Getting back to teaching as a subversive activity

Today, the 11th January, 2016, marks a return to work for many in New Zealand. Summer has barely begun (indeed the best is to come), yet the shift back into routine cannot be delayed any longer. Schools and teachers will make a more gradual awakening, coming fully to life by about the beginning of February. Prospective student teachers will have an even slower start, with their first semester commencing by the beginning of March, although the ones who are choosing the pressure-cooker, compressed Master level postgraduate teaching qualification make their start somewhat earlier (and this notion of a ‘postgraduate profession’ probably deserves its own blog posting sometime in the future).

Despite enjoyable summer days at the beach still to come, some of these students will no doubt be turning their thoughts in anticipation to the year ahead, as indeed, should be the academics who will guide them along the way. On that note, I thought about some of the exciting ideas I was introduced to in my first year of Education study, and amongst these were the ideas presented by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, in their 1969 book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity.  These authors have been credited with popularising inquiry learning.

Suppose (suggested Postman & Weingartner), all the syllabi and curricula and textbooks in the schools disappeared…In other words, suppose that the most common material impeding innovation in the schools simply did not exist. Then suppose that you decided to turn this ‘catastrophe’ into an opportunity to increase the relevance of the schools…

[Now instead] suppose that you decide to have the entire ‘curriculum’ consist of questions. These questions would have to be worth seeking answers to not only from your point of view, but more importantly, from the point of view of the students…add the requirement that the questions must help the students to develop and internalize concepts that will help them to survive in the rapidly changing world of the present and the future. (1969, p. 65).

There are some remarkable features in this portion just quoted. The first is that it is the opening of a chapter entitled, ‘what’s worth knowing?’, in itself a critical question any educator (or prospective educator) ought to ask. Or, a question any critical educator should ask! And the answer is likely to have much to do with the final sentence of the quote above. That is a second remarkable feature of the quoted material, because it was written nearly half a century back. The insight suggested by Postman and Weingartner seems lost, however, on the army of commentators, experts and ‘modern educators’ who speak of educating and learning for the ’21st century’, using precisely the same words, yet in an evangelistic manner suggesting that they have just invented this ‘great new idea’.

A further figure of importance who suggested ideas that cohere well with those already suggested, was Paulo Freire. In particular, his notion of ‘problem posing education‘ is one that sits well with the idea of turning the questions students have into the ‘text’ of the class. In their quest for relevant knowledge, educators will do well to honour the insights of their predecessors, as well as to apply critical standards to their own work in the present.

A final thought then: a third remarkable feature of the quoted material from Postman and Weingartner is their warning that standards, texts and curricula impede innovation in the classroom. This is a warning that is often repeated, yet teachers and schools work in the midst of neoliberal  accountability demands and a public climate that projects teachers as part of the problem leaving them with few options, it seems. While this seems a dire note on which to conclude, as a new year begins to unfold, critical educators must continue to seek opportunities to teach subversively, if any of their dreams of a transformative education are to be realised.

3 thoughts on “Getting back to teaching as a subversive activity

  1. Nice. I absolutely concur, tho the beginning of the year at high school is often a jolting spasm of colliding interests, timetable changes, expectations, expertise and goals.

    Yes to Subversive Teaching. I’ve been proud to be part of a liberal profession, which seems even more important in the present neoliberal climate.

    I’ve taught under a myriad of curriculum’s & am with Postman & Weingartner in that they can be dreadfully stifling.

    Teachers are where the rubber hits the road, & they need to be able to respond quickly to the questioning formulation and needs of contemporary students, without a document, that quickly becomes dated, between them.

    What is worth knowing- could be modified to What is knowing worth- in a progressively more data driven surveillance society.

    The 21st century, is a hilarious buzz phrase, especially when so much of what goes on in schools, their structures and environments is barely discernible from the 70s, based on a 16th century idea of reason and science that has then been passed through the needs of the industrial revolution.

    Pay teachers more.


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