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Radical Possibilities

Nobody wants their child to be indoctrinated by their teachers. Much of the type of teaching in today’s classrooms is a form of indoctrination. This indoctrination is one in which teachers are the knowledge keepers and students are lucky to have the teachers there to impart that knowledge on them. What are the implications of this type of teaching? What is it that we want out of our students? Do we want them to fit into a mold the we predetermine using high-stakes standardized tests and a national curriculum? Corporations and businesses are complaining the the quality of students is lacking, but they support reform that is based on rigidity of curriculum and standardized testing. Students lack skills because the type of education being pushed in most areas is one that limits possibilities and cuts students off from innovative thinking.

In Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From” he describes the atmosphere in which good ideas come from,

“Recall the question we began with: What kind of environment creates good ideas? The simplest way to answer it is this: innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts–mechanical or conceptual–and they encourage novel ways of combining those parts. Environments that block or limit those new combinations–by punishing experimentation  by obscuring certain branches of possibility, by making the current state so satisfying that no one bother to explore the edges–will, on average, generate and circulate few innovations than environments that encourage exploration.”

The situations that create the most innovative ideas are ones that allow experimentation. This allows for people to engage with other points of view, work on compromise, and work collaboratively.  All the talk about education reform is important, but too much of it is trying to limit new combinations of thought. Instead, what we are getting simplistic ideas like merit pay, high-stakes testing, and common core standards to fix our education problems. We are not going to solve our problems by creating a nation of clones who all learn the exact same stuff, the exact same way.

What I would like to do is bring this idea down on a micro-level and describe the implications for students in social studies classrooms.

The common feedback you hear from kids about social studies classes is that they are boring. In some classes all you do is memorize facts and regurgitate them back for a test. What does this say about what we expect from our students? Where are the possibilities for innovative thinking in the social studies classroom?

The problem with a social studies class like history is that their is so much information that can be covered. Teachers are forced to rush through curriculum to make sure all the required topics are covered that will show up on that high-stakes test that probably will be the basis of the teachers pay, or whether they have a job next year. Teaching for breadth instead of depth like this forces teachers to include less information and less analyzation of topics. Students will hear one side of a story and believe that’s all there is to it. It simplifies the complicated in a way that is untrue.

Social studies classes should slow down teaching and dig deeper into the subjects. By going into the depths of topics the students will not only get a better understanding of events, but also realize the many points of view involved in history education.

Linda Darling-Hammond describes how it’s done in other countries,

“Interesting, while U.S. teachers feel pressured to rush through topics, covering them superficially, international assessments have shown that higher-scoring countries in mathematics and science teach fewer concepts than most U.S. schools do each year, but teach them more deeply, so that students have a stronger foundation to support higher-order learning in the upper grades, Ironically, states that test large numbers of topics in a grade level may encourage more superficial coverage leading to less solid learning. Furthermore, increases in test scores on rote-oriented tests to do not stimulate increases on assessments that look for analytic thinking and application of knowledge.” (pg. 72 The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future)

Wouldn’t this make business happier? To have workers who are capable of analytic thinking and application of knowledge? You would think so. If a student can read, write, and speak critically don’t you think most skills would be within their reach?

Who cares if students can memorize facts? Many of these facts are decontextualized anyways. We should want students in classrooms to critically analyze things and become knowledge producers. This should be the goal of a good social studies class. This is not a war against facts. This is a fight against the narrowing of the curriculum and voices allowed into the social studies classroom. When you narrow the subject of study you narrow the possibilites for innovative thought. Students should study history and analyze it using primary and secondary sources, but I don’t want them to have to limit their positions based on what liberals or conservatives believe history should be. History is an interpretive subject, not a static subject.

The key for my classroom is freedom for the students. I don’t want to mold my students all into the same shape. I want them to be part of the free market place of ideas and figure the world out for themselves. I want them to mold themselves.

One thing that happens in my classroom is that students know I have a point of view and I don’t try to hide it from them. The first reason is because students are not stupid and this needs to be repeated many times. They know I am a person in the world, who has my own thoughts and ideas. And if they don’t know this, it is time to learn. There is no such thing as an unbiased person. Second, I am not concerned with indoctrinating students with my worldview, I am interested in helping students find their own way through our world. To help students on this path I believe it is important to give up my position of authority over the students.

I recently finished Rob Haworth’s edited volume, Anarchist Pedagogies: Collective Actions, Theories, and Critical Reflections on Education, it it helped me put some framework behind my pedagogy.  I believe that a good teacher should experiment or at least think about some of the ideas in the book.

The one problem I had going through my student teaching experiences was the fact that I saw teachers who refused to be wrong in front of their students. These teachers imposed a paradigm in the classroom where they held all the information and the student none. This is the similar relationship between standardized tests and students. When students believe that people in authority positions hold the keys to the right answers, they will become more concerned with approval or the “right answers” instead of taking risks and figuring out the world for themselves.

“To anarchists, the whole idea of teachers imposing authority on children and there being a hierarchical learning relationship where knowledge is poured into the silent, obedient heads of students, is an anathema (Avrich, 2006).”

This is an anathema to anarchists, but wouldn’t you expect it also to be an anathema to the Tea Party. I would hope nobody wants this type of relationship.  Do people really believe that their kids are too dumb to think for themselves? We should want our students concerned not with the answers, but instead with how to go about figuring out how to get to those answers.

Teachers need to be honest with students. I have a worldview and it might distort what I present. I tell them to question me, question everything, and involve themselves in searching for truths in the world. Getting students to engage in this type of behavior is more beneficial than having them memorize facts. In order to explore biases of sources and debates in social studies the student have they will have to engage in facts and readings to figure out the world. Facts aren’t dead, they are just getting some context with this type of learning.

The model of schooling in which the teachers are the knowledge keepers chops down the branches of possibility in our social studies classrooms. No one person or groups of person has the market cornered on the correct history of the world.

We also need to teach students to embrace a radical imagination, “put simply, it is a process by which we collectively map “what is, narrate it as the result of “what was,” and speculate on what “might be.” (pg. 228 Anarchist Pedagogies.)

This radical imagination should be used by students to imagine a better world. I know that I don’t have all of the answers to fix the problems that we face as a society, but I do know I have the power to give my power over my students up. The greatest thing that students can take away from my classroom is that they were empowered to think, discuss, analyze, criticize and act on their beliefs. There is no bubble on a test that you can fill in to prove you can do this. Bubbles are made to contain things and we should stop trying to contain our students possibilities.

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