Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Local bookstores and educational capital

I just wrote a post on my personal blog about the sad closing of Shaman Drum, one of the best independent bookstores in the Midwest.

Social scientists use the term "social capital" to describe the strength of social networks in a community. Likewise, we can use the term "educational capital" to describe the educational environment in a community. Strong schools and libraries, a vibrant local arts scene, high-quality local publications, the presence of a college or university - all of these can increase a community's educational capital.

When an excellent bookstore goes out of business, the educational environment of its community is diminished. Just as communities concerned about education issues should approve millages and tax increases to support their local schools, they should also patronize the stores, theaters, museums, and concert halls that contribute to the community's educational capital in important but less obvious ways.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Links and resources for educators and self-educators

Check out the new-and-vastly-improved link list on the sidebar to the right of this blog. I'll continue to add to the list, but this is a pretty good start.

A few things to note:

-I give roughly equal time and space to conservative and liberal writers and education policy sites. I also include plenty of advocates for alternative or radical perspectives on education, including homeschoolers, unschoolers, and Marxists.

-The list of "Education Scholars, Writers, and Practicioners" includes quite a few names you may not have heard of. In addition to historical figures such as John Dewey, the most well-known contemporary educators (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Stanford's Linda Darling-Hammond, for example) are listed alongside less-well-known people such as "unschooling" advocate Grace Llewellyn, liberal education advocate Adam Kissel, and Great Books advocate Mortimer J. Adler.

-I am currently writing a book on self-education, and I've included a small list of self-education resources. You'll find some unexpected links here as well. The movie rental company Netflix and the online radio Pandora, for example, are included because their recommendation systems can introduce users to new media and art that they are likely to enjoy but may not have heard of. This, too, is education.

Please help spread the word about Wide Awake Minds by linking to it and passing it along to others who might find it interesting or useful.

The wallpaper curriculum

How can high-school teachers maximize learning time for students with short attention spans? Here's an idea.

When students drift off and stop paying attention to a lesson, they often look around at other areas of the classroom - anywhere but where the teacher wants them to look. The lawn-mower in the window was a particular favorite of mine in high school: the hypnotic back-and-forth movement and the pleasant drone could keep me occupied during a long hour of history class.

Teachers, when they set up their classroom, should aim to make it utterly impossible for kids to look anywhere in the room without learning something. Fine, don't look at the teacher - look at the maps and timelines on the wall, or the art, or the quotations from famous figures, or the posters depicting famous photographs and historical events. Or the rows of books that cover a wall - some with their spines out, some faced-out. You don't even need to open them to be intrigued by their titles: "The Philosophy of History" by G.W.F. Hegel; "The Open Society" by Karl Popper; "The Educated Imagination" by Northrop Frye; "Tales of Love and Loss" by Knut Hamsun; "Confessions of a Mask" by Yukio Mishima.

What about vocabulary terms in size 100 type? A garden, with the plants and vegetables labeled? An aquarium? Phrase charts in foreign languages?

Managers of retail stores are taught to never show their fixtures - to cover every inch of shelves and pegs with products. Products are for sale; fixtures are not. Showing the customer an empty shelf sells no books.

The same principle applies in the classroom. Empty wall space gives you no educational return-on-investment; in fact, bare walls evoke feelings of confinement and claustrophobia. Fill empty spaces. The classroom is not a modern, minimalist design studio: it is an attic and workshop for independent scholars with crackling, eager minds. A classroom's walls should contribute to students' impression that schooling is not a world unto itself, but rather an introduction and guide to the greater world of ideas, art, and informed action.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Teaching for autonomy: "success" and beyond

Effective teachers and effective schools educate their students to succeed in society and, at the same time, to understand that their personal "success" is not the end of the story.

On one hand, students’ future happiness will be closely related to their ability to succeed economically and socially. One would do students no favors by turning them wholly away from the society in which they are embedded; that is not education for liberation, but education for helplessness and resentment. There is much to be said for preparing students for societal success. The successful adult is more autonomous than the unsuccessful adult; he or she is more likely to have access to desirable societal goods (higher education, the arts, political participation, gainful employment, etc.) and less likely to find him or herself trapped in a demeaning job or family situation, hopeless social or economic straits, and so on.

On the other hand, the autonomy that is born of societal success and its prerequisites is a limited autonomy. True autonomy requires being able to look with clear and critical eyes at one’s own society, understanding its flaws as well as its benefits. Ancient and modern traditions in literature, art, and religion stand ready to correct us if we, standing at the height of privilege in our society, look at our own success and comfort and nothing else – and then decide, with Candide, that this is “the best of all possible worlds.” True autonomy also means seeing through what is superficial in our own success; it means catching ourselves by the scruffs of our own necks when we feel tempted to accept the convenient untruth that our success is wholly or primarily the result of our own effort, and that others’ failure is the just result of their not exercising an equal effort.

The task of the education system, then – and therefore the task of each teacher – is to prepare students to succeed in society while helping them develop the ability to question their own success, their relationship with those considered less-successful, and the society in which these social, political, and economic power relationships exist. The fully-educated person has both the tools and knowledge necessary to succeed in society, and the imagination, empathy, political awareness, and critical literacy necessary to understand the limited character of that success and to criticize and strive to change the very society in which he or she enjoys it.