Archive for the ‘Educational Philosophy’ Category

I decided to mess around with making a video for my students as I begin to teach research methods to graduate students. In this course I push ideas such as clarity of thinking, accuracy in both thinking and in how one relies on source material, precision in thought processes, relevance of information to one’s argument, the depth and breadth of one’s investigation of both the relevant literature and the methodological approach one takes as a researcher, the logical development of the argument, the significance of the argument and, finally, whether or not one has been fair to all sides of a given position–this last point is not to argue that one cannot take a stand, rather that one must at the very least acknowledge alternative stances and, if one wishes, pick them apart.

This YouTube video will serve as an introduction to the class in which we discuss issues related to the difference between belief and rigorous research. I sort of like what I made here. I think it serves as a good introduction to the topic, but, then, I am the creator and am a bit biased.

My university is insisting that we all teach using technology to a greater extent in order to look good for an accreditation review upcoming in 2010. So there you have it.

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Žižek suggests that choice is available only within the boundaries of the overlap of conflicting interests. Only when ideas are in competition is there a need to make a choice. If everyone agrees with each and every premise then there is no need to make a choice. But, it is clear that each of us is faced with significant opportunities to make informed choices because we do not live in the bubble of the same.

In schools, where curriculum is a central issue, there are three competing interests that are often in conflict with one another. There is, of course, the district, the governing body that oversees the delivery of educational efforts to students within the oversight boundaries of the district itself. In the case of the district the goals for curriculum are driven from the top down. Districts, no matter how large or how small, are driven by the need to seek standardization, to centralize the decision making process, and to control, to the best of its ability, the outcomes of the process of teaching and learning. In direct competition with the district, and at the other end of the continuum is the classroom. Classroom teachers spend their day in direct contact with children and are, therefore, far more prone to devote their energies into understanding the context within which they work. Classroom teachers understand the need to decentralize schooling and to approach the classroom with an open and flexible attitude if they are to be successful. Stuck in the middle is the school itself. School administration is, in fact, stuck in the middle, having to contextualize yet retain administrative control. This paradox of leadership leads to understanding curricular continuity and negotiating curriculum design through professional conversations within the school. See fig 1 below.Curriculum Design

NCLB has usurped the possibility of understanding curriculum development as a meaningful conversation by successfully defining the conversation as one that is driven from the top, a conversation that is immune to considerations of context or negotiation. By establishing management parameters the professionalism has been removed from teaching and leadership roles removed from the principal’s office.

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This week the American Educational Research Association is holding its annual meeting in Chicago. This important conference brings together researchers and teachers from all areas of the spectrum of education and, as such, is one of the more exciting places to be as a professional educator. In this post I am going to summarize some of the more important points I heard today.

David Berliner spoke about the state of education in the United States today as a political space in which the ENDS of education have been taken away from professional educators and the MEANS of education have been corrupted by the reduction of knowing to a single test-score number. As test scores become the ENDS of education, primarily due to NCLB, then the MEANS of education become teaching to the test. When knowledge as an END is replaced by test scores then the only thing worth knowing is “is that going to be on the test?”

Another speaker argued that there is simply too much policy, policy layered upon policy upon policy. Fossilized reforms are something like geological layers as legislators fail to review either old policy prior to passage of new policy or evidence in support of policy legislation in the first place. The result is a web (more like a rabbit warren) of overlapping policies and legislation that boggles even the least capable minds.

Perhaps my favorite speaker argued that we do not live in an age of educational uncertainty. Quite the contrary, NCLB has placed a strangle hold on certainty. Schools are certain as to what programs count and what to teach in order to avoid the degradation of being labeled low performing. The problem is not certainty but faulty logic. NCLB is based on a confused logical structure where knowledge is reduced to test scores, schools are expected to solve social problems, and reading and math instruction are scripted and uniform across irregular contexts. This speaker called not for evidence based teaching as NCLB does, rather he argued that there ought to be EVIDENCE BASED LEGISLATION. I suggested to a colleague sitting next to me that perhaps those that pass the laws ought to be subject to the consequences of their own legislation. Congress ought to be forced to sit for say the 12th grade test. It was also suggested that no legislation be passed that does harm to anyone.

Finally, a speaker argued that education cannot be reduced to a model that corresponds in any way to producing widgets in a factory. By that logic FedX Delivers–Teachers Teach holds supreme. The fact is, however, that teachers do not exist, only teachers in a context exist and only in that context can teachers navigate through the murky waters that make up the classroom. Teaching is not something that can be planned except in broad brush terms if only because the unexpected is bound to happen at any moment of the day. Teachers are not tutor technicians preparing their students for tests. In the end, high stakes testing is blocking effective implementation of curriculum that encourages students to solve problems, to think about difficult problems, to rigorously reflect on ideas and concepts, and to remain curious about the world in which we all live. American educators for years have been critical of the centralization of European and Asian educational systems. The irony is that Europe and Asian nations are becoming decentralized as the United States moves toward a centralized national system of education.

I expect to be NCLB’d out by the end of the week. More to come later.

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Okay, you just have to visit Educating Alice and read her post Anti-Intellectual Education. As a regular reader of this blog I continue to be impressed with the thought that goes into the writing and the generally correct posture taken. In the final analysis, I am constantly reminded that one goal of education is to do no harm to kids. The other is to cause them such discomfort intellectually that they have no choice but to think, to struggle with ideas and to emerge from their struggle as productive and competent citizens of the world.

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In a stunning article in Educational Theory, Tyson E. Lewis (2006) argues that contemporary schooling in the United States, through policies of zero-tolerance, lockdown, and No Child Left Behind policies, separates and isolates students from the body politic by creating ambiguities that emerge from the complexities of disciplinary procedures and high-stakes assessment policies prevalent in inner-city schools that serve low-income, minority students. Lewis relies on arguments made by Italian political philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, and Critical Theorist, Theodor Adorno to make his case.

According to Lewis, Adorno makes the case that schooling creates the precondition for fascism to take hold due primarily to the undemocratic nature of the classroom. In Western education the classroom is often understood as a place of discipline and punishment, of separation and separating, of execution and executioner that is implicit in the student-teacher dialectic of power and passivity. School is not understood, in the main, as a place for developing autonomy, critical decision making, or self- and communal-response-ability; this in spite of rhetoric to the contrary. Lewis seems to understand the difference between language and the Real (Žižek, 2002).

Agamben, according to Lewis, presents a case for the Nazi death camp as the paradigmatic case of the creation of exceptional space, space removed from the principal political space of the community yet existing within that space without visibility or recognition. This form of exceptional space extends to many institutions found in the Western idea of Global Capitalism such as airports, hospitals, and credit bureaus. Lewis argues convincingly that schools must be included in this exceptionality as well. When such exceptional space is created “life is held in suspension, neither inside nor outside the polis, neither fully alive or dead. Stated differently, life is made to survive in legal limbo” (Lewis, 2006, p 161). Schools, create space that is inherently undemocratic. Student’s lives are suspended while dependent upon the whims and fancies of outsiders, political and administrative demands, that place their lives in suspension where survival in legal limbo is, perhaps, all that can be expected.

What is destroyed in the process is not dignity, rather it is control or the illusion of control. When placed in survival mode, life is reduced to the bare necessities, to what Agamben (1998) has labeled homo sacer, literally, sacred life, but in Agamben’s terms is defined more metaphorically as bare life. In the paradigmatic exceptional space, the Nazi Death Camps, homo sacer collides with the ordinary citizen, one surviving in limbo, outside of the borders of the political system and one entrenched within the borders of that system; one powerless, the other holding the key to ultimate power—life and death.

The United States is not exempt from creating borderless states of isolation. Native American people have lived in isolation on reservations for a hundred years or so, isolated as sovereign nations within a sovereign nation, a euphemism that is intended to hide the source of Real power. During World War II, Japanese Americans were herded into internment camps, isolated in the California desert and the Great Basin where they could be separated from Real Americans. More recently, the detention camp at Guantanamo place the lives of enemy combatants in limbo under the watchful eye of the military. Each of these instances, including the paradigmatic case, fall into what Agamben (1998) calls biopolitics.

Lewis extends this argument to schools, labeling the activity of schools and schooling as biopedagogy. Students are placed in a position of being homo sacer in the sense that because they are subject to nothing but external rules, to not being able participants in the decisions that directly and indirectly impact their lives, schools are places where students necessarily collide with those that choose to control them. Schools isolate, separate, and punish sometimes just because they can. The real tragedy is that this all appears to be normal to the rest of us.


Agamben, G. (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign power and bare life (D. Heller-Roazen, Trans.). Sanford, CA: Sanford University Press.

Lewis, T. E. (2006). The school as an exceptional space: Rethinking education from the perspective of the biopedagogical. Educational Theory, 56(2), 159-176.

Žižek, S. (2002). Welcome to the desert of the real: Five essays on September 11 and related dates. London: Verso.

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Educating Alice posted a story regarding the Holocaust and Shoelaces. This story is important enough to read in its entirety.

I want to add my 2 cents here. I agree that we must teach kids to think about hard topics in a rigorous manner. Collecting 6,000,000 centimeters of shoelaces tied together is symbolic drivel, an act not worthy of serious consideration, except that it interferes with children thinking hard about the whole issue of the Holocaust.

I am currently reading a very short (66 pages) book by Robert Eaglestone, Postmodernism and Holocaust Denial. Cambridge, UK. Icon Books (2001). Eaglestone makes a thoughtful argument in which he distinguishes between the modern, liberal discourse that, through fear of political incorrectness, continences free speech to the extreme and a postmodern view that insists on rigorous attention to the ethical value of the argument itself. The modern view allows for debate where there is no debate. It makes room for Holocaust denial because free speech requires that both sides be heard–even when there is no other side. The postmodern view, however, requires one to address the underlying ethics of the argument leaving little room for sweeping events under the rug as if they did not occur.

Collecting shoelaces is much like Holocaust denial because it trivializes the reality of the event. It is something like creating a virtual reality, like decaffeinated coffee or non-alcoholic beer, allowing for an experience without the malignancy of the event itself.

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In a post on the NCTE blog, Barbara Cambridge writes in part:

I am encouraged that we are beginning to distinguish between formative and summative assessment, not to affirm one over the other but to accent that each serves a particular purpose, formative primarily to improve teaching and learning and summative primarily to answer accountability needs.

At the same time that we make that distinction, however, we might also think how doing each kind of assessment might affect the other kind. To return to the AFT forum Kent referred to, listen to points made by Paul Barton in a forum presentation labeled “‘Failing’ or ‘Succeeding’ Schools: How Can We Tell?” Barton makes four points about accountability data, the kind of data most often generated by summative assessments.

First, Barton contends that current practices ignore basic standards of accountability because curricula and tests are not yet aligned. Test scores used for accountability are invalid if alignment is not in order. My take from this point: Pedagogy, curriculum, and formative assessment need to track with summative assessment.

Secondly, Barton states that a series of snapshots of students in different years does not measure what is learned by a student in a certain school year. Barton recommends administering the same test at the beginning and the end of the school year. My take on this point: Formative assessments can be used to track progress during that school year so that students can be helped to make more progress between summative assessments .

Thirdly, Barton says gains measured during the school year should be transparent to everyone, especially teachers and parents. Transparency would be supported by having student identifiers to track students from grade to grade or by stretch tests that cover several grades worth of work but are taken each year. Tests, however, are really not needed every year. Samples, rotating testing, or testing on an unannounced basis would free time for more diagnostic testing (formative assessment), which research shows improves instruction. My take on this point: A system of testing periodically can serve accountability while honoring more frequent formative assessment that serves teaching and learning.

Fourthly, standards need to be set for how much gain is expected in a year. Teachers need to say what is typical at a low end and at a high end. We can still have high expectations and disaggregate by subgroup under this standards system. My take on this point: Hurray that teachers are identified as the professionals who should set standards.

Each of Barton’s points, it seems to me, recognizes the (potential) interaction of formative and summative assessment.

I want to comment on the points made as Cambridge relies so heavily on Barton for her analysis. I must begin by addressing the problems with the current obsession with notions of assessment and evaluation. As I have said many times in the past, the current reliance on technocratic solutions begs the question regarding the purpose of education in the first instance. The overarching problem with the reliance on assessment and standards is precisely the reliance on predefined outcomes as a substitution for real education, for real learning. It is somewhat akin to coffee without caffeine or wine without alcohol (Žižek, 2003), virtual reality is substituted for reality. The obsession with test scores, curriculum alignment, and the like creates the phantasm of real education allowing for the maintenance of the status quo, or worse, plunging the system of public education into the abyss of what Žižek (2002) references as the “Desert of the Real.”

The first of Barton’s points is that “current practices ignore basic standards of accountability because curricula and tests are not yet aligned.” The underlying assumption here is that by aligning curriculum with assessments one will know with some degree of precision what is being learned, and by implication, what is being taught. The argument is a technocratic, utilitarian view of what should occur in schools, a neatly packaged Utopian understanding rather than one that addresses the complexities of teaching and learning, the multiplicity of contexts, interactions, and the like that make classrooms messy, nuanced spaces that require well developed professional judgment and flexibility in response to changing circumstances. Notions of alignment of curriculum to assessment deny the complexity in favor of packaging, of sound bites, of billboard slogans.

According to Cambridge, Barton’s second point, that “a series of snapshots of students in different years does not measure what is learned by a student in a certain school year,” is well taken. Her solution, however, fails to inspire. She states, “Formative assessments can be used to track progress during that school year so that students can be helped to make more progress between summative assessments.” Here she relies on Barton’s position that the way to overcome prior learning in any given school year is to pre-test and post-test thereby controlling for prior learning. Cambridge translates that idea into a distinction between formative and summative assessment but this is a solution that merely extends the utilitarian view that testing accounts for learning, at best a naive position.

Barton’s third point, that “gains measured during the school year should be transparent to everyone, especially teachers and parents,” presents an interesting problem. In the first place one must have faith that what is measured by testing actually represents gains in student knowledge. It seems that Barton’s first point negates this possibility unless, somehow, pains are taken to actually align curriculum with assessments. More curious, however, is Cambridge’s take on this point. When Cambridge states, “A system of testing periodically can serve accountability while honoring more frequent formative assessment that serves teaching and learning,” she seems to be privileging formative assessment without admitting to the potential problem that formative assessment is created to simply mirror the summative assessment thereby training (as one might train a seal, a dog, or a dancing bear) to perform well on the only test that counts, the summative assessment. Too many contradictions to suit my take on all this.

Barton’s final point according to Cambridge is that “standards need to be set for how much gain is expected in a year. Teachers need to say what is typical at a low end and at a high end. We can still have high expectations and disaggregate by subgroup under this standards system.” Where do I start. The whole notion that specific gain can somehow be measured represents a view of human nature that reduces everything to a number or a set of numbers. From my vantage point, that of a teacher of literacy, I tend not to trust the Positivists faith in this form of reductionism. Quite the contrary, I trust words, stories, narratives–NOT NUMBERS! Oh how I hate to shout, but English teachers need to shout from time to time. I am disheartened by Cambridge’s response as she cheers the notion that teachers should set standards. Well, duh! Of course teachers should set standards. But, when imposed assessments, notions of formative and summative assessments, dictated standards and the like are the norm, teachers will be reduced to nothing more than conduits for the transmission of the standards to children who are, in turn, reduced to nothing more than a number.


Žižek, S. (2002). Welcome to the desert of the real: Five essays on September 11 and related dates. London: Verso.

Žižek, S. (2003). The puppet and the dwarf: The perverse core of Christianity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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