What (Should) We Talk About When We Talk About Education(?): Freedom, Growth, and the Right Question.

I’ve been reading this morning an incredible overview of bell hooks’ book, Teaching to Transgress. (Huge thank you to Chris McNutt at The Human Restoration Project (HRP)).  hooks should be required reading for all educators, for she persuasively reveals why structures that empower all students are crucial to the continued pursuit of education as a human endeavor in freedom and liberation, and, even more important, to our democracy itself.

Screen Shot 2019-11-10 at 8.08.07 AMThe Human Restoration Project’s review of Teaching to Transgress summarizes part of hooks’ challenge to her readers as a call to change the system of education itself:  “To change education means to rebel against prevailing notions of what education means — to dismiss grading as an inauthentic means of communicating standing, to challenge content relevance and usage, to reinvigorate pedagogy that puts learning in the hands of students beyond faux choice, to create communities of compassion and tolerance by enlightening the prevailing oppressive narrative. ”

I have no problem with the understanding that content itself is important.  One cannot think creatively and critically if one has no knowledge to turn over, probe, question.  However, when students remain mere vessels to be filled and there are no structures to A) actuate the knowledge they attain  in uncertain, ambiguous scenarios, and B) question the nature and origin of that knowledge to begin with, we are in danger of falling into the type of passive and compliant schools we seek to escape with our rhetoric of student-centered/learner-centered-ness.  Mere lip service to these goals only perpetuates “the oppressive narrative.”

At least one major plotline in that oppressive narrative is that learning is actually an

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Source: NYU

exercise in achievement.  That exercise manifests as the incessant striving to jump another hurdle or check off another box.  The oppression here perverts human life itself, turning us into creatures ever driven to get to the next checkbox.  “I’ll have time to live when I pass calculus” becomes “I’ll have time to live when I get my masters” becomes “I’ll have time to live when I get that raise in salary” becomes “I’ll have time to live when I retire.” 

Many schools are beginning to shift their narratives to more learner-centered methods.  My own district’s shifts to #pvempowers and #pvsddoschooldifferent are a start in moving away from the oppressive narratives.   But they and all such efforts are mere digital rhetoric if we do not act within the spaces those terms create to truly honor the curiosity and voice of all learners.

For me, such action begins with questions:  two of them emblazon the wall in my classroom (see image below).  The first is a question that empowers students to inquiry:  “Why are things the way they are?”  I believe it should be the primary question in all classrooms.  It is certainly the primary question in the mind of a K—2 aged child.

The second question, “How can we make them better?,”  speaks to something we need to recognize more, and to which bell hooks is directly speaking:  agency.  All humans have agency, but schools, in the name of efficiency and normative measures, serve as obstacles to students exercise of that agency.  And as all learning initiates in questions, the greatest obstacle the system presents is the lack of student questioning.

Why are things the way they are...As a debate coach of 27 years, student questioning was central to my practice with the team and in my classroom.  But for most of those years, my classroom students’ questions were based upon free-form generation, tapping into their natural curiosity.  Then, about a decade ago, I discovered the Right Question Institute and their Question Formulation Technique.  The Right Question Institute tags itself as a “Catalyst for Microdemocracy” and it founds that democratic action in questions.

Little I’ve done in over 25 years in the classroom has the impact of the QFT.  It is built with simplicity and rigor and it delivers on both areas.  However, one should not believe this is as easy as, “Just let them ask questions.”   Its simplicity is deceptive, and any teacher employing the QFT needs to prepare and establish consistency for the technique to work.

But the results of proper implementation are immediate.  The students are engaged, deeply, in the work.  I’ve seen them lose themselves in developing questions, restating questions, and prioritizing questions, and the thing is, all these questions are coming from them.  Yes, the teacher must have a purpose for these questions, and that constraint helps guide the later parts of the generation process, but it does nothing to change the fact that the students are allowed to “linger at the point of wonder” and touch base with their curiosity in a way that honors every student’s ideas and direction.

While I’ve spoken mostly of the benefits of the QFT to students, make no mistake, the most crucial change the process brings about is within us, the “educators.”  In American public education, we are engaged in the creation of a liberally educated populous.  The word, “liberal,” however has acquired such a political charge that many turn away before understanding the history of the word itself.  Professor William Cronon does such justice to this adjective that I defer here to his brilliant words from the essay, “Only Connect,” which gives this blog its name.

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The worn but valid metaphor, then, is that educators are gardeners, nurturers of freedom and growth, for whom a liberal education is not a tool of some leftist conspiracy driven by trigger words like “social justice” and “white privilege” but rather is the very basis for all the benefits of this, the world’s longest experiment in self-rule.  Thus, education is about liberation, about freedom, about empowering people to take charge of their lives rather than live them as dictated by others.  In other words, it is about questioning our educational systems, our roles in them, our part in forming them, and about narrating our own way out of the oppressive narratives of those self-same systems.

What the Right Question Institute and their Question Formulation Technique get so right is the power of questions within democratic structures.  They are not merely methods through which to learn information.  Questions are the main tool of growth, liberation, and freedom.  They probe for information to better inform the polity.  They expose corruption, unmask deception, and hold power accountable.

Could anything be more important in our wickedly complex world?

 

Learning vs. Doing School

The next post in my 200 Word, 3 blog challenge from IMMOOC:

What are your connections to the “School vs Learning image (see above)? What would you add or modify?

Let’s talk about “connections.”   “Connections” was the name of the middle school humanities course I developed and evolved over a course of 20 years (1996–2014).  And so when I first read The Innovator’s Mindset, I realized how deeply I’d grown, over the years, into seeing Connections not as a place in school, but as a place of learning.  The class came out of a district-wide charette and was charged with exploring the connections between the arts and humanities.

We spent several weeks in “I-Search” projects (the 1980s equivalent of a 20 Time Project) delving into learner’s passions and interests.  My goal was to have them asking more
Right Question Institute questIons than me (thank you, ), to explore deeply, and to look at the world and ask two key questions:  Why are things the way they are?  and How can we make them better?

 

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We drew mindmaps, engaged in weekly seminars, wrote poems, learned about photography, and were producers, not merely consumers of culture.  Essentially, the children in Connections had agency over their education.  They were learners, not students.

Thus, if I were to add anything to this image, I’d add that “school is what we do to students…because” and “learning is driven by human beings with the freedom to exert their own agency towards productive cognitive ends.”  (Yeah, that last is a bit “academic,” but it’s what I’ve got.)

(Images from How Stuff Works, and Inhabitat.com)

Morally Good Lies, Questions, and a Bias Towards Action: Reading, Interpreting, and Making in the Classroom

For the first part of this year my students, in all my classes (9th and 10th grade Gifted English, and Design Lab) have been keeping blogs (somewhat infrequently) on the books we’re reading or the things we’ve been doing in our Design Lab.  What strikes me most about these blogs (and granted, I’m late to the student blogging party–maybe because it was always such a hassle to get kids to the computer lab) is that the vast majority of them are polished and highly readable.  As well, the insights, especially into our activities (in d-lab) or our readings provide a quicker and richer way for me to understand what my students understand.

I’m more than pleased.

Below I link to several blogs from my Gifted English Classes.  They’ve been reading Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories.  This particular reading was kicked off with the use of a Question Formation Technique, a method I learned by reading Make Just One Change, a fantastic publication that outlines the work of “The Right Question Institute.”  (If you’re a teacher and you’ve not worked at trying to get your students to ask more question or to improve the questions they do ask, I know of no other text that goes to the depth, that argues with such passion and experience for the importance of teaching people how to ask the right questions as this text does.)

haroun-and-the-hoopoeI focused the student’s questioning around a focus point that I’d devised to help them think about an issue that is central to all we do in English:  “Fictional Stories are Morally Good Lies.”  This Question Focus led to a day of question asking, grouping, rewriting, and synthesizing… or well over 200 original questions which we paired down to approximately 25 question areas.

As we read the story, students were never too far from the ideas of art, truth, and lies, a notion that so many artists in all media have questioned and investigated through their work.  As you read the their blogs, you’ll notice how the students returned again and again to the issue of storytelling and morally good lies.

Gigi’s Journey,   Olivia’s Playground, Mind Depiction, Adventures of a Teenage Dreamer An Abundance of Thought

 

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In my Design Lab course, students have been blogging approximately once every 7 school days.  Their insights into process, product, the human centered nature of design thinking, collaboration–indeed to learning in a way that is, for most of them, rather different than what they are used to–is always frank, often complementary, but never without legitimate and often incisive criticism.  This is what I’d wanted from blogs–informal writing that is at once full of voice, clear in purpose, and directed towards an audience beyond our walls.

Smooth Sailing…  AKA Enlightenment  I Have No Idea What I’m Doing  Acute Ideation