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Evolving Views on Education and the Nature of Knowledge

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The definition and origin of knowledge is a complexquestion that cuts across many academic disciplines, including Psychology,Education, Philosophy and Biology. Many questions are raised.  Where does knowledge come from?  Do our brains truly create new knowledge or simply reproduce what we have seen, been taught and experienced? The answers to these questions are essential to teaching.  If our brains do not create newknowledge then teachers cannot be expected to inspire their students to createknowledge.  This leads teachers toask, what is the best way to pass knowledge on to future generations?  Ideas regarding the best way to teachfuture generations have evolved through a logical progression and have beenloosely connected to the conceptualization of the nature of knowledge.  However, new ideas have usually addedto, rather than replaced, older ideas. The teaching of literature is especially complex because despite thehistory of teachers forcing children to memorize nursery rhymes and poems; literary studies have generally not been seen only as a series of facts to be memorized.   

     There was a time when knowledge was seen only as static, true and unchanging.  Educators often refer to this view asthe "banking system" of education.  Christine E. Sleeter describes how "The bankingmodel...treats students as empty vessels into which knowledge is poured forretrieval later" (106). Teachers assumed that the set of knowledge students needed to be taughtwould be passed down from generation to generation without undergoing anychanges (Aronowitz 4).  In Darwin's Dangerous Idea Daniel Dennett introduces the idea of a "brain as a sort of dungheap in which the larvae of other people's ideas renew themselves, before sending out copies of themselves in an informational diaspora (346).  Dennett's description seems to be just another metaphor for the banking system of education: The idea that our brainsdo not change the knowledge we are taught.  Both the banking system and Dennett's ideas portray ourbrains not as creators of new knowledge, but as mechanisms meant to perpetuate already established knowledge.

The study of literature traditionally, at least for olderstudents, allowed each student more independent thinking than the averageschool subject.  While math students memorized formulas and history students memorized dates, literature students constructed arguments about the literature they read.  Each generation was expected to becomefamiliar with "classic" works of literature that often had fewconnections to the students' present lives.  Each student was expected to construct their essays withinthe traditional view of this literature and traditional methods of literarycriticism (Vinz 128).  In his essay"Literature as an Institution: The View from 1980," Leslie A. Fiedlertraces the literary canon through the 20th century.  He describes an almost constant struggle to incorporate newworks into the canon.  However, thedesire to incorporate these works almost always stems from a desire for moremodern styles of writing and not a desire to have a more diverse group ofauthors included.  At one point hedescribes current (1980) freshman literature courses at colleges as "alast desperate attempt to impose on our multilingual, multidialectal populationa single correct Anglo-American dialect, brainwashing us out of our variousmother tongues" (82).  Herecognizes the diversity of the United States, but not the diversity ofauthors.  This essay shows how asthe works in the canon changed, the old methods of literary interpretation weresimply applied to new texts. Therefore, the study of literature was just a different form of the"banking" system of education and allowed very little truly original thought.  Although students wereallowed to create variations on the thinking of their predecessors, the mannerof thinking changed very little.

Dennett describes one of the problems with the bankingmethod when he states that he does not like the idea that the brain simplyreproduced knowledge because, "It does seem to rob my mind of its importance as both author and critic" (346).  Thinking and learning can seem pointless if our brains aredestined to simply reproduce past knowledge.  What is the value in learning if students cannot create newknowledge, but are simply passive vessels bringing knowledge to future generations?  Another problem isthat students can lose interest in learning.  What motivates a student if he/she feels he/she can neither find personal connections to the material, nor make a meaningful contributionto the material they study? Educational theorists began to move beyond the banking system ofeducation to create new ways for students to construct knowledge and find motivation to learn.

Interestingly, the history of educational theory itself is evidence against the idea of knowledge as fixed.  The banking system of education views knowledge as fixed,therefore, pedagogical methods themselves would be passed down without changesfrom teachers to their students who become the teachers of the next generation.Educators are influenced by the methods of their former teachers, butpedagogical ideas and methods have changed drastically, even in just the last generation.  Few teachers today endorse the banking method of education. Clearly, pedagogical methods have not remained static, as the banking method would suggest, but have changed drastically.

     Some educators point out that differences in each student's experiences andpersonalities cause them to learn different things, even when they are sittingnext to each other in the same class. This idea conflicts directly with the banking system of educationbecause it implies that knowledge changes when it is transferred from teacherto student.  In their essay titled"Revisiting the Struggle for Integration," Michelle Fine andBernadette Anand give concrete examples of the drastically differentconclusions two students could make from a single experience.  The essay describes a middle schoolproject in which the students conducted and compiled interviews about theintegration of their town's schools in the 1960s.  The essay contains many instances of students interpretingthe interviews in different ways. One notable case is when the students were asked to reflect on thedifferences between the interviews: "A white girl responded, 'It washarder for white people to be involved in the protests because they lostfriends.' At the same moment an African American boy responded, 'White peoplewho were involved took all the credit'" (91). These two children heard thesame interviews; however, their different life experiences led them todrastically different conclusions. Although the project is designed to help students draw their ownconclusions and make their own discoveries, the same phenomenon could occur ina more traditional classroom.  Astudent's mind interprets what it hears. Different students are bound to interpret different experiences differently,no matter how "objective" the subject may seem.    

     Evenas teachers became more aware that students are more than just a receptacle tohold knowledge until it can be passed on to future generations, changes ineducational practice often did not reflect this change in theory.  True questioning of class material israrely encouraged before college. Teachers assume they need to give students a base of knowledge beforestudents can question the nature and origin of this knowledge.  Therefore, instead of engaging studentsby allowing them to create their own meaning, teachers try to engage students by choosing material that reflects the students' experiences.  Emily Style wrote a metaphor for acurriculum that includes material that reflects different student's experiencesin her essay "Curriculum as Window & Mirror."  She explains that, "If the studentis understood as occupying a dwelling of self, education needs to enable thestudent to look through window frames in order to see the realities of othersand into mirrors in order to see her/his own reality reflected (21).  This strategy has been widely adoptedin literature education at all levels. Teachers attempt to help students see both themselves and others inliterature through reading books about "nondominant groups" (Vinz127).  Authors such as ToniMorrison are now so widely read that they can be considered a part of theliterary canon.  However, Vinzdescribes how new types of literature have been added to curriculum withoutchanging traditional methods of literary study.  She explains that "Simply naming a literature education'multicultural' does not disrupt the traditional Western ideological well as the honored practices of literary interpretation"(128).  This effect is especially prevalent in pre-college education. Unfortunately, even though Style's metaphor could be applied to this practice, simply adding new types of literature to the curriculum was not her intention. 

     "Curriculumas Window & Mirror" was first published in 1988 and questioning truth,not simply providing new material, is central to Style's originalargument.  In the second paragraph,through a cartoon, she illustrates how mirrors can lead to the redefinition of truth.  She explains that:

Schultz's dog Snoopy was pictured sitting at his typewriter, writing the cultural truth 'Beauty is only skin deep.' When the dog looked in the mirror however, it made more sense (to the dog) to write 'Beautyis only fur-deep.' In the following day's comic strip, the bird Woodstock hadapparently made a protest; Snoopy responded by shifting the definition to'feather-deep.' Woodstock, too, had looked in the mirror and insisted on naming truth in a way that made the most sense to him.  Perhaps the only truth that remains, after such an exchange,is that 'Beauty is,' still no small truth to expound upon. (21)

This simple cartoon is described in order to demonstrateto the reader that mirrors should be included in the curriculum not only topeak the learners interest in the subject matter, but also to help the learner redefine truth for himself/herself. How does a teacher know if a student will find themselves reflected inthe material?  Is adding books thatportray diversity to the curriculum enough to encourage students to see themselves in the characters and redefine truth for themselves?  Many teachers continue to assume thatadding "multicultural" books to the curriculum will lead students to find deeper meaning in literature classes, even if traditional practices ofteaching literature remain unchanged.

 Ruth Vinzfinds this practice deeply problematic in her essay "Cautions AgainstCanonizing (An) Other Literature." She describes a middle school English teacher, Ms. Ferrell, who demonstrates the problem.  Ms.Ferrell decided to teach the book Annie John to different sections of herEnglish class at different points in the year so she could reflect on andrevise the pedagogical strategies used the first time she taught the book.  The first time she taught she had astated goal.  She wanted the students to see beyond the differences between Annie and themselves torecognize the similarities in the experiences of adolescents everywhere. 

Through the lens of Emily Style, on the surface, this seems to be an admirable goal.  It helps students to not only find connections between the curriculum and theirown lives, but to also possibly reduce prejudice by finding connections betweenadolescents despite possible differences in gender, national origin, ethnicityand possibly even sexual orientation. However, a transcript of class discussionreveals a forced discussion where the teacher inadvertently dismisses student'sideas about the novel.  When Annieis thinking about a British classmate's connection to colonization, twostudents disagree about Annie's opinion. One student, Audre, expresses her opinion that Annie is being"honest" when another student, June, interrupts her to state heropinion that Annie is not honest, but "brainwashed" (Vinz 132).  The students are not allowed to discussthese differing interpretations of Annie further because Ms. Ferrell rejectsthis line of discussion because it does not move toward her stated goal: tohelp students see connections between Annie's life and their own lives.  She redirects the discussion by tellingthe students that they are "moving away from the question" and askingagain "What does Annie teach you about your own attitudes or about howpeople explain the world as they want to see it?"  Ms. Ferrell's stated question neverleads to meaningful discussion, despite repeating her question, in variousways, five times in the short dialogue (Vinz 132).  Why do the students not find meaningful connections betweenthemselves and Annie?  What is theproblem with the "mirror" Ms. Ferrell attempts to give thestudents?  Does her goal for herstudents or her teaching style make this discussion problematic?  Interestingly, Ms. Ferrell sees theseproblems when she reads the transcript of her discussion and discusses it withRuth Vinz.  She herself admits that"I keep them back from important discussion...I don't know why kids should see only themselves" (133). Why did this teaching strategy prevent the students from finding theirown meaning in the novel?  Howcould Style's metaphor work for these students?  Why was adding a book that portrays groups not traditionally present in the literary canon to the curriculum not enough to help the studentscome to a deeper understanding of themselves and others? 

As seen in the Peanuts cartoon, Style intends themetaphor of mirrors and windows to work as a means for students to constructknowledge by seeing themselves and others in the curriculum.  Ms. Ferrell wants Annie John to serveas a mirror for her students, but a teacher cannot always predict which textswill serve as mirrors for students and which texts will serve as windows.  Ms. Ferrell does not allow students to create their own meaning out of the text. Instead, she attempts to dictate the meaning the students will ultimately find in the book before they even begin reading the book. 

Understandably, Ms. Ferrell finds the idea of allowing her young students to use a text to construct their own knowledge a littlescary.  She recognizes that shedoes not want students to investigate certain issues, such as sexuality,because they make her uncomfortable (Vinz 133).  College students are commonly allowed and even expected todo this, but in the younger grades the teachers tend to guide their students towardsa set end point in the lesson. Discussions directed by twelve year olds could easily become out of control, inappropriate or off topic. Young students could also come to superficial or even prejudicedconclusions when allowed to direct the analysis of a text.  These risks can be scary for ateacher.  However, by trying to guide students to a set conclusion, instead of setting out on an explorationwith the students, Ms. Ferrell failed to move very far beyond traditionalmethods of teaching literature. This example demonstrates a common practice in teaching literature toyoung students: The content of the curriculum has changed drastically, but theteacher still greatly limits the meaning the students are allowed to find inthe literature they read.

Educational theory itself has begun to recognize that implementing theory in a classroom is complex.  When expressed theoretically, an educational idea can seemstraightforward. However, both students and teachers are genuinely complex people with individual desires and fears. When teachers and students interact in a classroom, the results areunpredictable and multilayered. "Curriculum as Window & Mirror" is a fairly short and seemingly straightforward article, but it can bring up difficult issues in aclassroom.  No matter how cleareducational theory seems, it must evolve to fit each class and even each student.  Bryn Mawr College education classes recognize the inherently incomplete nature of educationaltheory by requiring field work for every class.  In describing the requirement to take field notes, Jody Cohen instructs her Multicultural Education class to write: "Using your evolving notion of multicultural education as a lens: What can you learn aboutmulticultural education from what's going on at this site? What are yourongoing hypotheses and questions?" (3).  Perhaps educational theory has evolved to a point where thetheories themselves have come to an understanding that while theory isimportant, each teacher's ideas about education need to continually evolve to fit each new teaching experience.  

     Educational theory has gone through an evolutionary process, and yet few of the past theories have faced extinction. The banking system lives on through the current standards movement.  All students are expected to learn thesame material and that knowledge is seen as unchanging.  Individual students cannot effectchange in the knowledge they are given because the level of each student'slearning and knowledge is ultimately judged not by teachers who know them individually, but by statewide tests.  Furthermore, teaching strategies are passed down not only from theorists to teachers, but also from teachers to students.  No matter how much theory a teacherreads, his/her teaching will continue to be influenced, in some way, by his/herown experiences as a student. These experiences as a student may or may not reflect currenteducational theories.  Ideas surrounding education can change drastically during a teacher's career and sothe beliefs of his/her former teachers may be very different from current thinking.  The evolution ofeducational theory is much like biological evolution in that genes do notdisappear, but simply take on new forms. Similarly, past educational theories do not disappear into oblivion, butlive on through the teachers whose teachers believed in them, current educational practice, and even sometimes, state legislators.


Works Cited

Aronowitz, Stanley. Introduction. Pedagogy of Freedom:Ethics, Democracy and Civic

Courage.  ByPaulo Freire. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1998. 1-19.

Cohen, Jody. Education 260: Multicultural Education.Spring 2009 Syllabus.

Dennett, Daniel. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simonand Schuster Paperbacks,


Fiedler, Leslie A. "Literature as an Institution:The View from 1980." English Literature:

Opening Up the Canon. Ed. Leslie A Fiedler and Houston A.Baker, Jr. Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 1981. 73-91

Fine, Michelle and Bernadette Anand. "Revisiting theStruggle for Integration."

Controversies in the Classroom: A Radical Teacher Reader.Ed. Joseph Entin, Robert C Rosen and Leonard Vogt. New York: Teachers CollegePress, 2008.  85-95

Sleeter, Christine E. Un-Standardizing Curriculum:Multicultural Teaching in the

Standards-Based Classroom. New York: Teachers CollegePress, 2005.

Style, Emily. "Curriculum as Window &Mirror." National Seeking Educational Equity

& Diversity Project, Wellesley College Center forResearch on Women. Social Science Record (1996): 21-28.

Vinz, Ruth. "Cautions Against Canonizing (An) OtherLiterature." Multicultural

Curriculum:New Directions for Social Theory, Practice, and Policy. Ed. Ram Mahalingam andCameron McCarthy. New York: Routledge, 2000. 127-154