Friday, 24 August 2012

The culture of overcompensation

I'm greatly bothered by the rise of Harper (not the person but the idea) and the entitled right-wing extremism that defines his brand of politics in Canada. This culture of overcompensation didn't just arise out of nothing nor is it an accident of history. The sense of entitlement and juvenile outlook is a result of the perversion of the so-called student-centered education experiment.

Ostensibly, if the child is given opportunities to gauge and direct their own learning, then learning should become an incentive. But the great advocate for this democratic approach, John Dewey, said that the teacher should not abdicate responsibility to guide and inform the student through a "meaningful experience". What this meaningful experience is exactly was very specific to Dewey: to promote civil society in a liberal democracy. In this respect he was much like my other hero, Northrop Frye.

A Wikipedia entry on John Dewey says:

Although Dewey is known best for his publications concerning education, he also wrote about many other topics, including experience, nature, art, logic, inquiry, democracy, and ethics.

In his advocacy of democracy, Dewey considered two fundamental elements—schools and civil society—as being major topics needing attention and reconstruction to encourage experimental intelligence and plurality. Dewey asserted that complete democracy was to be obtained not just by extending voting rights but also by ensuring that there exists a fully formed public opinion, accomplished by effective communication among citizens, experts, and politicians, with the latter being accountable for the policies they adopt.

In effect he expected a modernization of the classical education approach. Again, from Wikipedia:

...for Dewey, past doctrines always require reconstruction in order to remain useful for the present time.

I discovered Dewey and the American pragmatist movement when I was at Memorial studying linguistics by way of Rorty whose writings on text, meaning and language impressed me greatly(though Dewey impressed me more). I devoured whatever Dewey's writings I could get my hands on, and he was the single most influential thinker in my advocacy for aboriginal education in the years I spent as a policy analyst for Inuit org.s. Not many people knew what the hell I was talking about (crazy bastard), and I was too angry and impatient to try and explain. I should have kept going; I had such hopes for Nunavut then.

The Wikipedia entry continues:

In addition to his ideas regarding what education is and what effect it should have on society, Dewey also had specific notions regarding how education should take place within the classroom. In The Child and the Curriculum (1902), Dewey discusses two major conflicting schools of thought regarding educational pedagogy. The first is centered on the curriculum and focuses almost solely on the subject matter to be taught. Dewey argues that the major flaw in this methodology is the inactivity of the student; within this particular framework, "the child is simply the immature being who is to be matured; he is the superficial being who is to be deepened" (1902, p. 13). He argues that in order for education to be most effective, content must be presented in a way that allows the student to relate the information to prior experiences, thus deepening the connection with this new knowledge.

At the same time, Dewey was alarmed by many of the "child-centered" excesses of educational-school pedagogues who claimed to be his followers, and he argued that too much reliance on the child could be equally detrimental to the learning process. In this second school of thought, "we must take our stand with the child and our departure from him. It is he and not the subject-matter which determines both quality and quantity of learning" (Dewey, 1902, p. 13-14). According to Dewey, the potential flaw in this line of thinking is that it minimizes the importance of the content as well as the role of the teacher.

In order to rectify this dilemma, Dewey advocated for an educational structure that strikes a balance between delivering knowledge while also taking into account the interests and experiences of the student. He notes that "the child and the curriculum are simply two limits which define a single process. Just as two points define a straight line, so the present standpoint of the child and the facts and truths of studies define instruction" (Dewey, 1902, p. 16). It is through this reasoning that Dewey became one of the most famous proponents of hands-on learning or experiential education, which is related to, but not synonymous with experiential learning. He argued that "if knowledge comes from the impressions made upon us by natural objects, it is impossible to procure knowledge without the use of objects which impress the mind" (Dewey, 1916/2009, p. 217-218).

I mean, wow. Who wouldn't want that for their own children?

The book that I've been criticizing in my last few blog entries, The Language of Mathematics, tells me everything that is wrong with the various forms of student-centered teacher education programs. Bill Barton speaks with such definitiveness and certainty, and is actually convincing in some parts. But he has superficial knowledge and little appreciation of mathematics as a historical process and quite selective in his speech. He constructs arguments then "proves" his propositions without telling the whole story. His is not historical development-based pedagogy, but sophistry and thinly veiled intellectual laziness aimed at the uninitiated (the aboriginal student teachers of New Zealand).

This type of teaching style is also evident in Harper and the disingenuous "dogs of war" that make up his core people. They gloss over subjects rather selectively that serve their short-term goals and interests, and show complete disregard for accepted and hard-won "rules of the game". When anything goes, society loses confidence and trust in their own governments and institutions.

Barton says something about the "problem" of Eurocentric maths saying that eastern and non-European traditions are ignored and dismissed as not mathematics. But that is not true. This is an attempt at creating artificial barriers and subconscious resentment. The European tradition of maths, and scholarship in general, always cite extant works including eastern mathematicians and non-european traditions and pay tribute as well-informed scholars demands of them. But the discourse has high standards and is qualitatively different as a human endeavour than what came before: strive for these standards of excellence, I say, rather than resent the "exclusive" club if you want to be part of the discourse. It sometimes seems to be the only democratic institution left: this academic discourse.

But Harper and his ilk clearly do not subscribe to the notion of these standards of excellence. We are watching the destruction of a fragile thing. I'd say that Dewey's alarm and dismay was far-sighted and proving to be well-founded by our culture of overcompensation.

I know many excellent teachers and have had the privilege of working with some of them. I'm not criticizing any of the Nunavut teachers but the lax and haphazard way policy is developed by mandarins in their splendid isolation (ie, those with no experience nor regard for teachers needs). The curriculum will work if given a fighting chance. But it requires training and resources so precious and hard to come by.


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