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.

1 comment:

kg said...

Your page came up when I searched for the book. I also studied it in the 80s during an education degree in South Africa. The book was prescribed and highly recommended by one very radical lecturer. It certainly shaped my thinking and teaching through the years, though like you, I have not looked at it since then. I am hoping to obtain a copy so I can re-read it and pass it on to my daughter.