From Bob Yagelski

Dear Teachers, I thought this was an important comment and therefore am putting it up as a post so that the likelihood is greater that more of you will get to see it. I also see potential in it for supporting many of the topics you are intereted in for your organizing your sequence of instruction around a central question. He is responding here to specific bloggers–starting with Allison:

From Bob–you ask what kind of change I am advocating. That’s a big question (about which I’ve written elsewhere), but I’ll try to offer a reasonably succinct answer. And I’ll start by parsing your question.

You write, “My goal would be to educate all students to succeed when they go beyond the walls of school.” Your statement reflects an extremely common way to think about the purpose of systemic education. But note that when we think about it in this way, we are making some fundamental and crucial assumptions. The first question I would want to ask in response to your statement is, How do you define “success”? Like most educators, you seem to be defining it in individual terms. “Success” might mean different things to different individual students, but the important thing is to teach in ways that enable individual students to “succeed.” But in defining success in these terms, you also seem to assume that success will be defined in terms of the status quo. In other words, you want individual students to leave your classroom and take their places in the society in ways that they might consider to be “successful.” If that’s the goal, then your job as an educator is to identify the knowledge, skills, ability, etc. that would enable students to fit into the status quo. And that means essentially accepting the status quo. Why would anyone want to develop knowledge, skills, etc. that would enable them to “succeed” in the status quo and then go out and change it? I think you see my point. When we define “success” in individual terms (as we tend to do), then we are implicitly accepting and perpetuating the status quo.

Let me be clear that I share your desire for individual students to do well, whatever that means for them. I want my students to benefit from my teaching in ways that make their lives better. That’s a very common and powerful impulse that we educators have. But for me it’s not enough.

What I propose is that we reject the radical individualism on which conventional education is based and redefine both the practices and purposes of schooling in social and communitarian terms. So “success” wouldn’t be a matter only of individuals “succeeding,” as it were; success would also be a matter of the extent to which our communities benefit and thrive as a result of the “success” of individuals. “Success,” from this perspective, would be measured by the extent to which schooling fosters in students knowledge, abilities, perspectives, etc. that enable them to imagine and create more just, more equitable, and sustainable communities.

I have come to believe that schools define success in individual terms because they are inherently conservative institutions that serve primarily to perpetuate the status quo. So education becomes a matter of preparing students for their places in the world as we know it. I want to prepare students to re-imagine that world and make it better. That’s my Utopian dream. (What counts as “making it better” is a complicated and contentious question that must be worked out through democratic processes, which should be part of the process of formal education. In other words, we should be teaching kids how to function within these messy and often contentious processes of deliberation and decision-making.) You can reject that dream, but then you have to make a case that the status quo is acceptable. I understand that the system we live in is better than many available alteratives, and I benefit in many ways from it. But I am also unwilling to accept the injustice and inequality that are too common in our system; I’m unwilling to accept that consumption is the highest good, especially when our lifestyle is destroying the planet on which we depend for life. So I want schools to be part of the project of building a better future.

With such a goal, I would advocate a different kind of curriculum and pedagogies that foster a certain kind of awareness among students to help them develop critical and sophisticated knowledge and skill to function effectively in a complex and changing world. Preparing them for jobs just wouldn’t be enough.

There’s more to say, as always, but I hope this helps.

Thanks again for asking.

As for your comment, Ray, I’m not sure how to take it. For one thing, it simply doesn’t make sense. I don’t agree that working for change inevitably means working against change. For another, statements like this let us all off the hook too easily. If you like the status quo, then make a case for it. If you believe educators should perpetuate the status quo, make a case for that. That’s part of the dialectical process of inquiry that I believe all educators should engage in. But our thinking isn’t extended or complicated in useful ways by statements that seem like truisms, because such statements tend to close down, rather than open up, inquiry.

Bob

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