Education's Place for Debate
Scene 1: During a recent conference I was telling some colleagues about Alfie Kohn's provocative new book, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2006). In the book Kohn makes several arguments, notably that homework is bad for children and the practice is unsupported by evidence. The mere questioning of homework's merits caused one colleague to become animated and exclaim, "I disagree!" Before she could complete her second sentence I interrupted by saying, "Then you and I have now discussed the merits of homework, a universal daily practice, longer than anyone else in recorded history."
Scene 2: Each June the television morning shows feature segments on summer reading for kids. The host introduces an "expert" who will explain why summer reading is important and may even suggest interesting new books. I eagerly await inspirational pearls of wisdom that will make parents rush their tikes to the local bookstore. I think kids should read over the summer to escape to magical kingdoms, explore the world and its history, learn more about themselves, engage in conversation with an author or become immersed in the vicarious adventures of others.
My magical reading daydream is aborted when the TV expert explains that kids should read during the summer because otherwise, all of the important stuff they learned at school will leak out over the summer.
Right before my head exploded, I applied some of the 21st century new media literacy skills I developed last century and asked the following rhetorical questions. Who is this expert? What are her qualifications? Does knowledge really leak out of a child during the summer? Should the dominant purpose of reading be curriculum enforcement? What happened to reading for fun or information? Should summer be a mere extension of schooling? And, why isn't the professional journalist on television asking any of these questions?
I may be prone to hyperbole, but there are countless educational practices immune from criticism, consideration or debate. Homework policies and the summer leaking theory are but two of such educational issues or practices built on faith. At a time when demands are made for research-based accountability such assumptions must be challenged.
Back in the late 1960s, Neil Postman wrote extensively about how educational quality and a healthy democracy were dependent on each citizen having a highly sensitive "shockproof crap detector in their survival kit." In fact, Postman delivered a paper at the 1969 National Council of Teachers of English annual conference, entitled, "Bulls#@t and the Art of Crap-Detection."
The classic book he co-authored with Charles Weingarten, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, (Delacorte Press, 1969) discusses crap detection as fundamental to learning.
In an interconnected world, according to the July 2006 Wired magazine, of 80 million MySpace pages, 40 million bloggers and half a million people contributing to Wikipedia you need to not only keep up, but use your crap detector to make sense of a world speeding along in Internet time.
Your students are reading about what may be World War III on the 'Net, not just from "official" secondary news sources, but by reading blogs written by Lebanese and Israeli kids their age being attacked by missiles. They're watching video podcasts of a child's life in an air-raid bunker. How long will it take for that information to reach your textbooks and will the textbook version be a fraction as compelling or accurate? Educators have a special obligation to stay informed, seek multiple sources of information and provide contexts in which students can make meaning.
We are only beginning to understand the impact of the blogosphere where millions of people can share their interests, passions and expertise with the click of a mouse. Ask Dan Rather or teachers critiqued on ratemyteachers.com how such online communities can affect your profession. Democracy is messy.
how such online
communities can affect your profession.
Democracy is messy.
People in the knowledge business (that's you) need to be engaged in an ongoing process of knowledge sharing, personal reflection and growth. Since truth and Stephen Colbert's "Truthiness" are socially constructed there needs to be a place where educators can be inspired, informed and perhaps even enraged by leading educators representing a wide range of perspectives and expertise. Information and issues need to be presented in a timely fashion without the two- to three-month lag time in print publications. In 2006 such an environment should encourage you to ask questions, challenge the assumptions of others and share your own experience all in a public setting where your thoughts will inspire others to participate.
After more than a year of preparation, District Administration magazine is pleased to announce the creation of a new online publication, The Pulse, Education's Place for Debate. This is not just a blog site where some narcissistic lunatic rants or reads the newspaper for you. The Pulse will feature exclusive articles by many of today's leading educators, authors, scholars and policy-makers, along with news related to education. Best of all, you can talk back and add your voice to the conversation.
We hope you will bookmark www.districtadministration.com/pulse and spend some time with us every day.
Gary S. Stager, firstname.lastname@example.org, is editor-at-large of District Administration magazine and editor of The Pulse.
The transcript of Neil Postman's 1969 speech at the National Council of Teachers of English may be found at www.districtadministration.com/pulse