August 05, 2006

Decontextualization

Deborah Britzman's book Practice Makes Practice is giving me lots of food for thought (see previous post). I haven't got to the digestion stage yet: I see many different dishes on the table, most of them are new and unfamiliar to me (imagine a table-full of Indian or Chinese dishes).

Here are a few concepts or themes that I have caught hold of. One is decontextualization. Altho Britzman doesn't use the term in this case, this is one example that I found memorable: the critical theorist Theodor Adorno asks what is the responsibility of educators after Auschwitz? And perhaps we in Japan can ask "after Aum 's sarin attack?" (take a look at the the educational history of the perpetrators).
How does it happen that catastrophic history is so easily forgotten, or reduced to an answer to a question on a test? Unlike contemporary discussions of historical amnesia, Adorno believed that knowledge itself, in a place called education, became irrelevant. This, for him, was the crisis of education.

Elsewhere in the book:
In a study of stratification and credentialization in education, Randall Collins points out that much of the impetus to make education compulsory came from the need to control the socialization of the children of European immigrants in order to perpetuate the values and insterests of the middle class and the knowledge base of traditional Anglo-Protestant culture. The myth was that education was to serve as the "melting pot" of culture. That metaphor itself was manipulative, not descriptive:
Insofar as the school system was created to resolve the [severe multiethnic] strife by reducing cultural diversity, one can say it has met with a degree of success. It did manage to make training in Anglo-Protestant culture and political values compulsory for all children up to a certain age, and it did make it virtually compulsory for a continually increasing period beyond this if the student wanted to be economically successful.
On the other hand, Collins indicates that as the press for credentials beyond high school became more and more a prerequisite for employment and social mobility, the knowledge base of compulsory education appeared more trivial because it had no relevancy to the majority of students' lives or to their future as workers.

I'm just blogging these because they caught my attention, not because I think they are related. I'm not even sure why they caught my attention.

The first, about the problem of knowledge, I connect with the search for meaning. Humans need to find meaning in what they do, and that does not stop when they enter a classroom, either as students or teachers. And yet, Adorno seems to be suggesting that knowledge is rendered meaningless by the very environment of "education", by which I guess he means schools, as education is not "a place".

I find myself connecting this with Mosaic of Thought's rationale for coaching students to make connections between what they read and their own experience. This seems to me a vital part of finding meaning in reading or studying or learning. Without this kind of connecting, linking words and concepts (abstract realities) with our own felt experience and feelings, it is easy for momentous events to become just items on a test, bereft of meaning. Britzman's descriptions of the 2 student teachers contains several examples of where their own idealistic and naive hopes and expectations failed to materialize. In some cases, what sabotaged the success was the very ideas the student-teachers held as to what a teacher is, what teaching is.

Jamie, a student teacher who hated school, chooses The Ox Bow Incident as a text.
At first glance, themes from The Ox Bow Incident should have lent themselves first to an investigation into justice, socialized bigotry, and its consequential mob violence, and then on to a student's own life and investiment in social justice. During these classroom discussions, Jamie's primary objective was to communicate with students. This was missing in her own education. So raising grand questions and soliciting student responses to them was her primary pedagogical approach. The problem was that Jamie took up a discursive practice in which her students could not participate. The philosophic nature of her questions must have seemed puzzling to the students... The silence of the students was puzzling to Jamie. She identified and empathized with them, and presumed herself to know as they knew. And yet Jamie did not understand the way in which classroom discourse is done, that classroom discourse makes certain things sayable and others not...Jamie continued to identify more with the students than with the teachers. Official and unofficial student communication, however, was fraught with contradictory advice...In an attempt to establish a less contradictory communication, Jamie decided to take calss time and talk about the relationships between the explicit curriculum, the hidden curriculum, school structure, and her own teaching intentions. She meant to have students explore how their experience in school shaped learning expectations, their own sense of power, and their relationships with teachers and other students. During this classroom discussion, Jamie violated a cultural rule by stepping out of her teaching role: she attempted to critique the very system that, in the eyes of her students, she also represented....
Jamie's recolleciton of this discussion opens the tension created by her desire to personalize learning in an environment maintained by objectified social relationships...
Jamie's understanding of this cultural tension was reminiscent both of her working-class background and of her present status as a student teacher: preparing for the harsh reality turned into simulating one. This reality, constructed as if it were "other", appeared as if it could not be changed. To take up this reality meant instituting authoritarian pedagogy. On the other hand, Jamie desired to create a learning environment that valued ambiguity, subjectivity, contradictions, and the struggle for voice. But because these features of humanity contest institutional values of stability, certainty, and control, and because Jamie was not familiar with the discursive practices that might provision a pedagogy from such existential dimensions of life, all she could express to her students was what she hoped they might do.

I see myself reflected. I think I'm becoming increasingly aware of the stresses and strains that are a part of being a teacher. Like Jamie, I have alternately blamed the school structure for producing passive students and blamed the students for their inability to try new ways to learn. Britzman seems to be suggesting that these stresses and tensions are intrinsic to the situation, and that a way forward can be found by first going back, by examining my own autobiography, as a student and as a teacher.

I'll have to stop here, or I'll be just quoting the whole bloody book, but here's one last snippet, that links back to Mosaic of Thought and ways of engaging students in their own learning by teaching them how to create and find connections.
Implicit in Jamie's stance was one counterstrategy, "the autobiographical impulse," the ways in which we use our personal experience to connect and engage with others. She invoked the terror of her own educational biography and invited students to do likewise. But more than merely "swapping stories", Jamie had faith that stories were instructive in and of themselves. The problem, as revealed in the student discourse, is that relevancy does not have a monolithic and self-evident meaning. Jamie expected her students to assume the value of their personal voices, but in a context that militated against such ownership. .. She thought that if given the opportunity, students would naturally take charge of their education and be clear about their learning needs. Jamie's organic theory of educational development, however, did not take into account the power relations of any classroom or the ways in which power is negotiated. Nor could she think about the problem of agency, that agency encompasses not just our capacity for social change, but the ways in which our interventions become populated with institutional imperatives and constraints, and thus produce practices that betray our deep investments. Jamie expected that if she identified with the students' experiences, they would reciprocate. While none of these expectations materialized, they both organized her perceptions of classroom life and contributed to contradictory interpretations of its meanings.

Got that? OK, good night!

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