Sunday, January 4, 2009

On Education (Four): Process

I recently got back from visiting my son and his family in Bermuda. While I was there I was asked to meet the board of trustees and some of the parents of one of the Bermuda elementary schools, who wanted to know how I felt about competency testing in general and NCLB in particular. As I considered what I might want to say about that issue, I found myself working backward toward more the centrally held philosophical principles which have informed my ideas about education even from the start of my career and continue to do so today. One of those philosophical principles is the Taoist concept of wu-wei, which translates roughly as "non-action," or sometimes "emptiness." The student, or the sage, or the teacher, who wishes to be in harmony with the Tao must first learn that there are times when it is best to do nothing, so that the Tao can take its course. I think the same is true, to some degree, in the classroom. One of my early mentors, the writer and writing teacher Donald Murray, used to say  "I try to underteach so my students can overlearn." He saw it as his job to create an environment in his classroom which gave students room to explore on their own. His motto as a teacher might well have been, "Don't just do something. Stand there."

I've argued in previous posts for the value of creating classroom environments which are 1) process-oriented, 2) project-based, and 3) student-centered. My lament about standards-based education, as it is generally being implemented, is that it is none of these things. The stakes are too high. If I am a teacher and I know that I have 90 hours in a semester with a particular class, and that the students' success, and my own, is going to be evaluated primarily on the basis of a content-based test, that pushes everything else they, or I, might want to do right off the table. We can't take time to talk about and restructure our processes. We can't afford to "waste time" on projects that may or may not be relevant to what's going to be on the test. What individual students might choose to do or not to do to demonstrate what they are learning or have learned is not up for negotiation.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to assessment, and I'm not opposed to direct instruction when direct instruction is called for. The image I am carrying in my head for the "balance" that I spoke about in my last post is that of an accordian player. There's a dual dynamic in accordian playing: in and out; opening up and closing down. A well-designed instructional program should have, in my judgement, a similar dynamic: spaces for exploration (opening up), other spaces for direct instruction in skills or content related to that exploration (closing down). Then opening up again, and so on.

I've just finished reading Lewis Hyde's The Gift, (referenced in a previous post ) which is one of the most thoughtful and erudite - and beautifully written - books of our era. It's primary area of exporation has to do with the differences between gift-based cultures and commodity-based cultures. (Digression: one of his side points has to do with why it is that practioners in gift-oriented professions — like teaching — are not paid well within a commodity-oriented culture. He says, for example, "...there are labors that do not pay because they, or the ends to which they are directed, require built-in constraints on profiteering, exploitation, and — more subtly — the application of comparative value with which the market is by nature at ease." (138) But that's a discussion for another post, perhaps.)

Anyway, at one point in the book, during his analysis of the thinking and writing of Ezra Pound, he winds up talking about the role of willpower in the artistic endeavor:

There are at least two phases in the completion of a work of art, one in which the will is suspended and another in which it is active. The suspension is primary. It is when the will is slack that we feel moved or we are struck by an event, intuition, or image. The materia must begin to flow before it can be worked... (289)

That strikes me as being true to my own experience as a writer, and, more to the point, to my experience as a teacher. First we must find the materia. That is a process that is not fostered by, and is often actually inhibited by, the imposition of willpower. The materia must make its own appearance. Once it has appeared, or arisen, or arrived, then the will — and the critical facilities responsible for shaping and sequencing and re-presenting the materia — can take over.

Earlier in the book, talking about Whitman, Hyde says that the process of creation can be compared to the in and out movement of the breath itself:

These gestures — the inhalation and the exhalation, the reception and the bestowal — are the structuring elements of the poem, the passive and active phases of the gifted state... In sympathy, the poet receives (inhales, absorbs) the embodied presences of creation into the self; in pride, he asserts (exhales, emanates) his being out toward others. As with any respiration, this activity keeps him alive... (222-3)

As with any respiration, this activity keeps him alive. In like manner, a classroom which provides room for students to breathe, which allows them both to absorb and to emanate, provides a context not just for respiration but for inspiration.

What we are talking about here, of course, is process. I have not said a word about content here, about what subject we might be teaching or what is going to be on the final assessment. I'm trying to articulate the process dynamics that make sense to me as a teacher. And I'd like to spell out the implication of all this, which is that while it is all and good that I as a writer and you as a reader, presumably interested in education, if you've read this far, might be able to discuss our process intuitions and concerns deep into the night, it is not enough. It's not enough unless the students learn to think about process issues as well. It's easy enough for us as teachers to set up our classrooms in such a way that all the students need to do is jump through a given set of hoops. But if we set up our classrooms that way, how will the students ever learn how to manage — and to measure — their own thinking, their own learning, their own progress? Imagine a class - any subject, it doesn't matter - in which students are given the opportunity (and, yes, the time, the time, the time) to ask themselves "What have we done? Where are we now? What's are the options at this point? Where are we trying to get to? How might we get there? And, once we get there, how will we be able to document the process?

That's what I'm talkin' about.


Graham said...

Bruce, I have really enjoyed this series of posts especially in the light of a great many edubloggers pushing for "learning revolutions". Classrooms, good classrooms with switched on students, are not as you point out a series of skillfully constructed hoops for the students to jump through. Neither are they are open free-for-alls where teachers take all of their cues from their students. Balance IS essential. Maybe many American classrooms have adjusted their pedagogy to cope with the pressure of NCLB, but here in Australia, we have the freedom to work towards that balanced classroom that you describe so well. What frustrates me is when teachers fail to strive to provide that optimum environment - this is the crack that the high stakes testing supporter seeks to drive a wedge into.

Fred Haas said...

I too am exceedingly glad I stumbled upon your blog and this series of posts. They have been some of the most compelling reading in my RSS reader of 90+ feeds. You have given me many things to think about, concertizing many ideas that I have intuitively discovered in my own early practice as a teacher.

The issues of balance you mention are so important. When the balance swings too far in the assessment direction, I am remind me of an old quote by George Burns, the old vaudevillian who lamented later in his life on how things had changed in the entertainment business, “There is no place to be bad anymore.” Often we have to be bad before we can be good. It is a natural aspect of learning, and I think realizing this helps illuminate some of those moments when the materia is still elusive or simply when our process falters or fails.

I particularly love the accordion player metaphor, the dual dynamic image. Plus, your concluding remarks really spoke to me, a teacher who routinely challenges his students with comments like, “This is not a circus where you become trained monkeys that can simply jump through hoops.” Thanks for the thoughtful insights.