Monday, August 7, 2017


Just about every time I hear or see something about teachers and teaching, especially in the popular media, I cringe. The media, politicians, and even teachers themselves perpetuate the “institutional” myths of teachers and teaching. In addition to teaching in grades 2 through 12, I also taught in university teacher education programs. One may hope that at the university, programmatic efforts would be taken to expose such myths. But, for the most part, I found just the opposite. Although there are a few faculty members who work to expose such myths and help teachers think differently about teaching and learning, the programmatic emphases are on promoting the status quo. In fact, one teacher training department in its monthly meeting decided that all courses needed to emphasize methods of teaching to the tests and of following “teacher-proof” curriculums.
This brings up the issue of:
  • what is the purpose of education (in any field, at any level)?
This question is not as easy as one may think, because there are some key corollary questions that need to be considered as well.
  • Who benefits from this purpose?
  • How does this purpose affect society?
For you, what is the purpose of education? Is it to prepare someone for a job? Is it to prepare people to participate in their country’s political system? Is it to acquire the great knowledge of humanity’s cultural and scientific history? Is it to acquire knowledge of one’s religion in a modern context? For each of these purposes expressed as questions, think about who benefits from that particular purpose, and how that purpose affect society.
For instance, if the purpose of education is to prepare one for a job, who benefits? You may say, that it is the student who benefits by being able to get a job. But, what happens if that job disappears by the time the student is ready to look for work? Or, what happens if the student changes his or her mind about what to do? From another perspective, the corporations and their top-level officers benefit from a job preparation purpose. They get workers without having to do as much training. They also may get workers who have been socialized to be obedient, to conform to the status quo, to not question authority, to follow rules and regulations, to be prompt and on time, and to not think critically about employer—employee relationships or about relationships between corporations, social justice issues, and environmental issues.
Having obedient and compliant employees is beneficial to corporations that value authoritarian leadership. However, such qualities among employees may be problematic for democratic societies, where citizens need to think critically about the issues facing their country and about their politicians. A democratic society should value non-conformists, civil disobedience when necessary, the questioning of authority, and those who do not accept rules and patterns of behavior on face value. From this perspective variation and diversity are essential to the survival and well-being of society.
But, let us get back to the myths of teaching and the teacher.
Politicians and corporations have been battling it out for control of education in the United States for well over a century. Why has there been such an interest in controlling education? If you control education, you can control the population. Corporations are interested in profits, and a true democracy is a threat to maximizing profits.

Read these for a great treatment of this issue:
  • Marshall, J. D., Sears, J. T., & Allen, L. A. (2007). Turning points in curriculum (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Gatto, J. T. (2002). Some lessons from the underground history of American education. In R. Kick (Ed.), Everything You Know Is Wrong: the Disinformation Guide to Secrets and Lies (pp. 274–287). New York: The Disinformation Company.

As corporate and political control has increased over the past few decades, teachers are under incredible pressure to conform to the demands. From teacher education programs to their schools and school districts, the pressure to march in-step with the corporate agenda is incredibly intense.
Teaching at its best values the diversity of teachers and their knowledge, passions, personalities, quirkiness, and all the rest. This diversity puts humanity in the teaching context. By valuing teacher diversity, we also can value children’s diversity. No child is left feeling marginalized. And, just as in ecosystems, diversity is a key to survival. Such survival is learning at its core.
Diversity also is the basis for creativity. New and innovative ideas do not arise out of conformity and mono-cultural contexts. Creativity brings life and excitement into teaching and learning. Teachers and students thrive in environments that value and nourish creativity. But, the corporate versions of teachers and classrooms have suppressed creativity. Children are bored and turned off. Teachers are bored and stressed.
The effects of the corporatization of teachers and teaching is the ZOMBIFICATION of teachers and students. As one student said, “zombies can’t think” (Bateson, N., 2016). They follow their noses and follow orders, but they can’t think creativity or critically.
But, the “myths” of the teacher and of teaching are based on older ideas that arose and became embedded in social consciousness during the scientific revolution. Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton transformed global societies over the next few centuries. Their fundamental, transformative ideas were that:
  • science and the scientific method could establish an objective truth (also known as positivism in philosophical terms);
  • by studying and understanding the parts of something, we could understand how the whole “something” works (also known as reductionism);
  • everything in the universe worked like a machine and could be understood from that perspective (also known as mechanism).
As science moves beyond these constraining ideas to a view of “complex systems” (where uncertainty, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and systems work in nonlinear and nonmechanistic ways), the social embeddedness of these three ideas has not been changing. We still operate on these three assumptions, which lie at the core of the zombification process today.
So, the myth of the teacher and of teaching is that it is a mechanistic process. We can tell a teacher how to teach and they will be able to teach successfully. There are tons of books and articles that do just this. They are cookbook approaches to teaching, classroom management, and so forth. And, they all miss the point.
Teaching and teachers can be understood by examining all of the different parts of being a teacher and of the processes of teaching. And, we can children most effectively by breaking down everything into its component parts. By doing this, they will understand the whole “thing,” whatever that may be. Again, such approaches miss the mark and lead us down a garden path.
And, of course, education is stuck on the one correct answer. The whole idea of testing is based on correct answers, with no room for different interpretations or variations. The teacher is in the role of always knowing the right answers, even though they often propagate incorrect information. Teacher education programs, textbooks, and all kinds of teaching and curriculum materials promote the acquisition of correct information as the primary goal of education. There is no attention paid to the multiple interacting contexts in which information occurs and is relevant. In fact, these interacting contexts are where meaning and relevance lie, but teachers are not encouraged to go into these areas.
Bateson, N. (2016). Small arcs of larger circles: Framing through other patterns. Axminster, England: Triarchy Press.

Jeff Bloom is a professor emeritus of science education and curriculum studies at Northern Arizona University. Prior to working at NAU, he worked at Morgan State University (Maryland, USA). Acadia University (Canada), and Queens University (Canada). He has been teaching undergraduate science teaching methods and a variety of graduate courses in curriculum studies, professional problems of teachers, qualitative research methods, among others. For several years, he taught a freshman seminar called Ecology of Mind, which used Nora Bateson’s film, An Ecology of Mind, as a central focus for exploring systems thinking, pattern thinking, relationships, double binds, and a variety of social and ecological issues. He retired from NAU in December, 2014. Since then he has been devoting his time to working with the International Bateson Institute and personal project in complexity, education, and ecology. 

Jeff has published two books on science teaching (with 2 editions) and on essential science concepts for teachers. He also has published numerous book chapters and journal articles on children’s cognition and discourse, teacher thinking, metapatterns in education, relationships in teacher education, and a variety of issues of complex systems in teaching, learning, and curriculum. These articles have appeared in the journals, Science Education, International Journal of Science Education, Journal of the Learning Sciences, Kybernetes, Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity in Education, and Curriculum and Teaching. In addition, he has presented numerous papers at research conferences. His work has focused on children’s contexts of meaning, children’s discourse as complex phenomena, pattern thinking and metapatterns in curriculum and research, systems—creativity—patterns, relationships as a basis for classroom communities, and relationships as the focus of learning.

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