A pedagogy subtle as a ditch

Instead schools were organizations designed to colonize, imprint, and shape from within….
                                                Kirsten Olson, Schools as Colonizers

I owe Kirsten Olsen an apology.  For a couple of years now, I have been scribbling dismissive notes in the introduction to her Schools as Colonizers.  Despite my appreciation of later chapters - you can, by the way, read the first chapter in pdf here - I found her use of the term "colonizers" nonsensical.
It has taken less than six weeks in an educational institute to bring me to my senses.

Tomorrow's assignment, for example, is to relate a significant learning moment from my life using a narrative structure.  Then, I am to reflect on my learning process - not the what, but the how - and ask myself if there is anything in it that I can translate into a principle or idea that might make me a better facilitator.

Okay.  Significant learning.  Think about the process.  Translate into a way to help others.

Well, hell.  I can do that.  I have 50 or 60 posts on this blog that do exactly that!  I just have to write a new one.

Ah, yes...  but that is not the assignment, really.  The real assignment is to do the above while drawing on (and quoting from) class readings and notes from the past few weeks.  Also, it would be swell if I could point out where one or another of my classmates made a remark that, you know, helped with this reflection.  Show how I've grown as a person and facilitator.

Okay.  Significant learning.  Think about the process.  Translate into a way to help others.  Relate to class reading.  Relate to classmate's remark.  Illustrate positive outcome of/from course materials and activities.

You see, this is not an exercise in reflective practice.  It is a test.  It is a test of my ability to internalize, to make the authorized texts (class reading) my own.  On the side, I am charged with validating - offering personal witness to - the pedagogical effectiveness of our group discussions.

It's been a long time since I have felt this level of manipulation.

I'll do it.  What else am I going to do?  I'll look back through our class posts to find somewhere where I agreed with a classmate's point.  Then, I'll go find a reading assignment that made the same point.  From there, I'll pick out - or just make up - some realization I've had that I can use to illustrate their point.  Then, I'll write it down in narrative structure as though I really were telling a story from my own life.

I'll do it.  But it won't be authentic, or useful, or learner centered.

I want to stress that I'm talking about a structural issue here.  The dear soul who has set me this assignment would be puzzled and hurt by my cynical reaction.  She would say - as she has elsewhere - that these are only suggestions.  True enough.  But they are suggestions we're being graded on.  That's a powerful hammer in the toolbox of manipulation.  Even I, someone who doesn't much care about grades, wouldn't like to be exposed as the kind of idiot failure who can't finish a simple writing assignment.

I also want to say that this same professor has alerted me to some quite interesting essays - pieces I want to spend time digesting and learning from.  But that will have to happen later, after I'm outside the artificial box created by curriculum and assignments and group work and authority.  Just like 30 years ago, I have to wait for school to be over before I'll have time to learn.

Valuable reading materials.  Interesting perspectives.  A smart, well-meaning facilitator…  all for naught because we can't any of us escape the jail house called school.

To "colonize, imprint, and shape from within."


Kate Nonesuch said...

Wendell, thanks for putting some words and analysis to this experience. I found myself in a similar situation a couple of years ago, but couldn't put my finger on what was going on. Too subtle for me, I guess. ;)

Wendell Dryden said...

My colleague - on whom I blame this whole adventure - and I are taking a long, hard look at our own classroom and testing practices now that we've spent some time in a "learner's seat."