The Two-Faced Coin (Part 1 of 2): Development and Deficit

Alright. Let’s go in. Progress, improvement and development are—in essence—the project of education. Sounds pretty good, right? But it’s not so simplistically altruistic.

For one, there have been many people who have pointed out problems inherent in this project. Developing countries, for instance, can definitely benefit from implementation of certain social and physical structures that have improved the quality of life for others in the world—like public sewage systems or public education. At the same time, these “improvements” historically have come at a steep price of subjugation, and even imperialism. It is useful for us to pause to ask who gets to determine what is a “quality life” for another. Discussions that help us illuminate disparities between intent and result are important, but they aren’t want I want to focus on right now.

I’d like to talk about something a bit more fundamental to the concept of development in education: The flip side.

If we turned over the coin with development’s face, we’ll find deficit on its tail. In the name of progress and in our efforts to further development, we are constantly creating deficit. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison, Michel Foucault gave the example of how this occurs in the human sciences. He explains the project of studying human behavior is defining what is normal, healthy, desirable (i.e. the good girl, law-abiding citizen). In the process, this act of defining a norm creates abnormality (i.e. the criminal, the crazy person). Entire professions are then brought to rectify the deviants of the norm—a “deviation” the field itself created. Foucault quipped at another time:

…if you are not like everybody else, then you are abnormal, if you are abnormal, then you are sick. These three categories, not being like everybody else, not being normal and being sick are in fact very different but have been reduced to the same thing…

Demented, right? It reminds me of Two-Face from the Batman series, portrayed by Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight. Your chances of life or death, sanity or insanity, and in education development or deficit is left to the chances of the flip of a coin. Today you may be developed, but that same activity tomorrow may be deficit.

In Batman, it’s Two-Face who flips the coin and chance determines your life or death. In the human sciences, it’s the psychological, behavioral and sociocultural rating scales and evaluation measures. What flips the coin in education? Although similar to other human sciences, assessment measures could be seen as the coin-flipper, I humbly submit that education’s Two-Face is Time. And that’s Part 2 of 2. See you then.

Michel Foucault, (2004) ‘Je suis un artificier’. In Roger-Pol Droit (ed.), Michel Foucault, entretiens. Paris: Odile Jacob, p. 95. (Interview conducted in 1975. This passage trans. Clare O’Farrell).

Meditation on a Run (Part 1 of 4)

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Those who know me personally will immediately know the location of this picture: New York’s Central Park. If it were possible to have an affair with an inanimate object, the Park and I would be dating. And my favorite of all activities in said park is joining the crowds of runners of all ages and sizes as we round the many roads, trails, lanes that weave through the park. I took this picture two days after a run that inspired the series of posts to follow. I think it gives you a good sense of the state in which the posts were first conceived. (If you need further sensory input, stick an ice cube on your neck and turn on a fan.)

It has been a long, dark winter in NYC. We’ve had incredible amounts of snow, and even experienced the thundersnow phenomenon. (See below for a Colbert thundersnow tangent.) Many in the city hole up, but, true to form, 100s of the city’s runners can still be found in Central Park trudging along, bracing against the freezing wind.

I avoided running until mid-January when I was overcome with the need for an outdoor fix. I left work early one weekday and hit the park as dark was rolling in at 4 p.m. White snow blanketed the lawns and ice hung off the rocks. It was beautiful. I was enjoying myself quite a bit–running along bundled up and losing layers. And then I noticed I was getting passed. Now, this is commonplace for me, a person who struggles to run a 10-minute mile. But I wasn’t just getting passed, I was getting blown over by single runners, groups of runners, dogs on leashes, dad-propelled strollers even. And the speed at which they were passing me was impressive.

That’s when excuse-mode set in. At first, it was just an “Oh, well, most likely only the better runners are out mid-winter. If I trained just as long and hard as they did, I would probably be able to keep up.” Then once I was trudging and heaving, and people were still passing me at an easy, steady, speedy pace, I thought, “Well, I am not a natural runner. Some of these people are just naturals.” And then the kicker, a six-pack of runners chatted nonchalantly as they eased on by me, and I noticed my first pony tail. “Oh,” I thought, “they’ve all been men! Of course, it’s getting evening in the park. Only the men are out. And men are always faster.”

Now, I grew up with four brothers, and if there was one thing I had learned: We make much more of biological sex differences than we should. I couldn’t believe I was thinking what I was thinking. As I continued around the bend, cutting my typical length of run in half, I thought how commonplace these same excuses are in education. We use them to explain away any ability/performance difference, and just like they did for my run, they get us off track—focusing us on comparisons and competition rather than helping us focus on issues that would make a difference for our young writers. Thus, the three following posts in this series: 1) Questions of Quality—Is it really about better products or better instruction?; 2) The Natural—Is a good writer born or made?; and 3) Biology, Masculinity and other Poor Excuses for a Poor Writer.

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YouTube Initiation

This last week, I found out that I had been featured on YouTube for over a year and didn’t even know it. It is my initial foray on the YouTube scene, and I am pleased to report that it isn’t that embarrassing. In the video, I was reporting about the grant I received in 2008 to work with Richard Andrews, who was a visiting professor in 2007. In his course, I had conducted a review of research on the writing development of teens. I found three theoretical frameworks–all of which varied tremendously. Every single measure said that measuring development by age as problematic, but none attempted or provided an alternative. With insufficient measures of development, and a changing landscape of writing possibilities in the digital age, we began our work toward conceptualizing a theory that could guide our understanding of writing development.

Anna Smith, PhD, educational researcher & teacher educator blogging about composition in the digital age, contexts for learning, theories of development, and global youth.

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