10/26/2007 12:39 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Good Teaching and Learning

OK, I'm tired of writing negative blogs. Is everything bad? Southern California is burning (check out Mike Davis' "The Case for Letting Malibu Burn" in The Ecology of Fear for an understanding of the political social basis of these disasters). The war slogs on. But I need a happy blog. OK, so here is a little praise for good schooling, that rare and delightful practice we sometimes come across. Even though I'm doing some PhD studies at UC, I still get a chance to go back and visit my comrades from Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS) at Berkeley High and to observe the classes where I used to teach. Still wonderful stuff going on there! And, now that I'm reading, reading, reading, I have more words, more language, to describe what I saw in my years of high school teaching. What works? What sucks? I'm starting to have more to say about this.

It so happens that a fellow grad student called my attention last week to a new book published by University of California Press, Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education, by Peter Sacks. In his investigation, Sacks spent some time at Berkeley High and he ended up interviewing Doug Powers, the lead teacher of the Academic Choice program, and me, the lead teacher (at the time) of CAS and main spokes-person for small schools. Being interviewed of course is frustrating. . . there is so much more I wish I had said to Sacks. But in the main he gets it right, characterizing the conflicting philosophies and approaches to learning held by the elite track and the diversity oriented teachers, students, and families.

A key aspect of the issue of equity and access (the democratic responsibility to educate all students), is in examining how these two sides, these two approaches, think of teaching and learning. Essentially, Powers and the AC teachers (and most AP teachers), pretty much agree that there is a body of knowledge they need to bestow on the students, and that pedagogical methods (group work, etc.) are so much coddling. Lecture-and-test is how real, muscular teaching is done. Powers asserts, "This school, being an actual functional high school, is, for a lot of kids, delivering a pretty high level of academic knowledge, which I don't feel like most people even understand. I think there is a huge confusion among most people in education. There is an actual knowledge base of what kids should know at the end of high school, and I think that (Bill) Gates doesn't understand it at all." (Sacks, p. 75). The reference to Gates, of course, has to do with the funding his foundation has given to the effort to break up large, factory model schools into smaller learning communities. The story of Academic Choice and its political maneuvers, countering the untracked model of small schools, goading on competitive parents who want to position their children for the "best" colleges, creating a "white flight" panic, is another story - one that Sacks explains quite well.

But let's get back to the teaching and learning issue. A CAS student who could have done well in the AP track had this to say, "In AP US history, you are being taught to get a 5 on the AP test. You are taught the things that are on the AP test and there's no room for anything else. But in CAS US history, and in all of my CAS classes, we focus much more on analysis and critical thinking instead of just having facts and dates thrown at us and having to regurgitate them every two weeks for a test. That is not what it is in CAS. I think it is so much better, because I feel like I'm learning much more, and I'm thinking much more. My thought process has grown so much in CAS. My history teacher's name is Mr. Pratt. He does say, 'You guys need to know what year the Spanish-American War was,' but that's not the most important thing. It's much more important that you're able to think critically about what caused the Spanish-American War and whether the US options were just, and what were the ramifications on foreign policy, and all of that stuff." (Sacks, p. 83). Yes, there are plenty of teachers who do wonderful teaching, cooperative learning, deep exploration. We hear so much about the "problems" in schools but in the classrooms miracles are happening every day.

Peter Sacks has executed a pretty clear characterization of the difference between Transmission and Interpretation teaching that was described by the British researcher Douglas Barnes back in the 70's (in Language in the Secondary School Classroom). For the transmission teacher, writing is for the acquisition and recording of information, school is about transmitting a body of authoritative knowledge, and there is a barrier between school knowledge and action knowledge. For the interpretation teacher, writing is for cognitive development or personal development, attention is focused on the learner's struggle to make sense of the world, and classrooms help students develop action knowledge by which to organize daily life, not just schooling for qualification. The driving philosophy of the small school is to create a community so that students will be won into the learning process, will buy in, at least a little, instead of exhibiting a constant stance of resistance. And, if it's a decent small school, the approach to learning is about relevance, profound issues, and the development of habits of life-long curiosity and active discourse.

Which brings me to the issue of buy-in of the "high end" academic student. The progressive, constructivist, interpretive teacher gets the knock for being loose, sloppy, subjective, and not "rigorous." But in reality this kind of teaching, done well, is much more difficult. It requires creativity and the ability to think on one's feet, still with pedagogical goals and outcomes in mind. It is interesting to me that many of the students in the "high track" at Berkeley High, and I've known many especially when I was adviser to The Jacket, are just as disdainful of school as marginalized students. They have simply learned to endure, to fake it, to pretend interest when bored. They struggle for the easy A, become familiar with Cliff's Notes and cheating, and generally get prepared for UC Berkeley-type undergraduate education.

And what is called advanced teaching is actually easy, much lazier. One constructs lectures and sequences and gives them year after year. I had an interesting experience with Doug Powers in this regard. We once co-taught a unit on Jung (he had a Psychology elective course; I had a creative writing course). Doug lectured straight for 4 days. His material was fascinating. I was taking notes furiously. But when a student asked a question, often a good question which would have taken them into deeper understanding, he struck back, "You just don't understand. You would have to read much more deeply to get into this. You can't really appreciate the complexity of the issue." He was intimidating instead of exploratory. On a number of occasions, he found himself unable to respond to questions or to lead conversation. His students knowingly rolled their eyes and shut up. I was fascinated.

So many other dualities reflect this debate. Bill Schubert in his studies of curriculum contrasts the "intellectual traditionalist" against the "experientialist." In the canon wars, there is Harold Bloom vs. Henry Louis Gates. In young people's morality discourse, there is William Bennett's Book of Virtues vs. Herb Kohl's A Call to Character. In the culture wars, there is E. D. Hirsch vs. A. S. Neill. In education there is Dewey vs. Thorndike. And discussion of discourse and social capital (by Bourdieu, Ladson Billings, McDermott, Delpit, and others) reminds us of Barnes' point that the teacher's spoken language places unintended restrictions on student understanding and engagement. So these are some of the words I'm starting to deploy in thinking about the effective teaching - whether it is called progressive vs. traditional, interpretation vs. transmission, constructivist teaching vs. lecture, Freirian vs. banking, democratic vs. authoritarian, even Dionysian vs. Apollonian.

It's a struggle which goes back, way back. Socrates wanted to banish the poets from his republic. Daniel Webster called for Americans to revere the founding fathers instead of imitating their revolutionary daring (and Webster ended up supporting the Fugitive Slave Act - look at the classical ways that activists like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison took apart his philosophy).

In addition, I found the insight of Douglas Barnes to be particularly powerful with regards to problems of discipline and management. When I am working with new teachers (I teach Curriculum and Instruction in English at USF), I try to give them an idea of the range of teacher styles and philosophies. Though I am clearly more partial to the teacher who emphasizes interpretation, I show them the range and ask them to begin to construct their teacher identity. Often young teachers want to be constructivist, coach-like teachers but they fall apart under pressure. Faced with unruly (and resistant) students, they chuck all the great plans they had and fall back on the kind of schooling they remember from when they were students. In general I have said that the key to management is in curriculum, in how you run the class and engage the students. But Barnes' notion of "transmission" teaching helps us identify the language strategies, and the concomitant messages about power, in teacher talk. Barnes reminds us that teachers fall on transmission strategy when faced with classroom of unwilling learners. Transmission teaching generates in students an "artificial dependence upon the teacher's fragile, and sometimes arbitrary, authority. It seems a poor preparation for adulthood. . ." (p. 81-82)

Fragile and arbitrary authority. There's a mouthful! It is arbitrary. You may exercise such authority but the more you are repressing the students, the more you engender resistance. Instead of cooperation and buy-in, you find yourself in a power struggle. Even if the young teacher is sad to see the students sabotaging themselves (and their academic future) in this struggle, they make a mistake to think they are doing the students a favor by cracking down harder. Teachers must find strategies to break from the dichotomous power struggles and to build a common direction and goal which fires the enthusiasm of the class.

OK, this blog is getting way too long. Bear with me a little more. I started out wanting to write a very positive blog. But you see I've also gone into critical mode. But, hey, a good criticism can be uplifting in its own way.

So the problem of the AP track calls for so much more. We know that there are cultural expressions, even design trends, which reflect and generate the historical moment we are in. An obvious example is the Hummer. Like a tricked out military machine, the Hummer is design for imperialist war. It screams: we are the biggest, the fattest, the baddest in the world. Everyone wants what we have but fuck you, you can't have it. It suggests a 50 caliber machine gun mounted on the front, a Mad Max world of survivalists and haters.

A telling design trend of our time is the huge amount of praise that has been heaped on Marisha Pessl's novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics - a show-off piece by a precocious Barnard grad who salts every page of the book with scholarly references and snooty footnotes. I started reading it with some expectation, certain that the narrator would have an epiphany, realize that her annoying little references, her need to intellectualize everything, was blocking her from having real feelings or experiences. But no, the pretension carries on to the end, even though it adopts the (AP student's) self mocking air.

It's a sad little book, demonstrating how far lost the smarty-pants of this generation have become. And it absolutely captivated the reigning intelligentsia. Janet Maslin of the New York Times was absolutely smitten. One can imagine Pessl standing for her own daughter, groomed through private schools, chirpily turning out papers in her ivy league college. Ah, what a brilliant child I have! I guess we get what we pay for and we have paid quite a bit to turn out these overly bookish and underly thoughtful people. The Special Topics phenomenon is like the Emperor's New Clothes. It's a great fraud but no one wants to be the one to say they didn't get it.

So, at last, I sign off. Don't bother to buy Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Do check out Peter Sacks' Tearing Down the Gates. And do what you can to end the war and the regime of torture.