The Two-Faced Coin (Part 2 of 2): Education’s Two-Face–Time

Flip a Coin

What do you think? Is it going to be heads or tails? At this moment, can you tell? What will determine on which side it will drop? A gust of wind? The momentum of the roll? (Someone with a physics degree chime in with a comment. I am sure we’d all love to know the actual factors that will contribute to the outcome.)

When it comes to the educational development/deficit coin though, we have only one factor to consider: Time. “Oh, no, no,” you might be saying, “it’s the quality of the product that determines whether a writer is developed or not.” Or you might argue that it’s the sophistication of the writer’s composing processes. You may even ask us to consider the resources he/she consider and draw from or the repertoire of genres with which he/she has facility.

I’d agree with you that each of these dimensions of a writer are important, but these characteristics aren’t what determine development in education. Let’s take a look at a piece of writing to see what we find.

How would you determine whether the writer is developed, developing or in deficit? Of course, as indicated above, you might ask if it is a draft or if it is considered good “for a poem.” But then let me ask you: What if I told you it was written by a second grader? Would your judgement change? What if I told you it was a college student? What if I told you it was the first time the person had tried this genre or if it was after five years of participating in a community of poets? At the heart of any of these approaches to deciding whether writing or a writer is developed are questions of time: how long? how old? what grade?

We should then ask: Where do we get those ideas of what is expected at certain ages and after certain lengths of time and at certain grades? One such source is a study by Britton, Burgess, Martin, McLeod and Rosen conducted in 1976. They studied the audiences and functions (to persuade, to entertain, to tell) of the written products and writing tasks from classes of students ages 11-17 from across the UK. From their results, they suggested a curriculum of increasing cognitive abstraction in written products from personal experiences, to argument, to tautological statements. This suggestion has been taken up and is pervasive in the educational field in both curricula (e.g. in the first version of the National Curriculum in England in English) and research studies (e.g. McKeough & Genereux, 2003).

Buried in their study report was the statement that the audiences and functions of students’ written products aligned closely with the writing tasks assigned to them in school. From this the researchers reasoned that the range of written products in schools was the result of teaching curriculum and methodology rather than students’ independent writing development or even current skill sets:

We are clear about one thing: the work we have classified cannot be taken as a sample of what young writers can do. It is a sample of what they have done under the constraints of a school situation, a curriculum, a teacher’s expectations, and a system of public examinations which itself may constrain both teacher and writer. (p. 108)

In essence, then, the developmental model offered by Britton, Burgess, Martin, McLeod and Rosen (1976) is a model of the development of school curriculum—how to characterize the sequence of tasks assigned to students in first, third, fifth and seventh years of secondary school in the UK. The implication is that writing development is intricately tied to the writing experiences that have been afforded; and a common denominator to young persons’ development is the experiences required in school. Britton et al.’s (1976) developmental scheme, however, is not an indication of students’ cognitive or writing capacity, nor reflective of the entire range of audiences of functions of students’ writing.

The point here is simply this:

Chronological time is the ultimate determiner of development in writing. Our benchmarks on this linear scale of time have been based on studies and curricula that are not based on how youth actually develop as writers, but rather how we organize the products, practices and participation across a linear scale. 

When schools determine one child is developed and another is at deficit, we are just at the mercy of units of time we have segmented and decided should correlate to a set of practices. We aren’t actually saying anything about the child’s abilities or capacities. Yet the consequences of being thus labeled are left to the child, and deficit always leaves a mark.

I know. Ouch.

[Flip a Coin by The Bartender 007 / © Some rights reserved. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license]
Britton, J., Burgess, T., Martin, N., McLeod, A. & Rosen, H. (1976). The development of writing abilities (11-18). London: Schools Council Publication.
McKeough, A., & Genereux, R. (2003). Transformation in narrative thought during adolescence: The structure and content of story compositions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(3), 537-552.
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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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jOOjM08zH5o

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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