Re: What's old in curriculum configurations

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Sat Mar 05 2005 - 18:25:51 PST

A very nice quote from Basil (Bernstein), Phil. How about a little more
inwardness, feeling, ownership? Not from a one-size-fits-all standardized
state curriculum.

I was hardly endorsing primary education, just alluding to the fact that
while reading, writing, and arithmetic actually do get used by most people,
along with a little (in the US, very little) bit of information about
whether Ohio is east or west of Chicago (and Austria or Australia in
Europe), that there is almost nothing in the secondary curriculum that most
people really need (however nice it might be to know some of these things,
and whatever use they may have for people who choose a few -- very few --
particular career paths). No one ever built a curriculum by going out and
looking at what knowledge most people really find useful and valuable. But
we require ALL students to learn a very large body of information, with no
real justification. Many of you know that my original field was physics and
that I've worked in science education for decades. It's all supposed to be
needed to help people make their way in a technological world. It's not.
Who needs to know about the asexual reproduction of plants, the stages of
cellular meiosis, or even the theory of evolution? the kinetic molecular
theory of gases? the difference between ionic and covalent bonds? I imagine
there are a few things that are so basic that no matter what topic about
the natural world you were interested in, you'd find them helpful ... and
for those, there is no need to require them, just to make them available.

Similarly for most of language arts (i.e. canonical novels), social studies
(i.e. history), and mathematics (factored any polynomials lately?).

The whole idea of organizing learning over periods of years around a fixed
body of information is ridiculous. Who ever thought this was a good idea?
When was it ever compared systematically to alternative ways of organizing
education? (I have no trouble, of course, coming up with sociological
interpretations of the actual historical developments that led us to this
nonsense. None of them have anything to do with helping most citizens
become critical thinkers and set on the path to their own life goals.)

I do take the point that there is both an institutional and cultural
inertia to be dealt with. We have all these buildings, all these chairs and
desks, all these people who have spent years preparing to and practicing at
telling students about what some non-thinking people have decided they
ought to know. And we have generations of adults who have fondly idealized
memories of the few good teachers and learning moments in their school
lives. Those certainly exist. It's not, fortunately, possible to design an
educational system so bad that real learning and excitement about it NEVER
happens. Just one in which it doesn't happen most of the time, and in
which, even when it does, most of what is learned has merely cosmetic or
sentimental value. I recall that my mother, who recently passed away, was
always very proud of her A-plus in trigonometry. I don't recall that she
ever used, remembered, or even mentioned anything from the subject, other
than her achievement (and no doubt a significant one socially and
culturally for a young woman in the 1930s). Her real interests were in
psychology (clinical) and music (vocal), and she worked most of her life
making business and non-profit offices run effectively day to day by
thinking intelligently about things that are (and probably never will be)
in any school curriculum.

I did find very interesting Mark's report on the findings of his
dissertation, that out-of-school teacher-student relationships are forced
to re-invent themselves. Perhaps choices about the content of what is
learned are too.

If there are people who WANT to come and sit in a room and listen to me
comment on interesting texts, ask them critical questions and help them
think through answers, and organize some social activities that might help
them learn from one another, that's fine with me. But they should have a
lot of other choices of ways to learn, and things to learn. And the choices
should be theirs.


At 07:31 AM 3/4/2005, you wrote:
>I've been wanting to respond to this over the past 24 hours, but it's all
>too depressing! Although grounded in the US post-primary context, I have
>to say that second/third/etc language programs for adults in structured
>situations, with set text books and prescribed methods isn't far from what
>Jay is talking about. After listening to Tom Waites' "Bone Machine" album
>this afternoon, I think I'll just turn off the computer and read a comic book.
>But on a serious note, there are historically situated expectations of
>students to think about too, which very much constrain how far you can
>knock down the walls. Adult students' beliefs about what constitutes
>"good" teaching relate to their own experiences in school - there's a
>wealth of evidence there. I'm not sure if the comment: "There is no
>evidence, beyond the most basic elements of primary school curriculum,
>that any of what we spend hours and years teaching is actually of any use
>to most people" implies that we maintain what we are doing for primary
>kids, but if so, wouldn't that perpetuate the current crisis? I can't help
>but return to Basil Bernstein's theory of knowledge structures and now try
>to think about what Jay is saying vis-a-vis the dangers of not formally
>dealing with vertical knowledge structures (not putting words in anyones'
>mouths). Extremely important stuff that needs to be confronted.
>A poignant quote from Bernstein to end:
>Of fundamental significance, there is a new concept of knowledge and of
>its relations to those who create it and use it. This new concept is a
>truly secular concept. Knowledge should flow like money to wherever it can
>create advantage and profit. Indeed knowledge is divorced from persons,
>their commitments, their personal dedications. These become impediments,
>restrictions on the flow of knowledge, and introduce deformations in the
>working of the symbolic market. Moving knowledge about, or even creating
>it, should not be more difficult than moving and regulating money.
>Knowledge, after nearly a thousand years, is divorced from inwardness and
>literally dehumanized. Once knowledge is separated from inwardness, from
>commitments, from personal dedication, from the deep structure of the
>self, then people may be moved about, substituted for each other and
>excluded from the market"
>Dazed and confused,
>Postscript - it would be interesting to see some actual work done on
>chronotopes and formal/informal learning - I've thought a lot about how
>you might go about this, but ethical problems always seem to get in the
>way of things.
>On 03/03/2005, at 10:38 AM, Jay Lemke wrote:
>>Very interesting resource links posted recently about issues of designs
>>for learning environments.
>> I rather liked the basic ideas in the Duluth harborside plan, though
>> perhaps the homebase was short-changed a bit.
>> Let's consider starting from some radical re-engineering of how
>> learning is done, and I don't just mean kids in groups, which is great
>> for getting them to talk and have a little freedom of action on short
>> timescales, but still is mostly NOT a ZPD because of its homogeneity
>> with respect to competences relevant to learning goals (though valuable
>> insofar as other sorts of diversity leaven the groups).
>> Most basic is getting outside the walls of the school, not just of the
>> classroom. Then, giving students more control of the goals of their
>> learning, as well as the timing and means. Start by changing the power
>> relations. Imagine that it was a learning environment for high-status,
>> powerful adults, not for our last remaining legally disenfranchised
>> social caste (apart from gays in the US).
>> Look a bit at how citizens of this age group and generation CHOOSE to
>> learn when not in school. E.g. how they share tasks of learning to
>> become expert players of computer and video-games (and for other
>> activities within their own culture-realm, ignored by the curriculum and
>> most parents). By and large they do want to play together, which is not
>> seen as distinct from learning together. The learn/play distinction is
>> itself fundamentally dysfunctional, as we have known theoretically at
>> least since LSV and Dewey. While there are purely online collaborative
>> groups, there are also usually face to face ones. There is the same kind
>> of total integration of practice and learning that Lave describes for
>> traditional apprenticeships, and which makes sense in age-heterogeneous
>> (and competence-heterogeneous) communities -- but not in imitations of
>> these principles in age-homogeneous classrooms.
>> Several of the sources posted recently mention the need for a variety
>> of different kinds of learning environments, and likewise for different
>> kinds of learning/action/play groups: peer groups, peer and mentor,
>> competence-diverse, diverse in age and likelihood for forming social
>> bonds with similar vs different members, etc. Longterm groups, ad hoc
>> groups, across all timescales.
>> A lot less emphasis on adult planning and design and control. Less
>> adult pre-occupation with optimizing learning; let people figure out how
>> they learn well and support that, in its many forms. Good learning
>> arrangements emerge when people get together because they want to share
>> in learning/playing/doing. No one has to design it all for them, and
>> design really cannot effectively anticipate the variety of possible
>> solutions people will come to.
>> But all of this is predicated on something much more basic: motivation
>> to learn/play/do. Most of the problems with school-based and
>> curriculum-based education comes from the very simple fact that most
>> students do not want to learn what someone wants to teach them. And they
>> are right. There is no evidence, beyond the most basic elements of
>> primary school curriculum, that any of what we spend hours and years
>> teaching is actually of any use to most people. Most of it is simply
>> artificially over-valued cultural capital, not functional cultural
>> capital (or functional only because it is arbitrarily valued). The
>> fundamental problem with education today is not teaching methods,
>> resources, or learning environments. It is the CONTENT.
>> Still, it is more intellectually interesting to think about the role of
>> space and time, by which we usually really mean place and pace, as well
>> as movements and traversals, in learning, rather than about why schools
>> and their version of "education" are so dysfunctional. It is also less
>> depressing.
>> One could take, in a sense, two approaches to this. You could look at
>> the chronotopes (space-time-place-pace typical dynamic patterns) of
>> non-learning in failing institutions, to see how not to do it, and to
>> watch the counter-chronotopes of resistance, appropriation, etc. Or you
>> could look at the rarer examples of spontaneous learning/playing/doing
>> communities (some of which might even occur in schools) and see what
>> their chronotopic patterns are like, and how they come up against
>> obstacles and barriers, and which ones they find ways around and how.
>> Of course what I would LIKE to study would be such communities for
>> which the barriers are removed, so that one could see just how they
>> would evolve if our society were actually interested in having people
>> learn to think and learn how to succeed at what they want, which it
>> clearly, and for fairly obvious reasons, is not (or at least its most
>> powerful interests are not).
>> JAY.
>> Jay Lemke
>> Professor
>> University of Michigan
>> School of Education
>> 610 East University
>> Ann Arbor, MI 48109
>> Tel. 734-763-9276
>> Email.
>> Website.

Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276

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