About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

“The Intelligence of Plumbing” from the Mind at Work

I’m reprinting here a short chapter from The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker. I’m going to be talking about the chapter to a few classes at UCLA this quarter, and in rereading it decided it is relevant to some vocational education and labor issues that are currently in the air.
The first thing to consider is that programs like the one I write about here came about through federal and state grants, yet the Trump administration is proposing big cuts in allocations for work-force development and Career and Technical Education. Relatedly, the current administration is considering increased funding for apprenticeship programs, and apprenticeships that build on the training received by the students in this chapter would be a good thing, indeed. The teacher we’ll meet worries most about what will happen to his students once they reach the end of his program. The big question is what would be the nature of the apprenticeships? What kind of guidelines would the Trump administration put in place? It’s clear in what you’re about to read that apprenticeship also means mentorship for these young people. There hasn't been a lot of evidence in the Obama-era Department of Education nor under Betsy DeVos that the intricate human dimension of learning and development has been given much weight. Finally, the teacher you’ll meet, an experienced plumber with a keen intuitive sense of what young people need, grants his students intelligence and responsibility. Will Career and Technical Education under the Trump/DeVos do the same or be reduced to narrow job training?
Let’s go now with Mr. Jon Guthier to the kitchen of a small apartment in Phoenix, Arizona where he and his students are about to repair a leaky sink.


We are crowded into the kitchen of a small apartment.  The tenant, a young woman bouncing a baby on her knee, sits by the back door watching us.  Mr. Guthier, Terry, and two other boys are squatting down looking under the sink.  The base of the sink is enclosed within a cabinet, so access is restricted.  There is an old pan under the curve of the p-trap; it catches one of the leaks Guthier and his students will fix.  A section of the pipe has been replaced, and dried glue of some kind covers the seam in uneven globs.  About three-quarters of the pipe, from the sink to the p-trap, is wound in black tape.   I am kneeling next to Terry, 17, two days beard, slight nose, a scar across his extended hand.  Like the young hairstylists we just met, Terry is at an important point in his development—but for him, an opportunity or a disruption could have huge consequences.
Terry, like most of the boys in this room, is in a special program for young people who have a history of drug abuse and a consequent history with the juvenile justice system.  The program enables them, as part of their probation, to finish high school in a curriculum that will provide them with a general education and entry-level competence in one or more of the construction trades.  Though most of the boys have mediocre to poor school records, a number of them take to the program, seeing it as a way out of a bad situation. They throw their considerable energy into the work, running back and forth for supplies, taking stairs two at a time, curling themselves around and under sink cabinets, toilets, the underbellies of old houses.  As one boy announces to his classmates after a successful toilet installation: “Hey, this ain’t that hard.  I could do this for a living.” 

I met Mr. Guthier and his students during my visits to MetroTech, a vocational high school in Phoenix, Arizona that is making the transition to an integrated academic-vocational curriculum. This particular program is one of a number of efforts these days to create surer pathways from school to work.  The emphasis in much of what is said and written about such programs is on the economic benefits to student and society.  And there is also a critical literature, skeptical about linking education so closely to the job market.  I'll say more about these issues in a subsequent chapter on vocational education, but for now I want to consider a set of issues less discussed in the school-to-work debates, but important to the themes of this book: work as a vehicle for human relation, the importance of adult mentors in the development of competence, and the continual play of intelligence in that relationship and development.  Along with the story of Terry and his peers learning a trade, and the story of their rehabilitation, there is a story here about mind and the pivotal role of human connection. 

Field experience is essential to Jon Guthier’s teaching, and one way he secures such experience for his students is through an arrangement with the city to do free repairs on low-income housing.  Repair work, especially on older or less expensive homes and apartments, offers important challenges for young plumbers that they won’t get doing new construction.  Materials are not always standard; there are unusual structures, nooks, crannies, surprises within the wall; there is often a series of past repairs, layered one over the other, often makeshift.  In a sense, such occasions take the students back to a time before codes and prefabrication.  They will need to develop a certain resourcefulness and a problem-solving orientation to things.

“What do you make of this, boys?,” asks Mr. Guthier, pointing to the taped pipe.  “Looks like a mess,” says Terry.  “Yep,” says the teacher, “What do you think we should do with it?”  “We gotta replace it,” says one boy.  “Well, sure,” says Mr. Guthier, “but how, where…how do we start?”

            Jon Guthier is a slight man, about 5’7”, 135 lbs., with thin muscled arms, long brown hair, and glasses.  At 47, he’s worked plenty of construction-related jobs, has been a journeyman plumber and gas fitter for a number of years, and has been teaching for the last twelve.  A photograph of him might suggest severity of manner—his features are sharp, angular, and weathered from all those years outdoors—but he has an easygoing way about him, a how’s-it-going loquaciousness.  The kids call him “Mr. G.”,  or just “G.”.  And they respect him, his concern for them, and his expertise.  He's been there, has done the work, knows what he's talking about.  So they consult him frequently—he’s on the run at a job site from one kid to another—and they take his questions seriously.  He poses questions often.  When he and a class return to a job site, he’ll begin the day by asking the students to go over the problems they had the day before and, as a consequence, to list the things they’ll need to do today.  When they confront a new job—replacing a toilet, fixing a leak—he asks what they’d do and why.  Terry takes his question about that pipe under the sink and suggests they strip the tape to get to the nut attaching the drain pipe to the p-trap.  That’s reasonable, says Mr. Guthier, and with his right hand guiding their gaze over the entire structure asks the boys to consider what might happen as you take a wrench to that nut, given that other sections of the pipe, p-trap, and wall fixture are glued and, most likely, rusted.  Terry gets it: “You’ve gotta be careful.  If that nut won’t turn, you might tear something else loose.”
The interconnection of the component parts of a structure is an obvious notion.  But to grasp the meaning of that interconnection for your own action, and to realize that what you do can extend across different kinds of materials, and can be close by or at some distance – such understanding can give rise to deliberation.  A stop-and-think orientation.  I recall an experienced plumber, facing a somewhat more complicated situation of this type, telling me, "It's as important to say 'no' [to a possible course of action] as to say 'yes'.  You can get yourself in real trouble if you don't think it through."

Mr. Guthier is moving his students toward the comprehension of a house as a complex system of materials, processes, and forces: not an obvious way to think about a building.  And his questioning serves a further purpose: to help students become systematic in their approach to repair.  The good plumber has a diagnostic frame of mind, evident in a manual that Mr. Guthier uses during classroom instruction.  The manual is organized by problems—for example, “a valve or faucet does not completely stop water flow”—that are followed by lists of possible causes.  Students are required to consider and test each possibility in turn: a kind of plumber’s differential diagnosis.  Could it be a bad washer?  How about foreign matter—rust, grit—caught in the valve?

            To think this way, Mr. Guthier explains to me, you need “to know how a thing is put together”, how a device, or a category of devices, works.  You may not be familiar with a particular brand of a valve, but if you can determine whether it’s a cartridge valve or a compression valve, then you’ll know something generally about its components and how they function.  Then you’re able “to go through these steps in your mind.”  Given the huge variety of devices and structures you’ll encounter in any group of old houses, you need to be able to operate in some systematic way.  As they get more adept, these young plumbers may abbreviate the steps, zeroing in on a key feature of the problem rather than ticking off each item on a checklist.  But for now I want to dwell on the development of these students’ skill and their teacher’s desire that they become both knowledgeable about the way things are constructed and systematic in the way they use that knowledge.

            In this regard, it would be worth considering how Jon Guthier functions as mentor, as guiding adult, given his students’ legal situation. “You feel that sense of urgency in them,” he observes, “because even as things go well, something could fall apart right at the end.”  Though he does have heart-to-heart conversations with these boys about their behavior, the direction of their lives, and particular ethical dilemmas they face, a significant dimension of his mentoring role is played out through the work itself.  Some of the teachers I've observed while writing this book tend toward the moral lecture, the lesson-on-life delivered from the front of the classroom.  These, as best as I can tell, have little effect – did many of us respond well to them?  Yet, as Mr. Guthier pointed out, there is great need here for guidance and structure. "When children feel that adults cannot or will not protect them," writes youth activist Geoffrey Canada in Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun, "they devise ways of protecting themselves."  Yet, for all their hard-nosed bravado, most of these kids' lives are chaotic.  Think, then, of what a guided participation in the work provides: structure and routine, to be sure, and a meaningful connection to an adult, and a sense of helping people out by repairing their homes.  There is also, I believe, an ethical dimension to the way Mr. G. encourages the young people in his charge toward a skillful and systematic encounter with the material world, toward an understanding that yields agency.
Several days after the students were pondering that taped drain pipe, Terry and a big kid named Ken are replacing a toilet in an old house.  Terry has more experience at this task than Ken, so Mr. Guthier tells Ken to do most of the installation and asks Terry to help out and observe.

            Installing a toilet is a pretty straightforward procedure, but replacing one, especially in an older house, can have its moments: removing the old toilet, negotiating tight space, fitting a newer model into the existing confines and fittings, and so on.  One decision that has to be made concerns the flange, the collar that fits over the drain pipe in the floor, and onto which the toilet itself is attached.  There’s some ambiguity here, but you try to determine how corroded the existing flange is, whether or not it’ll hold new bolts, will they be stable?

            As soon as the boys remove the old toilet, Mr. Guthier asks them what they think of the flange.  There’s a quick exchange, then Mr. Guthier hears someone calling him from the kitchen and excuses himself.  “I’m not sure,” he says, exiting, “but I think you might want to replace it.  You don’t want to take a chance on a call-back.”

            Ken and Terry settle in, Ken getting down close to the flange, inspecting it.  Terry asks, “How’s it lookin’ to you, Ken?”  Ken scrapes at the edge of the flange with a screwdriver.  “It looks OK,” he answers and cocks his head to get a better take on the edges.  Then he slips in two new bolts.  “The bolts are going in nice and strong.”  Pause.  “I think we can keep it.  Go get ‘G’.”  Terry retrieves Mr. Guthier; the boys explain what they’ve done and their conclusion.  “Well,” he says, “you might be right.”

            Not everything Terry and Ken say during this installation, God knows, surely not everything, is so dialogic and problem-focused.  But the installation proceeds effectively, and, at several junctures, is characterized by this kind of thoughtful activity.  The independence of thought and outcome—the boys’ decision does not take the easy path of agreement—suggests that they’re appropriating the diagnostic frame of mind modeled by Jon Guthier.  They don't simply follow a routine, but vary it purposively in response to their testing of the materials before them.

            As I spend time with these young people, I’m struck by the way that Mr. Guthier’s program not only allows them to find a temporary balance within chaos, but, as well, becomes a means for them to achieve what they, for a variety of reasons—some beyond their control, some of their own making—could not achieve in the standard classroom.  Their work with Jon Guthier exposes and nurtures their intelligence, becomes a kind of diagnostic for what they can do when they put their minds to it.  Their teacher realizes acutely the legal and existential fix the boys are in, but addresses it, so to speak, through their engagement with tools and fixtures, water and pipe and surrounding structures. 
            I find myself thinking, too, of the imperfect bargain here.  There is a long tradition in the United States—dating back to Nineteenth-Century reform schools—of trying to redeem wayward children through the industrial arts.  This tradition often brought with it not only assumptions about the moral benefits of physical work but also about the intellectual capacity of working-class, urban youth.  Jon Guthier’s program, then, is embedded in a complicated history—one he works within, but modifies.  It is blue-collar work that is offered to these kids—wealthy kids in trouble would have many more options—but Mr. Guthier takes it seriously and makes it substantial.  (Historically, programs of this type frequently involve low-level and limiting tasks.)  And from what I could discern of Terry and his peers’ point of view, the plumber’s trade provides one of the most unambiguous pathways they’d yet seen toward stability.

            The huge question—one Jon Guthier frets over—is what will happen to the boys once they complete the program?  What social and occupational mechanisms will be in place to forward their development?  There’s a crucial public policy question here, one frightful to ask in these times of backlash against the less fortunate.  What opportunities exist for the kind of technical and human engagement this program provides, and how deeply does the nation believe in its value? 

* * *
Dwayne, the fellow who announced that he could install toilets for a living, sits amid a group of boys on the bus, head phones on, singing along loudly to a Twista cassette, which, of course, we can’t hear, and are left, instead, with Dwayne’s assured but not very skillful falsetto.  Several of the boys around him, Denzell particularly, complain, questioning his talents, but Dwayne, a mix of nonchalance and confrontation, throws it right back, praising the quality of his own voice.  Then back to song and complaint.  Finally, Mr. Guthier, looking up into the rear-view mirror, asks if everyone could please cool it, and they do, at least for a few blocks.

            Dwayne will not let you miss him for long.  He’s boastful, funny, quick-witted, out on you for a response or a cigarette, handsome and charming in a boyish, street-smart way.  With older men his demeanor shifts—he’s still working you, but the quality of the interaction changes—there’s more accommodation, and more need and request.  Dwayne generates so much activity in the immediate space surrounding him—a flurry of word and gesture—that it’s easy to miss, I certainly did, his considerable promise as a tradesperson.  Mr. Guthier calls him “ a quick study” and thinks he’s the most competent student in the class.

            If you hang around Dwayne at a job site, you’ll witness, more than a few times, an event like this: Dwayne and another boy are finishing the installation of a toilet, and are hooking up the braided hose that brings water from the wall outlet—called an angle stop—to the tank.  As they tighten the nuts, Dwayne cradles the hose in a certain way to keep it from twisting and kinking.  A few minutes later, Mr. Guthier comes in to remind the boys to be careful that the hose doesn’t kink on you—but Dwayne had anticipated that, having already acquired the proper trick of the trade from Mr. G.  Here’s another: Dwayne is assisting Denzell as he replaces a showerhead.  Denzell tightens the head and tries it.  It leaks.  He tightens it further.  The head still leaks.  “I bet you don’t have the washer in right,” suggests Dwayne.  Upon disassembly Dwayne turned out to be correct.

            Dwayne’s advice to Denzell came amid a narrative about a confrontation with some guy at a girl's house, whereupon Dwayne conducted himself mightily, deftly…and, then, bip—tune out and you’ll miss it—there's the hunch about the washer.  Settle in with Dwayne long enough, and you begin to see: Dwayne leaning in to inspect a faucet or a flange, feeling carefully with an index finger to confirm what he sees; ticking off, amid chatter, the steps needed to test a fixture; recalling a solution to a similar problem solved in another house, another time.
Dwayne is demonstrating the development of what Jon Guthier calls “a kind of a library” of mechanical knowledge: knowledge of types of devices, how they’re put together, how to work with them, processes to follow.  This blend of learned facts, experiences, and procedures makes Dwayne capable of functioning without close supervision.  The relation of learning and independent action.

            To consider action, though, one has to consider factors beyond knowledge alone.  To continue with Jon Guthier’s metaphor, the tradesperson’s library contains more than books; there’s a feel and mood to the place, a history, traditions, practices.  The skillful tradesperson is defined by what he or she knows, but, as well, by the quality of the work that knowledge yields.  Dwayne and two other boys are replacing a toilet.  They have removed the old unit, and while one is replacing the angle stop on the wall, another is quickly scraping the residue of the old assembly from the floor.  Then they put in a new flange, tap it into place, insert the bolts onto which the new toilet will rest, measure the distance of each bolt from the wall (13 1/2 inches) to check alignment, place a donut of bowl wax over the flange (this protects against leaking), settle the new toilet onto the bolts, and measure again.  These three boys work well together, dividing tasks yet assisting each other, efficient, assured.  While they finish the installation, they talk about employment, jobs this training might enable them to get.

            The final step is to apply caulking along the base of the toilet.  Dwayne cleans up and dries off the floor, then reaches for the caulking gun, and begins laying a neat strip of caulk around the porcelain.  The caulk smells like pungent bananas—chemical and fruity—and another boy follows Dwayne’s trail with a gloved forefinger, narrowing the line.  Finished, Dwayne takes a small sponge and further trims the caulking, a thin line now at the base of the toilet.  He stands up: “A few good flushes, and we’re done.”  It does look good.  Clean and tidy.  As the other boys pick up tools and leave to reassemble with Mr. Guthier, I compliment Dwayne, who has fallen quiet.  He breaks into a full smile, “Why, thank you very much,” he says.
This moment clarifies in my notes like a snapshot.  How much comes together to account for it, a developmental integration.  The increasing dexterity with tools.  Knowledge of plumbing devices and materials.  A range of understandings about repair.  Tricks of the trade.  A systematic approach to problems.  And there is the less measurable—but readily evident—sense of workmanship, the complex set of values that, one assumes, leads Dwayne both to measure the distance of the toilet to the wall—an action with functional consequences for repair—and to take one more pass at the caulking to reduce it to a visually pleasing line, an aesthetic outcome.

            A sense of workmanship is something that Mr. Guthier hopes for.  “I know these boys don’t like to handle dirty toilets,” he observes one day after we’ve returned to school,  “so there’s got to be something there that gives them pride in what they’ve been able to do.”  Some of the boys, he continues, “had very rarely been successful at things. Probably it’s the first thing they’ve finished in a long time.”  If this is true, then one can only imagine the twinge of possibility they feel as they see something they made work, as they gain respect from adults whom they respect, as they begin to imagine—tentatively, anxiously—a different kind of life for themselves, fashioned through hand and brain.

            And what might happen, I wonder, if we began to experiment with our own thinking about young people like Terry and Dwayne, and, more broadly, about the revelation of mind in the work they’re doing.  Too often when we do grant intelligence to common work and to the people who do it, our terms are narrow and demeaning: working people are concrete thinkers, or can only learn in a certain way, or are – this is an older expression – “manually minded.”  Jon Guthier's unexpected metaphor of the library can help us here, and take us beyond the typical discussion of vocational students.  How might it productively unsettle our thinking about intelligence, social class, and education to consider the foregoing account in terms of libraries and aesthetics, of differential diagnosis, of conceptualizing, planning, and problem-solving, of the intimate connection between respectful human relation and cognitive display?  My hope is that such shifts in perception would have consequences for the way we teach Terry and Dwayne, for the subsequent work we imagine for them, for how we talk to them and about them, and for the words we use to describe what they do.

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Monday, August 28, 2017

An Interview on Back to School

The current issue of The Journal of Developmental Education has an interview with me conducted by Peter Dow Adams, a real force in the rethinking of "remedial" or "developmental" writing. For those of you who do not have access to that journal, I reprint the interview below. It is built around my recent book Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education. 

Peter Adams (P.A.): Your own background mirrors the backgrounds of many students in developmental education. Your parents were immigrants, you grew up working class, and you were a first-generation college-goer. What have you learned from your own experience that might carry over to the work of the developmental educator?

Mike Rose (M.R.): Well, I certainly understand the feeling of not belonging, of being a stranger in a strange land. This feeling is intensified if you’re going to a school where many of your peers don’t look and sound like you.


I have a sense of what it’s like to not know much about how college works: from lacking knowledge and strategies for selecting courses to being overwhelmed by the intricacies of financial aid. And I understand the unfamiliarity with resources and, maybe more to the point, the reluctance to use them. A lot of people who come from backgrounds like mine aren’t savvy about the need to connect with instructors, to go to office hours if they’re available, and to utilize tutorial and learning centers. Such behaviors, even if you’re familiar with them, can feel like an admission of stupidity or a sign of weakness.

A more complicated wrinkle here is that seeking academic help can clash with the common belief in western society that learning is an individual process, that we’ve got to bear down harder, discipline ourselves better; and if we still can’t get the material, well, then, there’s the proof of what we always suspected…we’re not smart enough for college. Getting such students to see that learning is both an individual and social act can be a huge breakthrough.

Perhaps because of my background, I’ve always seen the developmental course as being more than a skill-building course. Yes, absolutely, the developmental educator is helping students read or write better or be more mathematically competent. But I also think that the developmental program when it’s well-executed is one of the few places where people learn how to be students, how to use resources, and how to study and manage time. The good developmental instructor also helps students explore some of their counter-productive ideas and feelings about literacy; mathematics; or about themselves, their ability, and what might be possible for them.

P.A.: In the 27 years since you published Lives on the Boundary, you’ve written or edited 12 more books.  How does Back to School, fit into your body of work?  What have been the major themes that have tied your work together?

M.R.: Let me start by summing up Back to School and working backwards. This is a book about the huge and growing number of students who are coming to school these days, from those in their early 20s to people who haven’t been in a classroom in decades. These folks include students pursuing a GED, an occupational certificate, an Associate’s degree, or who are preparing to transfer to a four-year college. A number of people graciously let me into their lives, so readers of Back to School  meet and come to know students with a wide range of backgrounds and goals, from young people who are for the first time seeing purpose in school; to people with a history in the criminal justice system; to 30- and 40-year olds seeking substantial employment through a skilled trade; to women who have raised families and are setting out on the next phase of their lives; to burgeoning physicists, psychologists, and teachers.

The aspirations and struggles of this richly varied population reflect the themes that characterize all my work: social class and educational opportunity, academic underpreparation and achievement, the nature of intelligence, and the role of teaching in a democracy.

P.A.: From President Obama to the local radio talk show, the focus of the current national discussion about getting more low-income people into college has to do with economic benefit, both for the individual and for the nation. Given your work, do you have evidence of other benefits as well?

M.R.:  Of course people go to college to improve their economic prospects, and this is doubly true for low-income students. I think of a guy introducing himself on the first day of a community college occupational program. He said bluntly, “I don’t want to work a crappy job all my life.” But if you spend time with even the most job-oriented students, you began to see all sorts of other motives and goals emerge. One of the things I try to do in Back to School is give a fuller picture of students who typically get portrayed in pretty simplified ways in both public policy and media.

Students want to find work that not only brings in a paycheck but that also has meaning for them. They like learning new things, from new tools and techniques to an understanding of other cultures. (I remember a man in his forties in a computer-assisted manufacturing course saying enthusiastically how good it felt “to have my mind working again.”) Students who have families talk about wanting to help their kids with school and hoping to be a role model for them. I’m struck, too, by the number of people I’ve met over the years and certainly while researching Back to School who embrace education as a way to define or redefine who they are: the young man who hated school beginning to see himself as a student and thinker, the woman who raised a family returning to school to pursue a goal she put aside decades earlier, or students who end up in STEM because a required introductory science class captivated them.

Students are driven by economic motives. We all are. But if economics is the sole lens through which we observe students, we’ll miss so much else.

P.A.: Back to School contains plenty of facts and policy recommendations, but what makes it different from other current books on higher education is the stories you tell about students and teachers. In fact, many of the facts and policy recommendations are embedded in these stories. Why did you choose to write the book this way?

M.R.: Long ago, I decided I wanted to write not only for other educators but also for students and for a wider public. I think it’s possible to be rigorous and analytic and also to tell a good story. After all, the people and situations educational researchers write about are alive and vibrant and richly complex. So I’d argue that to really capture the world of education, you need to give your facts and figures in their full human context.

In Back to School, for example, I try to argue for the intellectual content of occupational education by taking readers into the welding shop and having us watch closely what these novice welders are learning how to do. As we watch them, I can weave in the implications for curriculum development and educational policy. Or in offering the stats about enrollment in developmental courses, completion rates, and correlations with social class, I try to make the numbers come alive by putting the reader in the seats of developmental ed classrooms, meeting the students there and giving a sense of their educational histories and current social and economic circumstances.

P.A.: A major theme in Back to School, is that we need to “rethink the divide between the academic and vocational courses of study,” and in Chapter 3, you introduce us to Cynthia, Bobby, and Elias, each of whom is pursuing a welding certificate.  The three of them are learning the challenging skills of their trade, but Bobby is also exploring art history, Elias is interested in math, and Cynthia is running for student government.  And each of them is also pursuing an Associate’s degree.  Each seems to have bridged the divide between occupational and vocational courses of study.  Could you talk a little more about what colleges need to do to make the kind of experience Cynthia, Bobby, and Elias are having available to more students.  What kinds of structural or programmatic changes would help to close this divide?

M. R.: One of the big mistakes we’ve made in education over the last 100 years is creating the sharp divide between the academic and the vocational course of study. That divide has limited our understanding of the intellectual content of vocational knowledge and led to a tamping down of that content in the vocational curriculum. A parallel problem is that we’ve developed a stereotype of the vocational student as someone not interested in the ideas one might find in the academic curriculum. Let me tell you a story.

Several years ago, I sat in on a required humanities course where most of the students were in the construction trades. The class was assigned several essays that dealt with education, sociology, and economics – topics that would seem pertinent to this group since they are currently in school, participate in multiple social groups, and are daily living through the effects of the economy. But the discussion went nowhere. Most of the students were disengaged, and the instructor was treading water. Fortunately, he had brought in a guest speaker that day, and soon the guest took over. He was in education but, it turned out, had grown up in the neighborhood of the college, the descendant of people who had worked in the manufacturing and service industries. He began by talking about his background and tied it to some of the topics in the essays. Then he asked the students to describe their high schools, and he pointed out connections with the essays. As the class proceeded, it became clear that the students had a lot to say about the themes in the readings, about economics and inequality, about race and social class, and about the goals of education. As the readers of this journal know better than anyone, it all depends on how academic material is presented.

You ask about structural or programmatic changes that can help close the academic-vocational divide. One approach I like that’s been around for a while is integrating literacy and numeracy instruction into a vocational course – these days referred to as contextualized learning. You mention Elias. This is a guy who dropped out of high school possessing a pretty rudimentary knowledge of arithmetic but got turned on to math when it was taught in the context of his welding courses. Math made sense to him and mattered to him.

Another approach is represented in the story I told you about the humanities course. Without compromising the essential content or foundational concepts of a discipline, how can we present material in the humanities, arts, or sciences in ways that connect to occupational students’ lives? Their working lives are or will be embedded in economics and politics. They daily encounter chemistry or physics or biology. Their work has a historical tradition and a code of ethical behavior. For many of them, aesthetic concerns are integral to their practice. And on, and on...

Both approaches I just mentioned require collaborative work among faculty and strong professional development. I don’t want for a minute to downplay how hard such work is–though when it clicks, it can be deeply rewarding.

But, in addition to planning and developing both curriculum and pedagogical chops, there’s something else required to bridge this academic-vocational divide. I think it’s the big thing. Faculty and their leadership need to think deeply about the received beliefs and entrenched practices at their institutions that reinforce the split between the academic and the vocational. Until the key players do this basic work, they won’t be able to substantially bridge the divide.

P.A.: Could you give an example or two of these “received beliefs” and “entrenched practices” that reinforce the split between the academic and the vocational?

M. R.: Sure, the beliefs are those I’ve been discussing and that we receive from the culture at large. For example, work of the hand requires dexterity, determination, trial and error practice, and learning of new techniques but does not involve abstraction, conceptualizing, theoretical understanding, and the like. Or the kinds of stereotyped beliefs about vocational students’ interests I illustrated with that classroom story.

As for entrenched practices, consider all the ways that the academic-vocational split has been institutionalized. Separate departments and turf and power dynamics. Separate faculty lines and, possibly, pay schedules. Separate administrative structures and routines. These structures and practices are hard to negotiate and can be a formidable barrier to, let’s say, getting faculty from the social sciences and construction trades to come together to creatively plan for a contextualized learning program.

P. A.: Developmental education is itself the focus of both criticism and reform. Critics like Stan Jones of Complete College America have even called traditional developmental education a failure. Others within developmental education have been experimenting with alternative structures and pedagogies. What do you think about these critiques and reforms?

M. R.: First of all, I’m suspicious of sweeping indictments. Students’ success or failure in developmental education depends on a host of factors. What skill levels do students possess upon entrance? Did they once know the material but have grown rusty, or have they always had trouble? What is the curriculum they’re given? What kind of instructional and tutorial support is available to them? What other things might they be learning–study skills, habits of mind–that typically don’t get measured? These and other variables would affect a student’s or a program’s success.

But I and a lot of others in and outside of the developmental education world also think that some long-standing practices and beliefs work against our students’ success; and, for that fact, against our success as teachers. I’ve been thinking and writing about these beliefs and practices for close to 35 years and sum up that work in Back to School. In brief, the segmenting of skill levels into three or four courses can keep some students climbing a seemingly endless ladder of classes, sometimes in several subject areas. There is good evidence that a significant number of them never make it out of the sequence. The curriculum in many of these courses is based on outdated theories of how students learn. And the assumptions about the ability and motivation of underprepared students that accompany these outdated theories of learning are a problem as well. To be sure, there are students who are drifting through our classes, who lack discipline and focus. But just as often these folks are anxious, or don't know how to seek help, or are distracted by worries about food and shelter. Suddenly the country is aware of the surprising degree of food insecurity on our campuses. Again, I go into a lot more depth in Back to School and offer some of my own experience teaching and developing programs.

I am really excited about all the fresh work being done by developmental educators. I’m a big fan of contextualized learning, which I mentioned in response to your last question. And I’m also taken with the kind of thing you’re doing in Baltimore, enrolling developmental students directly in first-year composition and then having them take their developmental course as a co-requisite. And then there are the attempts to beef up curriculum with more substantial material and assignments. All of these approaches require fewer courses in the developmental sequence.

What is crucial is that the reforms need to be more than just structural. For example, cutting one or two courses out of a developmental sequence without rethinking  beliefs about learning and fundamentally redesigning our curriculum will not get us to where we need to be. So difficult as it is to initiate change at more than one level of an organization, program administrators and program faculty have to coordinate their efforts at reform if our students are to truly benefit. I also hope that the considerable cognitive work involved in this rethinking of developmental ed leads us to affirm the serious intellectual content of what we do. There is nothing basic about teaching basic skills.

P. A.: In the conclusion to Back to School, you observe that for those teaching basic skills, “the need for substantial professional development is overwhelming.”  Why aren’t faculty who will be teaching basic skills prepared to do so in graduate school?  Have you observed “substantial professional development” that is effective?  What does it look like?

M.R.: You’re sure right that the problem begins in the graduate programs where college instructors are trained; and the problem is not just with basic skills instruction but with teaching in general. Graduate students learn a great deal about, let’s say, biology or literature or mathematics, but not how to teach it. And there is no place in their curriculum where they consider the difficulties students might have as they learn how to think like a biologist or mathematician or the reading and writing difficulties that can emerge when encountering a discipline for the first time. The same is true in acquiring a trade. People are trained to be diesel mechanics or cosmetologists or nurses but not to teach their occupations. There are specialized master’s programs that are oriented toward teaching, but they are not the norm.

Everything I just said is doubly, triply true for basic skills instructors, except for a handful of programs in English or mathematics. So the burden for developing teaching competence falls on the institutions hiring new faculty. And let’s be honest, a lot of those institutions aren’t that committed to teaching either. Some campuses have programs that provide resources for instruction, but they tend to be low-status and under-utilized operations. As a community college vice president I interview in Back to School puts it, “We don’t cultivate a professional identity around teaching.” It’s in the midst of this mess that we need to consider good professional development for basic skills instruction. More than the name of a specific place, I can give you some of the characteristics I think should be part of the mix.

Professional development cannot be a one-shot deal. It is not an inoculation. It needs to be ongoing, with multiple opportunities for instructors to learn new things, try them, and discuss and reflect on them, which can be done physically or virtually. Also we need to provide these opportunities to adjunct faculty, for they are responsible for so much instruction. It needs to be grounded on one’s subject matter. A lot of professional development is awful. A consultant helicopters in and delivers trendy gimmicks or a simplified motivational rap on teaching. The best professional development is done by and with people who are expert in the subject area and have worked long and hard at helping underprepared students become more literate or numerate.

One more thing. Even if we’re dealing with pretty basic skills – pre-algebra arithmetic, let’s say – that doesn’t mean that the work can’t be conceptually rich. So the best professional development is intellectually engaging, dealing with important fundamental issues in literacy or numeracy, cognition, and adult learning.

Finally, the best professional development I’m aware of taps local talent, big time. You may well involve a researcher who studies these issues or basic skills faculty who have developed successful programs elsewhere, but you’ll also want to involve the people from your or neighboring campuses who are strong developmental ed teachers. Some of the most successful  programs I’ve heard about are created and run by home-grown folk. 

P.A.: Thinking back over this interview, it strikes me that you’ve been asking a lot of developmental education. You ask for faculty to do things they weren’t trained to do, from teach study skills to collaborate with faculty from other subject areas with the goal of teaching reading, writing, or math in the context of those subject areas. And you’re asking departments to mount ambitious professional development programs. All this in an environment of tight budgets, heavy teaching loads, and over-reliance on adjunct faculty. Do you have any hope that what you propose can come to pass?

M.R.: It does sound daunting. And I’m certainly not optimistic that funding will soon increase to equitable levels or that developmental educators’ workloads will become sane and just. But everything I present in Back to School and that we’ve been discussing in this interview is taking place now. Not widespread, to be sure, and not easily accomplished, but things people are doing. So how do these folks do what they do in this constrained and difficult environment?

Administrators who are supportive of developmental education and are politically shrewd reallocate existing funds, or craft effective appeals for budget augmentation, or target local businesses and philanthropies. And as I mentioned a moment ago, there is a ground swell of work by faculty and staff who are experimenting with new curricula and course structures. My home state of California with its hundred-plus community colleges is rich in such experimentation, which includes hitting up those small family foundations and local businesses as well as forming political networks to influence policy makers. 

Adjunct instructors are in such a precarious position. They have little time to do much more than teach their classes and then head for their next job, and, even if they did have time, some departments don’t include them in faculty enrichment or development. But some wise departments do, and most of the adjunct instructors I’ve spoken to welcome the opportunity to participate in good faculty development because it helps them improve their pedagogical skills and can potentially give them some advantage in the job market.

As for the tasks I’ve recommended adding to the developmental instructor’s repertoire, some would clearly require quality professional development. But other tasks such as managing one’s time or the effective use of the textbook might only need – at least for starters – the instructor asking of her or himself the fundamental question: What basics does a student need to know to participate in my class? The instructor can cover these topics incrementally and in the context of other important activities such as going over the syllabus, giving an assignment, or reviewing course material. This incremental coverage becomes less of a burdensome add-on, and I think is more effective because skills are strategically linked to activities that have consequences for students.

Your question about my expectations for developmental education takes me to a bigger point, Peter. For all my criticism of traditional developmental or remedial curriculum and pedagogy, I think that developmental education itself serves a powerful democratic purpose in American education. It provides a specified, institutionalized place in the college where the teaching and growth of academically underprepared students is front and center. At its best, developmental education helps correct for our educational system’s and our society’s failures. So I think there are civic and moral reasons as well as educational ones to keep advocating for more equitable funding and improved working conditions while we also push ourselves – as so many within the field are doing – to examine and improve what we teach and how we teach it.