Verboden!: Autonomy and Critical Thinking in Education

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone

“Another Brick in the Wall – Part 2,” Pink Floyd (Roger Waters)

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.

“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Audre Lorde

During my 18 years as a public high school English teacher, I taught as an outsider—but for many of those years, I found solace in a colleague, Ed Welchel, who taught history.

Among students, parents, faculty, and administration, Ed and I were considered good, even very good teachers, but we also were viewed with skepticism, particularly the farther up the authority chain you went (parents and administrators, especially).

The high school where we taught, although a rural public school, felt in many ways like a strict private school—very harsh discipline and dress codes, palpable conservative values.

Ed and I were as unlike that environment as two people could be.

After a particularly brutal faculty meeting that stressed the need to control our students, Ed and I began a chant we would share quietly as we passed in the hall: “Beat ’em down, beat ’em down.”

After I completed my doctorate in 1998, Ed soon finished the same program, and then left for another high school before moving on to higher education before I did.

That was fifteen-plus years ago, but it stands as relevant today since many are beginning to fret in earnest about why so many K-12 teachers leave the field.

It’s pretty damn obvious, I hate to say, but many teachers leave the profession because formal schooling is incredibly dehumanizing for students and teachers; in short, in schools, autonomy and critical thinking are verboden.

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Dark Sarcasms in the Classroom

Former career music educator and blogger at Education Week/Teacher, Nancy Flanagan asks: “Who is truly afraid of genuine leadership emerging from practitioners?”

Flanagan also confronts a key distinction about what “leadership” means by examining if teacher leaders are, as Audre Lourde would say, using the Master’s tools (implementing policy as required by administration as agents of accountability mandates) or being autonomous professionals.

More optimistically than I would conclude, Flanagan suggests, “Teachers may have lost a vision of reform led by authentic, unvarnished teacher thinking, instead of teacher compliance–but we haven’t relinquished the ideas of autonomy, mastery and self-determined purpose yet.

Educator and activist, Andre Perry turns a similar focus on how school climate impacts students, particularly marginalized populations of students. Perry stresses:

As researchers on positive school climate note, the “personality” of a school is an expression of how teachers, students, family members and community perceive the milieu.

In other words, a school doesn’t have to be mean to be good. Treating students with care and respect increases academic performance among students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, higher than if a school placed a singular single focus on academics.

This rejects, for example, the racist undertones driving the popularity of “no excuses” ideology, notably among charter schools serving poor, black, and brown students. But Perry also speaks to the wider norm of formal schooling.

Historically and especially over the past thirty years of high-stakes accountability, formal education is an Orwellian institution in which “critical thinking” is about completing a worksheet so you can score well on multiple-choice questions assessing critical thinking.

But don’t actually think or act critically if you are a student or a teacher.

Teacher Education and All that Is Wrong

Ed and I left K-12 education because of the harsh environment in schools toward students and because K-12 schools are no places for autonomous professionals.

I literally left after being docked pay for presenting at a professional conference.

However, much to our chagrin, teacher education in higher education is not oasis of professional autonomy, but the most embarrassing desert in higher education.

While colleagues in English often handed out 1-2 page syllabi, mine were 15-20 pages of standards, correlating assignments to those standards, and rubrics—despite my own published stance rejecting rubrics.

The professional life of a teacher educator is mostly about complying with accreditation and certification mandates in order to make sure teacher candidates comply with accreditation and certification mandates.

Again, autonomy and critical thinking are verboden!

For example, in the same foundations course I teach where we confront slut shaming and the inherent sexism of dress codes, within one week of my students being placed in a nearby elementary school to tutor, the principal asked me to remind the female students to dress appropriately.

As well, I always begin that course, and come back to this in most of my classes, with Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven”—highlighting the dehumanizing norm of schooling that the story captures in the eleven-year-old Rachel’s lament: “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.”

But my foundations students are left with observing that reality in their field placements while also being denied the autonomy to do anything to change it.

And while I will not bore you with more examples, the situation above is no outlier; that is what teacher education is—a perpetual state of compliance to bureaucracy that is devoid of opportunities for professional autonomy and critical thinking.

When our candidates do reach the field, they invariably come to use with these observations:

  • “I can’t do anything you taught us in methods.”
  • “This is why people leave the field.”
  • “The administration treats teachers like students.”

All aspects of the field of education, then, are about compliance to the “bureaucratizing of the mind” about which Paulo Freire warned.

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Formal education remains a desert, and we—teachers and students—wander dutifully forward, toward the wavering mirage that somehow teaching and learning are powerful instruments for change.

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Education as change remains just that, however—a mirage.

In the halls of schools at every level, student and teacher autonomy and critical thinking are verboden.

 

4 comments

  1. Jill

    So what do I do? I want to teach practical skills and meaningful texts. I am instead faced with 50 year old texts in the book room, a list of goals and targets (fewer than 10% failures, increased graduation rates by more than 10%, 40 standards with subets) and the fear of retribution and firing if I stray too far from the mandated curriculum. I just want to teach students to trust the power of their voices when my own voice is silenced by bureaucracy and mandates, meetings and condescending professional development that adds another target (5 phone calls home per week). I read and believe your words, but what do I do? How do I change the world? One student at a time? Another 12 hour day?

  2. Claire Walter

    This is exactly what I needed to hear. I had another inservice day of the same skill-and-drill “get them ready for the test” message. But this post gives me so lice that it’s not just me. Thank you,,

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