Books: Readings

April 10, 1991 9 min read

True literacy encompasses, in addition to the ability to read and write, such skills as critical and creative thinking, analysis, and effective communication, says Rexford G. Brown in his new book, Schools of Thought: How the Politics of Literacy Shape Thinking in the Classroom.

Drawing on extensive interviews with educators and observations at several school systems, the senior policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States relates how current reform measures help--and sometimes hinder--the effort to develop student literacy. One of the hindrances, he maintains in the following excerpt, is the prevalence of a system of performing and communicating he dubs “talkinbout":

In most schools, the language of the classroom is primarily a language about the process of teaching something; it is not itself a language of learning. We came to call this language “talkinbout,” because we saw so many people talking about reading but not actually reading, talking about writing but not actually writing, and so on. “Talkinbout’’ is an abstract language, an adult reconstruction after the fact of an experience that the student is not allowed to have first hand. It is a rumor about learning.

The language of teachers’ guides and curricular materials is a form of “talkinbout": a peculiarly stiff, jargon-ridden language of process, of how to do things. It is not a language of expression or reflection. It is a language of work and technique, oriented toward achieving some narrowly (and often trivially) defined success, rather than toward achieving deeper understanding. It is about effectiveness, not truthfulness or rightness in the moral sense. It leaves little room for critical or reactive thinking, little latitude for judgment.

Ironically, the primary conditions for thoughtfulness--mystery, uncertainty, disagreement, important questions, ambiguity, curiosity--exist in every classroom. You see them in the faces of the children; you hear them in the halls. Potential learning opportunities are everywhere, but these fertile conditions are either ignored or perceived as barriers to teaching, as threats to order.

If you want to change individuals, you usually have to make them conscious of things that are right in front of their faces, things that they cannot see while everyone else can. You often have to help them learn how to listen to themselves, how to recognize contradictions in what they are saying, patterns of expression that reveal underlying assumptions and ideas. So it is with changing organizational cultures: you start with language. You have to help the people in the organization listen to themselves and raise questions about what they hear. Are they speaking “talkinbout,” or are4they sharing a language of learning?

Jossey Bass, Inc., 350 Sansome St., San Francisco, Calif. 94104; 290 pp., $24.95 cloth.

In Blackboard Unions: The aft and the nea, 1900-1980, the Swarthmore College historian Marjorie Murphy chronicles the development of unionism in the teaching profession throughout the 20th century. In the excerpt below, she traces the interconnectedness of feminism, the battle for women’s suffrage, and early teachers'-union activism:

Teachers formed the backbone of the suffrage movement. Several famous suffragists at some point in their careers earned a living teaching school. Susan B. Anthony was a teacher, Anna Howard Shaw taught school, Henrietta Rodman taught school. Rodman formed a Feminist Alliance in 1914 to protect married women from discrimination in the New York City school system. Susan B. Anthony wanted to help Margaret Haley [a leader in the early Chicago teachers’ movement] in 1903 but was too sick to attend the teachers’ convention, though she gave it her blessing.

The new teachers’ unions were not just woman-led; they were feminist. “Feminism,” [the Yale University historian] Nancy Cott tells us, seems to have come into common parlance around 1913. Suffrage was only a tool. “The real goal was ‘complete social revolution': freedom for all forms of women’s active expression, elimination of all structural and psychological handicaps to women’s economic independence, an end to the double standard of sexual morality, release from constraining sexual stereotypes, and opportunity to shine in every civic and professional capacity.”

The relationship between woman’s new economic role and the need for the vote was especially obvious to schoolteachers. Affiliation with the union movement gave women new access to the halls of political power. Teachers in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, by their interest in unionism, encouraged the wave of unionization among women garment workers. By81909, when thousands of clothrkers were challenging their employers, Margaret Haley and teachers in Chicago, New York, and Boston plotted to get a woman elected to the National Education Association. Unlike their unskilled colleagues, the school teachers scored a victory.

Cornell University Press, 124 Roberts Place, Ithaca, N.Y. 14850; 273 pp., $28.95 cloth.

Edward Pauly writes in The Classroom Crucible: What Really Works, What Doesn’t, and Why that “the central question about schools should not be ‘Why doesn’t anything work?’ but ‘Why do some classrooms succeed, while others in the same school don’t?”’

The discovery, through research, of classroom differences in student achievement, he says, is cause for optimism about schools--and forms the basis for a new approach to improving them. The policy analyst and former Yale University faculty member describes that approach in the following excerpt:

The education system is so large and complex that policymakers badly need a simplified way to look at the schools and their problems. This book has argued that there is a way for policymakers and politicians to understand how education works: by paying attention to the actions of students and teachers in their classrooms. The basic principles of this approach can be summed up as follows:

Teachers and students are the authors of the work that takes place in classrooms, and they develop different methods of doing their work in each classroom.

Successful teaching and learning can happen in a wide variety of ways; all of them are dependent on the choices and actions of teachers and students.

Prescriptive policies that are imposed on classrooms do not work.

The only way for education policies to improve students’ achievement is to affect teachers’ and students’ work in their classrooms, by altering classroom membership or increasing classroom support.

If policymakers and school officials can learn to focus their attention firmly on classrooms, they will have taken the first step toward figuring out how to correct the problems of the schools. By paying attention to classrooms, they can find out where problems exist, what the problems are, and what classroom changes can solve them.

They can take a second important step by recognizing that each classroom is different from all other classrooms--and that therefore solutions to a classroom’s problems have to be tailored to the particular characteristics of that classroom. Classrooms differ in their use of books and materials, time, and instructional techniques; in the kinds of rewards and motivael10ltions they offer teachers and students; in the unofficial rules that govern daily classroom life; in the ways that classroom members treat each other and how they expect to be treated in the future; and in the opportunities to learn that they provide. These differences render any uniform, prescriptive school policy irrelevant to most classrooms.

This focus on classroom differences represents a fundamentally new and different way of thinking about how education works, and its implications are profound. When policymakers (or parents, for that matter) recognize the importance of classrooms, they will begin to ask new questions about each proposed policy they consider:

How will this policy and its effects be altered by the large differences between classrooms?

How will the policy affect classrooms that differ widely in their reciprocal power relationships and in their teaching and learning methods?

Only a policy that responds to the needs of different classrooms should receive official support.

Basic Books, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10022; 256 pp., $22.95 cloth. (Publication date April 23, 1991.)

In the preface to A Letter To Teachers, Vito Perrone says he hopes teachers will use his book as a starting point for their own reflections on the field and on their work. “Only when teachers themselves assume the dominant position in regard to teaching and learning in their classrooms, and begin to speak more broadly and authoritatively on matters of education, will we see significant improvement,” he writes.

As the Harvard University faculty member and senior fellow of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching shows in the following excerpt, such reflections, to have meaning, must be grounded in historical insight:

We work in a field that has a very long history. This may be obvious, but that history is not something we think about enough, make a part of our ongoing reflections about teaching, learning, and schools.

At one level, if we are not well connected to our educational his4tory, we can lose sight of the dignity of teaching and its larger social context. We need to know that committed men and women over many hundreds of years have seen in teaching the opportunity to build a safer, more humane, and economically productive world. Their stories, the ways they conceptualized their work, help connect us across time and place, enlarging our understanding of the roots of our work and providing us considerable personal and professional inspiration.

At another level, the lack of historical perspective leads us to interpret too much of what passes for reform--change in schools--as new when, in fact, much of the reform had an earlier history. It prevents us, as well, from learning from the previous history of reform.

If, for example, we made a practice of reading older descriptions of school reform, learning about the ways school curricula, organizational structures, and instructional practices were affected, as well as the political, economic, and social factors that influenced them, we might have a better grasp of what educational reform demands, not only in historical terms but presently.

Much of the 1960’s educational reform could have profited from a more significant connection to the earlier progressive literature and the reform movement that surrounded progressivism, particularly in relation to curriculum. It was surprising, for example, how obscure John Dewey’s work was to so many 1960’s educators.

A particularly critical value, for me, in staying close to the historical literature as I work with teachers to improve, even reconstruct, the schools that now exist, is understanding the shifting patterns of language that surround our work.

It is valuable to know that the definitions that now prevail in critical educational constructs--vocational education, excellence, learning, time, memory--had at other times richer meanings, laden with larger possibilities. Because many of the words have remained the same, there is a semblance of continuity when, in fact, the discontinuities are overwhelming.

Jossey-Bass, Inc., 350 Sansome St., San Francisco, Calif. 94104; 148 pp., $24.95 hardcover, $12.95 paper.

A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 1991 edition of Education Week as Books: Readings


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