I have always been in love with learning. Which means that as a lifelong educator, I have always been in a state of heartbreak working in schools. Learning is idiosyncratic, more unpredictable than predictable. We really don’t know for sure what makes one person, at any given moment, engage in this relatively risky business. Part of the mystery lies in the fact that learning is rarely just about new information; it’s about letting go of what we think we know. To truly learn means admitting at some level that you don’t know something. Think about the last time you learned something, truly learned something that you had no facility in. It was likely messy, marked by more risk than safety, more trial and failure than sure bets, and especially if it involved learning something very new, many many more mistakes than successes. Learning is disorienting in its dissonance. Learning can and should, as Elizabeth Ellsworth puts it, mean letting go of some way in which we know ourselves and risk a new personhood, a new way of being in relation to ideas, to others, to space, to time, etc. Not for the faint of heart.
But taking the risk of learning, of letting go of what you think you know for sure, is not commonplace in schools, for many reasons. For one, by the time anyone gets to college, if they get there, they’ve been consistently mis-educated to associate schools with learning-like activities. What is a learning-like activity? Worksheets, mandatory attendance, busy work. These are not incompatible with learning, but they often have more to do with the appearance of learning than with actual learning. Learning-like activities are facsimiles, but they are so pervasive that we can quickly forget what actual learning feels like.
It’s a similar phenomenon to how Michael Pollan, botanist and world-renowned food and nutrition sage, distinguishes whole, real foods from the more ubiquitous food-like substances. Pollan tells his readers that if it comes in a wrapper and especially if it’s sold at a gas station, it is a food-like substance, and he urges us to reacquaint ourselves with what real food is.
Similarly, elementary, secondary, and even higher education, often feature more learning-like activities than genuine risk-taking and dissonance. As with the food-like products, learning-like activities are meant to come and mostly stay in tidy containers. They are activities that create a caricature of learning in order to still those learning-looking bodies and keep them in one place. In fact, disciplining students to stick to these learning-like activities can be, and usually is, far more of what schools do than actual educating. Particularly for low-income black and brown students, the school to prison pipeline starts early with severe consequences for any behavior that remotely looks like it is not appropriately reproducing the look of learning, even when there is actual learning going on. Jared Berezin, in his analysis and critique of how schools train bodies, described this look of learning as a classroom of students, all, “attentively focusing on the teacher, then tilting down to take diligent notes, and then looking up again with hands raised. A choreographed ballet of 19 perfectly focused, wonderfully calm and quiet bodies.”
If you have a love of learning and knowledge, schools are painful, overly constrained places, as they seem rich with the promise of learning and yet consistently fail to make good on this. In schools of education, we commit the arguably more original sin of teaching budding educators to confuse learning with studenting. That is, we conflate learning with teaching students how to succeed in school, which actually does not have to involved learning. There are endless best practice books, textbooks on methods for teaching every discipline, and even courses just on discipline. Very little of this addresses the complexity learning and certainly does not engage with the deep definition of learning Ellsworth suggests. Why compile a book posing questions without any clear answers? This does not make for a best seller, or for that matter, an objective research study with replicable results. Much tidier to go with a manual that provides strategies for this content and that topic, all incrementally adjustable for different kinds of learners with handy labels for easy identification, e.g., ELL, ASD, ADHD, ODD. In many circles, these kinds of best practices tomes are referred to as recipe books: use ¼ teaspoon of explicit skills instruction with some learners, the full tablespoon with others. Several decades ago, composition theorist Anne Berthoff implored educators to dispense with teaching as the practice of recipe swapping, and we’ve yet to heed this advice.
Top that desire for manuals with the fact that most of the people who go into teaching loved school. I don’t mean just that they were successful in schools. I mean that for them, school, with its lined sheets of paper, numbered directions, and a lone, usually white female from the upper middle class, authority figure speaking in standardized American English, was, well, almost exactly like home. It was their comfortable place, and most who enter teaching do so with fresh vigor about their impending place at the front of the classroom and seeing the proverbial light bulb go on in their students’ minds. While the light bulb reference can be interpreted to mean seeing learning happen, I would argue it’s more about a romanticized relationship that spotlights a teacher making content accessible to students. This kind of neat learning, if we call it such, is not so much about identity shift and risk as it is about order and measured pieces of success, with consistently trained borders between teacher and student. With so many teacher education candidates coming into schools having thrived at maintaining these tidy roles of the teacher, student, and the caricature of learning (experiences that Freire called the banking approach), this creates quite the potential challenge for teacher education programs. They should be working to verily deprogram its students and convince them that perhaps their end goal should not be to recreate their students in their own hypersuccessful image but to educate for social transformation. If that were the goal of teacher education, it would be a difficult one. Yet most schools of education do not engage an elaborate praxis of transforming education, let alone articulate a theory of how that change might occur (Tuck & Wang, 2014).
We only need to take a small step backward to question the efficacy of schools of education in face of entrenched, recalcitrant, and shapeshifting patterns of oppression thriving in schools. Throughout U.S. history, schools have had one constant: they have always been efficient reproducers of inequity in society (Bowles & Gintis, 1972). In tandem, schools of education, even with their mission statements of equity, achievement, and social justice, are minimally implicated in that societal reproduction and more likely partially to blame for this ongoing inequity. As one small example, it is entirely possible for a teacher in training to learn about many educational philosophies and strategies but not have to deeply interrogate the role of institutionalized poverty in the division of social classes and how those roles are implicitly reinforced in schools. In other words, that we allow educators to learn about programs and interventions to close the achievement gap without understanding the core racist and economic causes of this achievement gap does not only a disservice to anyone in schools but actually guarantees continued inequity. With its methods fetish and platitudes of saving just “one child,” education and schools of education are complicit in maintaining a blind eye to the societal structure reproduced in its halls and, in fact, creates fertile ground for many private schools to claim that they have overcome poverty as a barrier through their no-nonsense business approaches to schooling. This causes me to say again: to be an educator who has a passion for learning and knowledge means to be in a constant state of heartbreak in schools and schools of education.
So how in the hell have I come to spend increasing energy defending public education, and now, even more improbably, schools of teacher education? I blame it on a society gone tone-deaf, unable to hear the distinct tones of lunacy in putting unbridled faith in free market. We have become lulled into thinking that copious amounts of unfettered capitalism and corporatization which turns any and everything into private holdings, held by a very small number of billionaire white boys is somehow not just normal but benevolent. We must become more skilled at not only seeing this logic as flawed but also seeing it manifest in strategic moves to privatize every last school in the nation. K-12 teachers and students are only too well-versed now in the corporate take-over of public schools, and now that machinery is looking to higher education.
The past few weeks have seen two overt moves towards privatizing teacher preparation. The report released Tuesday by the National Council on Teacher Quality was, in essence, a report card, on many of the nation’s teacher preparation programs, and failed most. The report has come under serious fire for its methods, which in essence have measured the efficacy of new teachers’ programs by the syllabi of the courses. Even if one had a rote vision of learning, it only takes a vague recollection of the childhood game of telephone to see the many opportunities for a reading on a college course syllabus to not quite manifest into transformative education. The report in essence evaluates the deposits that schools of education should be making, from a banking view of education. While this should be offensive to anyone who has any respect for the robust nature of learning, it should also signal a necessary step to private takeover: deliver a failing grade using a metric that you then easily show improvement with.
Another recent acronym-ed policy charge is called GREAT, which stands for “Growing Excellent Achievement Training Academies for Teachers and Principals” – (insert your own comment on the mismatch between the acronym and the words here). GREAT is a bill introduced by Colorado state Senator Bennett that seeks to, in essence, systematize nonacademic programs for rapid certification of teachers. The GREAT faculty need not be faculty, and the graduates of GREAT academies can acquire the equivalent of a Masters degree through various fast-track programs. It prioritizes on the job training and demonstration of pupil performance on standardized tests as the routes to desired teaching. This simplistic focus taps into widespread ideas of learning as test score production and all but seals off the potential for schools to be places for the far messier but much more worthwhile spaces of learning. If sociologists had premised before that schools are efficient sites of social reproduction, they’ll have to find another adjective to replace efficient to account for this ratcheting up of societal division and surveillance, all performed shamelessly under the name of education.
While I am no way defending schools of education, my issue with this latest wave of education “reform” is that the implicit definition of learning in this proposed here is an even worse one of learning-like performances than the proverbial magnanimous switcher on of light bulbs, which apparently almost anyone can do. There is no doubt that schools of education constantly need strong wake-up calls to question and address their relevancy, particularly for populations of color and the poor. This is not exclusive to education but should be part of the ongoing practice of applied fields, to assess how we are theorizing and practicing in the best interest of individuals and society. Again, not for the faint of heart.
Rather than awaken to the deep complexity involved in learning and stake their claim as performing crucial and deeply difficult roles in society, the latest wave of private-ideology fueled reforms does precisely the opposite to schools of education. It grinds the potentially vibrant undertaking of learning into rote mechanics, continuing the strong trend of equating teaching with test score production, best learned by mimicking practicing teachers/test score producers. This move to collapse and privatize teacher education is, sadly enough, completely predictable. The privatization of public education over the past decade has been a land grab of startingly overt actions. For the always hungry monster of materialism and colonialism, the thirst for land is never quenched. A walk through Harlem in New York City, Detroit, or New Orleans, with gleaming signs of Kipp, Harlem Children’s Zone, and Match Education, demonstrates in vivid detail that this wave of venture capitalism is about greed for land and resources. In fact, the strongest case that can be made for these reforms are that they succeed in helping some low-income black and brown children to be safe but only by mimicking the language and cognition patterns of wealthier white peers in other schools. Not much of a reform at all.
But if schools have shown little ability to be places of learning, of transformation, or, if we’re really going to be brave in our dreaming: of self-determination, then why bother to try to stem the tide of these reforms, particularly in higher education, which has always been an extension of the state’s interest in controlling what counts as knowledge? Because the potential is always there. Even though we’ve come to misunderstand democracy as occasional voting for one of two marketing strategies that are both fueled by the same market interests, the idea of democracy remains dormant but there. Similarly, learning is always at the ready. Human beings’, in fact all living beings’ natural state is to grow, to learn, to change. If only schools and schools of education would claim their rightful ground as centers for learning and stop trying to legitimate themselves through the co-opted corporate language of consumers, accountability, standards, and parity, they might stand a chance of not just withstanding these reform movements but to create something better than has ever existed. Places where people can learn.