Last Tuesday I walked into my Year 11 class in a rage. I was full of what my father once called ‘Steve’s white hot indignation’. I’d just read a number of comments on our class Ning that indicated that some of the boys were not taking the course (which I wrote about in ‘Searching for meaning in the English classroom’) as seriously as I thought it deserved.
So I let fly. I talked about rigour, discipline, responsibility, attention and standards. I said how unacceptable I found it that some interpreted openness as vagueness, flexibility as laxness, a relaxed classroom atmosphere as an excuse to goof off.
The boys sat silently during my rant.
That night when I logged onto our class Ning, I saw that a number of boys had written about our lesson. One boy (I’ll call him Leonardo) called his blog post ‘Play the game’. He wrote:
.. in Years 11 and 12, it’s barely even about the learning at all. … In most subjects, we learn how to pass the exams… how to structure an essay, how to deliver a speech the way they want it, etc. School is all about how you play the game these days. It’s all about doing what you can to get an A, regardless of what you’re learning. … And I guess it does teach you stuff about the real world. Teaches you to try to beat the system, that menial busywork sometimes is what you need to do to do well in life, and, most importantly, no matter how much you hate your job, the best revenge is success.
I don’t think this is what the people who planned this school system had in mind. I guess those guys at the Board of Studies think that the system as it stands is a genuine attempt to educate kids in the subjects they selected for us. Simply put, they’re wrong.
…The reason why we (I) am having trouble with this course at times is because I have been trained to think like that. I do what I can to do well in the HSC. And I think some others in the class (although they may not know it) think the same way. Blogs aren’t marked, so I don’t do them; projects require organised creativity as opposed to just knowing shit, and suddenly I’m confused; Dr. Shann asks for dedication to the course but he can’t put a date or a number on it, so we just don’t try, et cetera, et cetera.
Another student, Allen, wrote:
Leonardo’s blog ‘Play the Game’ pretty much sums up how I feel about the course. It’s school, I’m here to do my Higher School Certificate (HSC) and get ready for uni, and while all the other courses seem to concur with this, English Extension doesn’t and hasn’t. I think this is why I don’t blog regularly or in depth. It’s like Leonardo said, “It’s all about doing what you can to get an A…”, as long as it helps me to do well in the HSC, the rest doesn’t seem too important. The creativity and responsibility inherent in the course has tripped me up; I’m looking at how I get marks in assessment pieces, not looking for the ‘something else’ that’s expected.
As I read these blogs by Leonardo and Allen, I thought about the book I’m currently reading, Stanley Fish’s Is there a text in this class: the authority of interpretive communities? It’s an immensely stimulating read. In it, Fish argues that the way we make sense of the word (indeed what we actually see and experience in the world) is determined by the norms, values and expectations of the communities to which we belong.
the mental operations we can perform are limited by the institutions in which we are already embedded. These institutions precede us, and it is only by inhabiting them, or being inhabited by them, that we have access to the public and conventional senses they make. (pp331-332)
… if the self is conceived of not as an independent entity but as a social construct whose operations are delimited by the systems of intelligibility that inform it, then the meanings it confers on texts are not its own but have their source in the interpretive community (or communities) of which it is a function. (p335)
… all objects are made and not found, and … they are made by the interpretive strategies we set in motion. (p229)
What is the interpretive community which confers these meanings that so many students express, either eloquently as Leonardo and Allen have done in their blogs or in their actions as they focus on graded work and sidestep the deeper learning?
It is our society, no doubt, with its concerns about national testing and scores and cut-offs for university entrance. In the USA this has reached some lunatic proportions, as Alan Sitomer reports in the English Companion Ning in a post called Halt the Dip-Shittedness!! And while these societal trends and norms might be totally out of step with the needs of the 21st century, they are nevertheless firmly fixed in our practices, as Greg Thompson points out in ‘Is it the test, or is it?‘ :
It is far easier to teach a fractured curriculum because the result demanded is a standardized test that seeks the ability to see myopically, one subject at a time. … This fractured approach has long been the model for education. The assembly line reality of the industrial age required each worker to do one thing and to do it well. Employee A did not need to know what Employee B did to complete their task five feet further down the line. That worked. Today, standardized testing requires each student to know how to do each thing in exactly the same way in order to produce the same product. The world they live in however, requires them to see the integrated picture. The test does not fit with reality.
Leonardo and Allen are doing no more than seeing the world as their interpretive communities – the society and their school – dictate.
This is not how I see the world. My interpretive community sees schools as places of learning, where naive mental constructs of how the world works are challenged and matured. It sees classrooms as communities of inquiry, peopled by budding scholars, eager to learn more about what is true, good, beautiful and just.
So what happens when the norms of two interpretive communities clash? Which prevails? There is plenty of evidence that the world of learning is David to society’s Goliath.
But I’m encouraged, both by the outcome of the David and Goliath story, and by a couple of sentences which Leonardo tacked onto the end of his post:
English Extension and Studies of Religion are the only classes that allow us to be creative and have a relaxed teaching style that is more about us becoming educated, reflective, well-rounded individuals (if you’ve seen ‘The History Boys’, that is exactly what I’m talking about).
So what I’m saying is, give us a prod every now and then like you did today, because we are trying to untrain ourselves from what we know, or at least I am.