Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Encountering the Other

I've been thinking a lot about constructivism and constructionism and Freire and diversity lately. I can believe that almost totally open-ended discussions and activities can be engaging and educational. (Almost totally open-ended! Not totally open-ended! Though there's a good point in A Mathematician's Lament that anything one doesn't stumble across in 12 years of thinking about a topic probably isn't all that important.)

I am thinking of knowing the kind of activity you want kids to engage in, but allowing them to propose all the particulars. Let them figure out what the important parts are. Say you want them to learn how to write a program. Ask them what kind of program they want to write. What kind of problems do they have that could be solved with a program? Then let them figure out (with support) how to write the program - they figure out the constructs, you provide the syntax. It's just-in-time teaching. At an extreme, you might even be able to let them figure out what they wanted to learn at all in the context of your class, but without them knowing something about the context it seems like proposing problems is a better way to start.

I have a hard time believing this way of teaching is scalable - how can you get all the thousands of teachers in this country to be that open-ended? It's hard and you have to have an incredible grasp of the material to be able to guide students gently. (Or perhaps you could pull it off if you knew nothing, with teacher and class learning it together, but that's not comfortable for most teachers!) That said, as I have practiced open-ended teaching more and more, I've become better at it, which makes me think it is teachable, which means it might be scalable. It would require a sea change in how we think about education - we might not get to all the standards this way.

The extreme educational theorists believe in this way of teaching because of its respect for students' culture and experience. And I haven't ever questioned that, except to contemplate that the historical role of education in the US is to inculturate children into the dominant value set and that if we take underprivileged students and fail to give them that clue, we do them a disservice when they have to compete as adults in the dominant culture. (I am a terrible teacher because I will regularly point out to underprivileged students how to fly under the radar like the privileged kids do.)

So it was with great interest that I read Siobhan Curious' latest post: Encountering the Other about the role of literature in our lives. Specifically, she has a quote from a Harper's article Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School:
Happily ignoring the fact that the whole point of reading is to force us into an encounter with the other, our high schools and colleges labor mightily to provide students with mirrors of their own experience, lest they be made uncomfortable, effectively undercutting diversity in the name of diversity.
One is wise enough to think one should tread lightly on a discussion of valuing diversity vs. valuing the dominant culture (as though one can't value both!) So one will stop writing now other than to wonder what you think?

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