Today I had the opportunity to visit the Queens Paideia School for the second time this year. An instructor at the school, Tim Fredrick (a good friend and a great writer), had invited me earlier this year to check out the multi-age, open design in action. Within just a few minutes of being at the school again, I was reminded of how positive and pleasant the learning flows felt in the space. Along with time and space divisions typical of schools, such as small reading and writing groups and individual work cubicles, teachers and young learners moved to different areas through the open spaces around the school rooms in different allotments of time.
I just spent an amazing month traveling with two weeks on the sleepy side of Cabo at my own DIY Writer’s Retreat. (I left feeling lucky, blessed, tan, centered, and validated for the way I budgeted this last year.)
Much of this “writing,” however, was spent thinking and reading, rereading and thinking. Isn’t this what we all look like on vacation?(I also wrote about my month “as a disconnected educator” here and here.)
While at my retreat, I finished the book Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline. Even if time isn’t your current obsession (as I may be guilty of myself—here’s a post on its role in teaching and learning, and here’s a tweetchat and archive I hosted on the role time plays in contemporary composition, and why not, here’s another link to another’s post on time in education that I recommend), I don’t know of another book I could recommend more than this one. (Maria Popova of BrainPickings feels similarly.)
Picture yourself in one of those movies based on a Austen-type novel—one that features some kids sneaking into the captain’s library and taking big beautiful, intricate atlases or hand-drawn bird identification books and hiding under the table to crack the spine, or rushing out of the room and out onto the large estate gardens, laying down and opening the book under the bright sky. This is the exact feeling I had every time I opened Cartographies of Time. Mesmerized and contemplative, I was one giddy geek.
From single-digit centuries to contemporary times, the authors, Rosenberg and Grafton, traced the ways time has been represented in print, and equally fascinating, how it has been conceived of as a concept. Wait, wait…don’t let me lose you there. If that idea doesn’t capture you, I promise the images of these graphic representations across time will. It’s currently my favorite picture book! Don’t try to convince me that these contrasting images of ways time has been represented in history (as posted in the New York Times and The Morning News reviews of this book) don’t leave you wanting more…
Without further ado, here are four of the many insights I am still thinking about:
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, a 19th century leading pedagogue known for promoting play in learning, utilized and promoted a highly-abstracted blank grid template in her instruction of history. On the template, youth made color-coded demarcations depending on type of historical event. Location on the grid was determined by the century and duration of event. Now, if you are like me, this kind of classroom activity sounds nothing like a “play is learning” kind of pedagogical decision; however, she found that using these templates shifted the focus of historical study away from memorization of dates (which apparently Mark Twain thought was nearly impossible) to an interpretive exercise, one of discussion and—get this—creativity. Her students’ grids were never filled in similarly, demonstrating their interpretations of events, causes, effects and significance. This was social studies in the 1800s. Who knew?
The quantitative, measured, linear, and very popular conception of time is a relatively recent metaphor applied to the idea. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that “the idea of a single uniform fabric of time” (p. 180) was a functional in society. The authors explained (emphasis mine):
The timeline did not precede our other ways of representing historical time, nor has it ever embodied the pure value neutrality that many have wished to attribute to it. It arose as a new way of expressing and quantifying chronological relationships (p. 244).
I won’t pretend that quantifying time has not instigated incredible advances in science and technology, but like other approaches to conceiving of time, a linear measurement of it is just another metaphor—one that has never sat well with me when trying to understand how humans experience time in their lives. In order to map experience onto a measured, linear time, experience must be flattened, quantified and sanitized. This works well for seeing some patterns that matter to humans like rates of disease and economic trends, but not for relationships, learning, and other such human experience. When it comes to human sense making, chronology is only one type of connection between events. We act based on our perception of chronology in relation to our experiences, not because of its measured pace.
In July, @dancohen and I had a short exchange on Twitter about the calendar as an early innovation of print, considered a hybrid space in which people could literally write their personal and family events into the histories of religious and royal events that dominated the representations of history at the time. Hybridity in text and composition is such a hot topic now; it’s fascinating to remember that like multimodality, hybridity is not new.
I am completely enamored of Marjolijn Dijkman’s installation project Wandering Through the Future. The installation included a timeline of future events as predicted in fiction. This was posted across a shed, and inside the shed on large screens, clips of futuristic films were presented as scenes of our future as patrons walked along time.
This got me thinking about the guys who took part in my dissertation research. Similar to these anticipated scenes of future reality playing on screens while patrons walked along in the present, the guys in the study had moments of future reality currently active in their lives. What they were scared of, and anticipated, and expected, and hoped shaped the actions they took in the present. In studying their development as writers, it was not sufficient to merely map the dates and times of observed writing events and products on a timeline. Rather, how the youth experienced their pasts and futures in the present was integral to understanding what fostered, enabled and constrained their development.
So, what did you read this summer?
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.
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.