Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Double Bind of Optimism and Pessimism: Predestined Schooling

I opened an email this morning from Margaret Wheatley that said:
Can we refrain from categorizing ourselves as either optimists or pessimists, but instead live with the great paradoxes of this time? Can we learn that uncertainty is a very healthy place to dwell, rich in potential rather than opinions? 
I do believe this and have written often about uncertainty being a powerful organizing force in our lives.  Most times I have situated this discussion in narratives of classroom space I have observed/participated in.  This morning I am thinking about learning and how it is decidedly different from schooling, especially as schools are constrained by national standards and reform measures.  I appreciate Wheatley's understanding of the world as being more complex and promising than the half-full/half-empty folks would have us believe.  It is uncertainty, rich in potential rather than opinion, that gives me hope when I think about living deliberately and learning. Being responsible for the decisions I make is humbling as those decisions often reveal what I simply did not and do not understand.  It is this stance of not knowing and unknowing that I want to lean on a bit for it has never been a matter of being optimistic or being pessimistic as both offer a similar distance from living.

Being optimistic or pessimistic allows us to nullifying life's uncertainties and oddly live in a predestined manner.  One might well think now of John Calvin's religious doctrine of double predestination as it too has been an exacting "anecdote" to living, and if the article from The Economist is correct, the numbers of neo-Calvinists are increasing here in the United States.  In the text John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life, Herman Selderhuis tells us that Calvin who "sought refuge in providence and predestination" wrote that "there is no more terrifying agony than to tremble from fear and uncertainty" (pp. 36 - 37). Calvin, not often thought of as an optimist, seems in many ways to embrace optimism through his view of God.

In explaining Calvin's belief in a double, not single, predestination, Selderhuis writes:
This brought him (Calvin) to the conviction that the Bible teaches double predestination, that is, that God has chosen one group of people to live eternally with him, and that the other group would remain in darkness. The issue was not whether there were two types of people, some who would go to heaven and others who would go to hell. The issue was instead whether anyone could make a saving decision for himself or herself, or whether everything depended on God's choice. For Calvin, there was no question. The Bible showed most clearly in both cases that everything depended on God, and that it was by his decision and choice that eternal destiny of all people was decided. Calvin had no use for a solution like single predestination, which held that there was only an election to salvation. If God had decided to preserve one group, his decision was automatically a choice not to save the other. There was simply a double predestination.  Calvin had no desire whatsoever to leave even a small part of their salvation to people that would lead to uncertainty, and at the time there was already so much uncertainty in the world (p.190).
Calvin's belief that only God, not humans, rendered the decision about eternal life, led to an equally strong Calvinistic belief that one was to learn from the hand of God by being humbled when "bad" things happened and responding by asking forgiveness for sinning.  To me this is the center of the optimistic call: better to look upon x situation as the glass half full  and if you don't you are cast to the half-empty group. This type of thinking removes decision-making and agency from one's life and replaces it with a map already made.

In contrast, Wheatley writes that  certainty "is a very effective way of defending ourselves from the irresolvable nature of life."  She tell us that "the challenge is to refuse to categorize ourselves."  I am neither optimistic, nor pessimistic as both situate life as predestined.  By now (if you have read this far:) you may be wondering what does all this talk about Calvin and optimism, etc. have to do with schooling and learning?

Learning is all about uncertainty. In fact, I doubt we can learn anything apart from a stance of uncertainty.  Uncertainty is curiosity.  It's "let's give it a try and see what happens." It's Frost's road that wanted wear.  Schools need to be more uncertain, rather than informed and limited by national or common "core" standards (call them what you will) and reform method after reform method. 

Here's a partial list of actions, all routed in certainty, that reduce the possibility of learning:
  • using the written curriculum enacted as written or being in "trouble" for not doing so
  • allowing the "teacher" to determine what will be learned exclusive of the students
  • believing that there is a single teacher or that a principal is the only leader
  • understanding the classroom as a physical space where learning must occur as prescribed
  • separating learning into discrete "subjects"
  • understanding learning as that which must be taught
  • tracking  children into different "learning" groups based on the ubiquitous belief in "student ability"
  • assigning teachers to different "learning" groups based on the ubiquitous belief in "teacher ability"
  • assigning principals to different schools based on the ubiquitous belief in "principal ability"
  • tying all aspects of lessons to standards and objectives 
  • recording lesson objectives & standards on a blackboard for all to see and thinking this is related to learning
  • using only books already approved by a BOE and nothing else
  • using only materials the teacher selects
  • writing the midterm and final exam in September and giving these as written in January and June
  • confusing testing with learning
  • limiting resources by blocking Internet sites
  • using any basal program with learners
  • using any and all worksheets as a method for teaching
  • thinking the answers in the basal program are correct
  • believing in correctness as an aim of education
  • using or making others use a scripted program that tells the teacher what to say every day and what to expect students to say
  • rewarding correctness 
  • equating correctness with learning
  • determining that the "workshop" must have a mini lesson and closure
  • using already determined mini lessons
  • teaching the writing process as that which has five stages
  • using any and all pre-made rubrics
  • believing that talk in a classroom must be responsible 
  • categorizing student or teacher utterances as responsible (or not)
  • categorizing a teaching practice as "best practice" 
  • believing there are "core" subjects 
I think Wheatley is correct: the challenge is not to see ourselves as inherently optimistic or pessimistic, but rather to refuse to categorize ourselves.

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