attacked, and critical theory is so frightening. 

In addition, these politicians and government leaders are demanding educators post lists of the literature read in classrooms so that any novels, poems, plays and essays that might contradict this narrative be challenged and discarded. The same would apply for works of art as well. These are desperate attempts by mostly men in our government, trying to preserve a narrative that is more myth than reality. Their own history they are trying to sanitize to their liking would tell them, if they looked closely enough, there will be resistance to their version of life and the world. The nation has already been built, with flaws of course, but deep in our DNA, and in our arts, literature, drama, and humanities, are the seeds of the resistance that will sprout in opposition to this version of America.

In the end, despite their efforts to control the arts, history, literature, and music in our schools, these government leaders will ultimately fail. There will always be ways for the inner eyes for students to catch glimpses of the situations of others and alternatives to this smothering and controlling version of education. You can try to fashion a world without thoughtful art, literature, music, historical critique, and create citizens that are "deaf, blind, and dumb" as Mumford points out. However, history shows that in such conditions, that very art and critique thrives and blossoms.

Mumford, L. (2000). Art and technics. Columbia University Press; New York, NY

O'Brien, R. (2010). "Foreword." Not for profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.


Sunday, June 5, 2022

Educators’ Quixotic Quest for Magic Potions and Elixirs to Make Learning Happen

 “In nature, there are no separate events. Nothing happens in isolation—not touching your head, not holding someone else’s hand, not looking at the stars, not breathing—nothing.” Alan Watts, Just So Money, Materialism, and the Ineffable, Intelligent Universe

There is a great deal of wisdom that educators ignore to their own peril. Alan Watts’ body of work is often ignored because of its heavy emphasis on eastern religions, such as Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Hinduism. It may be because his thought is too incomprehensible to Western Thought. It also may be because much of what he has to say disrupts our conventional ways of thinking about life and the universe. It does have the power to disrupt some of our thinking as well about education too.

Take the current belief that educators still hold onto that there is a solution out there that can be applied in teaching situations and bring about a desired result. That simple way of thinking has been at the heart of teaching since the turn of the twentieth century, and it seems sound. However, have really gotten any closer to finding the magical cures that will ultimately bring about the learning results we desire?

The data says we still struggle to close learning gaps and obtaining the results we desire. Why is that? It is rather simple, but much of the educational establishment stands with their fingers in their ears, like a little child who refuses to hear what they do not wish to hear. They want to continue to pour torrents of energy and effort into the search for the one measure A that can be applied to Student B and get result C.

I’ve written about this before, here and elsewhere. We are so caught in this quixotic quest for the miracle, we ignore the very wisdom of Eastern religions and what Watt’s so clearly points out: “Nothing happens in isolation.”

So how does this apply to educational thinking? It is rather simple: The search for a single practice or method to produce desired educational results is futile. Education, Teaching, Learning, Classrooms, Schools, Systems, Teachers, Students…are complex, and trying to approach the act of teaching by ignoring CONTEXT is a futile exercise and akin to a searching quixotic quest for magical potions and elixirs to make learning happen.

But, and I have to add this BUT to this information. But, the educational system and those that inhabit it like this status quo. As long as there hope that a magical method of teaching or learning exists, then snake-oil consultants and professional development pitch-persons have wares to sell. They can stand in the cyber-square of the internet hawking these wares and gobble up tax money galore. One can’t help but question for whose benefit such a system provides.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Teaching Is a Craft: It Will Never Be a Science

What if we have got it all wrong as educational professionals, that our enterprise of teaching is not a science, never was a science, and never can be a science? Instead, it is a craft, and we really should see ourselves as crafts-persons, and not as “scientists” tackling the problem of education.

We are still looking for the scientific recipes for teaching and have been searching for over a century now. The same applies to educational leadership, where we have been searching diligently for scientific principles to guide leaders in the field. Instead, in both fields we have had a endless torrent of fads and tactics-of-the-day to try address the same recurring problems and the new problems we face. In the end, we still have not made sure progress in resolving old issues like achievement gaps, student drop outs, and student apathy. Nor have we made any new headway to resolving new issues like increasing student apathy, raging societal inequality, and best-practice technological application. This is due in large part with the paradigms guiding teaching practice and teaching research. We are looking for method A that will definitively bring about result B, only discover each time, method A only sometimes brings about result A. This is because our thinking about environment C and the instructional materials we use aren’t as simple and uninvolved as we thought. Equally true, the students we work with aren’t standardized, which means we can’t really understand them on a macro-level as a hypothetical student; we have to understand them as individuals, as single complex human beings, not manipulable, standardized automatons who respond in predictable ways when certain teaching tactics are applied.

Hence my argument for teacher as a craftsperson…

It is important that educational craftspersons understand that we can’t direct learning, we can only guide conditions that make it possible. Like the metal craftsperson shaping a piece of steel into a sword, she can only create the conditions where this transformation can happen. Often, some equipment or tool issue or environmental issue intervenes unpredictably; it is then the craftsperson shows his true expertise by looking for an then applying an additional tactic. 

In education we rarely engage in these additional steps…we spend too much time in postmortem analysis with assessments scrutinizing what about our tactics failed, when if we had acted like a craftspersons, we would have analyzed the problem in a split second, used our experience, expertise, and knowledge to apply a solution while the learning was in progress. 

Education is not nor never will be like medicine. Educators would perform much more effectively if they viewed their work as a craft rather than as a practice infused with science applying cures to educational ills.

Richard Sennett writes in The Craftsman, “The corporate system that once organized careers is now a maze of fragmented jobs.” I can’t help but think of education slowly moving into this fragmented direction when it comes to teaching jobs. We’ve may have inadvertently imported this view of the teaching work from business and industry, whose management tenets so powerfully undergird educational leadership. Education once viewed teaching as a viable career…now it has become a stepping stone to other work. That’s why there’s the scramble to leave the classroom. The working conditions sustain this scramble along with the installed business-leadership hierarchy in public education now. In a word, the system no longer wants career teachers. Temporary workers are just fine. We don’t have to pay them as much. There is no long-term benefit plans to support like retirement pensions. This is accomplished by simply creating a front-loaded pay scale that pays people on the front end only marginally less than those who stay in the field 15 or 20 years. Education as a field no longer wants to foster teaching as career. It focuses instead on just getting individuals into the jobs shorterm in order bring about the short-term goals, and I would also add short-sighted goals, of test results.

While reading Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman another thought came to mind. Business and industry are fond of dictating to education what kinds of workers they need, when they are the ones who caused the massive mismatch between the labor force and their own needs. They wanted an unskilled immigrant labor force in the late nineteenth century to the early to mid twentieth century. They did not want an educated workforce because such workers would demand more pay and be more expensive. They still don’t really care about the educational attainment and training of workers; they are looking to add to their bottom lines and push educators to provide the workers that would add to their profits. 

In The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols describes his experience of become an expert in reading Soviet materials. He states:

“Another mark of true experts is their acceptance of evaluation and correction by other experts. Every professional group and expert community has watchdogs, boards, accreditors, and certification authorities whose job is to police its own members and to ensure not only that they live up to the standards of their own specialty, but also that their arts are practiced only by people who actually know what they’re doing.” (p. 35)

In education, because of managerial business ideology and discourse, the expertise of the teacher has been disrupted and destroyed by de-professionalizing practices. Education may never recover from these influences.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Social Media…Emphasis on MEEEEEdia: Fatal Flaws of the 21st Century Supermarket Tabloid

Over time I have come to discovery that the flaws in the architecture of all social media platforms are irreparable and can’t be redeemed. As a thoughtful and reflective critic, I have no choice but place social media on the figurative supermarket tabloid rack where the National Enquirer and Weekly World News reside. 

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—even LinkedIn are all media doomed because of one major fundamental flaw: they presume that the individual should be able to choose the information they encounter and that those same individuals should be able to selfishly screen out the information that makes them uncomfortable and fundamentally question their lives, their beliefs, and even their place in the world. It is really ideas that disturb us, that make us uncomfortable that make us reflective and introspective. Without them, we unquestionably follow doctrine and demagogues, and become entangled in the webs of propaganda spun by authoritarian quacks.

Social media…which should really be spelled….social MEEEEEEEDIA, unfortunately has been responsible for much of polarization and partisan divide that exists in our country. It is a technology that allows individuals to live comfortably in alternative universes and in worlds of alternative facts. It also assumes too much, that those who inhabit their milieus know the difference.

Neil Postman somewhat prophetically captured this fatal flaw in social media way back in 1988 when he wrote: 

“Just as the language itself creates culture in its own image, each new medium of communication re-creates or modifies culture in its image; and it is extreme naïveté to believe that a medium of communication or, indeed, any technology is merely a tool, a way of doing.” Neil Postman, Conscientious Objections

We were, I was, naive to believe that social media was or ever would be, “Just a tool, a way of connecting.” It has “re-created” and “modified” our culture in its image, which is a culture where my own beliefs, biases, prejudices, and nonsense constantly validated. The “Me” in social media’s architecture has cultivated a society where what I believe is true and everything else and everyone else on on highways to hell. As a tool for connecting individuals with others, social media has failed colossally.

It is time to stop calling “social media” simply at “tool” with just a communicative purpose. With its algorithms and architecture, it is designed most exclusively as a propaganda tool (which in my thinking is simply a more harsh but correct characterization of the term “marketing”), and is not just a tool to disseminate information. It shoves only the information its users wish to see, only the most propagandistic ideas into the minds of its users. And, add the fact that one can “pay” to promote your posts, and you have the ability to promote ideas, not because they are beneficial or right or just or worthwhile, but because you have financial means to affect the minds of others.

One can only take a look at some of my past blog posts and see that I once believe the stories social media sites used to promote themselves as tools for individuals to connect. But I was wrong. Social media platforms are fatally constructed as they are. They are disinformation and malinformation machines and anyone using them now needs to keep all such sites figuratively located on the supermarket tabloid rack next to the National Enquirer when it comes to what you read therein. 


Saturday, January 30, 2021

Calls to Reopen Schools to Face-to-Face Learning Due to CDC Research Ignores Everything That Research Says

 When the latest CDC research was release on January 26, 2021 in the JAMA article, "Data and Policy to Guide Opening Schools Safely to Limit the Spread of SARS-CoV-2 Infection," calls to Reopen Schools has increased each day. But many of those state governors and politicians as well as others selectively read only a portion of the article that says:

"...there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission."

They read this statement and ignore other parts of the same article which also state that, 

"Preventing transmission in school settings will require addressing and reducing levels of transmission in the surrounding communities through policies that interrupt transmission (eg, restrictions on indoor dining at restaurants. In addition, all recommended mitigation measures in schools must continue: requiring universal mask use, increasing physical distance by dedensifying classrooms and common areas, using hybrid attendance models when needed to limit the total number of contacts and prevent crowding, increasing room air ventilation, and expanding screening testing to rapidly identify and isolate asymptomatic individuals. Staff and students should continue to have options for online education, particularly those at increased risk off severe illness or death if infected with SARS-CoV-2."

So, yes there is little evidence of transmission within schools, but there are also some additional measures schools should take to keep that transmission low. They include, according to the CDC:

1) Limit and restrictions on establishments, such as restaurants and gyms, in the community that do increase transmission rates within the community. (This one is never mentioned by governors who declare we need to get students back in schools.)

2) Continue to require masks in schools by all individuals.

3) Dedensify classrooms, cafeterias, and other common areas. This means reducing the number of people in these spaces at one time so that social distance can be practiced.

4) Use hybrid models of attendance so that the number of students in the buildings and on buses are reduced to allow for distancing.

5) Increase ventilation in buildings.

6) Expand rapid testing ability so that asymptomatic individuals can be isolated quickly.

7) Reduce and postpone school activities such as athletics, assemblies, concerts, and other events that are social gatherings that increase the risk of transmission. 

The use of this article as a political sledgehammer to get schools reopened entirely is clearly underway. Yes, schools can reopen, but it is going to take the courage of our political leaders to make decisions that will perhaps restrict indoor dining and to provide schools with level of funding needed to dedensify education spaces too.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Need to Be Skeptical and Critical of STEM Education and Business Demands for Certain Kinds of Graduates

"...it was in the 1990s that shop class started to become a thing of the past, as educators prepared students to become 'knowledge workers.'" Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft

I recently read Matthew B. Crawford's book Shop Class as Soulcraft, which I highly recommend for all educators. This quote from the beginning of the book captured my attention immediately because the book as a whole outlines an important mindset educators have been neglecting when it comes to thinking about the kinds of graduates we should be producing. The prevailing thinking today is that public education's job is to produce the kinds of workers that business and industry currently demands. To me that is shortsighted and a disservice to our students and society.

The education system has taken on the role of distributing people in the niches needed by business and industry. In the case described by Crawford, when business calls for "knowledge workers," the system reacts and cuts funding of some programs and distributes students into the chosen learning niches of business and industry. The problem with the education system reacting in this manner, is that they place students in niches that might be short-lived due to business and industry's concerns with short-term profits and benefits. 

Business and industry rarely has only the long-term interests of students and people in general in mind. Hence, the evidence of this is their decisions to move entire production lines overseas or to lay workers off for the sake of short-term stock benefit. Education systems that purely have their students' interests in mind will look with a skeptical eye towards the kinds of workers called for from the private sector. It does not mean that the system ignores them entirely, but educators need to remember that the way business ideology is currently constructed in the United States especially, is more libertarian and tilted toward the idea that what is best for them is what is best for everybody. A quick glance at history immediately dispels this illusion. Maybe instead of shoving students into the STEM niche, we need a broader consideration of their potentials and interests. Niche-learning limits possibilities rather than increases them despite what the pro-business and STEM evangelists would have us believe.

Educators need to be critical and skeptical of claims made by politicians regarding what kinds of graduates are needed. We can certainly listen, but we also need to remember that they are obligated by current economic and business ideology to look after themselves. Shoving every student into some STEM approach to education or making sure every student can program might not be in some students' best interest. As Matthew Crawford laments in his book, the decline of shop class to produce so-called 21st century workers might not be the best course for our students. We are still going to need shop mechanics, bricklayers, carpenters, and other trades, and there can be great satisfaction in doing this work as a life-long career. We are also going to need writers, artists, musicians. Let's remember that programs like STEM education and other initiatives can place limits on students' futures rather than possibilities.