Here is part two, a continuation from Rethinking Remedial Education and the Academic-Vocational Divide, Part I, which I posted on my blog on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Let’s go back to those novice welders we met a little while ago. Along with the basic math class, the instructor teaches the students how to read blueprints, and often the math and blueprint reading blend together. Among other materials, the instructor uses the blueprints from a recent campus construction project, and the prints sometimes bear numbers or notes scribbled by the architect or contractor. This blueprint work provides the occasion for some pretty impressive reasoning. The students have to know the function of different kinds of welds and whether or not a weld would be appropriate in a particular place represented on the blueprint. They have to visualize a structure from the blueprint and perform various mental operations on it: How multiple pieces will fit together. What happens to them when you weld them? And the arithmetic they’re learning or reviewing is materialized in an actual building, and they have to imagine arithmetic in three-dimensional space and solve problems and make judgments using it. In these moments, basic math isn’t so basic.
Every once in a while, the notations added by architect and contractor will be unclear or, worse, there will be a discrepancy between them. These situations reveal the ability of some of the students to apply what they know to an ambiguous problem.
After math, after blueprints, the cohort of students join other cohorts out in the large welding workshop. It is loud with grinders, and hammering, and the sum total of all the pops and zaps of the welding instruments. There’s the acrid smell of heat and electricity in the air. And there’s bursts of sparks and intense light all across the room. You have to wear a mask to observe the students at work.
When you talk to them after a weld, you get a sense of their developing knowledge of electricity, and metals, and the pros and cons of different welding processes. The instructor, who travels among them – checking in, giving quick demonstrations – helps them use this knowledge to solve problems and figure out how a weld went wrong. In addition to their technical chops, they’re developing an aesthetic sense of the work – they talk about a “beautiful” weld – and an understanding of the relationship of aesthetics and function. And they’re developing an ethics of practice; a bad weld can have big consequences. “A bridge is only as strong as its weakest weld,” the other instructor in the room tells her students. “You’re taking two separate entities and making them one. You’re like a surgeon, but you’re working on metal. So take it to heart.”
One of the abilities the students develop is particularly fascinating to me, and that is the intricate interplay between kinesthetics and thought.
Around the perimeter of the workshop are small cubicles that shelter the main room from blinding light and also enable students to practice certain kinds of welds. Tommy steps out from one of them, sees me, flips up his mask, and slips off his right leather glove to shake hands – warm and damp from the heat. He’s one of the second-semester students from the math class. I ask him what he’s working on in there, and, with increasing animation, he explains and demonstrates how he’s practicing his vertical and overhead techniques. I say I can’t imagine welding overhead, and he laughs, “overhead is something else!”
The central precepts of welding are travel – the speed of your movement of the instrument – the distance of the instrument from the metal, the angle of it, and how hot you’ve got it. And you have to be steady. Tommy puts one foot in front of the other and raises his right hand, forefinger out like a welding tool. He braces himself, though he can’t be rigid, for that will impede the fluidity of his movement.
Travel, angle and all that are further complicated in some processes by the fact that the electrode conducting the current is being used up as you weld, so you’ve got to continually adjust your travel speed and angle and distance to keep things constant – for consistency is crucial to producing a good weld. And you’re doing all this over your head. Tommy relaxes his stance and looks at me. “There’s so much you need to know,” he says, tapping his forehead. “So much to think about.”
Tommy is engaged in intense self-monitoring and analysis of his performance and significant intellectual work in applying what he’s been learning to the task in front of him. It’s hard to know where to mark the Cartesian separation between body and mind. Touch and concept blend in activity. Of course, as Tommy masters his trade, his response to the dynamic variability he describes will become second nature. We typically use words like “routine” or “automatic” to describe this level of expertise, but I think that vocabulary erroneously suggests that at a point in development, mind fades from physical performance. It’s true that constant monitoring does diminish, but not mindfulness and not that fusion of touch and concept, as you’ll see in welding, or hairstyling, or heart surgery when something goes wrong. Suddenly attention is focused, and all kinds of knowledge rush in on the moment, right through the fingertips.
This is the kind of thing that captivated me for the six years I spent researching and writing The Mind at Work, an exploration of the cognition involved in blue-collar and service occupations. There’s a level and variety of mental activity involved in doing physical work that is largely unacknowledged, even invisible – especially in our high-tech era. This diminishment of occupational cognition bears directly on big issues in education: the decades-long effort to reform Career and Technical Education, the college-for-all debate, and the current initiatives to get more low-income people into and through post-secondary certificate or degree programs. These laudable efforts occur on a centuries-old landscape marked by a sharp divide between the academic and the vocational course of study. It’s this divide that I want to consider with you now, for I think it terribly narrows our understanding of human cognition and straightjackets our pedagogical imagination.
As we saw with remediation, there are curricular-ideological, structural, and symbolic dimensions to this issue, and they are tightly interconnected.
The ideological foundations for a status-laden and cognitively inflected distinction among kinds of work go quite far back in Western thought. In The Republic Plato notes that the soul of the craftsman is “warped and maimed,” and in his Politics Aristotle proposes that artisans and merchants be denied citizenship because their work is “ignoble and inimical to goodness.” Though there certainly are dissenting voices in Western intellectual history, from St. Augustine to our own John Dewey, it is striking how pervasive this perspective is. It certainly runs through America’s cultural history – odd in a country with an anti-intellectual streak and such a strong orientation toward practicality.
Looking back over our history, labor journalist John Hoerr observes: “Since the early days of industrialization, a peculiar notion has gained ascendancy in the United States: that wage workers … lacked the competence to handle complex issues and problems that required abstract knowledge and analytical ability.” This tendency was evident when Post-Revolutionary War mechanics were portrayed in editorials as illiterate and incapable of participating in government, and it was alive and well when an auto industry supervisor told me that his workers were “a bunch of dummies.”
This set of beliefs and distinctions about knowledge, work, and the social order will affect the structure of educational institutions in the United States. At the post-secondary level there is, as historian Laurence Veysey observes, a tension going back to the mid-nineteenth century between liberal study and what he calls utility. Is the goal of education to immerse students in the sciences and humanities for the students’ intellectual growth and edification or to prepare them for occupation and public service? With the increase in vocationally oriented majors since the 1960’s, the utilitarian function is clearly in ascendance. Yet you don’t have to work in a college or university very long to sense the status distinctions among disciplines, with those in the liberal tradition, those seen as intellectually “pure” pursuits – mathematics, philosophy – having more symbolic weight than business, or nursing, or, well, education. As I said earlier, not all courses are created equal.
Vocational education at the secondary level will take shape in the first decades of the twentieth century with the development of the comprehensive high school and curriculum tracking. This new kind of school was in large part a response to the rapid increase of working class and immigrant children in urban centers, and tracking seemed an efficient way to address their wide range of educational preparation and ability.
But conceptions of ability were made within the legacy that journalist John Hoerr summarizes, and amidst the emergence of I.Q. testing and a full-blown eugenics movement. So there was much talk about the limited mental capacity of various immigrant and working-class groups and the distinct ways their brains functioned. As opposed to college-bound students (overwhelmingly White and middle to upper class) who were “abstract minded”, working-class and immigrant students were “manually minded.” So there again is the tight chain-link of cognition-education-work-and social class.
This approach to education had an effect on vocational education itself. Surveying the history of VocEd, the authors of a report from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education concluded “[V]ocational teachers emphasized job-specific skills to the almost complete exclusion of theoretical content. One result was that the intellectual development of vocational students tended to be limited at a relatively early age.” So not only is the intellectual ability of the student diminished, but the intellectual content of work is as well.
There certainly are exceptions to this portrayal of VocEd, both teachers and programs, secondary and post-secondary, where students got an intellectually challenging vocational education. And, though not typically mentioned in this regard, there is a separate history of workers education programs that blend politics, social sciences, and humanities with occupational education, from early-twentieth century labor colleges to contemporary institutions like the van Arsdale Labor Center at Empire State College.
A focused national attempt to enhance vocational education in our time came with the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education and Technology Act of 1990 which, among other things, funded attempts to increase the academic content of vocational education. The results over the years, as is the case with any reform, have been varied, ranging from the superficial (slapping a pre-packaged math module onto a course in business or healthcare) to the substantial: members of both the academic and the vocational faculty working for months to develop a curriculum that integrates academic and vocational material. And in a few cases, a visionary faculty uses VocEd reform as the occasion to reimagine the very structure of schooling itself and with it the academic-vocational divide. They develop curricula that merge rather than reinforce disciplines and find in the occupational world rich educational content.
This kind of innovation is hard to achieve, however, for we have a situation similar to the one we have with remediation: a tight cluster of culturally transmitted assumptions about cognition, knowledge, academic achievement, and social class that constricts our educational imagination. And the way subject areas and disciplines are organized in school contributes to the problem. Future teachers come to view knowledge in bounded and status-laden ways. And there is no place in, let’s say, a historian’s training where she is assisted in talking across disciplines with a biologist, let alone to a person in medical technology or the construction trades.
These separations are powerfully reinforced when people join an institution. The academic-vocational divide has resulted in separate departments, separate faculty, separate budgets, separate turf and power dynamics. Now egos and paychecks enter the mix. These multiple separations lead to all sorts of political tensions and self-protective behaviors that work against curricular integration. And it certainly doesn’t help that efforts at integration are often framed such that the academic side will bring the intellectual heft to the vocational courses, a laying on of culture. In line with the history I sketched, the cognitive content of occupations is given short shrift.
But as with remedial education, this is a promising moment. All those Perkins-initiated reforms of the last few decades have yielded some terrific programs and ideas. The notion of contextualized learning is getting wide attention. And public and private resources are being directed toward workforce development for the new economy. As with attempts at reform of remediation, the big question is: What kind of education will all this yield?
Let me begin to wrap things up with two observations and three considerations. First, the observations.
When I was teaching remedial English I would tell people who asked that one of my primary goals was to change the model of writing my students carried in their heads. Over our time together, I wanted them to begin to conceive of writing as a way to think something through and give order to those thoughts. I wanted them to understand writing as persuasion, to get the feel for writing to someone, a feel for audience. And, man oh man, did I want them to revise their writing process, which for most of them was a one-draft affair typically done the night before or the morning an assignment was due. And though I paid a lot of attention to grammar and mechanics, I wanted them to see that good writing was more than correct writing. After years of basic skills-oriented instruction, correctness – which is harder than hell to achieve if writing isn’t meaningful to you – became their elusive holy grail.
That welding instructor will be the first to tell you that he doesn’t know math very well. The ideal, he believes, would be to have a math teacher demonstrating the division of decimal fractions and calculation of volume, and explaining the why of what the class is doing, the mathematical principles involved. But what the welding instructor does do in that dingy little room adjacent to the welding workshop is bridge the academic-vocational divide and thereby redefine for his students the meaning and function of mathematics.
Now to the three considerations.
The first has to do with research methodology and education policy. I opened this speech by suggesting that what you see depends on where you sit and for how long. I don’t think I’m saying anything controversial to note that most higher education policy research on remediation and on Career and Technical Education does not include historical analysis of the beliefs about cognition and instruction that inform curriculum. In fact, there’s not a lot of close analysis of what goes on in classrooms, the cognitive give and take of instruction and what students make of it. And I’m not aware of any policy research crafted with the aid of people who actually teach those classes. Finally, we don’t get much of a sense of the texture of students’ lives, the terrible economic instability of some of them, but even less of a sense of the power of learning new things and through that learning redefining who you are. Student portraits when we do get them are too often profiles of failure rather than of people with dynamic mental lives. There are several obvious reasons for this state of affairs.
There is the fact that most of us are trained and live our professional lives in disciplinary silos. There may be no way around that in this day and age, but the least we could do is pull in more people from other silos and lock ourselves together in a room with pen and paper – and iPads too. Let me give you one example of how mind-boggling, and I think harmful, this intellectual isolation can become. In all the articles I’ve read on remediation in higher education journals not one mentions the forty years worth of work on basic writing produced by teachers and researchers of writing. There is even a Journal of Basic Writing that emerged out of the experiments with open admission at CUNY in the 1970’s. Not a mention. Zip.
In addition to disciplinary silos there are methodological silos. You won’t find a randomized control trial in the 130-plus issues of the Journal of Basic Writing, and that for some is sufficient reason to ignore them. I don’t have time to go into the epistemological narrowness that ensues – you can read the best of research methodologists like Donald Campbell and Lee Cronbach on that topic – but I do want to suggest that if we hope to really do something transformational with remediation and with the academic-vocational divide, we’ll need all the wisdom we can garner, from multiple disciplines and multiple methodologies, from multiple lines of sight.
Which leads to my second consideration.
I’ve said several times today that we are at a promising moment, what with all the attention and funding, public and private, focused on remediation and occupational education. Maybe the better way to say it is that we’re at a crossroads, and it’s a terribly consequential one.
The probable road, given the way these things go, will lead to some worthwhile changes – shortened course sequences, for example, or better data collection on students in those courses. But the standard model of remediation or the divide between the vocational and the academic course of study will remain unchanged. So, to pick one illustration that is already emerging, we will have the development of more precise computerized tests of basic skills along with technically sophisticated modules aligned with those tests. As Bill Gates said during a recent radio interview, we will pinpoint what a student has trouble with and then “drill in” on that skill. This approach – and note his language – doesn’t change the mechanistic theory of learning underlying such a program and doesn’t represent a robust notion of literacy or numeracy. Mr. Gates didn’t revolutionize the computer industry by making modest changes to existing technology. He rethought it. He and all of us need to think creatively and generously about the way we use electronic technology in remediation – for it is quickly becoming the magic bullet of basic skills.
The other road, the one I’ve been taking us down, is possible right now, though it will require us to draw on more kinds of knowledge and more methodological perspectives than we typically use. This broader set of maps and instruments would enable us to consider simultaneously the curricular-ideological, the structural-economic, and the social class and symbolic dimensions of remediation and the academic-vocational divide.
But we will need one more thing, and that takes me to my third and final consideration.
To truly seize the moment we will need a bountiful philosophy of education –and the leadership to enact it. At the same time that there is a push to get more low-income people into post-secondary education, cash-strapped states are cutting education budgets, leading colleges to limit enrollments and cut classes and student services. In my state of California (and in other states as well) some policy makers are raising the possibility that we can no longer afford to educate everybody, that we should ration our resources, directing them toward those who are already better prepared for college. We have here the makings in education of a distinction historian Michael Katz notes in discourse on poverty, a distinction between those deserving and undeserving of assistance. Enter once again the not-so-hidden injuries of social class blended with the stigma of underpreparation. In the midst of a powerful anti-government, anti-welfare-state climate, will there be the political courage to stand against the rationing of educational opportunity?
The democratic philosophy I envision would affirm the ability of the common person. It would guide us to see in basic skills instruction the rich possibility for developing literacy and numeracy and for realizing the promise of a second-chance society. It would honor multiple kinds of knowledge and advance the humanistic, aesthetic, and ethical dimensions of an occupational education.
The de facto philosophy of education we do have is a strictly economic one. This is dangerous, for without a civic and moral core it could easily lead to a snazzy 21st century version of an old and shameful pattern in American education: Working-class people get a functional education geared only toward the world of work. To be sure, the people who are the focus of current college initiatives are going to school to improve their economic prospects. As one woman put it so well: “It’s a terrible thing to not have any money.” But people also go to college to feel their mind working and learn new things, to help their kids, to feel competent, to remedy a poor education, to redefine who they are, to start over. You won’t hear any of this in the national talk about post-secondary access and success. For all the hope and opportunity they represent, our initiatives lack the kind of creativity and heartbeat that transform institutions and foster the wondrous unrealized ability of a full sweep of our citizenry.
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