Either/or thinking in education

Picked up this article from a Twitter pointer on #edchat. It’s part of an article in Teacher Magazine which features an email conversation between Mike Rose and Diane Ravitch, American education scholars.

From: Mike Rose
To: Diane Ravitch
Subject: Either/Or Thinking in Education

Diane, let me shift topics, for this mention of either/or polarities reminds me of something: When a friend of mine found out that you and I were going to be having this exchange, this person observed that you and I fall on different sides of the equity/excellence debate. My first thought was, “Hey, I stand for excellence, too!” And though you and I would probably disagree on what the content of, let’s say, a literature curriculum should be, I’ve never read you as anti-egalitarian.

This led me to think about a bigger issue, and I’d like to hear your thoughts about it. American education is bedeviled by a kind of either/or thinking about curriculum and pedagogy: There has been an equity versus excellence debate for decades now. And the poverty versus achievement tangle we just discussed. And consider the firestorms around whole language versus phonics or math facts and skills versus math concepts. And then there’s the granddaddy of all divides: the dichotomizing of academic versus vocational pursuits.

These binaries get hotly polemical, which creates a lot of heat, but not very much light—especially for the teacher who typically needs to find a balance between dual positions.

From: Diane Ravitch
To: Mike Rose
Subject: RE: Either/Or Thinking in Education

Like you, I have been involved in debating many of these polarities over the past decades. I am certainly not anti-egalitarian. I have long loved the John Dewey quotation that “what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community.” We should not tolerate an educational system in which some families get a great curriculum, excellent teachers, small classes, and wonderful facilities, while other families get meager dollops of all those things. The debate over teacher effectiveness, for example, has completely sidelined this discussion. Instead of talking about resources, we are locked into a fruitless conversation about “effectiveness.” But this is what I find fascinating, Mike. Old adversaries have been contacting me to say that they agree with my critique of accountability and choice. They and I are in the same camp now. What is at stake is the future of public education and the role of schools as a democratizing institution. The old polarities disappear when people realize that public education faces a common threat to its survival.

It’s my contention that it isn’t only American education that is ‘bedeviled by by a kind of either/or thinking about curriculum and pedagogy’. We’ve got plenty of it here in Australia too!

I recently received the following list of ‘desired moves’ for classroom learning from a colleague who always makes me think more deeply and reflect more keenly:

  • Face the front to face each other 
  • Learn from the front to learn from each other 
  • The authority figure to collaborative learning 
  • Individual to group 
  • Fixed to Flexible 
  • Teacher comfort to student confidence 
  • Old to new 

All commendable, all attainable…but all expressed as dichotomies. Polarities that I don’t really think are in ‘opposition’, so to speak. Perhaps born out of frustration, certainly expressed with passion. Yet I can’t help but think that the complexities that are inherent in teaching and learning aren’t easily put on a sliding scale with one concept at one end and an opposing one placed at the other. And I have my doubts that they are authentic dichotomies. Maybe I’m disturbed by these either/or arguments because I’ve spent a good part of my professional life fighting this in my discipline of mathematics. There are, in my view, too many teachers of mathematics who think in either/or terms when it comes to learning and I naturally veer from this.

I think we should always look at the totality of the things that are known to support and deliver optimum learning…and don’t particularly think it’s helpful to believe that everyone is ‘here’ and we need to move to ‘there’. I keep coming back to purpose. If the purpose of the lesson has been clearly articulated then the teacher needs to direct the lesson and re-direct the lesson, as required, to that purpose and consequently design learning experiences that will best elicit the undertandings intended. This can then be accomplished through a range of strategies and approaches that will change as the need changes. It’s a balance. But not like a see-saw balance that sways between two ‘ends’.

I tend to see a lateral spiral as my visual metaphor rather than a sliding scale or tipping see-saw around a fulcrum. Something that cycles through and sometimes breaks out. It’s more curvy, like me!!


About Linda

I have been involved in secondary mathematics education in Victoria, Australia for over 25 years.
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