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Picking your poison

Posted By: Ross Mitchell on June 17, 2002
The critique offered here is quite valid, but I would say that having a favorite reason for why a foundations course is unsuccessful does not get at constructing a classroom experience that works. A favorite reason is simply a focal point for change. Our discussion points at the painful shortcomings of educational theory, or at least its use. We are not addressing a common set of constructs, with agreed upon labels, with which to engage this discussion.

For example, my original critique was intended to draw attention to fundamental issues of motivation in social interaction without regard for curriculum or instruction, at least not directly. The comment to which I am responding seeks to bring us back to the standard categories of schooling. This should be praised. Dwelling on motivation prevents recognition of the social structuring of the classroom experience.

Yes, many of the standard foundations texts are terribly boring and the current literature embraces a style of discourse that is uncommon and, at times, impenetrable. I hated the texts I encountered in my doctoral program, but that did not prevent me or my classmates from being intrigued by the issues and ideas.

Yes, some of the instructional practices utilized by university professors are less than invigorating and some of these folks have their standard soapbox. However, many professors really do want to hear what students have to say and students often feel compelled to speak, so this can't be the whole answer either.

Yes, language use and style is a BIG DEAL. Getting the discourse can be a huge barrier. Many in the university, as well as current and future teachers, recognize that more "plain" talk would facilitate general participation and engagement. I am not sure that the university classroom is so heavily burdened with alienating discourse. (This is a subject for empirical investigation, not just speculation.) What I am sure of is that there are varying levels of interest in learning and sustaining a discourse style that has no place outside of the university, which would certainly result in a non-uniform embrace of current texts in educational foundations.

What I think is necessary here is to engage the full range of issues implicit in this conversation. We have labored over motivation, recognizing various reasons for a lack thereof or impediments to raising it, though we have not considered all of the major issues surrounding motivation (e.g., Where is the material of personal reward? Where is the sense of social affirmation that comes from participating in this educational exercise?).

Appropriately, we now have to address basic matters of curriculum and instruction, i.e., how the classroom experienced is organized. What are the readings? What are the lectures? What are the discussion topics? What are the assignments? WHAT ARE THE COURSE OBJECTIVES? What must be accomplished so that both the teacher and the student can agree that the course has been completed to their mutual satisfaction (or is this possible)?

But I wish to remind everyone that we also have to remember that this course is part of a larger plan of study toward a credential of some sort (i.e., teaching license and/or university degree). How well is the course articulated with the curriculum in which it is embedded? What claim is made by it and other elements of this curriculum? What evidence can be offered that this course empowers professional practice?

Finally, I return to the problem of power, politics, and moralization. Teachers can energetically explore the reasons why schooling is or is not successful in both their personal practice and more generally, but how far can they go before they run up against something greater than their individuals selves? Though teachers can be told they have a moral obligation to have a clear, coherent, and consistent educational philosophy guiding their professional practice, they have little power to enact their complete package. We may wish to point to individual acts of heroism, but it is only wish such formal institutions as tenure and collective bargaining units that teachers have the protection necessary to try to come close to such a realization. Administrative ability to dismiss and the ability to redistribute resources can dramatically constrain teachers' behavior.

Further, philosophical or ideological positions embraced by teachers may result in a program for teaching that is politically at odds with peers, superiors, students, and/or the community. Whether seeking to reproduce or transform the social order, teachers cannot do it alone.

Finally, because education is so political and educational credentials are so important for gatekeeping to the middle class and the professions, there is a moralizing that goes on without ceasing. Teachers get caught in the character assaults that go with the persistent politics of education. Thus, the clear critique about whether or not this discussion has been nothing but a character assault is important to reflect upon. What is the status competition and control of resources and privileges that is implicit in this threaded discussion?

I am sure that I have overstayed my welcome here, but I hope that we can move forward from agonizing over our troubles to enacting new ways to encounter the challenges of teaching the foundations of education. Analysis, by itself, does not make anything happen. We need to take seriously the challenge of defining what we wish to accomplish and what might be betters ways to go about attaining that end.
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 The Primacy Paradox by Jeff McCullers on April 26, 2002
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