Teacher Innovation #5: “Learning is Inquiry, not Acceptance”

Adobe Spark (5)

Post #5 comes compliments of a friend and former doctoral cohort compatriot, Nick Thompson. Nick is currently a doctoral student at The University of Georgia, but before he attended UGA, Nick taught in a public high school in the metro-Atlanta area for years, including a few of those years when we both started our doctoral journey at Kennesaw State University. Much of Nick’s research interests have been driven by comparing medical doctor preparation and practice to that of educator preparation and practice. That’s the lens he brings to today’s post. While Nick shares an experience from his classroom two years ago in the same vein of previous posters in the series, Nick starts this post with a bigger picture in mind. The innovation we are looking at today is both internal and external. Internal in the sense of how a teacher contemplates teaching English language arts (ELA) canon through inquiry, and external in the sense of how teacher preparation programs do or do not require an educator-in-training to be an inquirer him or herself.

Previous Series Entries: Part 1 // Part 2 // Part 3 // Part 4

by Nick Thompson

The Progressive Movement

Around the turn of the 20th century, John Dewey was working hard to fight for a more democratic society through education, arguing that a “society with too few independent thinkers is vulnerable to control by disturbed and opportunistic leaders. A society which wants to create and maintain a free and democratic social system must create responsible independence of thought among its young.” At the same time, the Carnegie foundation appointed a man named Flexner to make a comprehensive report on the state of medical education in America. Flexner visited 150 medical schools, university-based and otherwise, and his resulting report changed the face of medical training to this day. It was he who proposed the four-year curriculum that is still followed in most medical schools.

What I find most fascinating about the Flexner report is his descriptions of the paths to becoming a doctor at the time of his investigation and his pedagogic philosophy. He cited requirements for entrance to medical schools in many cases to be no more than a high school equivalency, and much of the totality of medical training that soon-to-be doctors received was completely didactic, a teaching method that Flexner (1910) characterized as “hopelessly antiquated; it belongs to an age of accepted dogma or supposedly complete information, when the professor ‘knew’ and the students ‘learned’” (pp. 60-61). Can you imagine going to a doctor who might have a GED and had never actually seen a patient in person before you walking into their office? I find it amazing that teachers at every level are still guilty of this lecture-focused style of teaching when someone outside of our field saw its obvious flaws over a century ago.

This current series in The Art of Forgetting is about teacher innovation, and I was honored to be invited to contribute. I cite Flexner because I am inspired to think about what the teaching profession could be if our preparation programs became as rigorous, clinically-based, and experimentally-focused as medical school became as a result of his suggestions. Flexner (1910) wrote, “On the pedagogic side, modern medicine, like all scientific teaching, is characterized by activity. The student no longer merely watches, listens, memorizes; he does. His own activities in the laboratory and in the clinic are the main factors in his instruction and discipline. An education in medicine nowadays involves both learning and learning how; the student cannot effectively know, unless he knows how” (p. 53). This is amazing similar to how Dewey urged for teachers to “give the pupils something to do, not something to learn” and make sure that the “doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” The other posts in this current series all seem to have this ethic at their core.

The “Truth” Problem

Teachers are often quite boxed into the topics, schedules, and modes of instruction, especially since No Child left behind (NCLB) and its positivistic, numbers-driven philosophy grabbed a national foothold. Teachers are increasingly encouraged to teach to the test, though policy-makers won’t admit this in so many words. In English education, much of the reading portion of those tests involve viewing a passage and answering some multiple choice questions. The unfortunate truth behind that approach to reading education is that it does exactly what Dewey and Flexner warned against; it positions the teacher–actually, in this case, the test–as knowing and transmitting a single, indisputable truth, and it positions the student as taciturn receptor of information, rewarding them for falling in line, and punishing them for disagreeing. Some of you may know this theory of learning to be applied in the form of Formalism or New Criticism. This reading philosophy assumes that “correct” answers and understandings can be derived wholly from the text itself. But, what about prior knowledge, personal interest, generational shift, cultural differences and all the other factors that we know influence the way that a person reads and makes meaning of a text?

Is ferreting out the single “truth” really what we want our students to learn to do? That kind of thinking and teaching seems to be the quickest way to create a nation of students who are not valued for their independence in thought, leaving us, if Dewey is to be believed, “vulnerable to control by disturbed and opportunistic leaders,” but there is no evidence of that happening in our current political atmosphere, right? Instead, we should be putting students in situations that challenge them to be authoritative thinkers, to make conclusions without looking to authority to judge the validity of their thinking, to negotiate meaning with others, not parallel to them.

Turning My Classroom into a Laboratory

In full disclosure, I must admit that I actually haven’t taught in two years, so you’ll have to excuse the lack of student work examples that the other contributors have shared, and bear with me as I work largely from memory and some frustrating dusting off of some of the files in the back of my computer in order to share the following lesson. Flexner envisioned a doctor’s experience in hospitals as a laboratory, and he wanted a physician’s career to be one of inquiry and progess.

It is this pursuit of giving my students an experience of experimental doing that I developed one of my favorite lessons. I was required by the norms of my department and the Georgia state curriculum standards to teach a unit on short story. I never liked this unit because most of the short stories in the textbook seemed bland and disconnected from the students and me. I tried reading some modern short stories by reading collections like The Best American Short Stories series, but most of what I saw was too complex, too heavy, or had any number of the red flags (i.e. foul language, sex, racial slurs, etc.) that had the parents of my students setting up meetings at 7AM. I had resigned myself to a few of the more palatable selections from the anthology, and my classes gave congenial head nod to the unit as we blew by it into more interesting stuff.

One year, after having spent some time taking a few classes at Kennesaw State University, I was inspired to try new things in my classroom. So, I decided what skills I wanted my students to work on advancing, rather than thinking about what knowledge I wanted to pass onto them and have them spit back at me. I wanted them to be able to

  1. read a new text independently,
  2. make warranted arguments about meaning,
  3. negotiate that meaning with others,
  4. construct themselves as authoritative readers, and
  5. lead others in a close reading.

The biggest problem inherent to these goals is the authoritative part. On some level I could not escape having authority over every text, so I could not help position my students differently either.

So, I looked back at my anthology, and I realized that there were five or six stories that I had never bothered to read because I had been told by the teachers around me early in my career which ones were “good”, and I had gotten into a rut of only teaching those without question. The solution seemed simple: Don’t read them before I teach them. Instead assign the students to the texts, and require them to teach each one to the class, positioning myself as a newcomer to the text.

Step one: Explain the idea to the students. If the students don’t know that you are coming to each reading as cold as they are, the re-assignment of authority goes out the window.

Step two: Model how you want them to teach their assigned story. I was able to reach into my wheelhouse of stories that I always taught for this. What changed however, was that I was not longer teaching them the text in the vein of New Criticism. Instead, I was asking them to focus on the process of reading, negotiating meaning in our whole-class discussion, and constructing a discussion in which readers who were new to the text could participate.

Step three: assign the texts to groups (I always like 3-4 people per group) and give them a couple of days to read their texts in class, discuss meaning, and create their discussion-leading activity.

Step four: Read the stories in class (one per day) with your students. Sit back, and let the authoritative group do work.

It was awesome! I was genuinely surprised by each text. Ignorance became my friend. I had always felt so much pressure to know the answer as a teacher and embarrassed when I didn’t. Now, I was no longer a crutch for the students to lean on for meaning. How would I know? I’ve never read it. More than that, it was way more fun. I got to experience this literature for the first time with others. I got share my revelations about the text with the students as they came to me. I got to say things like, “Oh, I totally missed that when I read it!”

So, if I didn’t teach meaning, what was my role here? Was I actually teaching, or was this just laziness masquerading as innovation? I’m not sure, probably a bit of each. I focused on the new goals for the unit. Instead of being worried about communicating “truth” of the text to my students, I forced them to read without me, but I encouraged them engage in good reading behaviors like re-reading, looking for supporting information in extra-textual places, and discussing the text with others in their group. I helped them warrant their arguments by expressing my confusion and asking them to clarify for me by pointing to specific sections of the text. I helped them to develop discussion by encouraging them to have questions ready that focused on points of confusion and interest and avoided a yes/no structure.

The problem with this lesson is that, to do it, you would have to continually find texts that you have never read. There are certainly enough texts in the world for that, but controlling for the triggers becomes very difficult once you leave the safety net of the school-provided anthology. Instead, I think it is worth trying once in your career, to go in blindfolded, just to remind yourself of how a student feels, to give up your authority, and to figure out what you should be teaching once you leave behind the “truth”, the test, and the image of yourself as the authority on knowing.


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