Rationality in education:

From a canon-based model toward a process-based model

A reply to Prof. Kerry Kennedy's seminar

by

Ania Lian

(copyright: Lectures in critical pedagogy. University of Canberra) 

Background

The discussion which unfolds below has been prompted by the question of values in 'civic education'. The arguments on which this paper builds are not new to the field of education. The general concerns of this paper revolve around the goal of making education and academic disciplines respond to the need for their democratisation and critical reviewing. These issues have also been the focus of a document written by Prof. Theodore Panitz: 'Will you still be teaching in the twenty first century? The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates, A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities'. The general points which the Boyer Commission makes are as follows:

The structure of this paper follows closely the concerns outlined in the Boyer document. The discussion begins with a reflection on the concept of values in education and offers a common platform for thinking about values and knowledge in the context of teaching and learning. In the model that it proposes for thinking about values, knowledge and teaching, the paper explores the pedagogic and policy aspects of educational institutions in terms that would illustrate the kinds of challenges to which attempts to democratise education will have to respond.

Introduction

The central focus in education is the concern with enabling students to "take action". It seems that to "take action" is to consider the conditions which would enable people (and students) to be engaged in the life of their communities in a way which is based on understanding rather than on prejudice. The question that this discussion raises is: "How can educational environments/institutions help their students to understand and, in this sense, to be (become?) active members of their communities?".

The concern with the "increasingly fragmenting world" brings out some questions that may help to throw light on the task which education defined above. It seems that people have always been different and what we do notice is not necessarily them becoming different now but a series of forces whose interplay leads to change:

  1. in the social structures and hence the opportunities for communities at the global level;
  2. in individuals' perceptions of themselves in relation to the shifts in those global structures and hence to a change in the opportunities that individuals can explore;
  3. in the values which both generate and are generated by the respective shifts.

The questions that may trouble educators are:

  1. What are these changing forces?
  2. Can individuals and groups exert greater control over the direction that these forces take?
  3. Are these forces accidental or can individuals and groups themselves manipulate the generation of these forces toward positive ends?
  4. How can we ensure that these ends will be truly positive?
  5. If interference with these forces were to be considered undesired, should we accept that these forces of change are natural? Or are they, in fact, always a product of interference whose reasons and ends, when unexplored critically, give rise to socially unacceptable conditions both at the global level and the individual level?
  6. If we can think of some shifts as undesirable or socially unacceptable, then we must agree that we do so because we believe some other forms of human condition are more desirable or more acceptable than others.
  7. If we accept point (f), then we have to accept that we all have a picture as to what is right and what is wrong. The question now is: How can we help in such a way that our communities do more things that are right than thing that are wrong? And more precisely, what role should education play in this process?

It seems evident that being informed seems to offer individuals a greater chance to control their individual and group destinies. If to take control means to understand the forces that shape us and which we in turn help to shape, then it seems that the task of education is not to instill in people some abstract set of values which would function as a checklist. Such an assumption would deny the historical basis of the process of meaning-formation and hence would assert semiotic transparency of the categories agreed upon. This is exactly why a search for a checklist cannot the objective and did not seem to the solution proposed in the seminar. Rather, the objective which emerged was to raise the problem of engagement in the broader context of the need for education to reflect upon its role in the world of today.

The issue of engagement appears to be closely linked to such a question. Specifically, educational institutions may need to examine their organisational structures in terms of their potential to offer learners a basis for informed action. The attention to the structure of educational institutions in general shifts the concern of education away from the checklist of values, and as such, from the task of identifying the meaning of the educational goals toward the question of the process by which education is to function. Thus, the concern with values is transformed into a concern with the process by which individuals are being enabled to approach critically their own contexts of action as individuals and as members of larger communities.

The notion of values, locked in a set of static and predetermined categories which function more as principles for indoctrination rather than a product of thoughtful engagement, is no longer the issue. Instead a different question emerges i.e. that of the process by which learning is to take place. The challenge which educational institutions will therefore face is to assess critically the legitimising forces behind their teaching and research practices. Central to this task will be to ensure that the conditions (or structures) put in place do not separate learners from their social context but, rather, enable them to understand and affect that context on a critically informed basis.

Defined as such, the goal of assisting learners in the process of understanding the contexts of actions is itself a value. At the heart of it is the concern with human dignity which is lost when people are deprived from the opportunity to be engaged in the lives of their communities. The problems of participation and inclusion are relevant in all social settings including that of educational institutions. This is so because no field of social engagement functions independently from others. Thus if civic education seeks ways to increase the civic participation of groups and individuals, it cannot do so without examining the processes by which this participation is encouraged or discouraged in educational settings.

 

Toward the goal of engagement: a few considerations

Before we embark on the task of creating "engaged people", we may want to first reflect on the shape of this goal. Education seems to have always adopted a discourse which is like that relating to factories or machines. These begin with relatively raw material and, at the end of the process, deliver the expected goods which, in their form, resemble one another. If we look at our current education system, we would notice that central to it are assumptions that:

  1. knowledge exists in a form that is independent of its producers
  2. the task of education is to transfer that knowledge
  3. standardisation of education is to be achieved in terms of the prespecified constituents of knowledge.

Thus a parallel relationship emerges between the ways in which we look at values and the ways in which we look at knowledge. If our goal is to escape attempts which reduce the concept of value to a set of abstract categories, it is necessary to subject to a genuinely critical examination the processes by which our teaching methods make understanding of values possible. By the same token, we may conclude that the methods that we apply to establish what constitutes knowledge require the same process of scrutiny as the methods that we apply in order to define and enforce values. If we agree that to understand anything, it is to understand it in may ways (Minsky, 1981; cf. Derrida, 1979), it would follow that the focus of education should turn precisely on the process by which the reference contexts of that understanding process, and the logic which binds them, are established:

"So something has a "meaning" only when it has a few; if we understood something just one way, we would not understand it at all." (Minsky, 1981)

I would therefore suggest that the problem of "What to teach?" and "Toward what ends?" can be resolved if education, as a field, turned away from the (factory-like) discourse aiming at production and reproduction, and adopted a discourse which reflected its concern with dignity and hence with methods which do not disempower individuals. However, education can do so only if it refrains from attempts to impose on individuals the meaning of the goal which it hopes to pursue. In other words, it can do so only when such notions like empowerment, or engagement will not be seen as a goal which is to be met one day. Rather, empowerment, or engagement must be present in the methodology by which education is to proceed.

Thus the goal of education is not to teach what engagement is. It would seem that, in the first instance, the way to follow would be for education not to remove from learners the opportunity to be engaged. Educational institutions therefore should not embark on the ambitious task of giving students their future identity which would correlate with the goals of the degrees that students undertake. In this sense, education may be least about creating "mathematicians", "historians", "language pedagogues" etc. Students, when entering educational institutions, are already part of complex social networks which create their identities in more than one way. To reduce these identities to that of a "mathematician", "historian", or "language pedagogue" etc. is to remove learners from the complex network of forces which form them and to replace these with an identity whose form, significance and relationship to other forms is defined solely by the discourse of education.

To avoid such downfalls and to enable informed and critical engagement, education must adopt approaches which recognise the larger context in the process of learners' formation. The task of education therefore is to serve learners rather than to turn them into an object of teaching (and study). To do so, education must abandon the dichotomy between the present and the past. This dichotomy implies some form of disjunction between that which students are today and that which they should be tomorrow. If the goal is to create engaged and critical learners, then the basis for such critiquing should not be reduced to a single discourse imposed by education.

With the above in mind, it would seem more honest, and hence appropriate, for education to recognise the sociohistorical basis of all knowledge and therefore to rethink the conditions which invite exploration of the relationship between knowledge (values) and history. This more contextual approach to learning offers a greater integration between the varied disciplines and a greater chance of exploration of the epistemological models on which varied models of reality within these disciplines build. A greater integration also means learning of a more informed kind. However, to enable such learning conditions would require closer examination of the pedagogy and the infrastructure which is to support it.

 

Pedagogy and its infrastructure in a more integrated learning environment

  1. Complexification of the learning spaces.

Classrooms should no longer be seen as the places where learning happens. Rather, classrooms need to be seen as one of many learning, or meeting, points whose function is to assist learners in the task of exploration of the challenges that they encounter. Innovative thinking is required regarding the diversity of the meeting places and the functions that will be attributed to them. For example, classroom meetings may be seen more as an opportunity for learners to confront their views against those of their peers (and teachers) rather than as places for the transfer of knowledge and values.

(b) Complexification of the learning process.

Teaching should no longer be directed at "conveying" or "transferring" the subject content of the course. If the goal is to learn through critical engagement, in conflict with such a goal are strategies which aim to reduce learners' reference contexts to those dictated by the subject content. In order to make learning meaningful and hence informed by individuals' own rich experiences, both the learning tasks and their objectives must make room for that experience and its critical exploration. This concern gives strong preference to open tasks whose management and outcomes must be approached critically by both parties: the students and the teachers. In such an approach, neither side holds the monopoly on how things are or should be. The role of both students and teachers therefore is not to "guide" the management of those tasks but to build strong cases which would function as stimulating challenges for further reflection on both sides. If there ever was a wish to create a learning environment in which both parties learn from one another, it seems that this form of learning can be genuine only if both parties refuse the monopoly on knowledge and truth production. In other words, both parties need to be given the right to participate genuinely in the process of knowledge production and reproduction.

(c) Complexification of the infrastructure.

If the task of knowledge production and reproduction is defined as a process which invites a genuine challenge, such a process demands conditions which would make it possible to engage in a process of continuous confrontation of one's own beliefs. While appropriate and innovative pedagogy is one aspect of such an environment, another aspect is the possibility of facilitating conditions capable of assisting learners in evaluating the power and the sources of their beliefs. While classroom meetings and libraries form one kind of such resources, the complexity of the task of confronting challenges on a maximally informed basis calls for a matching infrastructure. Technology emerges here as one of the more obvious answers. It may offer the following facilities:

 

Innovation and engagement: a few recommendations and concerns

If the goal of critical engagement is to be approached genuinely, rather than be used as an umbrella discourse for the things which it is not, the issue of honesty in education requires closer attention. If the notion of knowledge production is to be positioned within the sociohistorical contexts which shape it, how can it be ensured that education environments do not subject learners to the monopoly of a single vision? How can it be ensured that our courses teach what we actually promise?

  1. re: Teaching

Universities should ensure pedagogic coherence in all their courses. Thus the ways in which learners are expected to learn will not be subject to the individual point of view of each and every teacher. If universities (schools) are to take an honest approach to the goals that they set out for themselves, closer scrutiny of the teaching method applied is required. One way to do so is to require from all teachers to demonstrate how their teaching matches the requirement for a pedagogy based on critical engagement. Only when such precautions are met, can it be ensured that our degrees facilitate a critical understanding of issues involved rather than an uncritical reproduction of the strategies directed at monopolising the discourse of the disciplines:

"The goal of making baccalaureate students participants in the research process requires faculties to reexamine their methods of delivering education, to ask how, in every course, students can become active rather than passive learners. That task, undertaken seriously, will produce many innovations suited to different disciplinary circumstances; the changes need to include greater expectations of writing and speaking, more active problem-solving, and more collaboration among baccalaureate students, graduate students, and faculty."

(Panitz, http://notes.cc.sunysb.edu/Pres/boyer.nsf/webform/III)

"The university's essential and irreplaceable function has always been the exploration of knowledge. This report insists that the exploration must go on through what has been considered the "teaching" function as well as the traditional "research" function. The reward structures in the modern research university need to reflect the synergy of teaching and research--and the essential reality of university life: that baccalaureate students are the university's economic life blood and are increasingly self-aware."

(Panitz, http://notes.cc.sunysb.edu/Pres/boyer.nsf/webform/IX)

  1. re: Infrastructure and management

No exploration-based learning is possible without conditions which enhance rather than obscure learning. Universities must rethink the nature of the learning process, the learning resources, structures and their management.

The goal to diversify the reference contexts on which individuals (or groups) are to base their actions necessitates a reflection upon the ways in which this process could be enhanced. One such way is to abandon discipline-based divisions in both teaching and funding.

For example, rather than focusing on projects which are discipline-based, investment may need to be made into a network of resources which can be of use across many disciplines in unpredicted and unpredictable ways. Furthermore, structures should be created (e.g. 'An Institute of Creative Learning') which would enable students to explore the bases of their knowledge in a broader context.

Such structures should prove very interesting to both local and international students due to their emphasis on innovative thinking, broader than usual educational basis, high degree of scholarship ensured by close interdisciplinary teaching structures, state-of-the-art teaching methodology and infrastructure, a necessary close collaboration with national and international teaching and other institutions etc. Institutes (or structures) of this kind should also play a leading role in stimulating innovative research initiatives. Within their structures, learning will truly be done by doing research as urged for in 'The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates' report :

"It is incumbent upon the faculties of research universities to think carefully and systematically not only about how to make the most effective use of existing technologies but also how to create new ones that will enhance their own teaching and that of their colleagues. The best teachers and researchers should be thinking about how to design courses in which technology enriches teaching rather than substitutes for it. And equally important, faculties need to concern themselves with the need to give their students the tools with which they can explore deeply as well as widely, with which they can discriminate, analyze, and create rather than simply accumulate.

If anything is evident, it is that the more information a person can obtain, the greater the need for judgment about how to use it. Obtaining information from the Internet is easy; children in elementary school can do it. But who teaches students how to take advantage of this mass of information? Who teaches them how to tell the difference between valuable information and clutter? How, in short, does a student become a more intelligent consumer in this supermarket of information? The answer, we believe, is by exposure to scholars--experienced, focused guides who have spent their lives gathering and sorting information to advance knowledge."

(Panitz, http://notes.cc.sunysb.edu/Pres/boyer.nsf/webform/VI)

"As research is increasingly interdisciplinary, undergraduate education should also be cast in interdisciplinary formats. Departmental confines and reward structures have discouraged young faculty interested in interdisciplinary teaching from engaging in it. But because all work will require mental flexibility, students need to view their studies through many lenses. Many students come to the university with some introduction to interdisciplinary learning from high school and from use of computers. Once in college, they should find it possible to create individual majors or minors without undue difficulty. Understanding the close relationship between research and classroom learning, universities must seriously focus on ways to create interdisciplinarity in undergraduate learning."

(Panitz, http://notes.cc.sunysb.edu/Pres/boyer.nsf/webform/IV)

"The inquiry-based learning urged in this report requires a profound change in the way undergraduate teaching is structured. The traditional lecturing and note taking, certified by periodic examinations, was created for a time when books were scarce and costly; lecturing to large audiences of students was an efficient means of creating several compendia of learning where only one existed before. The delivery system persisted into the present largely because it was familiar, easy, and required no imagination. But education by inquiry demands collaborative effort; traditional lecturing should not be the dominant mode of instruction in a research university.

The experience of most undergraduates at most research universities is that of receiving what is served out to them. In one course after another they listen, transcribe, absorb, and repeat, essentially as undergraduates have done for centuries. The ideal embodied in this report would turn the prevailing undergraduate culture of receivers into a culture of inquirers, a culture in which faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates share an adventure of discovery."

(Panitz, http://notes.cc.sunysb.edu/Pres/boyer.nsf/webform/images/$File/boyer.txt)

 

  1. re: Research

If education is to support a truly innovative form of learning, universities must ensure that innovative research proposals and publications are not subsumed by the dominating discourses of the disciplines. Research committees and publishing journals etc. should actively seek out and support projects which provide powerful methods but which, in their epistemological assumptions, differ from those of the mainstream (dominating) discourses. Otherwise a perception is created that there is only one way to define the discipline, its problems and the ways to go about solving them.

This concern should be given proper attention in spite of the attempts to reduce the significance of alternative discourses. Research committees, publishing journals etc. should avoid a situation where most funds and space are allocated on the basis of perceived (rather than true) power of the discourse. An example of such domination is a currently adopted view that gene-research holds the promise to human species. While gene research may be of value, it is plausible to imagine that there may also be other keys to human health. It seems that to find such keys, we need to search wide and far:

"In the earlier decades of the century, research was characteristically confined within traditional boundaries of disciplines that had themselves been defined only a few generations earlier. The anthropologist and the historian rarely ventured into each other's realms; nor did the chemist and the physicist. But in the years since World War II the continuing appearance of new departments and new programs that merge fields has proven repeatedly the permeability of the lines between disciplines. Individual researchers find that pushing the limits of their field takes them into new territories and that the work they are doing may have much more in common with that of colleagues across the campus than with members of their own departments.

The principal barrier to interdisciplinary research and study has been the pattern of university organization that creates vested interests in traditionally defined departments. Administratively, all educational activity needs to "belong" somewhere in order to be accounted for and supported; that which has no home cannot exist. Courses must be offered under some kind of sponsorship; students are asked to place themselves in one discipline or another. The limitations on this kind of structure are recognized in every university by defining new departments, approving new programs, and creating new centers in which to house courses, often experimental, that do not fit into the disciplines. But those centers repeatedly must call on the departments to teach the courses, knowing that the departments may balk at doing so since the interdisciplinary programs deplete staffing for their own departmental courses. Students who find that existing majors do not suit their interests often encounter discouraging barriers; advisors will likely first try to fit those interests into one of the existing patterns."

(Panitz, http://notes.cc.sunysb.edu/Pres/boyer.nsf/webform/IV)

 

  1. re: Public relationships

Universities must take the task of informing the public about their innovative initiatives and achievements seriously. Internet-based media may be one way to explore, and so other media (e.g. TV, radio, newspapers). The situation needs to be avoided where that public opinion is formed on the basis of a single discourse made appear to be the "party-line". Universities should take on the role of making possible access to these various discourses:

"The failure of research universities seems most serious in conferring degrees upon inarticulate students. Every university graduate should understand that no idea is fully formed until it can be communicated, and that the organization required for writing and speaking is part of the thought process that enables one to understand material fully. Dissemination of results is an essential and integral part of the research process, which means that training in research cannot be considered complete without training in effective communication. Skills of analysis, clear explanation of complicated materials, brevity, and lucidity should be the hallmarks of communication in every course."

(Panitz, http://notes.cc.sunysb.edu/Pres/boyer.nsf/webform/V)

"Diversities of many kinds characterize research universities, which must balance the needs of residential students and commuters, recent high school graduates and returning professionals, native-born and international students. There is more of everything--more students, more professors, more courses, more books in the library, more computers, more laboratories, more student activities. Clearly the complexity of these intellectual cities can give students the opportunity to create their own customized communities within, but that complexity can also be baffling and overwhelming to students, making them feel lonely, remote, and too anxious for optimal learning. A sense of community is an essential element in providing students a strong undergraduate education in a research university."

(Panitz, http://notes.cc.sunysb.edu/Pres/boyer.nsf/webform/X)

 

  1. re: Intellectual property

While universities encourage business initiatives, they do little in protecting the intellectual property of its employers. Questions of ownership require a closer inspection.

 

Conclusion

The paper above emerged from the concerns raised regarding the kinds of values that education should focus upon. The discussion was embedded in an understanding that individuals need an informed basis to participate critically in the process of determining their social trajectories as individuals and as members sof various communities. The question which this paper attempted to answer focused on the concept of values and the process of their identification and inculcation through educational practices. The general direction which the paper has adopted has led toward a case for educational models based less in the discourse of canons and therefore less in teaching practices which make their goal to "civilise" learners in terms of the canon. Rather, an educational model was proposed where abstract goals locked in the categories of abstract canons give way to pedagogic strategies which favour a reflective approach to learning. In such an approach, the emphasis is more on the conditions which education makes possible for learners to facilitate such a learning and less on the actual values which education is to enforce.

In the model proposed, the commonly accepted dichotomy between the goal of teaching and the teaching method merge in a general objective to make learning both meaningful and informed. In other words, a relationship of interdependence is asserted between the goal of teaching and the teaching method. If to be informed means to be critical, then, it follows, that education is less about imposing the meaning of its objectives and more about facilitating the process by virtue of which critical learning will not be reduced to a single source of reference.

This close relationship between the goal of teaching and the teaching method has also prompted the paper to call attention to the accountability measures which universities should adopt in order to ensure that critical learning in fact takes place. These have been discussed in terms which range from pedagogic to policy concerns. Overall it has been suggested that if universities are to facilitate innovative, exploratory, meaningful and informed learning, part of this task would be to rethink strategies which would make such learning possible.

 

References:

Derrida, J. (1979). Grammatology

Minsky, M. (1981)."Music, Mind, and Meaning". Computer Music Journal. Fall. Vol. 5. Number 3. www.media.mit.edu/people/minsky

Panitz, T. (1998). Will you still be teaching in the twenty first century? The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates, A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities.

http://notes.cc.sunysb.edu/Pres/boyer.nsf/webform/tenways