"The Root, Stem, Leaves, & Fruit of American Education" [Part 2]

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An edited version of this post appears on GOOD as
Are We Educating for Capitalism or Democracy?

This is Part 2 in a series. | Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4


“The Root, Stem, Leaves, & Fruit of American Education:”
Pedagogy, Policy, Politics, & Progressivism


Chris Thinnes

What democracy and education mean is
something that needs constant reworking.
– Jim Garrison

Cease conceiving of education as mere
preparation for later life, and make of it
the full meaning of the present life.
– John Dewey


Part 2. ‘Career Readiness’ v ‘Society Readiness’


In my introduction to this series I proposed “that pedagogy, policy, and politics have been isolated and protected as separate discourses — both in the hyper-local conversations of our learning communities, and in the national discourse on education;” that we must “work together to bridge . . . a common conversation that identifies . . . the purpose of ‘education’ itself;” and that an appeal to the principles of John Dewey will be the key to unlocking the many doors that have been closed.” Not long after that post, I was taken by Nancy Flanagan’s invitation to–

Think about this: There is almost no education policy in America written to support the creation of genuinely excellent, innovative, place-based teaching practice. In America we seem to think that the right policy has to come first — and effective practice will follow.

I think that Nancy has identified a powerful misconception that dominates our thoughts about national policy, classroom practice, and the relationships between them. I can’t help but think that this misconception continues to limit our thinking precisely because of a second false assumption: both education policy and teaching practice have been governed, for far too long, by a preoccupation with preparing students for a nebulously defined vision of their future as professionals. I mean this to refer to two false premises of some school practices and most education policy: first, that the sole purpose of education is to ‘prepare’ children, at each stage, for success in the next stage of their lives, rather than for engagement in this one; and second, that the ultimate goal of each leg in this foolish relay is exclusively, and reductively, to prepare children for economic success in the present international economy.

I believe Nancy is spot-on when she indicates that, “in short, before you can create good policy around teaching, you need to know what you’re trying to achieve.” My answer to that question is framed most powerfully by Peter Gow: “We want to see democracy, not capitalism, survive as the root, stem, leaves, and fruit of American education.”

If so many of our aspirations in the classroom are governed by the service we provide to ‘the future’ — whether that’s the next grade level, college, or career — I wonder why we can’t together think more creatively, and generatively, about a dynamic vision of a future students can create, rather than a static vision of a marketplace they should simply service. As Carla Rinaldi reminds us:

School is a place of culture—that is, a place where a personal and collective culture is developed that influences the social, political, and values context and, in turn, is influenced by this context in a relationship of deep and authentic reciprocity. . .

We must not forget how closely the school is connected to the society in which it is situated. The recurring question is whether the school is limited to transmitting culture or can be . . . a place where culture is constructed and democracy is put into practice.

To realize this potential to work with students, teachers, parents, and the community to create a world, Peter Gow reminds us that

it’s not enough just to educate our students — we need to add real value, cultural and even moral value, to society. This is a tall order, and not all of our constituents may fully understand it. But it’s what we must do.

And Chris Lehmann, as always, gives purpose to this call to action, helping us to realize how pedagogy can promote this vision:

Schools can be places of great passion where students learn what it means to be scholar-activists, fully invested in authentic work that matters to them today, not someday. When we do this, we will fully realize the promise of the idea that school should not just be preparation for real life, but rather that school can be real life, not just after school, but all day long with students and teachers who are making meaning relevant to the lives we all are leading now, as well as growing thoughtfully into the lives we will live tomorrow.

Creating the lives they lead tomorrow, and the society in which they will lead them, should be foremost among the goals for students that we promote. Thankfully, the most forward thinking educators already recognize that students’ imaginations are more valuable than their ambitions; their decision-making processes are more valuable than their products; their collaboration is more valuable than their competition; and their engagement is more valuable than their achievement. We have come to understand that creativity, communication, critical thought, and character — as well as many the other “Cs” we might posit as “twenty-first century skills” — emerge from dynamic relationships and engaged activity among learners in a community, and not from fixed curricula designed to transmit information and skills, in a static package, from a dominant culture to its initiates. Students should not be misunderstood as apprentices to the world that we have created, but creators of the world they will inherit.

In many ways we’ve come to understand that the purpose of education is not ‘career’ or ‘college readiness,’ but something more like ‘society readiness.’ But we haven’t liberated our practices or our policy from the limitations of old language, and we haven’t found a way to synthesize the old view with the new. “Lately,” Nancy Flanagan observes, “we seem bent on achieving uniformity and internationally competitive results. The ‘product’ in American schools used to be good citizens. Then good workers. Now, the product is test scores and being admitted to college. And we’re designing policy” — and, I would add, we often design our curricula — “to achieve those goals.”

Dewey didn’t see in this line of reasoning a false dichotomy, nor do I intend to construct one, between a student’s ‘preparation’ for the future, and ‘engagement’ in her present learning:

If I were asked to name the most needed of all reforms in the spirit of education I should say: ‘Cease conceiving of education as mere preparation for later life, and make of it the full meaning of the present life.’ And to add that only in this case does it become truly a preparation for later life is not the paradox it seems.

Ironically, perhaps, a recent national survey of business and nonprofit leaders found that more than 90% of employers prioritize “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems” among applicants. So, too, more than 90% of employers need applicants to demonstrate “ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.” These are not the capacities that used to define an old idea of “readiness” for the workforce. And these are not the skills to which current educational policy, or much of classroom practice following from that policy, is directed.

These are the skills required to participate as citizens in a democracy.


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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes

  • Thank you, Chris, for this series. I have had many conversations with teachers in all disciplines and at several different schools in my area, and the question of “what is the purpose of school?” is one that is too rarely asked within our profession. Many parents have a vision of what the purpose is – as you say, to prepare students to be good test-takers and to get into a “good college”. Students themselves often surmise that the purpose of school is to teach conformity and disconnected facts, which is something to be tolerated at best, actively opposed at worst, until they can get on to the real business of living their lives. But teachers – we do not introspect about school’s purpose, as a group, nearly often enough. I wonder what would happen if we all did. I wonder what would happen if more of us spoke up for what we believe school should be.

    • ChrisThinnes

      Thanks so much, Mike. Re: your last thought, I’m wondering the same — and gambling on Ken Robinson’s suggestion that–

      If you are a school principal, you are the education system for the kids in your school. If you are a teacher, you are the education system for the children in your classroom. And if you change your practice—if you change your way of thinking—you change the world for those students. You change the education system.

      And if enough people change, and they’re connected in the way they change, that’s a movement. And when enough people are moving, that’s a revolution. On the whole, revolutions begin from the ground up—and then, if politicians are sensitive, politicians will embrace it and say it was their own idea.

  • Lisa López

    Hi Chris,
    I love the way this is molding with real-time feedback and contribution from others. It is a sign of the changes we are undergoing and an ideology beginning to mold and take shape.

    The Education System, we might say, is like a habit. All habits are created to fulfill a purpose. Usually when we are ready to let go of an old habit it comes up as an issue. One that irks us, angers us and irritates us. We are currently experiencing many issues with our Education System. It is clear, it is time to move on.

    In order to eliminate old habits, we must understand what created them. We all must participate in this introspection, cleansing and renewal. Fear, anger, despair and impatience rarely eliminate issues; more likely they further or repress them; but they don’t transform. Fear and anger must not be the leaders of our New Era of Education.

    When addressing change at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, Dr. Brett Jacobsen used the phrase “Autopsy without Judgement”. It was, for me, a highly powerful framework from which to explore innovation. It halted the need to blame (guilt is a useless emotion) and allowed for deep exploration and hence, further understanding, of how those habits had been created and set the focus on experimenting with newer and more positive ways to fulfill those needs.

    A focus on the present will indeed help us release the need to “be perfect” and begin to transcend the limiting beliefs of our old habits. Our passion, and our students will certainly guide us in finding more sustainable ways to fulfill the needs of our schools. Patience and an unrelenting faith in our ability for change are essential for our culture and society to inevitably be splashed with this renewal. Sooner than we think, evolution/innovation/progress will begin to flourish democratically 21st century style with its own imperfections.

    • ChrisThinnes

      Thanks so much for your feedback and support, Lisa. I particularly appreciate your commentary on the importance of a culture of continuous improvement and self- and community-searching — as illustrated by Brett’s phrase “Autopsy without Judgment.” Thanks for that!

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