Thursday, July 22, 2010

EDUC 649: How getting a B is helping me clarify my educational philosophy

EDUC 649: Foundational Perspectives on Education Reform is a class that covers lots of critical topics for a teacher in training -- No Child Left Behind, the Obama Administration's proposed revisions to NCLB, Philosophies of Education, approaches to constructive conversation and consensus building, lots of great stuff.

It's also built very much around a philosophy of "learning by doing" with a rather unique grading scheme:

  • Participate in all the classes and in a group project on one of four reform topics = C
  • C & Write a Philosophy of Education = B
  • B & Undertake Educational Advocacy Activities = A

There don't seem to be tons of quality criteria attached to any of these activities, other than the somewhat nebulous "satisfactory completion."

I am totally fine with being responsible for full participation in class and (at least in theory) for being responsible for a content-related intellectual project such as the reform wiki. (I'm not a huge fan of group work in practice, but I acknowledge it as a valid form of knowledge building and assessment, and as requiring the deployment of many skills that also come in handy in real life as a professional working in a team of educators. I would also be more thrilled if the reform topic was one that I or my group had selected from the whole universe of reforms rather than being one of four choices proposed by the professor, but acknowledge her authority to guide the intellectual content of the course.) I'm also completely fine with being responsible for creating a philosophy of education -- being pushed to crystalize my beliefs about the purposes and practices of education are part of the reason I'm in this program.

However, I have a big huge block around being requested to undertake an advocacy project as part of this course. I have exactly the same, stubborn, "you can't compel me to express my values or my spirituality" feeling that got me into a big huge fight with my father in high school over whether there was any point in compelling church attendance. I am not at all opposed to either activism or church attendance. I think the former is often the seed of significant change in our democracy, and the latter is something I've been doing happily and voluntarily since the day I left home. I just feel like both are too important as expressions of my personal, uncoerced values and beliefs to be tied in any way to "doing it because someone told me to" or "doing it for a class."

Many of my classmates have awesome ideas for things to do for their advocacy projects: Creating a group to work on a more authentic, concrete, engaging math curriculum. Engaging with downtown Detroit to make a cultural center or bring more science extracurricular activities into the schools. Creating resources to help implement place-based education locally or nationally. I could happily contribute to any of those projects. But I can't do it for a grade. And (this is the part that seems to be my unique stumbling block) even getting a grade for something I would otherwise happily do independently makes it feel inauthentic and lacking in integrity.

So, I've decided to "put my money where my mouth is" -- a few weeks ago we were talking in class about whether there were any students in this program who really didn't care about grades. And I claimed not to. I think that's still true -- I'm here to learn how to be a better teacher, and to get certified so I can teach in the state of Michigan. I'm not here to get a 4.0. I value my integrity and independence more than I value an A in this class, so I'll my best to do the parts of the course I'm comfortable with "satisfactorily" and be fine with the B that merits under the grading scheme of this class.

As a classmate astutely noted at the end of class today, I may have a problem with authority. Although the professor also correctly noted that I've submitted to authority in other aspects of this program and this class. I think this paradox fundamentally reflects what I think the purpose of education is, and what I'm implicitly signing up for when I participate as a student in a formal educational venture such as this. I believe the purpose of education is to help the students develop a well-rounded knowledge base and to help them refine their concepts and beliefs about the world through intellectual debate and challenge.

I do NOT believe the purpose of education is to make students into activists. What they chose to do with the knowledge and beliefs I help them refine is entirely up to them and their consciences and beliefs, and inaction is as valid a choice as action. If inaction is not a valid choice, then I think we need to acknowledge that the teacher is imposing his or her value system on the students, which gets to the heart of why I find this so conflicting. It seems a very thin line to me between, "do anything, as long as you do something" and "do something that I think will be useful", which is in turn only a few small steps from propaganda and indoctrination.

I realize that there are well-subscribed schools of educational philosophy out there which have making students into activists as their goal, and I acknowledge the right of this course's professor to model what that looks like. But it's not my philosophy, and now I know that at the gut level as well as the intellectual level.

I've been writing this trying to figure out why all of the above made me (want to) cry for half of class today, after starting to articulate it during "circle time". I think it's some combination of frustration / sadness / disappointment that I've come to a point (so soon!) in this program that my desire to fully participate in the learning experiences offered and my core feelings of integrity have ended up conflicting. I wish I could see a way to resolve this right now that was satisfying both for the professor and for me, but other than trying to fully articulate the issue, I'm out of other ideas right now.

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