Friday, April 18, 2014

CCSS, Educational Aims & The Agency to Act or Why Being a Mere Onlooker Is Always Problematic

Towards the Light (M.A. Reilly, 2013)
To have a mind to do a thing is to foresee a future possibility; it is to have a plan for its accomplishment; it is to note the means which make the plan capable of execution and the obstructions in the way,—or, if it is really a mind to do the thing and not a vague aspiration—it is to have a plan which takes account of resources and difficulties. 
Dewey, John (2009-10-04). Democracy and Education: an introduction to the philosophy of education (Kindle Locations 1775-1778). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition. 

I. Wading In

Years ago when I first read Jerome Bruner's Actual Minds, Possible Worlds--I was a fairly young high school English teacher, alone for a week at Bard College.  I had gone there to learn about teaching writing as a process and one of the key texts we studied was Bruner's. I can recall the challenge of that text as I sat in the local motel room each night and read/reread. It was heady, wise and still remains a central text I return to.

Towards the end of Actual Minds, Possible Worlds Bruner concludes by stating that a new developmental theory informed by the question of how to "prevent the world from dissolving into chaos and destroying itself" will arise. Central to that theory will                    
be how to create in the young an appreciation for the fact that many worlds are possible, that meaning and reality are created and not discovered, that negotiation is the art of constructing new meanings by which individuals can regulate their relations with each other. . . - Jerome Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, 1986, p. 149.
Bruner posits a world that is being composed, not given, and as such the aim (create that appreciation) aligns with an ideology that privileges agency. For Bruner it is critical that education helps the learner to "render a world less fixed, less banal, more susceptible to recreation" (Kindle Locations 2024-2025).

Educational aims represent what we want to achieve--outcomes that are designed. For example, In the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, the writers state:
The aim of social studies is the promotion of civic competence—the knowledge, intellectual processes, and democratic dispositions required of students to be active and engaged participants in public life. 
The social studies standards "provide a framework for professional deliberation and planning about what should occur in a social studies program in grades pre-K through 12." The relationship between educational aims and standards are pretty clear when it comes to social studies. There is an implicit linkage between the outcome of civic competence and the belief that a framework for 'deliberation and planning' represent a means to that bigger end. 

In contrast, there's no explicit talk of educational aims within the CCSS.  The word, aims, does not appear, nor is there an explicit linkage between pubic educational aims and standards that have been developed by the public. I wonder if the challenges with the adoption of the CCSS that David Brooks in today's NYT and others outline isn't a felt response to the absence of agreed upon educational aims. 

What is it we want for our children? What is it that public education ought to provide and occasion?

II.  Having a Mind to Think About Aims

Today much of the discourse about pubic education focuses on standards and testing and these discussions seem to be neither heady nor wise. Missing from this public discourse is the articulation of the educational aims we desire, need.  The conversations necessary to determine what we as a country need and want to produce are largely absent.  We have substituted method for philosophy. Yes, there is discussion about being college and career ready, but this is a phrase that has been given alongside the CCSS--not one that has been developed from and by the people.

Why do we have public education?  What is its function in a republic that protects certain inalienable rights that government cannot take away?  What might we want public education to produce? To occasion?

In chapter 8 of Democracy and Education, John Dewey defined aims as endings that have been "designed or consciously intended" imbued with work that has "intrinsic continuity." Educational aims are not merely effects or a "serial aggregate of acts."  Imbued in Dewey's discussion of educational aims is the primacy of agency at the pupil level.  He says it is nonsense to even discuss aims "when approximately each act of a pupil is dictated by the teacher, when the only order in the sequence of his acts is that which comes from the assignment of lessons and the giving of directions by another" (Kindle Location 1741). One must have the will and permission to act.

In thinking about aims, Dewey is clear to connect temporal with action. He writes
Thus we fail to note what the essential characteristic of the event is; namely, the significance of the temporal place and order of each element; the way each prior event leads into its successor while the successor takes up what is furnished and utilizes it for some other stage, until we arrive at the end, which, as it were, summarizes and finishes off the process.  (Kindle Locations 1745-1748).  
Dewey cited three interrelated functions of foresight--a factor of aims. He writes that the third function is that foresight "makes choice of alternatives possible"(Kindle Location 1760). The presence of alternatives is deeply connected to agents at work in the ever emerging present--it is what Bruner in 1986 is writing about at the conclusion of Actual Minds, Possible Worlds--the "negotiation is the art of constructing new meanings."   Dewey concludes:
Since we do not anticipate results as mere intellectual onlookers, but as persons concerned in the outcome, we are partakers in the process which produces the result. We intervene to bring about this result or that.
For Dewey and Bruner, mere onlooker status is not to be confused with actors.  We have much to learn from each for it is this commitment to individual agency that is most missing today as standards and their requisite high stakes tests get enacted.  It is this absence of voice and presence that leads to the collapse of educational reforms.  In the absence of ongoing national discourse about what a Republic's public educational system must be mostly about may begin to feel that "Someone, somewhere else has determined what our children should know and be able to do without bothering to build consensus about what we want that public education to occasion."

Standards are always epic constructs, regardless of how well we believe them to have been crafted. Beneath whatever polish they might have, they cannot be responsive to emerging conditions as they are someone else's acts.  They are an already made. They are not aims and we are foolish to confuse them as such.

Dewey contends:
to have an aim is to act with meaning, not like an automatic machine; it is to mean to do something and to perceive the meaning of things in the light of that intent. (Kindle Locations 1788-1789). 
III. Acting

We would be better served discussing aims and the means to achieve those aims at our local, state and national levels than fighting about standards and tests. These discussions about aims are apt to be thorny ones given our differences and inexperience with ongoing discourse. And so this practice is all the more essential.

We live in dark times, still. And I suspect will remain so until we learn how to see other and respect other.  Oddly, there is some hope that Bruner tosses us as he concludes:
"...if we have learned anything from the dark passage in history through which we are now moving it is that man, surely, is not 'an island, entire of itself' but a part of the culture that he inherits and then recreates" (Kindle Locations 1908-1909). 
It is this active stance of (re)creation that shifts us from being mere onlookers to agents acting.  It is a shift we must make and ensure it is one that our children and all whom we consider to be other are able to make and remake.

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