Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner Penguin 1971

In a previous blog I wrote about rediscovering a book I had read around 1980 which was already fairly dated by that time.

“Teaching as a Subversive Activity. It left a big impression on me but as I was thinking in the last 5 weeks about the influences/inputs into my teaching journey it didn’t come to mind. Yet when I went back and reread the book I was staggered by the extent to which my teaching fits onto their template. Any student taught by me who looks at the Wikipedia page on Inquiry Education http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquiry_education would say I simply replicated their methods. Yet at no time in the last 22 years have I relooked at the book. Yet most of the elements I have chosen – deep learning, constructive alignment, action learning, avoiding teaching inert or dead material – for my teaching from various authors fit almost as modules or snap lock parts to this central framework.”

The book came out in the US in the late 1960s and has all the hallmarks of being written at the height of the counter culture revolution and when radical or even complete change in society, institutions and power structures was seen not only as desirable but both possible and necessary. The first 40-50 pages had a profound influence on my thinking. The remaining 80 or so pages were devoted to advocating a complete, and often nonsensical, transformation of the educational system and the roles of teachers, administrators and students with little regard to how such a radical overall could occur. Whilst I could see how it’s critique of classroom teaching and the benefits to be gained from inquiry learning the suggestions for society wide change seemed both unworkable and unrealistic even by 1980.

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquiry_education

“The inquiry method is motivated by Postman and Weingartner's recognition that good learners and sound reasoners center their attention and activity on the dynamic process of inquiry itself, not merely on the end product of static knowledge. They write that certain characteristics are common to all good learners (Postman and Weingartner, 31–33), saying that all good learners have:
  • · Self-confidence in their learning ability
  • · Pleasure in problem solving
  • · A keen sense of relevance
  • · Reliance on their own judgment over other people's or society's
  • · No fear of being wrong
  • · No haste in answering
  • · Flexibility in point of view
  • · Respect for facts, and the ability to distinguish between fact and opinion
  • · No need for final answers to all questions, and comfort in not knowing an answer to difficult questions rather than settling for a simplistic answer”

At the time of my first reading of this book I was halfway through a combined arts/law degree and the critique of the traditional approach to study clicked with me and fitted with other readings I had encountered like Karl Popper (the concept of a searchlight – trial and error – approach to experiencing and observing to gain knowledge as opposed to a static collection of bits and pieces of knowledge – the bucket approach) along with other inquiry orientated writers such as Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Zen and the Art of Archery and Richard Bach’s books Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. The film and TV series Paper Chase had also raised critical questions for me about what was taught in Law Schools and its applicability to life.

Postman and Weingartner contrasted the rate and type of change taking place in the world outside the classroom, touching on and making many similar points to Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock (published around the same time), with the rearview mirror approach of education where most of the teaching was aimed at preserving the status quo and the business of teaching was largely information dissemination and transmission of cultural heritage [at 15-16].

Postman and Weingartner argued that [14-15]

“Our sociological theories, our political philosophy, our practical maxims of business, our political economy, and our doctrine of education are derived from an unbroken tradition of great thinkers and of practical examples from the age of Plato ...to the end of the last century. The whole of this tradition is warped by the vicious assumption that each generation will substantially live amid the conditions governing the lives of its fathers and will transmit those conditions to mould with equal force the lives of its children. We are living in the first period of human history for which this assumption is false.”

If anything the rate, type and impact of change in 2011 is a quantum leap from what Postman and Weingartner were responding to in the late 1960s. The transferability of content information taught in University classes often will not survive past a student’s graduation. Yet, despite the expansion of formative and continuous assessment in law schools, summative assessment still dominates and whilst deep learning (the work of Gibbs and Ramsden) and constructive alignment (Biggs) gain ground the majority of students still appear to be collecting pieces of content to fill up their buckets to be poured out in a final exam. Content gathers who reflect back what has been communicated to them will generally be successful. Inquirers need to deliver back the content but are rewarded for the layer of insight and originality they add to their recollection efforts. Most effort is spent trying to guess what will please the lecturer.

Postman and Weingartner felt that the primary focus of education was content orientated, or driven, and that the method used was largely a secondary or minor consideration. A position that remains unchanged within most law schools – most accreditation schemes whether like those in the US or especially like the hold of the “Priestly 11” in Australia - focus first and primarily on content. Postman and Weingartner [at 19] argue:

“To our knowledge, all schools of education and teacher training institutions in the United States are organized around the idea that content and method are separate in the manner we have described. Perhaps the most important message thus communicated to teachers in training is that this separation is real useful and urgent, and that it ought to be maintained in the schools. A secondary message is that, while the 'content' and 'method' are separate, they are not equal. Everyone knows that the 'real' courses are the content courses…”

Therefore the type of teaching style or methodology that is adopted is secondary to the measurement or assessment of how accurately students have their ability to recall content whether this be the facts of a case or more often in law schools the ‘rules’ and ‘principles’ derived from a case or particular judgment. Teachers who fail to engage, who bore their students or simply read out their old lecture notes or passages from textbooks rarely face censure and as content acquisition is the student’s responsibility can rarely be found wanting. Whereas a bored or unengaged student who fails to play the content game easily demonstrates their inadequacies by what they produce, or fail to replicate, in a 60%+final exam. Law Schools, driven by the complementary missions of accreditation protection and delivering employment ready graduates,

Postman and Weingartner argued that students become comfortable with, or gravitate towards, sitting and listening – passive learning. Questions of teachers tend to be more about administrative and technical details (how long, word count etc? will this be on the exam?) rather than substantive or inquiry type questions. Teachers tend to ask “convergent questions” of the ‘Guess what I am thinking’ type and await the ‘right answer’ [20-21] to appear. When the lecturer asks “What did the High Court decide?” there is a limited array of responses.

The learning process is largely a case of passive learning, where a smart student learns to predict, and replicate, the narrative of the teacher and the teacher’s role becomes primarily one of judging how close the student comes to replicating the ‘answer’ or the story known or accepted by the teacher.

The structures of the course both intellectual (syllabus, course synopsis, source of the questions) and physical (design of the classroom or seating arrangement – tiered lecture theatres or tutor standing at front of a room) inherently favour a passive or ‘wait and respond’ style of learning. Postman and Weingartner write [at 27-28]

“… the passive reception of someone else's story. Of course, the school syllabus is exactly the latter: someone else's story. And most traditional learning environments are arranged to facilitate the sending and receiving of various story lines. That is why teachers regard it as desirable for students to pay attention, face front, sit up in their seats, and be quiet."

In many law schools the majority of students and lecturers find it difficult not to drift into, and remain bogged, in their respective roles of passive listeners and note takers (albeit now with some distraction via Facebook) and information transmitters. The difficulty largely stems from the fixed structures of the lecture theatres – fixed rows of tiered seating, all eyes centered to the front and a pool of faces often in the dimmed lights required for a powerpoint presentation. The art of reading out lecture notes is now tweeked with the repeating of stripped down dot points on the screen.

For Postman and Weingartner the constant changes and challenges in modern society requires an ability to construct and seek new knowledge.

“Knowledge is produced in response to questions. And new knowledge results from the asking of new questions; quite often new questions about old questions. Here is the point: once you have learned how to ask questions - relevant and appropriate and substantial questions- you have leaned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.”

A process of inquiry learning will help students cope with a society and environment whereby story lines are created by a multiplicity of information flows – sequential, episodic, alternative, visual, and where broken continuity is inferred [at 27]

Whilst Postman and Weingartner were early, and radical proponents, of the now common student engagement/student centered approach to learning they were almost recklessly indifferent to the role or contributions of the teacher to this process. Indeed in many of their examples the model teacher is the one who slides into the background as a facilitator. They do offer a few interesting categories of different approaches within the traditional teaching approach they critique:

  • Lamplighter
  • Gardener
  • Personnel Manager
  • Muscle Builder
  • Bucket Filler

In the end what I took away, very deep in my subconscious, from this little book was a desire to create a student centered learning environment where the mission was to enhance students to be independent learners and questioners. Content is subordinate to how it helps students understand and engage with current and future issues and problems.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Working on a Memoir

Working Title: Postcards from the Past to the Future – Snapshots from an unfinished journey

Cover art: with kind permission of Rachel-Ireland-Meyers (see http://www.redbubble.com/people/grace4)

It will be the painting titled Blue Echo

After some encouragement from Professor Gary Meyers, who teaches Introduction to Law with me, I have started to write a memoir.

My recent promotion to Associate Professor was the final release moment of something I had been struggling with for a while ie what am I doing in a place like a law school (given my roots, erratic track record as a student, a stop and start progress in the lowest echelons of the public service) teaching law? My economics/law graduate son puts it a little more starkly when he asks “How did you smuggle an Arts subject (the way and what I teach in Administrative Law) into the law school”? What is a young boy who grew up in a mining town, with an underwhelming secondary school record, doing engaging in public debate and tussles with elected officials? How did I gain an international profile in FOI yet have no, or no orthodox, traditional publication or research foundation and especially as after matriculation college I was ready to give away any further education and head back to work in the mines?

Gary’s proposal was simple
“You have an interesting story to tell – tell it”.
In part I think his aim was to provide a point of reference for a growing cohort of students that Australian government policy is sweeping into Universities – namely first in family and more students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and/or from regional areas. First, they have few reference points to relate their experiences to and secondly there are only a few places/authors that are able to share their sense of loss and even feelings betrayal of the family, friends and community you abandon on a higher education journey.

Furthermore after being awarded the Australasian Law Teacher of the Year Award in 2009 (and given my age - early 50s) I started to think of what could I leave as a legacy in terms of my approach/skills as a teacher that is something other than the "me"? Was there something in the method and process of my teaching, that clearly strikes a chord with many students and committees overseeing teaching awards, that could be useful to other teachers?

I only started writing in December, so very early formative stages, but have written 25,000 words and more are impatiently lining up. I have decided to adopt Richard Delgado’s motto, shared with me in an email, of
“write fast, edit slowly”.
I have yet to work out a structure, a real conception of an audience or readership (and at the moment it is more simply for me and family/friends although the “in-house” readership is growing). In the first few words, and before it became clear it was to be a memoir, the writing project had rammed me up against a number of unresolved issues about who I was and my past. Exposure to an early draft of Humeirah Fasq by Sabah Carrim
(http://www.authonomy.com/books/28188/humeirah-fasq-edited-and-updated-/) encouraged me to tackle my own relationship to my past.

A reader, of an early draft, noted some similarity to Obama's Dreams from My Father which I had not read until three weeks ago. A great book. Like Obama, the search/construction of my story then sets up other actions (travelling home to talk with my mother about my birth father. A subject I had not raised for the last 48 years).

In part the effort has been (and still is) to find my voice/tune, to recall/reconstruct fragments and like Obama deal with unknown/uncertain family history. As I write I have also started to read more and very different memoirs including Hemingway’s A Movable Feast, Bob Ellis Goodbye Jerusalem: Night thoughts of a Labour Outsider. Patricia William’s The Alchemy of Race and Rights, Helene Chung’s Ching Chong China Girl and recall other ones I have previously read like Clive James Unreliable Memoirs and Dylan’s masterpiece Chronicles: Volume 1.

Now I am starting to explore in more depth, and tease out, some of the themes - academic as activist and my engagement with the law as an outsider. The other major theme I want to tackle is my journey as a university lecturer and the style of teaching that gives the subjects I teach a hallmark among UTAS law students as “a Rick subject”. The hallmark indicates, for those in the know, that this subject will be a far different experience than most of their other law subjects and indeed most of their UTAS learning experiences.

In the back of my mind the format I would like to try and emulate, to a degree, is The Rough Guide series ie like The Rough Guide to Bob Dylan (http://www.penguin.com.au/products/9781843537182/rough-guide-bob-dylan) in terms of the storytelling, the use of colour, boxes and photographs (or drawings). At the moment the writing is simply text but I have been collecting old photographs and often writing segments with a photo in mind to accompany the final text.

I have also started to reread, especially Richard Delgado (http://www.law.seattleu.edu/Faculty/Faculty_Profiles/Richard_Delgado.xml), about the use, and/or application, of narrative and the personal experience in law scholarship. Patricia Williams has been heavily criticised for both of these approaches and as a consequence she finds many of her articles rejected by law reviews because they rely too heavily on her first hand accounts. Richard had sparked my interest in weaving personal narrative into my scholarship during a very brief visit he and Jean Stefancic (http://www.law.seattleu.edu/Faculty/Faculty_Profiles/Jean_Stefancic.xml) had made to Tasmania in December 1995 after a short series of lectures in Melbourne. In preparation for his visit I had read some of his work including “Storytelling for Oppositions and Others: A Plea for Narrative”, 87 Michigan Law Review 2411 (1987). We had a brief conversation about writing from the perspective of difference or the outsider in law (gender, race, ethnicity) and I had speculated whether the voice of a marginal/regional/working class perspective could also be an approach. From about that period a more personal and polemic tone started to appear in my academic writings.

A theme in the memoir will be the exploration of my feeling/concept of being an outsider to the LAW and the paradox of being a respected and award winning teacher of the law. At the moment this theme is implicit and has only just started to bubble to the surface - still raw and rambling in its appearance – in the writing or more accurately in the writing waiting to be done in the next few days.

In part, until my promotion, I felt that a lot of my activity including my teaching approach, written scholarship and public engagement in law reform, policy debates and discussion was in some sense illegitimate/unorthodox or of lesser value/respectability or status than the more traditional activities of my peers. A friend, now a Law School Dean, emailed me on hearing of the promotion and stated “You must feel incredibly validated for all your hard work over the years”. This was an eureka moment/comment for me. Yes I did. I had lodged an application, with the extremely strong backing of my new Dean, that asked for my efforts to be judged against the normal criteria but not in reference to the usual benchmarks (A1 refereed journals, competitive research grants, formal university teaching surveys). Another colleague wrote
“You are a star! One of the few real teachers that made it in the research encrusted world - so not only congratulations on a promotion so very well earned, but thanks from the rest of us for whom teaching is the goal.”

This memoir owes part of its existence to my recent long and slow slog back to better levels of health and fitness. Not only do I feel much better with myself, more comfortable in the world around me but I also have the energy to divert to this activity.

I have started to try and tell a story about some of my journey that has meaning not only for me but for those who I have encountered on the way. I have already discovered that a memoir and a personal narrative can have a deep impact on others and that ‘my story’ is also in parts a story of other people who may not want any version of that story told.

I haven’t decided wherever to, or when, post excerpts from the memoir on this blog. In the short term probably not and may restrict it to unwanted reflections or by-products of the process (the next proposed blog entry on the book Teaching as a Subversive Activity is an example of this – a piece too long and/or out of tune with the project).

I remember seeing on an ABC Book Club segment a discussion about the Great Gatsby. Someone commented how Fitzgerald had developed a deep and multilayered background for every character, event, relationship but had pared it all down to a minimalist presence on the actual page. In A Movable Feast Hemmingway wrote about a crowd scene a poet had worked on for a year to reduce down to a sparse few words. At the moment I am just trying to capture events, memories, flashbacks and to explore feelings and reactions by just letting the words flow out.

One thing I am discovering is how fragile and unreliable memories can be. One example around 1980 I read a second hand copy of Teaching as a Subversive Activity. It left a big impression on me but as I was thinking in the last 5 weeks about the influences/inputs into my teaching journey it didn’t come to mind. Yet when I went back and reread the book I was staggered by the extent to which my teaching fits onto their template. Any student taught by me who looks at the Wikipedia page on Inquiry Education http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquiry_education would say I simply replicated their methods. Yet at no time in the last 22 years have I looked again at the book. Yet most of the elements I have chosen – deep learning, constructive alignment, action learning, avoiding teaching inert or dead material – for my teaching from various authors fit almost as modules or snap lock parts to this central framework.

Whether this memoir is finally published or in what form who knows but already I have reaped dividends in my family and personal relationships, in my sense of self and in my understanding of my teaching. At the very least it has provided enough renewed passion to get me through at least one more semester of teaching.

1st Leaf - Mexico