Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Slow Fuse of Possibility: Why Race to the Top Is a Maimed Thing

Occasioning learning is not to be confused with causality. Whereas simple matters can often be attended to through linear methods, complex learning resists such methodology.  This in itself was not a new "discovery".  What was an "ah-ha" moment  (thanks to my colleague, Kelly Harte)  was the hypothesis about why some of us continuously teach "basics" and resist/refuse to "teach" more complex content and how this same constraint of thought informs educational policies at the federal and state (at least in NJ) level.

During my 25+ years as an educator,  I have heard some colleagues explain that they cannot move on to more sophisticated concepts and processes as the students have not mastered the simple understandings that are seen as prerequisites to more complex understandings. Teaching students how to solve a simple algorithm, requires something pedagogically different from creating a set of conditions or engagements whereby students are able to compose more complex expressions, that may well (and often do) include simple algorithms. Occasioning requires a very different set of thinking protocols on behalf of the teacher as there is no single outcome. Occasioning produces possibilities, not certainties.

Teaching the "basics" and situating the basics as simple, not complex learning-- dulls possibility. That is the true educational crime; the long term horror. Emily Dickinson wrote, "Imagination lights the slow fuse of possibility."  If we were serious about an educational revolution we would privilege the imagination and dwelling. Our metaphors to describe our intentions might well include these words, rather than words like, "race" or "top."

In these new times, when we are posing questions (I hope) and composing answers to educational challenges I would recommend we listen to poets more so than education tsars, like Arne Duncan, who are replicating input-output systems such as Race to the Top.  Duncan's rhetoric posits educational issues and couched dilemmas within the confine of causality. Problem x can be solved by "scientifically based research" solution y.  The predetermined constraints, such as accountability systems based on value added analysis, determine the parameters of the field well ahead of any reality. In many ways this rhetoric rests on the same logic that informs teachers who only teach "the simple basics".



These methods work well for simple situations.

The costs of teachers only teaching the basics are well discussed, especially in popular press. Just see last week's LA Times for an example.  Less discussed is the immeasurable costs associated with Race to the Top.  I would suggest that both situations (teaching only the basics and Race to the Top) are simply too much to bear.

Rather than listen to the educational pundits, like Duncan, I would offer we turn an ear to the poets and philosophers. Consider William Carlos Williams who admonished the poets in "Deep Religious Faith." He closed the poem, writing: "Shame on our poets:/they have caught the prevalent fever/impressed by the "laboratory"/they have forgotten/ the flower!/which goes beyond all/laboratories./They have quit the job of invention./The imagination has fallen asleep/in a poppy cup."

These are wise words--words we could hold close, and ones that might inform our decisions. Imagine educational policy that privileged the imagination?  How different schools might be.  Or perhaps, John Dewey's wisdom might be dusted off and offered for our consideration. In response to the question about What is the matter in education? John Dewey answered:

It lies, I think, with our lack of imagination in generating leading ideas. Because we are afraid of speculative ideas, we do, and do over and over again, an immense amount of dead, specialized work in the region of "facts." We forget that such facts are only data; that is, are only fragmentary, uncompleted meanings, and unless they are rounded out into complete ideas-- a work which can only be done by hypotheses, by a free imagination of intellectual possibilities--they are as helpless as are all maimed things and as repellent as are needlessly thwarted ones" (Dewey, 1937, Philosophical Review, 36, 1-9, from an address to the Sixth International Congress of Philosophy, Harvard University, 15 Sept. 1926).
If we were serious about redesigning education we would understand that the role of the federal government and state government is to occasion local brilliance, not constrain it.

Shame on our politicians. Impressed by the laboratory, they have forgotten the imagination.

Your Mirror Lies. August, 2010.


  1. Mary Ann I was not entirely disappointed to hear that NJ was not a winner in RttT. Although getting additional monies into the coffers of NJ to spend on education would have helped eased many of the cutbacks we are seeing, it seemed that this money came with so many strings attached. It is such a shame that providing resources to students now depends on "winnning". Since when should a child's education be dependent on adults "winning" a race? Schools that are inspired by imagination rather than bubbled in answers should be the norm. When I see the joy in little children's faces as they learn through play I contrast that older children's faces, many of whom have given up on school through boredom, frustration, or lack of connection.

  2. Deb, i think you point is well taken: setting up a system of competition so that some children are afforded significantly better education than other--all within a public system seems anti-democratic.