I was angry and disappointed by the time I finished reading Susan Ohanian's recent blog post about ASCD receiving and accepting a $3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help "districts and states realize the capacity of the new standards to fundamentally change the learning experience of students."
Ok, let's take a minute to dissect that intention. Think agency and ask yourself, Where is the teacher's and students' agency in ASCD's intention?
There is no agency by teachers or the students.
ASCD is the actual agent. Everyone else is a receiver (district, states, and students). Teachers are missing. I would surely agree that ASCD and its agents who carry out this task may well learn. But know this: There is no positive learning without agency, be it by the teacher, administrator, or student. As Maxine Greene (1988) so wisely reminds us "A teacher in search of his/her own freedom may be the only kind of teacher who can arouse young persons to go in search of their own" (p.14). It is the educator acting and the student acting that leads to meaningful learning.
Transactional theory (Rosenblatt, 1978) allows us to know that the standards are nothing more than marks on a page. They, like any other marks on a page, have no meaning, until they are acted upon by a reader. That transaction is where meaning happens and such transactions cannot result in the same meaning being composed by x # of individuals. Meaning, contrary to what ASCD says it is planning, cannot be packaged and sent ahead, like some manifest destiny run amok.
ASCD says that it is "committed to translating high-quality research about how students learn into practical professional development for teachers". Hmm. Translating. Does ASCD believe that translation and meaning making are the same thing? Meaning is made at points of utterance (Bakhtin, 1984). It is dialogic. “Language,” Mikhail Bakhtin writes, “is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intentions; it is populated—overpopulated—with the intentions of others” (1981, p. 294).
It is simply foolish to believe that an utterance will mean the same thing for everyone, and more importantly that marks on a page have a set meaning that remain static. What these core content standards mean is ALWAYS dependent upon the speaker's intentions. If we eliminate the speaker, or in this case the teacher, and ship the standards ahead, we have nothing left but an empty law that district administrators will be expected to ensure happens through imposed practices and policies. These attempts will only create more division among educators. Consider William Carlos Williams who in The Desert Music told us:
The law? The law gives up nothing
but a corpse, wrapped in a dirty mantle.
The law is based on murder and confinement,
These understandings of meaning are fundamental. As such, this is not a semantic argument, but rather a philosophical and theoretical one. If we believe that the marks on the page someone has named as standards are that which will "fundamentally change the learning experience of students"--we have situated learning and learners as epic. An epic is a place where everything has been predetermined. It is a time not of the present where one singer sings of that time and no one including the singer can alter the events of that past. They are sealed from the present moment where meaning always exists. Epics cannot be a metaphor for learning, classrooms, or schools.
Mikhail Bakhtin (1986) suggests that meaning:
only reveals its depths once it has encountered and come into contact with another, foreign meaning: they engage in a kind of dialogue...Such a dialogic encounter of two cultures does not result in merging or mixing. Each retains its own unity and open totality, but they are mutually enriched (p. 7, emphasis in original).
We want schools where administrators, teachers, and students retain their "own unity and open totality, but they are mutually enriched." We do not want what ASCD states it will do: "translate the standards into multiple instructional techniques to ensure teacher understanding of the underlying concepts targeted in the common core standards". We know that meaning is made in classrooms between and among learners, that there are no "best practices" that exist outside of the context of teachers, students, school and community--no matter the intentions of ASCD who earns its money selling such promises through membership, books, DVDs, and packaged professional development. Meaning cannot be sent ahead via the implementation of standards, no mater how one attempts to define that reality.
Let us not be fooled into dressing up ASCD's attempt to colonize United States classrooms as professional learning. Learning requires agency, not translation.
Bakhtin, Mikhail M. 1981. The dialogic imagination
. (Michael Holquist, Ed., & Caryl Emerson, Trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press.
------------------------. 1986. Speech genres & other late essays
. (Vern W. McGee, Trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press.
Greene, Maxine. 1988. The dialogic imagination. New york: Teachers College Press.
Rosenblatt, Louise. 1978. The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Williams, William Carlos. 1962. Pictures from Brueghel and other poems. NY: New Directions Books.