Sunday, February 22, 2009

Class, Codes and Control Vol. 3 ~ Basil Bernstein

Whole language vs. Phonics. Teacher-centered vs. Student-centered instruction. Uniforms vs. No dress code. Back to basics vs. Project based instruction. When Counts (1932) proposed the idea that teachers could be the foundation of major social change, he didn't really address the conflicting pedagogical debates that have been major battlegrounds in the last half-century. Teachers are expected to identify themselves within a certain “camp” in these debates, and the real victim are the students, especially those of low socioeconomic status. As Bernstein, says, “Conflicting pedagogies have their origins within the fraction of the middle class and so an unreflecting institutionalizing of either pedagogy will not be to the advantage of the lower working class.” (1975, p. 19) I experienced this at one of my schools, when we attempted to update the curriculum guides. Between six teachers, we couldn't even agree on the basic language of categorizing English/Language Arts instruction, so no progress was made on the revisions. Therefore, the next year, a curriculum coordinator was hired and standards and benchmarks were “borrowed” from other districts and imposed on us and our students. What should have been a congenial, reflective conversation between professionals, turned into a dictate from administration. In the end, very little changed within instruction, as teachers continued to do what they always did, the curriculum guides were made “pretty” for accreditation, and the victims were the students.

Basing his observations in the 1970s in the UK, Bernstein seemed very optimistic when he pronounced that, in his view, schools were moving toward a more integrated type of curriculum in which students and teachers had more control over the type, timing, and form of instruction. However, I disagree, viewing the current movement, both in the US and UK. Sure, in some schools, or some classrooms, this may be happening, but on the whole, with NCLB the US is moving to almost a national, standardized curriculum, and the UK already has it with explicit Key Stages. At one of my schools, we had student teachers from the UK who were stymied by our lack of “curriculum guides” which would spell out what, how and how long to teach subjects. The idea of “lesson planning” was so foreign to them, much less the idea of being able to choose topics, materials, and methodology. When I first began teaching middle school English, the curriculum guide specified what books to use and how many days to spend on each topic – which corresponded to the 180 days allotted (not allowing for assemblies, snow days and other interruptions). My mentor teacher happily handed me the grammar book, vocabulary book (don't write in it, have the students copy out the answers), literature anthology, and spelling book. The goal was to keep the kids in their desks, occupied and under control. When I look at Berstein's model of “Types of involvement in the role of pupil” (1975, p. 44) as applied to teachers, I think I fell into another category. I did not accept the means of the instrumental, nor did I accept the means of the expressive order – but I did accept the ends of both, as was officially stated in the handbook.

Thus, I made it my goal to rebel/reform. I asked for real novels to read and instituted writer's workshop. The school was moving to a more “middle school model” which Bernstein would define as “integrated curricula,” and I guess I was the vanguard. I switched classes with the science teacher for a unit. Spearheaded an interdisciplinary week in which all content areas teachers sat together the plan the curriculum, materials, and activities of the week and all teachers taught something that was not their specialty. The students, previously in tracked classes, were assembled into heterogeneous small groups to complete research of their own choosing. Although I think I made in-roads in changing the “that's the way we've always done it” mindset, I was not there long enough to see it to its full fruition.

Unfortunately, as I am supervising student teachers, I seem to see more of the traditional, “collection type” of curriculum being fostered, especially in schools where the majority of students are of low socioeconomic status. Bernstein (1975) states that the task of the school is to get students to a position where the family accepts and supports the means and ends of the school and the student becomes fully involved in the school. I would guess that many of the parents were either detached or estranged during their schooling, which would promote the same, or alienation in their own children. I've heard several responses to this, such as the one cited by teachers interviewed by Kylene Beers:

Those kids, well, they live in such turmoil at home that we provide structure, quiet, orderliness, here at school . . . . Students here need to get the basics; we don’t have much time with them when you look at all they need to learn, so we must drill the basics into them. They do better with strong discipline . . . . Some kids can handle the higher-level thinking discussions you might see in other schools, but not the kids here; the kids here haven’t had anyone show them how to act and so we do. We demand they sit still and answer questions and they learn how to do that. (Foster & Nosol, 2008, p. x)

I've actually had teachers say to me, “Well, if the kid doesn't want to do his work, what can I do about it? I have 20 other students who want to learn, so if he want to put his head down on the desk, I'll let him, at least he isn't disruptive.” Or, “None of these kids complete their homework. I can't lower my standards, so they get zeros. If they were motivated, they'd get the work in, I give them more than enough time to do it in class.” From my experience, too many teachers were the fully committed students when they went to school, and can't wrap their minds around the idea that a student might be detached, estranged or alienated by the school. And, there isn't enough pre-service attention to how to work with kids that don't fit into the current system of education. In fact, some teachers express relief at having a “problem child” truant, as it is easier to conduct the rest of the class. (Which, although it seems I am pointing fingers – as the old adage says, “When you point your finger at someone, three fingers are pointing back at you.” I'm as guilty as any other teacher.)

However, Berstein (1975) does give some hope:

In pluralistic societies like ours, where there are many and conflicting images of conduct, character and manner, and where technological change is rapid the school system is subject to many pressures. These pressures are translated to the pupil in terms of the character of his role involvement. The external pressures of the society as a whole are crystallized out and felt and experienced by the child in terms of each of these five roles he moves towards. The school system need not necessarily be a passive mediator or, at worst, an amplifier for these general social pressures. (p. 49)

If the school does not need to be a mediator, nor an amplifier of societal pressures, what then can it be and should it be? Returning to Counts, what is the new social order in which the teachers should be uniting to form? Is it possible to have a truly classless society in the modern era? And should schools be the catalyst?
Bernstein, B.(1975). Class, codes and control, vol 3. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Counts, GS (1932). Dare the school build a new social order. New York: John Day.
Foster, H. & Nosol, M. (2008). America’s unseen kids: Teaching English/Language Arts in today’s forgotten high schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Imperial Colonialism through Literature and Schools for Everyone

In a small way, I sympathized with McCarthy's (2005) experience of Anglo-American Culture War through “imposed canonical literature . . . imperial symbolic” (p. 9) Several years ago, I taught at an international in which most of my students were from European countries. Within my tenure there, the school moved from a mostly American curriculum to mostly British. It seems the reason was budgetary – it was cheaper getting supplies from Britain than from the US. So, we instituted The International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) program, which is an international qualification test/curriculum, developed by University of Cambridge International Examinations and is equivalent to Britain's GCSE.

As an American teacher, I was a bit uncomfortable with the narrowness of the novels, poetry and drama selected for study. Although the list is revised each year, and this current incarnation does include famous American authors such as Harper Lee, Lorraine Hansberry , the nod to non-British authors is just in passing, through Chinua Achebe and Anita Desai, and certainly nothing contemporary. To score well on the IGCSE test (5 essay questions in about 3 ½ hours) one must be able to read and interpret for literal meaning, context and deeper themes in the literature. These tests are than sent to Cambridge to be scored. As McCarthy said, “Power as exercised in culture takes devious routes.” (p. 8) As I look back at that experience now, I realize that the IGCSE is just another form of British colonization. Cambridge, “one of the world's premier universities” is dictating curriculum to hundreds of schools around the world, and mostly in the name of “getting ahead.” According to the Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) website, “CIE qualifications are recognised [sic] throughout the world. At CIE we are committed to ensuring that university admission offices, colleges, employers and professional bodies around the world understand the value of CIE qualifications.” ( )

I had one American student resist this imposition, by writing nonsense sentences on the test rather than attempting it. As I read Lee (2005), I recognized many of the issues she addresses in local schools - minority students resisting the values of a middle-class education through passivity, absenteeism, or blatant rebellion. But, I wonder how schools can use “the opportunity to (re)construct definitions of America and Americans to reflect the diversity of the United States” (p. 144). This means much more than multicultural education and having African-American month. Although countries outside of the US have definite ideas of what makes an American an American (overweight, rude, naive) , this conversation has not been had within the US. I think that the view of the US as a melting pot has changed to be a patchwork quilt, with each group (racial, gendered, political) taking its own square and defending it – THIS is what it means to be an American! Again, as Lee (2005) said, “In an increasingly diverse society, it is imperative that schools teach all students that there are multiple ways of being American” (p. 144).

However, here is my dilemma, how do we create schools that work for everyone? This phrase is bantered around, meaning different things in different contexts. For some, it means provide technical education programs; but I mean it as an educational system that will genuinely allow everyone to discover their true potential and then be able to achieve it. Another problem, as worded by Tabachnick and Bloch (1995), “there is difficulty determining which features of “culture” are significant and should be changed in school” (p. 205) And, if something is changed to support a few, would this change not impact a few others, maybe negatively?

"The task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen, but to think what nobody has yet thought about that which everyone sees" - Arthur Schopenhauer (1818) – German philosopher

Lee, S. J. (2005). Learning about race, learning about America. In L. Weis & M. Fine (Eds.), Beyond silenced voices: Class, race, and gender in United States schools (Rev. ed, pp. 133-146). Albany: State University of New York Press.
McCarthy, C. (2005) English Rustic in Black Skin: post-colonial education, cultural hybridity and racial identity in the new century. Policy Futures in Education, 3, 4 413-422.
Tabachnick, BR, & Bloch, MN (1995). Learning in and out of school: Critical perspectives on the theory of cultural compatibility. In BB Swadener & S. Lubeck (Eds.). Children and families “at promise:”Deconstructing the discourse of risk. Albany: State University of New York Press

Friday, February 06, 2009

Education and Power – Michael Apple

According to Apple (1995), the process of education is both a reflection and producer of the dominant culture, in which the goal is to sort and select people in order to maintain the current system of unequal distribution of power in the society. Looking at education through this lens makes me almost embarrassed to be a part of it. Since the school is an arm of the state, that would make me a complicit lackey of state sponsored indoctrination and segregation. As I was reading, I was reminded of The Simpson's episode in which Homer becomes a member of the Stonecutters and finds that this secret society is responsible for controlling everything from the British pound to the Oscars. If education is so totally controlled and controlling, what's the point of trying to change anything – the “secret society” will just make sure it doesn't happen?

Throughout Apple's (1995) book, practices that I have engaged in came to mind which illustrate the market-driven aspects of education. I have purchased and used “school to work” materials in order to make school seem “relevant” to students who are not “college bound”. In making this statement, there are so many embedded assumptions that I've never examined. Why must I prepare students for the work world? Who determines what skills are needed and relevant? How did the student become a “not college bound” kid? How did I determine that I needed to choose materials to help them on this path? Another time, I assigned an interview and report in which students selected a person working in a job they hoped to get eventually and find out what types of literacy was required. Again, in an effort to make English class “relevant” I turned to the world of work, essentially saying, “This is what school is preparing you for.” Again, I was unconsciously a lackey for the state.

So, I am led to ask, is there any school system that does not support the government/culture in which it operates? Is there really a “better” way of doing school? As Counts (1932) determined, all schools indoctrinate or “influence” their students. He suggests that as educators, we need to be more aware of what influence we are expending. One way to do that is to look at how the students are resisting our influence – which points to areas of conflict between the expectations of the dominant culture and the needs of the minority culture. But then, what do we do with this knowledge? Can school truly serve the needs of everyone? And should it try?

Although the actors within the educational system, both students and teachers, have supposed agency and the ability to resist, during this reading, I didn't feel very hopeful. Even the length of chapter 6 indicates this – at only 12 pages, it recognizes that “neither vision nor strategy is possible, on a mass basis, unless the cynicism about social change that now pervades American politics and culture can be overcome” (Peter Dreier, as cited by Apple, 1995, p. 157). This would entail not only reforming the educational system, but taking on the working world – to encourage and education people and companies to institute truly democratic policies. As was stated early in the book, we don't need democratic schools (which most schools profess to be, yet are actually autocratic) but rather centers of democratic engineering – where the democratic process (rule by and for the people) is the goal. It is clear that in America capitalism has overcome the ideals of democracy, and this is where the transformation must start. But, there is the question of the chicken or the egg? Does the transformation begin in the school to affect the culture, or in the culture to affect the school?

Apple, M. W. (1995) Education and Power, 2nd edn.New York, Routledge.
Counts, G. (1932). Dare the school build a new social order? New York: Arno Press & The New York Times.