Teaching Toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom
reviewed by Geert ten Dam - 2006
Title: Teaching Toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom
Author(s): William Ayers
Publisher: Beacon Press, Boston
ISBN: 0807032689, Pages: 168, Year: 2004
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In Teaching toward freedom: Moral commitment and ethical action in the classroom, William Ayers takes us on his quest for fostering humanity and freedom through education. Why do we teach? In his own words: to demonstrate to students, and to yourself, through daily effort and interaction, that they are valued, that their humanity is honoured, and that their growth, enlightenment, and liberation are the paramount concern (pp. 33-34). In order to elaborate on this humanistic perspective on the development of students, Ayers draws on film, poetry, novels, and various examples from everyday educational practice.
Each chapter is organized around a central question. In chapter 1 this is What is teaching for? The reader is presented with many counterexamples of the type of teaching Ayers aims at. Especially the importance of being able to make moral decisions is highlighted. Regarding the competences students need for this, the notions of will and responsibility are emphasized. The following two chapters (Who in the world am I? and Where is my place in the world?) concern the question of identity development. In order to enhance identity-in-formation it is argued that (moral) questions can never be answered definitively, by teachers nor by students. This brings the importance of dialogue out into the open. Chapter 4 (What are my choices?) emphasises the importance of small changes instead of monumental movements; small changes that influence the identity of teachers, students, and parents because they can have real ownership of these changes. In the last chapter, the journey of the book is summarized as a search for the ethical in teaching.
The focus of the Ayers book is sympathetic. Nevertheless I am very critical. This is mainly due to the character of the book. It reads more as a pamphlet than a thorough elaboration of the issues dealt with. I will illustrate my criticism with four comments.
With Ayers I consider identity development as the main task of education. Students activity should not just be directed at carrying out school tasks and mastering relatively abstract knowledge and skills. Instead, learning activity should be aimed at constructing identity in relation to specific communities in society. The latter, however, is not elaborated on in the book. What are the social practices students should learn to participate in? How do they interact with the learning process of identity development in/through education? Students choices are not simply individual preferences, even though the learners concerned may sometimes experience them as such. Social identities are the issue: our kind of people cannot do / do not do / do not want to do that, or rather, I do not want to become what Im expected to become The positions young people adopt towards learning are linked to the proximity or distance they experience or explicitly want to create between their social identity and the social positions that exist in the communities of practice to which learning refers and that are represented at school in a particular way.
Ayers sharply distinguishes between schools and education: All real education is and must always be self-education (p. 33). In my opinion, it does not help teachers if we compare schools with subservience, indoctrination, and passivity. It neglects the potential of schools. Like no other institution, school is capable of stimulating young people to reflect. At school, children can look at the world in which they live and at their own actions from a distance. They can discuss them and explore different perspectives without the pervasive influence of daily routines and without being confronted with the direct consequences of their explorations. The crucial question is how we can make use of this pedagogical space of the school. How can we offer teachers guidelines on utilizing the schools potential for reflection? The ways in which students make sense of the learning content, of their classmates and of themselves are constructed to a large extent in classroom interaction. This also implies that possibilities for change can be found in the classroom. Research should focus on the question of how to use this relative autonomy of the school for organizing learning experiences, in which social positions and identities are not inhibitive, and for challenging identities that are related to social positions in a restrictive way.
Ayers is not favourable to the possible contribution of educational research. In my view, however, it is counterproductive to put all educational research in the corner of merely collecting data for researchers own goals. Of course such research exists, but I prefer to contribute to promising developments like design research in which teachers and researchers act collaboratively for better education. In a similar way Ayers argues against professionalism, a term he seems to associate with a battery of technical skills. To think about teachers work, he prefers craftmanship. But by doing so he throws out the baby with the bath water. Under the heading of professionalism a lot of work has been done that helps to reflect upon the professional development of teachers, and the relation between school development and professional development. This is also true in the domain of moral education. Craftmanship in education is not merely an individual competence.
Finally, Teaching Toward Freedom, favours dialoque in education for the identity development of students. I agree with this emphasis, but I seriously doubt the way it is elaborated. This holds in particular for the differences between students, an issue that Ayers hardly takes into account. This is remarkable when thinking about education in our multicultural and pluralistic society. Because learning always refers to particular cultural meanings, social differences are, by definition, present in the way students develop their relationship with curriculum contents, for instance, literature or poetry. Ayers idealizes the classroom as a mixed and heterogeneous community that stimulates students to learn by reacting to one another, to the teacher and to the teaching materials. Open dialogue is characteristic of such a (imaginary) classroom. The issue of social differences tends to quit the scene. Offstage, however, questions remain like whose voice is privileged in the collective? or what are the processes and politics of entry into a specific discourse? In order to explore possible answers and think about appropriate teaching strategies, social differences in learning must resurface as a theme.