learning to teach | teaching to learn — a blog on pedagogy by emma stamm
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  • Brave

    Posted on December 3rd, 2017 emma 2 comments

    I’m at the end of my second semester of teaching. I like the way class has gone this fall. No major snafus, and the students are clearly interested and seem happy. I’ve seen their work improve. They speak up in class.

    I’m at the end of my third semester as a PhD student. I have seen a lot of school throughout my life. Before coming to VT I was a student and employee at a community college, a small liberal arts college and a big university in New York City. In K-12 I was in public schools in multiple different districts, was homeschooled for a period of time, and went to an experimental, arts-focused private school for a few years.

    At that school, we called teachers by their first names and nobody got grades. When I went to college for the first time, I had no idea what a GPA was.

    Now my life is devoted to knowledge — the production, pursuit and dissemination of it. My students call me by my first name, but I haven’t had to explain to any of them what a GPA is. I think they have a better idea of what “knowledge” is than I do.

    A lot of our readings in GEDI have emphasized a progressive, future-focused approach to teaching. Generally, they reflect a critical perspective on old-fashioned teaching methods, including any view of the academy as an intellectual silo — an ivory tower, protected from the exigencies of the real world. Hierarchies should be diminished, transparency and open-endedness should be encouraged. Although I’ve been critical of a lot of our readings about tech and education, in a wider sense, I support the vision of this course. My own pedagogical practice affirms these values, and it always will.

    I have looked at this final week’s readings for a message I can take forth that specifically regards a state of affairs that perhaps none of us could have predicted — the political climate that has evolved over the last year or so, which is impacting education profoundly. Seth Godin’s discourse on bravery is applicable here.

    He writes:

    “Can risk-taking be taught? Of course it can. It gets taught by mentors, by parents, by great music teachers, and by life. Why isn’t it being taught every day at that place we send our kids to?”

    That last question is mostly rhetorical, but I’m going to answer it anyway.

    There’s a difference between school and everything he lists above. A mentor, a parent, a music teacher, and life itself are all conceptualized as singular entities. Each establishes its own rules, and the context in which young people are subject to them does not stipulate that those rules are being negotiated and undermined by other rules. School rules reflect the broad, multilateral entity that is a school, which includes the multiple functions schools serve. School rules are subject to checks and balances by many different parties. Any bravery that gets condoned within a school setting cannot challenge its most fundamental premises, and thus does not reflect the quality of bravery it takes to truly make a difference out there in society.

    School rules and standards change from class to class, year to year, department to department. A school is a collective. When you’re in school, the rules that govern you — whether explicit, as in the rules listed in a syllabus or university handbook, or implicit, as in social etiquette norms — are vulnerable to change.

    In this sense, schools are more like societies than they are like a mom or dad or the person who teaches you piano after school and doesn’t have to answer to the rules of any higher administration, because they’re a private contractor. But in a more important sense,  schools are different from societies. Even though both are governed by multiple purposes, requirements and contracts, schools generally have a more cohesive and comprehensible internal logic than anything which goes by the name “society.”

    Schools can’t, ultimately, reward students who are brave in the sense of transgressing the very rules that define them. That’s paradoxical. This is why it’s hard (if not impossible) for schools to teach true, authentic bravery, bravery that isn’t just symbolic (like the “bravery” of playing devil’s advocate in debate club).

    Heroic people in society can go to jail. Schools can’t support the development of that much audacity.

    Or can they?

    I think schools can teach bravery if they understand students first as citizens, as actors in society, before it sees them as students. Only then will they support the character development necessary to be audacious, to meet the world where it is today — crazy, paradoxical, unjust, and — to get real here — extremely scary.

    Seth Godin tells us that “school was invented to control students and give power to the state.” He gives us a sort of People’s History of the Current State of Schooling and offers ways that educators can change this.

    Hot on the heels of a tax bill that, if it passes, will seriously damage the state of higher education — we must change this.

    If the classroom has a natural kinship with the real world, we must learn how to instill bravery in our students. Not so they stand up here  — not so that the terminal point of their brave intentions manifests as disrespect to fellow students or instructors while they’re still ensconced in the quasi-realism of undergrad life — but because the unique function of schools is to train citizens in the practices of being a good citizen. That sounds rather old-fashioned, but “good citizen” is a really loose term. It recognizes that no matter what you do, you act to make and change society. It recognizes that adulthood is defined by service to others. Ut prosim; selflessness.

    Schools train children to become adults (in this definition of adulthood).

    I’m going to end with a question for everybody. How can we preserve what is unique about schools and teaching — what has made it so that we formalize education, rather than dissolving education into the flows and practices of “real” life — while reframing our teaching practices to cultivate brave citizens?

    Because now more than ever, that’s what we need.