Sunday, September 14, 2014

Liberating the Curriculum and Beyond

In the second half of To Teach: The Journey, In Comics, Ayers and Tanner demonstrate how what happens in the classroom is not necessarily determined by curricula, frameworks, lesson plans, standardized tests, standards, and whatever newfangled "system" that Departments of Education deem to be effective. In fact, as they illustrate, learning is unpredictable and uncontainable; it is so much more than what these buzzwords label it to be.  They show how learning is not neatly packaged and is contingent on the learners. They take a classic stance in the spectrum of learning and go so far as to rebel against traditional educational models that parallel official theories.

A Tale of Two Visions shows how there are conflicting viewpoints in learning: a classic view which contends that learning is intuitive, interest-driven and effortless; and the prevailing official theory, which maintains that learning entails hard work, rote memorization, and testing to ensure mastery of subject matters.  In this article, the author suggests that learning is not and never should be "hard work."   It should be pleasurable and memorable and subsequently, life changing.

I assert that there is a fine line between what these authors are implying and sheer anarchy.  Yes, learning should be learner-driven, and yes, it should be "boundless" and uninhibited to an extent, but as a creature of the old-school educational model, I feel that without requirements and some testing, we would be living in a less globally-competitive society. 

When the fictitious cartoon Ayers stand on his soapbox and declares, "...anyone who tries to bracket thinking in any sense is, in essence, killing learning," I want to cringe. (p. 74)  On the following page, he mocks the state of Illinois kindergarten standards when he states, "I don't want to bow down to the almighty lesson plan, and I don't want to lose the importance of having a teacher in the classroom who is a thinking, feeling, unique individual." (p. 75)  To Ayers, I would counter that the state of Massachusetts has made amazing educational strides in consolidating our frameworks and implementing them across curricula.  I would argue that my teaching now is so much stronger than it was 15 years ago before I was held accountable for my plans and required to post them for my students and their parents.  I would also contend that it is not hard at all to write good plans with spaces for learners to demonstrate and create knowledge in every class.  

To me, it seems lazy and irresponsible, even, to dismantle almost all of our traditional educational system.  Yes, learners should be at the center of all learning, even in subject matters that don't necessarily appeal to them.  In order to grow as human beings and adults, I would argue that you can't have it your way all the time.  You may hate history or Spanish or math, but you still need to take and pass it.  These things called "tests" ensure that some knowledge about the subject matter was acquired.   However, maybe we should revisit our "tests"... must they be so... well, traditional?   Why can't we reconsider as educators how we measure knowledge?   For as much as Ayers maintains that he has a fun, learning-centered, investigative classroom, I would ague that his own student, Quinn, could not have delivered such an eloquent and reflective graduation address without having had a vocabulary quiz or two along the way.  And of course, as Ayers contends, all assessments should be free of socioeconomic biases.

There has to be a happy medium.  I fall in the camp of the classic view of learning within an official theory structure.   I believe that there need to be guidelines, plans, assessment, and hard work as well as vicariousness, growth, social activity, and freedom of expression without punishment in appropriate venues.  If the end assessment is called a "test", a "project", a "paper" or an "assignment," it should in some way demonstrate academic growth.   The "test" could be as simple as having a conversation in the target language, understanding a joke, or watching and understanding a mini-series in Spanish, but without some sort of "test," I  believe that students may not feel accountable.  Frankly, I wouldn't. 

 When, on page 98, Ayers shows how he practices "creative insubordination" but cutting the wires to his intercom, I lose some respect for him.  Insubordination is also a slippery slope; we are trying to inspire learners, and we must do so by example.  As a parent of two boys, I think he sends the wrong message in being creatively insubordinate.   Rather than rally the troops, as I believe he intended to do, I felt like deserting the camp.   Like Ayers, I believe that teachers can change the world, but I believe we can do so in a civilized and respectful way.  I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with the first half of To Teach:  The Journey, In Comics, but I was left with fewer warm and fuzzy feelings in the second half of the book. 


  1. HI Amy,

    You have made my argument (only better). I too found that Ayers was irresponsible in his oversimplification of the issues that teachers face regarding standards. In some way I feel that unlike the rest of the book he was not writing those sections for teachers, but instead he was writing them to the public as a way to propagandize against standards in education.

    However, I do remember student teaching at Hope HS where the intercom was constantly being yelled through (literally - this lady yelled passive aggressively into the microphone) all day long - during and in between classes alike. There were many times when I considered cutting those wires. I took that more as a metaphor meaning that sometimes you have to be rebellious.


  2. Hi Amy, I agree with you as well. I think that much of this book is really idealistic. I also think that Ayers' perspective is much different than our own. His book portrays a perfectly multicultural, elementary school classroom (made up of what appears to be 10 students). I wonder how his perspective as an elementary school teacher might change if he attempted to employ some of his tactics with older students, in classes with nearly 30 kids? How do we nurture and create a classroom conducive to learning when we are dealing with mass numbers of students (for those of us in the older grades, that means 100+ students)? Standards and state frameworks seem to be the best way to streamline some of the teaching. I don't find that the Massachusetts frameworks stifle learning. Standards don't stifle learning, rather, teachers constrict themselves and their students out of the fear that the standards gods are going to come after them if they don't teach to the test. If approached creatively, it is possible to successfully follow a set of state or district standards.