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.


Why Quality Learning May be the Last Thing You Want for Your Child

Pulitzer Prize winning historians, Will & Ariel Durant, have written extensively about what makes civilizations prosper and what has destroyed them. They make the point that “morals are the rules by which a society exhorts its members and associations to behavior consistent with its order, security, and growth.” Oftentimes though those morals are not explicit. Most of us are not even aware of many of the Things that Work. They are embedded in the traditions and knowledge of the past transmitted through schools and social interactions. As our educators shift American schools and schools globally away from the transmission of knowledge model, I think their lack of much familiarity with the lessons of history and economics is showing.

Starting anew and pushing theories and practices that are untried. Making “research-based” about noting the effects on actual students of these new theories. Or even worse reintroducing political theories that have been tried with a tragic result.  Renaming them as learning theories to “give remaking human nature another try” means rejecting much hidden knowledge that most of us are unaware of. The practices and knowledge that generate prosperity and stable societies even if we do not quite understand why. That’s why change should be piece by piece to allow examination of consequences.

Not to wholesale change the entire System of education completely and the purpose to boot. Especially since no one is being honest with the parents and taxpayers about what is really going on. No rational being would reject the transmission of knowledge and replace it with a primitive “sense-making” if they were using their own money. Why on earth are we supporting people who want to do that while living on our tab? While we pay their bills? Who want to be called “Doctor” because they agreed to push this vision.

Most of us hear the word “quality” attached to education and immediately think of excellence or a superior product. Have you ever noticed it has become the descriptive adjective of choice in education? Magically all over the world? With similar timing? We have AdvancED’s Quality Standards for accreditation. Cambridge Education’s Quality Review (remember the “teachers are teaching and that’s not allowed” push?). Georgia has just enacted a statute connected to its NCLB waiver from the feds that makes Quality Learning the measure of student achievement (Do you remember that learning means changing attitudes, feelings, values, or behavior, not knowledge?). Finally, the monitoring internationally of the level of fulfillment of the UN’s Education for All initiative lives under the reassuring banner of Quality Assurance.

Perhaps “Quality” in ed world has an unappreciated meaning? Why yes, it’s pretty apparent something is up when we line up our paid political vision enforcers like that, isn’t it? Those of you who have lived through the integrated math fiasco in Georgia or any other state or PBIS introduction to foster a better school climate and nurturing culture will find this fundamental point to be a revelation. John Dewey, that utopian philosopher extraordinaire, hated the idea of schools doing anything to cultivate rational, logical thought. He believed it made the students who were good at it too full of themselves and got in the way of what he saw as the socializing purposes of school. What Dewey wanted and what his modern-day disciples are pushing all over the world is his vision of basic skills coupled with promoting emotional, instinctive, unconscious responses. And they do it in the name of “Quality.” Or as one of Dewey’s most influential current disciples put it: “Character is higher than intellect.” Perhaps but we should get to talk about such a radical meaning of understanding.

I think history shows us how dangerous education to promote malleable, emotional citizens can be. The quote at the top of the blog is from a French intellectual, Julian Benda, in 1927 predicting that a similar push in Europe in the 1920s would end in a catastrophic world war. Why? Using the schools to cultivate an emotional herd instinct that responds without reason or even conscious will always means that there is nothing to block bad ideas.

Have you heard yet how the Common Core seeks to cultivate a “deep understanding?” That’s straight out of Dewey’s push that Quality means feeling. It’s explicitly not a result of conceptual or intellectual processing and that was the deliberate goal then and it is now. To quote a 2007 Teachers College Record essay on Dewey called “Beyond Control and Rationality” that certainly seems to be anticipating Common Core’s classroom implementation:

“Qualitative meaning is that which is intuited rather than deduced, felt rather than described, and is immediate to the situation rather than removed from it.”

To reenforce this critical distinction between qualitative sense and conscious reflection, the essay goes on to tell us:

“What Dewey is saying is that we sense or feel the situation we are in without thinking of it per se, without it becoming an object of reflection.”

Ah! Sense Making! A return then to the international standards of the caveman and a rejection of all we have discovered and our best minds have developed in the interim.

Now I understand why a group of people wishing to force others to go along with their wishes would try to push such a modern version of Mind Arson. It’s politically powerful. Just ask the serfs who could not leave the land or the slaves who must not be taught how to read. The question for us now though is why are we going along with such a use of our schools to destroy everything that works, creates prosperity and individuality, and a realistic chance for a better tomorrow for most of us?