Wednesday, December 28, 2022

When Educators Use the Word "Science" and the Need for Critical Thinking

 "Science can be a language of distance which reduces a being to its working parts; it is language of objects."  Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

Educators and education policymakers have discovered a new word "science." Well, it's not new to them, but some educators have figured out that by placing the words "Science of" before whatever topic they wish, somehow transforms that topic into something that is to be heeded and given authority. For example, I remember some state level educators throwing around the words "Science of Change" or "Science of Innovation" at a professional development session pushing some new curriculum scheme the state wanted to be accepted. It's as if by talking about "change" being a "scientific discipline, it should be accepted without question. Never mind that often with change, the important questions are not scientific at all. The questions of value, like "Who is affected by this change?" and "Who gains the most from this change?" are extremely important as well. Change and innovation are too often pushed for their own sake, or for the sake of some career that stands to gain from its implementations. 

We need to realize that the placement of the word "Science" before change, or innovation, or, most recently, "Reading" does not make the contents of that field any more legitimate and immune to critique. In fact, we should turn on the critical thinking even more when educators throw around the word science in this manner, because they have done it so often in the at the turn of the 20th century with the term eugenics. At that time, education leaders and policy makers did a great deal of talking about the science of eugenics too, and we all know the ethical issues with that science.

As Kimmerer points out, it is important to understand the effects of imposing the language of science on anything, even reading. It creates a distance between us and that object. It tears it down into working parts pretty well, but in the end, you sometimes don't understand it any more than when you started your "scientific study." Sometimes, an act like reading needs to be understood as a whole too. If we reduce the act of reading too much as some kind of simple skill that can be taught, we actually ignore the fact that reading is really a personal, meaning-making experience too among other things. It is actually a subversive activity too if we let it be.

Educators always need to be skeptical of their colleagues and educational gurus throwing around the word science. It's very appropriate to ask tough questions, even the questions they would like to be out of bounds.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Time to Demote Social Media to Super-Market Tabloid Status

Because corporations are not elected, they cannot be voted out, and yet they have become pseudogovernmental by virtue of their wealth, power, and the reach of their technological systems. Their leaders insist that they, and they alone, know what is best for us—from what information we should see to how much privacy we should retain. Increasingly, these companies have placed themselves in the role of determining how we move about in the world, literally and figuratively, and their power to define our reality increasingly extends to the power to decide elections in the US and other nations, taking away our most fundamental rights as citizens to self-determination." Mar Hicks, "When Did the Fire Start" in Your Computer Is On Fire

It's time to demote social media's status in our lives.

The problem with social media systems like Twitter, is that we have given them too much power over us. They have become "pseudo-governmental," to use the term used by Hicks (2021), which means they become the unelected governors over the information diet we consume. 

Place an autocratic, narcissistic CEO in charge of such companies, which is what we have in Elon Musk, and the real danger is that the social media system becomes at best a polluted information ecosystem flooded with misinformation and nonsense. At worse, the social media system becomes a propaganda mechanism, promoting what a CEO like Musk thinks is best for us. The question then becomes do we really want someone like Musk deciding what information is relevant for us? Do we want him determining what free speech means? I think not. 

We as consumers get to really decide how much value social media has in our lives. Honestly, I think we should not have listened to the techno-utopian hype in the 2000s that promised that social media would foster connections and community. It hasn't. We are more separated and polarized than ever, and social media is the cause. It is time to relegate social media to the same status as the super-market tabloid.

Edu-Techno-Utopian Voices Got It Wrong with Remote Learning

“No matter the problem, it seems, a chorus of techno-utopian voices is always at the ready to offer up 'solutions' that, remarkably enough, typically involve the same strategies (and personnel) as those that helped give rise to the crisis in the first place. We can always code our way out, we are assured. We can make, bootstrap, and science the shit out of this.” Thomas S. Mullaney, "Your Computer Is On Fire"

Interesting thoughts here by Mullaney and some truth. There truly exists “a chorus of techno-utopian voices…ready to offer up ‘solutions’ that…typically involve the same strategies (and personnel) as those helped give rise to the crisis in the first place.” Education has its own “techno-utopian chorus” that sings of tech-solutions to everything that ails us in education too. Educational problems are seen as opportunities to solve with technology. But, as the recent remote learning experiment clearly demonstrated, our educational problems are not always solvable with tech. 

In fact, the application of tech, like in this situation, often amplifies existing problems, and causes a whole set of new problems. For example, in the remote learning experiment, the problem of parental involvement in their children’s education was magnified for those students because parents who were able to assist were either non-existent or not available. The students that remote learning most penalized were these students. There was not a ZOOM technology that could solve this issue because it was a problem before the pandemic, and it was a problem magnified during.  A whole set of new problems accompanied the remote learning experiment too. For example, how to effectively provide the services, such as counseling, therapy, and lunch to students who were not physically present, not to mention the issue of missing socialization with peers that works best in physical presence. 

As Mullaney points out, our first reaction as educators is to try to “code our way out” of the problem, or “science the shit out of it.”  Perhaps the problem in education is our recurring turn toward technology for answers. Sure, the tech industry loves that thinking and helps foster it, but we need to think independently. 

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.