Students Must See Themselves as Active Participants in Social Change and Designers of Social Futures

Before I tell you where that quote came from and what the connection is to the Gordon Commission, I want to go back in time first. I did what I frequently do when presented with troubling declarations of plans that I know will come to a poor end. I went back to someone who dealt with comparable aspirations and ideologies for insights into what is really going on and how this might end. History is much more reliable than a crystal ball. And, unlike the Marxist historians active in Europe before World War I and the 1920s, I do not use historical research as a “means of political agitation.” I will confess though it can be more useful than espresso as a jolting wakeup call.

No, I am not that ancient except to my kids but I did go back to someone who lived through what happened in Europe in the early 20th century and presciently recognized the gravity of what he was looking at. Economist Ludwig Von Mises saw that history and political theories were being used all around him “to provide weapons against the hated bourgeois order of society.” Remember that quote when we get to the end of this post. Von Mises was infatuated with socialism when he was younger, like most German and Austrian intellectuals of that time. But he wrote the book Socialism to explain why he believed it would not work. Long before Communism had crashed and burned in the USSR or the Germans tried out a more Corporatist and Nationalist version of socialism that launched 2 world wars. I wanted his insights into why planning societies does not work from what he saw in real time. The book was originally published in German in 1932 so Von Mises is speaking from quite a unique vantage point.

What I hit upon instead was so on point with using education to shut down the abstract mind and push action instead. Plus the desire we keep encountering to supply the interpretive concepts and metaphors, instead of accurate facts, to filter student’s daily reality. I decided we could use Von Mises’s observations from so long ago.

“Abstract thought is independent of the wishes which move the thinker and of the aims for which he strives. Only this independence qualifies it as thought. Wishes and purposes regulate action (his italics).”

Von Mises goes on in a footnote to clarify that “the wish is the father of faith.”  Faith is thus what all these education reforms are really trying to create. Do you remember this post  where influential Harvard psychology prof Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi  laid out his vision of the Flow experience? As Von Mises ably observed in dealing with earlier “Let’s Remake the World Schemers,” there is no abstract thought when wish for and feeling are joined to thought. It is the sort of cultivated personality ready to attend and celebrate at rallies without a second thought. Csik’s Flow and the idea of physical activity in a digital environment instead of mental is mentioned throughout this new view of curriculum and assessment we started to look at in the last post. A primary solution for engaging students at school and keeping them in school is Gaming. As in video games.

That really caught my interest for several reasons. I know the Gates Foundation has been funding it for the Common Core implementation. I know that Professor James Paul Gee, who we discovered in this post does not believe in the concept of discrete individuals, has pivoted in the last 10 years in his education research to focusing on gaming. And I know that Amplify has been hyping Zombie-Based Apocalypse simulations as learning on its website. To get to what Joel Klein has called “new kinds of minds” I suppose.

So Pearson and the Gordon Commission and everyone else is pushing Gaming. And Gee who wants education to help create people to be “better modules in a distributed non-authoritarian system” is both a member of the Commission and pushing Gaming instead of linguistic mischief making. His previous research mission. Although if you look up his report “Good Video Games and Good Learning” you will see he is quite excited that Gaming helps move education beyond its fetish with print and words. Important to the schemers as we now know.

What do they mean by Gaming? As we saw with the Zombie Apocalypse simulation story that cited sources acknowledging that this type of digital learning is known to weaken the mind , the point of the simulations described is to practice planning and redesigning societies. You can see why I went back to Von Mises. So the same report that starts off maligning knowledge of facts as “banking education” wants students to practice reimagining other ways for societies to exist and to come to believe that societies can be planned. And the games cited are multi-user to get both social interaction and collaboration practice. Cited are the game River City where the students learn to solve a simulated 19th century city’s problems. At least in the virtual world with the provided, controlled variables. A difference from the real world that is not likely to be pointed out to the students or the teachers.

Then there is the “epistemic game called Urban Science that mimics the professional practicum experiences of urban planners.” Yes, because they are noted for doing a bang-up job with planning in the real world. Let’s ignore that and go with Professor Don Schon’s aspirations for cities and people to be systems that can be treated as problems to be solved. The virtual world awaits and the students immersed in such Gaming are likely to soon accept social and economic planning and fiats as a norm.

Perhaps the most graphic example of where all this is going in the Pearson/ Gordon Commission report is the game Quest Atlantis. There the aim is explicitly described like this:

“the focus of critical design work is to develop sociotechnical structures that facilitate individuals in critiquing and improving themselves and the societies in which they function.”

In fact the creators of the game noted that:

“although they could have focused the Quest Atlantis virtual environment solely on particular science standards about erosion, they became concerned with highlighting attitudes toward environmental awareness and social responsibility.”

And just in case you are wondering where are values, feelings, and beliefs that usually go along with these outcome-based maneuvers to change future behavior, the authors did not forget. They go on to describe how they:

“decided to make a structure connected to social commitments, creating a story [because all political schemers seem to know children learn better with a narrative!] about collecting pieces of crystal, with each representing a social commitment the designers wanted to enforce, like political awareness. They instilled in the community around the game a value of these commitments through the design of the ecosystem.”

The title of this post is quoted from the Introduction to Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures and it was too consistent with the aspirations of the Gaming emphasis not to use. Plus Gee and Courtney Cazden of the Discourse Classroom that we met in the Community of Learners post were both contributors. In fact Gee acknowledged that all these education reforms are to “change the game, that is, to change our society” to what he called a distributed economic system.

You may have noticed all the focus on cities and urban education above and in Edmund Gordon’s mission as a professor. Likewise there are increasingly stories about students being told to learn about White Privilege or their “economic class.” This week’s version involved Americorps workers in Wisconsin but the reports are increasing around the US. So I want to close this post and set up the next one with another quote from Gee’s “New People in New Worlds” essay from the book.

“We, then, really have two school problems. [to get to the sought new economic order]. The first concerns how to ensure that poor and minority children, really for the first time, get well educated enough to participate in building and transforming our societies. The second concerns how to ensure that advantaged children can get out of school able to think ‘critiquely’ about issues of power and social justice in the new global capitalist order.”

How succinct was that admission of the essence of what we are dealing with?

Does Community of Learners Sound Warm, Fuzzy and Harmless? It’s Not

Community of Learners (CoL) is a phrase that first came on my radar when a new high school principal who prided himself on being a Change Agent kept mentioning it. Sandwiched in between troubling references to the teachers “may no longer teach or lecture” and “students should construct their own learning.” So the term was on my radar screen as probable trouble in a way that most parents or community leaders or politicians are unlikely to pick up on. My guess is the first time any of you or the political decision makers hear of  a CoL or its earlier name, Collaborative Classroom, will be something along the lines of the way Lee S Shulman, the President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and another Stanford prof, described it. He called it a “pedagogic reform”–“Fostering a Community of Learners.” My comments are in brackets.

“The essence of FCL is the creation of learning experiences in which students who are working on big ideas [now frequently called essential questions as in McTighe/Wiggins Understanding by Design] become interdependent in their investigations and their collaborations around new tasks. [remember CCSSI is student-centered and all the mentions are to activities, tasks, and projects. Virtually all group]… FCL rests heavily on the deep understanding [emotional; affective; grounded in feelings and beliefs based on experiences]. [FCL] is primarily concerned with achieving changes in the social relations among students [paging John Dewey to the 21st Century classroom!!]. Moreover, we argue that this form of task division and distribution is not merely a pedagogical tactic; it mirrors the ways in which complex problems are addressed in both academic and entrepreneurial contexts in the modern world.”

Now, minus my snarkiness or inserted explanations prompting a recall of earlier points in previous posts, this explanation of a reform might sound pretty convincing. Especially if sold as a means to decrease the drop-out rate by increasing student engagement. You can bet this would come with all the university presidents and business people who think it is a wonderful idea. Left out of course would be the fact that the higher ed accreditation agencies required the change in the classroom and probably pushed the “independent” endorsement of FCL to boot. Or that virtually all the businesses being cited for support have some undisclosed conflict or are looking forward to being a designated vendor of a NEED in a hoped-for new kind of Capitalism as we have talked about.

So I see things differently because I understand more pertinent facts than what is typically supplied by the sales campaign for these education or economic reforms. And those of you who are hearing horror stories (finally!!) about the new Common Core Science Standards and its emphasis on consensus science, remember Carnegie financed those standards. So the real point of FCL is pertinent to the real point of those Science Standards. Which is to replace objective, experimental Science as a body of disprovable  knowledge. Instead we are to get experience knowledge grounded in personal perspectives. As you can appreciate Experience Science is much more susceptible to influence from political power. Very convenient in a hoped for government-led economy of the future.

Now what Shulman and others advocating CoLs as a key component now of Effective Teaching and Classrooms and Positive School Climates and Cultures are likely to leave out is that this is yet another export from the Soviet Union from the time of the Cold War. Professor Bronfenbrenner was not the only American prof dropping in on Soviet psychologist Leon’tiev for some advice on how to teach American students in the future. Then Harvard Ed Prof Courtney Cazden just happens to mention in her book Classroom Discourse: The Language of Art and Teaching that FCL came from observations of a mid-70s trip to the USSR she and Professor Ann Brown and Professor Michael Cole took.

The late Ann Brown is considered to be the creator of the US version of FCL along with her husband Joe Campione. She grounded it explicitly in the theories of Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky who we have talked about before. He was trying to come up with a way to create the perfect Soviet personality for the future. The FCL Project is described as a “system of interactive activities designed to create a self-consciously active and reflective learning environment.”  Which sounds ever so much like the actual intentions for the Common Core classroom all over the globe now when you read the documents the insiders send to each other on what they wish to achieve.

If you are wondering why now after the USSR went poof, let’s remember all the cited political theorists and business professors and systems thinkers I have described as seeking economic democracy globally in the 21st century. Scharmer, Zuboff, Harry Boyte, Benjamin Barber, and John Dewey himself. Cazden herself said that these types of social interactions in the classroom are “essential for students’ development toward active citizenship in a pluralistic democratic society.”  Professor Michael Cole cited John Dewey for this reason:

“the social environment … is truly educative in the degree to which an individual shares or participates in some conjoint activity. [a nerdy way to say group learning]. By doing his share in the associated activity, the individual appropriates the purpose that actuates it [don’t be surprised if it’s about global warming or overpopulation], becomes familiar with its methods and subject matters, acquires needed skill, and is saturated with emotional spirit.”

That last part really got my attention as another one of the books being cited to push for a different kind of economic system to go with these ed reforms is called The Spirit Society imported from the UK. Plus Zuboff described her distributed capitalism in terms of using education to infuse the desired spirit. We seem to have a consistent theme and desire going here.

Cazden described the importance of FCL and its emphasis on social relationships like this: “Now each student becomes a significant part of the official learning environment for all the others, and teachers depend on students’ contributions to other students’ learning, both in discussions and for the diffusion of individual expertise through the class.”

Yes that is the real reason Gifted programs and tracking are being discontinued. Those fine minds and excellent vocabularies and outside school experiences become common property of the classroom. To be accessible to everyone instead of the talented students moving on in the subject-based, abstract world they are capable of and may prefer. That would be selfish in our hoped for economic democracy where everyone’s needs come first and individualism is no longer a concept to be cherished or even accepted. See Cazden’s colleague James Paul Gee’s rejection of even the concept in an earlier post.

Professor Cole likewise said the Community of Learners concept is grounded in Vygotskyian “cultural-historical activity theory” or CHAT for short. His acronym, not mine.  Like Dewey, Professor Cole sees these learning theories where “humans are [supposedly I add] created in joint mediated activity” as about changing the prevailing society and its customs, feelings, values, attitudes, and beliefs. In fact, Cole said the “acid test of CHAT” would be its “success in guiding the construction of new, more humane forms of activity.”

Like Boyte’s Cooperative Commonwealth or Zuboff’s distributed capitalism or Otto Scharmer’s Capitalism 3.0? Every time we peel away the cover of the rhetoric intended to be the sales campaign about the US Common Core and its related education reforms globally, we find these radical Transformative intentions. Cole says “Culture is exteriorized mind; mind is interiorized culture.” So if you make the classroom about social interaction and the use of a visually-oriented external thinking devices like Smartphone or tablets like an IPad, the hoped-for change is the student’s mind from the inside out. Hopefully largely empty of accurate facts. Do that to enough students, especially making the activities about emotionally provocative or insoluble complex world problems, and you can change the prevailing culture.

Implementing these ed theories may also though destroy everything that works without gaining viable substitutes in its place. Except the strong arm of government coercion. I have not made too heavy of an emphasis on how the Communitarian aspects of all these reforms harkens back to what was going on in 19th century German education reforms. I will simply add that the Germanic term Gemeinschaft keeps being cited in these related reports for internal consumption. One such report from December 2000 went on with the definition of a desired school community “where the value of individuals working together for the common good is upheld and respected.” It also referred reverentially to Amitai Etzioni by name as well as his anti-individualism “social movement.”

Can you see why I see the reality of the Common Core so much differently? It is all there once you treat education reform like an onion and peel away the rhetoric. And track back to the actual creators of these implementation practices.