The following was written in 1995 and is posted here for readers. How profundly to the right this country has moved since that time; all to the detriment of our citizenry and children. For this reason, critical thinking and critical pedagogy must be emphasized once again. As long as the testing regime is in place, no critical thinking can be taught. This is one reason testing is promoted by those in power; oligarchs do not want critical thinkers. They want a citizenry that is uncritical, easily manipulated, and subject to propagandistic and fallacious appeals. By casting the debate in education exclusively around testing, the reactionaries have siphoned off much of the real debate which is about teaching and learning and in doing so, I believe they have created a narrative that serves to straightjacket the real debate we need to have regarding authentic teaching and authentic learning — this debate would of necessity include a discussion of critical thinking, what it is and how to teach for it.
But the debate over learning and teaching is not just about any learning or critical thinking; for one can learn to be narrowminded, uncritical, racist, sexist, homophobic, classist and taught to accept conclusions and claims without learning or knowing how to critically scruinize these claims in the interest of self-authored thinking. In other words, people have to learn uncritical thinking as well; uncritical thinking is also learned activity. Therefore not all teaching and learning is good. How do we differentiate the chad from the wheat?
“The critical habit of thought, if usual in society, will pervade all its mores for it is a way of taking up the problems of life. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded by stump orators… They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence, unifluenced by the emphasis or confidence with which assertions are made on one side or the other. They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices and all kinds of cajolery. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens.”
——- William Graham Sumner, Folkways 1906
“Whatever significance schooling might once have held for the majority of youngsters in our society, it no longer holds significance for many of them. Most students (and, for that matter, many parents and teachers) cannot provide compelling reasons for attending school. The reasons cannot be discerned within the school experience, nor is there faith that what is acquired in school will actually be utilized in the future. Try to justify the quadratic equation or the Napoleonic wars to an inner city high school student- or his parents! The real world appears elsewhere: in the media, the marketplace, and all to frequently in the demimonde of drugs, violence, and crime. Much if not most of what happens in schools happens because that is the way it was done in earlier generations, not because we have a convincing rationale for maintaining it today. The often heard statement that school is basically custodial rather than educational harbors more than a grain of truth” (Gardner, 202).
THE ROLE OF EDUCATIONAL RELEVANCE AND PERSONALIZED LEARNING
In his landmark book, The Unschooled Mind, Howard Gardner argues that schooling as presently constructed within today’s society is not teaching students how to fundamentally think, acquire knowledge, transfer insights into larger domains, or become life long learners. Although this realization is nothing novel, having been the subject of debate for years, Gardner makes some interesting and relevant points in his book for educators to consider.
To begin with, it is imperative to note that children bring to the classroom their own personal narratives, dreams, hopes, and aspirations. They are not merely empty vessels at age five or six when they enter school, but as Gardner correctly points out, they bring to the classroom environment “… initial conceptions, stereotypes, and scripts.” (Gardner, 5). I would further argue that many of our students today are experiencing Dickensonian “scripts” of nightmarish proportions, especially in our inner cities. Dramatic social transformation in material and psychological reality including drug addiction, unemployment, inadequate opportunities, racism, sexism, dysfunctional families, teenage pregnancies, and the status of being “illegal” for some, have redefined what it means to be an educator, a student, and a citizen in today’s society. It’s important to note that students of all ages bring legacies of expectancy, repression, and resistance to our classrooms for which they seek and hope for critical exploration and critical evaluation. Yet classroom life, from kindergarten to higher education, infrequently calls upon students’ prior knowledge, fails to help students interrogate their existence both materially and psychologically, and rarely encourages that these “conceptions,” “stereotypes,” or “scripts,” become the object of critical dialectical examination or reflection. As a result, students who have formed what we call “associational assumptions”; beliefs about the world that they have assimilated and derived from social structures of power— television, movies, popular culture, parents, friends, institutions, and teachers- fail to gain an insight into the fact that this associational thinking is “borrowed thinking” that often poses as our own thinking. It is this thinking, the unschooled mind, that must be rigorously subjected to critical analysis and examination.
The concept of personalized learning and educational relevance recognizes that social, economic, personal, and cultural conflict are issues of pertinence in students’ lives begging for acknowledgment and recognition as current reality to be pedagogically taken advantage of. These issues provide relevant, real-life sources for the development of independent thinking, democratic decision making, and intellectual and moral character development. This notion of personalized and relevant learning is contrasted with the current instruction of accomodation and trivialization— the condescending curriculum of decontextualization and alienation— of de-personalization accompanied by skill-driven tasks based on rote memorization.
By examining what students themselves say about the institution of education and the activities that go on within its four walls we can gain a better insight into what specifically is meant by educational relevance and personalized learning. A fifteen year old student commented on his government class in the following way:
“Government class is hard for me too. I’ve been staying after school trying to learn the Articles of Confederation for almost a week, because the teacher said we couldn’t be good citizens unless we did. I really tried because I want to be a good citizen. I did hate to stay after school though, because a bunch of us boys from the south of town have been cleaning up the old lot across from Taylor’s Machine Shop to make a playground out of it for the little kids from the Methodist home. I made the jungle gym from old pipe, and the guys made me “Grand Mogul” to keep the playground going. We raised enough money collecting scrap this month to build a wire fence clear around the lot” (Poor Mans Soliloquy, 1).
Clearly what was lacking on the part of this civics teacher was not simply an ability to pedagogically capitalize on and appreciate the subjective life of this student and how it related to citizenship, the larger goals of democracy, and his involvement in the community; but also missing was an understanding of the function and role of education itself- why we study democracy, for what purposes, how democracy and citizenship relate, and for whose interests. Here was a student who was clearly a “good citizen” within the meaning of the word. He was involved in his community with others, constructing facilities for others. He was perspicacious to realize the role of collaborative learning, the politics and economics of fundraising, the role of democratic voting, the needs of the community and its citizens, and the extension of learning into other domains of life. His thinking about democracy had a purpose, and he was confronted by significant questions at issue, or problems to be solved. He had an empirical dimension to his thinking. He labored under assumptions about what he thought democracy and a “good citizen” was, and on the basis of these assumptions he arrived at conclusions as to how to act and what to believe, which ultimately yielded implications and consequences. He brought these histories to the classroom and no doubt expected critical collaborative exploration into their relationship to larger conceptual understandings of democracy and democratic life, such as the Constitution or Articles of Confederation. Had his teacher been aware of the role of education and the principles and strategies of critical thinking, s/ he would have been able to question him socratically as to the origins of his thinking, the implications for what he believed democracy and “a good citizen” was, what evidence and experience he had on which to base his assumptions, and how the logic of his thinking might conflict with the logic of other points of view. What failed this student was the inability of the educational system to critically interrogate his subjective life in ways that would encourage and increase his awareness of the role of the Constitution and democracy as an abstraction- linking these concepts inductively to his own concrete experiences of democratic life. Instead of building on this child’s knowledge, education for him became a rude, vertical imposition of rote memorization and regurgitation. He was silenced by the curriculum not empowered by it; prevented from engaging in democratic life by having to mindlessly and rotely put to memory the documents of democracy.
If we are to foster critical analysis and examination in schooling, what is required is an active curriculum that involves students in thinking about reality for the purposes of critically deconstructing and reconstructing it. As Gardner points out, “The capacity to take a stance towards everyday reality- to confirm, deny, or alter it,- confers enormous new powers on the child” (Gardner, 71). This of course requires encouraging critical thinking about reality, critical writing about reality, critical speaking about reality, critical questioning of reality, critical reading about reality, and critical listening to diverse narratives inherent in reality.
It is this notion of personalized education and relevance that I think is salient in Gardner’s work and must surely constitute the cornerstone of any meaningful curriculum in today’s society. Making the lived experiences of our students the lively subject of public and private debate, means offering legitimization to such experiences, thus giving those who live them affirmation and voice. It means offering critical educational opportunities for students to articulate their language, hopes, dreams, values, and encounters with others. It heralds reflection, metacognition, and insight into these experiences both on the part of students and teachers, while presenting the promise of countless encounters and opportunities for critical thinking about personal and social issues, as well as in the monological domains such as science and mathematics. This is not simply a pedagogical technique for subjective confirmation, but part of a critical discourse that questions daily life relative to academic concepts, the role of power, dependence, and equality in learning. (Giroux, 107).
This fifteen year old student goes on explaining the horrors of the divorced curriculum, commenting on his experience in wood shop:
“Mom doesn’t use a broom anymore with her new vacuum cleaner, and all our books are in the bookcase with glass doors in the family room. Anyway, I wanted to make an end gate for my uncle’s trailer, but the shop teacher said that meant using metal and wood both, and I’d have to learn how to work with wood first. I didn’t see why, but kept still and made a tie rack at school and my dad doesn’t even wear ties. I finished making the tail gate after school in my uncle’s garage. He said I saved him ten dollars” (Poor Man’s Soliloquy, 2).
It saddens us all to think of such an articulate and creative child silenced by the hidden curriculum in schooling today. But typically this failure is more the norm than aberration. Unfortunately, as presently constructed, education and classroom life is non-transformative and domesticating, both for the teacher and the student. It is unable to offer active voice and life to the students it purports to serve nor the teachers who serve them. As a result, education fails to encourage critical thinking and exploration into self through reality, or reality through self. Education is reduced to disempowerment- a pedagogy “divorced” from the real world. The implications for the teacher laboring under this paradigm is that s/he works “on” students, never “with” them. On the other hand, teachers who critically understand the role of education as that of personal and social transformation, tend to work “with” students- helping them explore the complexities of their personal and social existence relative to the larger institutional structures that exist. These educators typically provide profound and meaningful collaborative opportunities for students to develop the cognitive abilities, values and dispositions of learning, a sensitivity to the elements of their thinking and the thinking of others, and an insight into the standards that characterize fairminded reasoning; thereby encouraging them to see the relevance of learning so as to be in a position to transfer educational insights into other domains of life. Maxine Greene commented on the role of the educator when she stated:
I believe the teacher who is sincerely “radical” has the capacity to move his (sic) students to do their own kind of critical learning- at higher and higher levels of complexity. I think he (sic) has the obligation to teach them the use of the cognitive tools they need, to acquaint them with the principles that structure the disciplines (which are modes of ordering experience, modes of sense-making) to teach one as live possibility. I think he (sic) also has the obligation to present himself to his (sic) students as a questioning, fallible, searching human being ( his fellow human beings); to break through the secrecy of certain specialties by engaging his students and himself (sic) in the most rigorous, open-ended thinking they— and he (sic)— can do (Greene, 135).
Characteristically, these educators understand that children have intellectual strengths and weaknesses and learn in a variety of ways. Consequently, as Gardner notes, they recognize that “… meaningful projects taking place over time and involving various forms of individual and group activity are the most promising vehicles for learning” (Gardner, 204). Furthermore, as Greene emphasizes, it is not enough to simply teach for critical thinking, teachers must also model critical living and thinking for their students- they must become critical thinkers and subjective role models— in many cases intellectual heroes.
It is important for us as educators to see students not as objects, but as living subjects in the process of critically knowing and learning, and seek to help them search out and illuminate the logic of their own self-production. Furthermore, educators concerned with relevance must come to see learning as a political act, one that requires reasoning within diverse and opposing points of view, reflective thought, theory, practice, transformation, interdisciplinary transfer of learning, and personal and social commitment.
THE POVERTY OF PEDAGOGY AND THE PROMISE OF POSSIBILITY
Much of what has been written in North America and elsewhere concerning problems associated with educational forms and practices has been weighted heavily on the side of critique, accurately arguing that a critical examination and analysis of the poverty of pedagogy, both in the social relations of production and within the bankruptcy of current and past curriculum and pedagogical practices, is essential. However it is only recently that educational theorists have turned their attention to the promise of possibility and the possibility of promise, correctly arguing that forms of collective empowerment appear among both educational workers and students as they engage in, and critically reflect upon, issues of domination, power, and social relations, while simultaneously developing a body politic concerned with morality and the common struggle for human dignity and freedom. This realization has profound implications for both students, parents, teachers, and society as a whole. Gardner provides a partial voice for this language of hope that is often distinctively lacking within an all-to-often discourse of despair and despondency that characterizes much of educational critique. Gardner asks us to “Imagine an educational environment in which youngsters at the age of seven or eight, in addition to- or perhaps instead of— attending a formal school, have the opportunity to enroll in a children’s museum, or some kind of discovery center or exploratorium.” (Gardner, 200). Gardner’s utopian vision of educational environments, though soundly appreciated, is not new. Over twenty years ago noted writer Ivan Illich articulated the possibility of vision, and the vision of possibility, when he wrote:
Such criticism [of schools] leads many people to ask whether it is possible to conceive of a different style of learning. The same people, paradoxically, when pressed to specify how they acquire what they know and value, will readily admit that they learned it more often outside than inside school. Their knowledge of facts, their understanding of life and work came to them from friendship or love, while viewing TV or while reading, from examples of peers or the challenge of a street encounter. Or they may have learned what they know through the apprenticeship ritual for admission to a street gang or initiation to a hospital, news paper city room, plumber’s shop, or insurance office. The alternative to dependence on schools is not the use of public resources for some new device which “makes” people learn; rather it is the creation of a new style of educational relationship between man (sic) and the environment (Illich, 104)
Illich goes on to propose his notion of learning webs, distinctly similar to Gardner’s notion of museum-like schooling, which includes,
” .. tool shops, libraries, laboratories, and gaming rooms. Photo labs and offset presses could allow neighborhood newspapers to flourish. Some storefront learning centers could contain learning booths for closed circuit television, others could feature office equipment for use and for repair. The juke box or the record player would be commonplace, with some specializing in classical music, others in international folk tunes, others in jazz. Film clubs would compete with each other and with commercial television. Museum outlets would be networks for circulating exhibits for works of art, both old and new, originals and reproductions, perhaps administrated by various metropolitan museums” (Ibid., 121).
The maintenance of a utopian vision of education, one that offers fundamental perceptions of hope, is cardinal. But more than imagining schooling for the future, it is necessary for educational workers, parents, and students to struggle for its concrete realization. This means developing forms of pedagogical practices that involve an understanding of the principles and strategies of critical thinking and the ability to implement them within classroom life (Paul, 319). Of necessity these understandings arise from the language of critique, but their actual internalization and implementation in the dialogue of educational discourse can only come about through their utilization- by radically transforming the way teachers and students come to view the role and process of education. This includes how students are questioned, what materials and experiences should constitute the object of critical examination and reflection, the infusion of critical thinking strategies and principles in an active curriculum of dialogical and dialectical examination, and an understanding of the significance of subjective experience, power, domination, and social and economic justice. I
It also becomes imperative that educators, students, parents, and the community at large, collaboratively engage in emancipatory social movements if we are to develop a new understanding of schooling and fashion the material reality for its construction. For this reason, any argument for a truly effective and sound approach to restructuring education to meet its goals of humanization, must incorporate the idea of educational equity within schooling and society as a whole. A holistic understanding of the role of educational equity must embrace the exigency of envisioning and constructing a general societal movement dedicated towards egalitarian economic and social democracy. Education is not a panacea for the profound social oppression that defines current reality for the many. To confront the issue of educational equity directly and honestly, is to confront the necessity for an “acute” paradigm shift towards general societal humanistic values and transformations- from the classroom to the workplace, from the family to the State.
Schooling in a profound sense is an institution dependent on external social and economic forces. One need only to witness the dramatic debate over public and private school funding, vouchers, and so-called “Choice”. Visions and struggles for transformations in educational sites and pedagogical practices will of necessity be forced to address these wider economic and social concerns. For us as educators laboring within oversized classrooms, saddled with inadequate resources, impeded by unfair biased assessment processes, often objects of disdain by administrators conceptually divorced from what it means to be an educator or an educated person in today’s rapidly changing global reality, victims of ill-conceived and deficient training programs, laboring without sufficient quality educational preparation time or resources, and burdened with time constraints and content-driven curriculums, this in-itself represents an enormous educational challenge. But if we are to imagine and create centers of learning available to all members of society, where profound educational practices and knowledge acquisition occur, then we must begin to rethink our role as educators, to become to think of ourselves as active intellectuals in the construction of the material and ideological preconditions for the pedagogical utopia we seek. Through our educational and political organizations and diverse community involvement, both teachers and administrators need to address issues involving the broader function of schooling. Issues having to do with questions of power, community involvement, philosophies of knowledge acquisition, social theory, and political ideology, must become the object of critical examination. Schooling as an institution must be recognized as a political site and pedagogical practices as political practices. Imagining a vision of schooling informed by compassion, faith in the human being, and the obligation for struggling to create a better world, will help constitute this language of critique, from which can be born the practical promise of possibility.
Gardner, Howard. (1991). The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach. pp. 5, 71, 200, 203, 204. Basic Books: Harper Collins. 1991.
Giroux, Henry. (1988). Teachers as Intellectuals: Toward A Critical Pedagogy of Learning. pp. 107. New York: Bergin and Garvey. 1988.
Greene, Maxine. (1972). And it Still is News.pp. 135. published in After Deschooling What? (1973). New York: Harper & Row.
Illich, Ivan. (1970,1). DeSchooling Society. pp. 104, 121. New York: Harper & Row.
Paul, Richard. (1993). Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Know in a Rapidly Changing Global World. pp. 319. California: The Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique, Sonoma State University.
Poor Man’s Soliloquoy, (1980). Author Unknown. pp. 1,2.