Teaching as a Subversive Activity

The first term this year at The Rivers School, I was fortunate to share an office with four middle school educators. One teaches math to reluctant 7th graders. Three teach 8th grade humanities. All had a wealth of interesting books on their desks.

These are on the desk of one of the humanities teachers.

Eighth-grade humanities called “Systems of Justice and Injustice,” is an interdisciplinary course exploring the American experience and Constitution through both history and literature. Integrating the approaches of English and social studies, this class focuses on how structures of the United States government have shaped—and been shaped by—pivotal moments in American history in the continual efforts toward forming “a more perfect Union.”

These books are on another teachers desk.
I pulled this one out of the stacks to read.

In Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Chatles Weingartner (Delacorte Press, 1969) write that schools have curricula that are trivial and irrelevant to students’ lives. “It is the thesis of this book that change—constant, accelerating, ubiquitous—is the most striking characteristic of the world we live in and that our educational system has not yet recognized this fact.”

School need to install the abilities and attitudes required to deal adequately with change and young people to master concepts necessary to survival in a rapidly changing world.

“School” as it is today – is irrelevant, shields children from reality, educates for obsolescence, does not develop intelligence, is based on fear, avoids the promotion of significant learnings, induces alienation, punishes creativity and independence, and is not doing what needs to be done.

Professional educators must work to change our educational system to fit present realities.

They write that certain characteristics are common to all good learners (Postman and Weingartner, pp. 31–33), saying that all good learners have:

• Self-confidence in their learning ability
• Pleasure in problem solving
• A keen sense of relevance
• Reliance on their own judgment over other people’s or society’s
• No fear of being wrong
• No haste in answering
• Flexibility in point of view
• Respect for facts, and the ability to distinguish between fact and opinion
• No need for final answers to all questions, and comfort in not knowing an answer to difficult questions rather than settling for a simplistic answer

In an attempt to instill students with these qualities and behaviors, a teacher adhering to the inquiry method in pedagogy must behave very differently from a traditional teacher. Postman and Weingartner suggest that inquiry teachers have the following characteristics (pp. 34–37):

  • They avoid telling students what they “ought to know”.
  • They talk to students mostly by questioning, and especially by asking divergent questions.
  • They do not accept short, simple answers to questions.
  • They encourage students to interact directly with one another, and avoid judging what is said in student interactions.
  • They do not summarize students’ discussion.
  • They do not plan the exact direction of their lessons in advance, and allow it to develop in response to students’ interests.
  • Their lessons pose problems to students.
  • They gauge their success by change in students’ inquiry behaviors (with the above characteristics of “good learners” as a goal).

Students must develop an awareness of freedom, a will to exercise it and the “intellectual power” and perspective to be effective.

“Educational discourse, especially among the educated, is so laden with preconceptions that it is practically impossible to introduce an idea that does not fit into traditional categories.”

“Knowledge is produced in response to questions. And new knowledge results from the asking of new questions: quite often new questions about old questions. Here is the point: Once you have learned how to ask questions – relevant and appropriate and substantial questions – you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.”

“Asking questions is behavior. If you don’t do it, you don’t learn to do it.”

When you design your questions tart with –> What is worth knowing?

  • Will your questions increase the learner’s will as well as their capacity to learn?
  • Will they help give the learner a sense of joy in learning?
  • Will they provide the learner with confidence in their ability to learn?
  • In order to get answers, will the learner be required to make inquiries? (Ask further questions, clarify terms, make observations, classify data, etc.?
  • Does each question allow for alternative answers (which implies alternative modes of inquiry )?
  • Will the process of answering the questions tend to stress the learner’s uniqueness?
  • Would the questions produce different answers if asked at different stages of the learner’s development?
  • Will the answers help the learner to sense and understand the universals in the human condition and so enhance the learner’s ability to draw closer to other people?

The six “new” fundamentals of education should be:

  1. the need for other people
  2. The need for good communication with other people
  3. the need for a loving relationship with other people
  4. the need for a workable concept of self
  5. the need for freedom
  6. the need to know how to learn

“The process of becoming an effective social being is contingent upon seeing the other’d point of view.”

“…the meaning of perception is how it causes us to act.”

“We have been acting in schools as if knowledge lies outside the learner, …You would certainly not expect that the ‘same’ knowledge is to be learned by every student.”

“…many children, particularly minority-group children, turn out dull because their teachers expect them to be dull.”

“We see things not as ‘they’ are, but as we are.”

“As studies in perception indicate, we do not “get” meaning from things, we assign meaning.”

“…language is not merely a vehicle of expression, it is also the driver; and that what we perceive, and therefore can learn, is a function of our language processes.”

Before American schools can be saved, they must first be destroyed. That purpose of school is to teach students how to learn and think—is as valid today as it was today as when it was written way back in 1968. It’s about letting students take control of their learning, because if you try and force people to do things they don’t want to, or don’t find useful, it’s a continual uphill struggle. Instead, work with them. Learning is a verb, not a noun. A process, not a product.

Click here to download a PDF of the book.

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