THE ECOLOGY OF TEACHING
Breaking Out of the Factory Model
By HECTOR J. VILA, PhD
Hector J. Vila is an Assistant Professor in Writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has been teaching writing in urban and rural environments since 1985. Hector is the author of Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom. Throughout his career he has always worked, in one way or another, with K-12 partners.
There is a lot of talk about education reform, but there is little conversation about what teaching actually is -- and who the teacher is.
What are the elements of teaching?
There is a singular demand on education today, namely that it develop producers—students that will mature to be workers and consumers. This single demand is blind to the sources of this production model, the teachers, and the nature of human interactions that comprise our culture.
Of course, citizens have to be productive and engage the world creatively, but this is not the first criteria. There are other requirements. In order for education to be productive—produce productive individuals—it must preserve the health and welfare of teachers and, in so doing, it must sustain students in the process. For this to happen, teachers must know themselves well, must have a full understanding of their students, and, just as significant, teachers must have a complete understanding of the context in which the teaching and learning happens. Our teaching environments, in America, are diverse and each holds certain unique challenges.
Teachers must be well motivated, active learners that engage the environment in which students reside; likewise, teachers must also know the relationships that exist between their subjects, pedagogy and the environment in which s/he is teaching. What is the place of my knowledge in the context of our culture? This question teachers must ask themselves over and over. Then teachers must know how to use this knowledge well. Teaching cannot take place except in culture. This is a vital criteria for any teacher mentoring program; it also sustains teachers, keeping their interests peaked.
The appropriate measure of teaching is the culture's health. We can look around and realize that our culture is not healthy, not by any stretch of the imagination.
Education, we hear in the talk, is in trouble; it has broken down. It's limping along, even declining, we hear. A central reason for this breakdown has to do with our lack of understanding concerning the elements of teaching. We recognize the potential—and place—of the teacher, but we have strapped the teacher down to a system that privileges competition rather than cooperation, homogeneity rather than diversity. We falsely believe that a single test can determine excellence—for teachers and students. This is far too simple a standard because it's focused solely on production; it enslaves those in the system—administrators, teachers and students, and their families. This is an economic model for education that parallels the current economic standard that has taken our welfare to the brink of disaster. We are beginning to see—in some circles—that this standard is very expensive and, while it has solved some immediate problems, it has, overall, failed on a consistent basis to address the ills of our culture.
Education has worked by confinement, concentration and separation; this design has lead to the industrialization of human experience. We, who work in schools, have been responsible for this move towards the factory model of education. It's synonymous with the factory model of agriculture, which has lead to making our food vulnerable that, in turn, makes all vulnerable to all sorts of problems and diseases.
This is to say that we have to re-describe the elements of teaching so that we can create better, more meaningful measures that comply with the art of teaching.
Many like to say that teaching is an art and a science. This is only partially correct. The science—the data, the verifiable knowledge, etc—only exists in the disciplines—Mathematics, English, Literature, Geography, History, Philosophy, Foreign Languages, and so on. The application of these knowledge fields to excite a student's imagination is not a science; the synthesis of discipline knowledge and pedagogy is an art. This is why current, high stakes testing cannot measure, with any meaningful results, the teacher's practice. We need another way of doing this; these measures must be layered and multifaceted—observations, journals, video, dialog, and so on, along with tests. I say along with tests because by integrating a variety of diverse measures we will be able to (a) experience the rich and layered practice of a teacher, and describe it, and (b) come to understand the limitations of the factory model, high stakes test.
So let's just talk about three elements of teaching. I want to do this to show what I mean by the need for diverse measures that defy the factory model of education.
The first element of teaching is love. A teacher must love. She must love herself, but more importantly, she must love experiencing herself as a node that engages others in the healthy creation of culture.
Love requires that the teacher be healthy, personally and in her practice. Love leads the teacher to care about the well being of her students; this measure—the health of students—leads to atonement between the teacher, her students, and the world they are engaging. It proposes conscious, careful recognition of the ecology of learning. It also demonstrates knowledge of the interdependence between the teacher, students, the institution and the culture. These interdependencies always exist; however, in our current factory model of education focused solely on production, we categorically reject these connections, begin separating, confining and concentrating on diffused knowledge that is without context, without purpose. Teachers love, first and foremost, because it is the only way to get to a student's heart; without the heart, there is no learning. We can measure this quite easily by simply walking into any school and observing disinterested students. Disinterest comes about because love is not practiced in the classroom. Either a teacher doesn't love her discipline or she doesn't love the conditions for learning or she doesn't love her students because, perhaps, they represent insurmountable challenges that she imagines cannot be addressed.
Teachers that begin with love are easy to find in schools. They are the most exhausted. This is the direct result of a dictatorial or totalitarian form. The teacher is always fighting an uphill battle against political demands on her identity, measures that don't make sense, dictates that come from "on high," usually boards of education—the Federal Government included—that have no idea who our current students are. On the other hand, this teacher knows that the right approach to teaching and learning is more consistent with a conversational model; it proceeds directly to serious thought—inquiry—about our condition and our predicament. In conversations you always reply—and here is where we can measure. If a teacher honors the other party, namely students and their identities, she thus becomes reliant on a secondary element of teaching faith. The teacher has faith that the other will reply, though sometimes not in expected ways or in ways that the teacher may like—but this is, in fact, a healthy environment that begs for a third element, freedom. The teacher must always transgress constraints and boundaries to expose the work required to be free. The teaching and learning act is to inspire the quest for freedom, creatively, personally, politically. Transgressing boundaries for freedom excites the imagination, which can be measured in actual work—writing, calculations and their applications, art and music, and so on, right to the effective uses of languages to communicate deeply felt emotions to an Other. Faith that the Other will reply fosters the quest for freedom, which is the sole purpose of education.
Love, faith and freedom, we can rightly see—and imagine—are easily measured, in teachers and students, by closely examining their practice, not by standardized tests, but, rather, by observation, close examination of texts and testing; the multi-layered approach, as I mentioned above, enables us to distinguish between individuals, rather then assuming that all individuals are the same. It allows us to apply what we learn—and what we have learned about the factory system that has gotten us nowhere—to our culture. We can then, slowly, begin to measure whether our culture is moving towards healthier ways of being since, right now, we're not.
For a long time, we have dreamt that our systems have been taking us towards some Edenic future; we've convinced ourselves that our constructions, completely reliant on human ingenuity, are the key to our health and happiness. Now we realize otherwise. We have forgotten that everything we do resides in Nature; that everything we do affects Culture. Nature and Culture are hurting. We can turn to science, technology, medicine, history and philosophy, as well as the Arts, and see that this is absolutely true. All these disciplines are pointing to our troubled ways—to the troubles we're facing. Might it not be time to take what we've learned and turn this ship around?
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