Let's explore why a more innovative and progressive
approach to education is held back by an institutional
mindset that is threatened by, and even hostile to,
In the context of these general observations, allow me to share with you some inside reportage. The following more detailed personal observations flow from two years of full-time enrollment in a variety of "hands-on" computer classes within the San Diego Community College District.
It is obvious that a high degree of partisanship interferes with good communication between the participants: students, instructors, administrators, and staff. Unfortunate "factioning" of the participants is continually reinforced by obvious divisions and disparities in power and policy applicability, access, and authority, practice and procedures, privileges, perks, and payoffs. There is an unnatural tension produced by the rigidly enforced or even ad hoc separation of purpose, role, and opportunity — all of which contort to meet the dictates of power and authority — both real and presumed.
The human body is itself more wisely organized and integrated. The custodial and maintenance functions of the body are just as essential to bodily survival as the exploratory, comparative, and analytic functions of our cerebral control centers — or brains. In too many schools, dysfunctional divisions overlay the reasonable division of labor and therefore inequities, adversarial attitudes, and discontent are pervasive and long-standing signs of "sick" schools — or education in crisis.
Often there is chronic neglect of the plight of students — including far too little opportunity to directly address problems on their own behalf and make alternative choices. The participants most concerned with control, prescribed order, and maintaining the status quo are unwilling to acknowledge that learning is no longer their highest priority — if, in fact, it ever was. It is the curse of educational institutions that those who by hierarchical decree-cum-degree consider themselves in every sense "above" students.
Are we not all students in terms of needing to learn further life lessons before we pass on? A student's-eye-view can be everyone's view if life-long learning was actualized from a more intrinsically rewarded perspective — from the core of our being — rather than primarily as a career-track inducement — extrinsic reinforced with hierarchical promotion, higher pay, and expanded benefits.
Be prepared for the "fast food" factory schooling
you have come to increasingly expect from
those whose vision has risen only $o far.
Let's take a look inside a typical community college classroom. Generally, the student is told very little about what the District or site administration expects of the instructor beyond the required collecting of enrollment forms and signatures. The student doesn't routinely get to see the course outline, and may or may not be given a syllabus handout. The student is generally left to guess — and may actually be misled as to what is discretionary and what is required on the part of both the student and teacher.
The instructor may conform the students to the routine that is easiest for him or her, but not necessarily according to what is in the best interest of the students. Instructors tend to repeat the same approach and make the same assignments — so that first-timers are accommodated with little or no arrangement made for those coming back to learn more than a second pass through the basics will accomplish.
Students enrolling in Internet, Web Page Design, and Photoshop classes are particularly ill-prepared for vocational advancement by a cookie-cutter approach to the basics and no encouragement of original and realistic proficiency that can attract clients and secure and succeed in a very demanding and competitive field. The fact that administrators and many instructors stoop to the dehumanizing expedience of "factory schooling" — and automated — and automaton-like training — hardly creates a magnet for attracting highly creative instructors — or students — that are best suited to truly benefit and be benefitted by a multi-media immersion program.
Older students looking for "something to do" tend to tolerate well the repetition of busywork, or copycat projects such as those over-relying on clip art. If they like the teacher, many "computer putterers" are willing to receive the same or similar class assignments semester after semester. District-wide, it appears that graphics curricula development and implementation will continue to be very uneven and short of teaching talent and administrative innovation on most community college campuses. This will be especially likely on Continuing Education campuses that have very rigidly managed and monotonous information technology programs emphasizing low-level job skills and cookie-cutter or automated training software.
While an uncreative environment takes a heavier toll on the most motivated and talented students — particularly those pursuing greater multimedia involvement — all students in all classes share certain disadvantages in common. We may hear what the instructor expects or demands of us, but the basis for this is not necessarily explained. The instructor is not likely to welcome questions from students addressing why the instructor wants things a certain way. Years of traditional schooling tend to make many students resentful of other students that want to know the basis for what they are told to do.
When students are paying for classes, they tend to just want to get on with it — regardless of what it is — to receive credit for the course. When students are attending no-fee classes, a common attitude is "Who cares — it's free!" Vocational training is largely determined by what a communities' job providers are looking for. A student may have few alternatives but to enroll in a computer course designed for a more limited range of vocational applications than meets the student current aspirations. While there is a certain economy of effort in having students focus on a limited range of vocational options, this may disproportionately serve the goals of the instructor, curriculum developer, administrator, and business interests rather than the goals of the student as an "agent of change" or innovative member of a progressive community.
Anyone involved in education who holds his or herself above students tends to have an ulterior motive for students serving their respective interests. Often college campuses blatently exhibit deep divisions and function through hierarchies of manipulators and manipulatees. Of course, like livestock, students must be treated well enough to not get sick or die before passing through the hoops to certification or graduation. Increasingly, emphasis is leaning toward test-determined measures of excellence — with excellence defined by values extrinsic to those of the student.
Students are reinforced for unthinking compliance and unquestioning attitudes. Students who question assumptions and prescribed methods — and who pursue new possibilities through highly individualized or innovative learning styles, or who pursue unique opportunities for better integrating existing skills may not be treated favorably — and may be discriminated against in subtle and not so subtle ways. Such students may become repeat victims of educators' common hierarchical preoccupation with defending the "power ladder" and not yielding to the shakings of common sense.
Returning to a student's eye-view of the classroom environment, it is worth noting that there are no clear incentives offered for individual student or student group innovation, student leadership, or students taking the course itself to a higher level. The course outline may encourage such values, but the instructor doesn't usually share the course outline with his or her students, and can easily minimize such incentives or dismiss the need for such incentives altogether.
The instructor may personally or professionally feel threatened by exceptional ability demonstrated by students and react in unpredictable or counter-productive ways. Any perception of "fault" that the instructor can isolate in a student's behavior — and emphasize — may be used to administratively block a student's progressive contribution — or even restrict or prohibit a student's continued presence. Students are faced with a take -it- or- leave- it "learning environment" that supports the status quo. After all, predictability can be prized above all else, especially when it comes to the overclasses and their "ground support" being paid.
Students whose motivation to learn is based more on intrinsic motivations, humanitarian, or philanthropic concerns may find themselves out of step with "business as usual" both in and out of the classroom. Legislated efforts to ensure a highly conscious and compassionate citizenry are increasingly subordinated to the high profile pay-off for pandering to self-serving entities or lobbies that are co-opting public institutions for their own misguided, predatory, and exploitive purposes — turning education into another industry. The obvious, as well as often veiled attempts to strip away or deny education's intended truth-serving role and deeper humanitarian foundations will ultimately prove to be self-destructive.
Having provided a broader contextual backdrop for evaluating what occurs in the classroom, lets continue taking a closer look. Although the instructor controls the class in order for the class to remain open (sanctioned by the District, covered by insurance, etc.), it's helpful if the student can more directly assess what the course has been designed to offer, for this will provide a clearer perspective on how different instructors do their own "interpretations" of what has been "outlined" by others at a higher administrative level. How a course outline is interpreted and conveyed reflects individual differences between instructors. An instructor's experience, training, teaching style, character, motivation, attitude, personality — and of course the instructor's present and future goals — all may drastically affect "what-you-get."
The department chairperson(s) and program supervisor(s) also add an interpretive view — with all of the above individual instructor differences again weighing in — with an interactive effect — generally without direct observation* or review by the administration — "unless problems are reported." Naturally, a clear procedure for reporting problems that protects the "messenger" from retaliation is needed — a procedure that offers reasonable hope for timely remediation. With no clear procedure — and a lack of proactive interest — such as letting suggestion boxes go unchecked for months at a time — problems can and will go unreported.
Even when students report classroom problems in person, instructors and administrators for established institutions may persist in doing things that work against students' and communities' best interests because they know they can. Instructors primarily become vulnerable only if they fail to turn in the necessary paperwork, fall below minimum attendance requirements, fail to inform the school regarding anticipated absences, or attempt to change the established style of accepted instruction.
As some students drop out, others take their place, and problems can continue unaddressed for years. Whole departments can become corrupted by self-serving egos that reject good instructors or create circumstances that send them running elsewhere. Without fresh ideas and bold innovation, schools become dreary places at the mercy of political and economic interests that prey on the student underclass which must frantically compete to obtain additional certifiable skills in order to survive.
Overlying these variables are global consciousness shifts that are of strategic importance in determining how best to integrate both individual and community educational needs — including emotional and physical survival and well being. For a student to try to address education reform without student role models and clear mentoring can be overwhelming and even health-threatening. Nevertheless, information technology itself may provide a much needed array of new forums for catalyzing greater accountability to the student underclass. It's worth familiarizing ourselves with the new technological tools that may accelerate education reform.
Information technology has arrived in a big way — yet treatment of students seems to be in decline. We are being asked to accommodate technology that more and more will increasingly replace many of us! A growing technocratic elite is sanctioned and reinforced by continuing overemphasis on certification programs that fail to embrace humanitarian values. Those with strong humanitarian concerns are under represented in the fastest growing areas of curriculum development. Education is moving toward becoming an industry replete with the same blind spots that plague other industries which mindlessly threaten the health of the planet.
Those students that wish to preserve humanitarian values and learn to use the new information technology have some worthwhile options available. For example, creating personal web pages can be a positive start toward joining with others who share similar concerns. Internet newsgroups and chat rooms can also contribute toward a more co-inspired strategy that will attract broader community support for addressing neglected aspects of education. But these means of connection alone cannot materialize the missing fabric of student, faculty, and administrative aliveness on campus that might help bring together the larger community. Campuses do not adequately address the deeper causes of our mutual alienation and isolation.
In summary, a well-designed and unified effort toward learning how to learn at each educational level is necessary. Furthermore, we need to better cross-identify with various roles on campus and better mutually account for problems, despite the trend toward increasing specialization. Information technology can help us organize efforts to renew the spirit of community both on and off campus. But we must take our hearts to school and fill the vision vacuum that persists today. Only a unifying vision can lead us toward real excellence beyond the hype. Indeed, only a unifying vision can envelop our schools with a spirit of true community worth daily celebrating.
Pedagogic arrogance casts
a long shadow over our youth
which bites us in the end.
The best students learn to be their own teachers,
The best teachers never stop being students, and
The best administrators guide and support them both.
Copyright ©1999-2013 by Thomas James Darling