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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Monday, August 17, 2009

More on Portraits of Thinking, Education Miracles, and the Power of Discussion – Plus a Postscript on New Books and Blogs

It’s been several months since I’ve commented on readers’ posts. During that time, we’ve watched the display of intelligence by a common laborer, a general surgeon, and a middle-school student in a special ed class. We’ve also sat in on a primary-grade classroom and a twelfth-grade Advanced Placement seminar, watching good teachers at work and their students responding. And I posted a commentary on the search for the miracle cure in education, the single magic bullet that various reformers offer up as the solution to our educational problems.

The five portraits of thinking – the laborer, surgeon, etc. – sparked a lot of response, much of it on learning and on teaching itself. There was more than a little lamenting about the way schools can miss opportunities for students to think fully – with particular concern about the way current educational policy might squelch such thinking.

The portrait of the student composing a poem in special ed sparked particularly strong response, celebrating both the intelligence and poetic sensibility of the student writer and, through her, reflecting on the power of curiosity, intellectual spontaneity, and just the pure cognitive force and plasticity of the developing mind. Many of the comments were from teachers, and I’d recommend them to other teachers visiting this blog.

“Of Classrooms and Miracles” also drew a lot of response, elaborating the argument or, in several cases, qualifying it with additional or alternative perspectives. I recommend reading them as well. (By the way, that essay just got picked up by the online magazine Truthdig.)

I want to comment further on several posts to my most recent entry, the portrait of an Advanced Placement English teacher and his wonderful students. The writer of one of the comments offered a memory of her own AP English class in which Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude sparked a vibrant discussion among all the members of the class, “from the overachiever to the quiet group in the back of the class.” (It’s fascinating how often these portraits of thinking triggered memories that readers offered up in rich detail. Our personal history of cognitive growth is thick with memories of family, teachers, objects, and events.)

Another reader, Brian, and I would probably differ about the value – and maybe even the definition – of discussion. He’s right to want evidence that education is occurring as a result of discussion, that, let’s say, Steve’s students are learning something about how Modernist experimental fiction works. I see some evidence for that learning in the excerpt, for example, the students’ observations about narrative structure. But, I’ll admit, I also value the other things occurring here, for example the push to articulate difficult ideas and the attempt to do that with other people. Brian raises a concern about an “anything goes” mode of discussion, but I don’t think that’s going on here. Steve keeps nudging and cajoling his students toward precision with a novel where precision is elusive. I believe there’s something intellectually powerful in trying to be as exact as you can in the midst of ambiguity.

This discussion of discussion takes us to a post by ChicanoAnthro in which he writes about a book he’s reading: The Decent Society by Israeli political philosopher Avishai Margalit. I will try to summarize ChicanoAnthro’s summary. Margalit is interested in identifying the criteria by which a society can call itself “decent,” and one of those is that the decent society’s institutions do not humiliate its citizens. ChicanoAnthro goes on to connect Margalit to a “paraphrase [of] Frederick Douglass: learning ‘unfits’ a person for second-class citizenship.” ChicanoAnthro sees the exchange in Steve Gilbert’s class – the collaborative struggle to interpret Faulkner’s novel – as a quintessentially democratic event: “the assumptions people hold about each other as they interact,” “the questions people ask of each other (in certain contexts, we only ask difficult questions of people we respect),” and so on.

It is interesting to think that the kind of discussion Steve Gilbert fosters – in addition to what it does for understanding literature, for critical and interpretative thinking, etc. – also has a civic function. Isn’t this finally one of the things we want from education in a democracy: people experience what it’s like to be a thinking, active, engaged human being, willing to deliberate with others and venture into the uncertain, speaking as clearly as possible along the way.

* * *
Postscript: Four New Books

Over the last few months, some new books have come my way, and each of them demonstrates, in quite different manner, the complex but achievable thought and effort that make good education possible.

W. Norton Grubb in The Money Myth: School Resources, Outcomes, and Equity calls for a multi-dimensional definition of resources that include not only money but less tangible things like leadership, effective instruction, and a school’s structure and vision. Money matters, but it’s the use of the money in the service of these less tangible factors that contribute most to effective schooling.

Karin Chenowith’s How It’s Being Done (a follow-up to her It’s Being Done) provides case studies of high-poverty schools that do well by their students.

The Herb Kohl Reader: Awakening the Heart of Teaching is an anthology of Kohl’s writing over the last forty years. Of special interest given the discussion here is his detailed portrait of teaching as highly skilled cognitive and moral pursuit.

Daniel Wolff’s How Lincoln Learned to Read is as much about learning in school as out of school. Wolff presents portraits of 12 Americans (Ben Franklin, WEB DuBois, Rachel Carson, among them) to demonstrate the many and varied factors – from the classroom to the apprentice shop to the pine forest – that contribute to the education of these influential people.

And Two New Blogs from Readers

LarryTash.blogspot.com. Larry writes as a long-time teacher and administrator in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin and studies higher education policy. Among other topics, she writes on the community college and on remediation. Her blog is "The Education Optimists." She also contributes to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s "Brainstorm" blog.

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