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.

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