|Philosophy of Education:
Essay Completed While completing my Masters of Education Degree at Michigan State University
|The exploration of the self and how it relates to the world at large is the greatest challenge education can provide. My main job as a teacher therefore, is to provide opportunities and support for students to involve themselves and others in the challenge of self exploration and discovery. Learning about the ideas and reasons that move our spirit and our actions is by no means an easy task especially when you begin to explore the different perspectives involved in an in-depth study of the reasons and powers behind our actions and beliefs. My own path of self-exploration while at Michigan State University presented me with struggles that were difficult to overcome, but that also afforded me a greater insight into my own character and beliefs while providing continued opportunities for reflection and change in my practice as a teacher. It is this same opportunity and challenge that I strive to give my students in my classroom in the hopes that such exploration will also give them a greater self awareness and paths for improvement in their daily lives.
Teaching social studies has been a great medium for me to help students explore their beliefs and actions. In a sense, I find myself as the character “Morpheus” in the movie The Matrix and my students as the character “Neo.” Neo was a young man who wanted to find the truth of his existence, and kept trying to find it without success until Morpheus came to him and gave him the opportunity to know the truth about his existence by taking a red pill from his hand. There was also a blue pill in his hand, and if Neo took the blue pill, he would forget that Morpheus ever talked to him and he could go back to his normal life. If he took the red pill, however, he would forever be altered, and returning to his former self would be impossible. Neo chose the red pill, and doing so changed his life forever. It is debatable whether the change Neo went through as a result of his choice to be enlightened about life was positive or negative for him, but he, at the end of the film, decided to use his new reality and position to his advantage and hopefully that of the whole world. In no way am I implying that I have Morpheus’ wisdom or power. Still, as a teacher, I have the pills of questioning and challenging “truth” and I give my students the daily choice to take that pill of exploration and move into the unknown. Some students take it as candy, for others it is a hard pill to swallow, for some it is a matter of diluting it in some water, others put it under their tongs while I am on the lookout and then spit it out, and there are those who refuse to even take it from my hand. My power as a teacher lies in the fact that I have been given these pills, these tools to help students explore their world, and every day I choose to share them through critical exploration of assumed ideas and beliefs, high expectations and my personal involvement on my growth as a continuing learner.
Although there have been many paths and ideas that my involvement in the MSU Program has provided, I would like to concentrate on the theme that has most greatly influenced my own growth as a teacher and therefore my classroom as well; that of power issues in education and their effects on schools and society at large.
Since my first political science class at Smith College, I have been fascinated with issues of politics, philosophies about human nature, and questions regarding the individual’s role in society. Before becoming a teacher, my dream had been to work either for the United Nations or to become a diplomat. Not having the economic resources to attend the American University’s International Relations Graduate Program to which I was accepted and being disillusioned with the political status quo in Washington D.C. after a summer of working for my congressman, I decided to explore other career paths away from politics. After a very unrewarding one and a half years spent in glorified secretarial positions in corporate America, I decided to make a change and enter the undiscovered world of education by teaching ESL in Japan (Statement of Purpose Paper). Seven years later I found myself in Valbonne, France learning for the first time in my “career” as a teacher about the theory and practice behind teaching. I was asked to examine the meanings behind my actions, the explanations and justifications of those activities I had learn by trial and error in the classroom. Many ideas and realizations surprised me. First, I was very glad to actively think about the kind of teacher that I wanted to be. In my classes I had been judging my own teaching by my standards, but it was very refreshing and powerful for me to realize from where these seemingly intangible but essential ideas about what was right or wrong practice came. I realized that my own teachers had affected my perceptions and attitudes about learning greatly. The story of how Mr. Zigrozi’s help and belief in me came to mind as I tried to think of what makes a teacher “good”; to help and believe in your students regardless of how they stand in the class. I realized that my passion for the environment and the criticisms I had for how we were treating our world came straight from my environmental politics class at Smith years earlier. Even more important, I realized that the very idea I have that students are responsible for their own learning came from this class, and others, and that my belief in empowering the students to learn for themselves as an integral part of learning came from my own positive experience in these classes as well. But, what does it mean to empower the students? What does an empowered student look like? How does empowering the student help her reach success? These questions began to weigh heavily on my mind, and continue to be a primary focus of my own learning process.
My TE811 class presented me with the first serious philosophical dilemmas between my own views on student (and teacher) empowerment and the realities in many of our school systems. My paper on our reading of Dr. N.C. Burbules’: “Postmodern Doubt and Philosophy of Education” helped me understand the difference between being able to question and being able to affect change. Although Burbules argues that we can be post-modernist educators by questioning and inviting others to question, as I mentioned in my paper, that is just the beginning of the process. I came to believe that simply encouraging students to question the systems in which they live, does not completely empower them because the crucial outcome of affecting change as a result of their questioning and participating in a democratic process continues to be denied by those that hold power over them in school and society. Teachers as well as students must be ready to affect change for the ideas that they feel strongly about in the school setting, and the school must present a real opportunity for them to do so. Giving students the hunger to question without providing them with the chances and responsibilities that come with affecting change denies them real empowerment in the political sense.
When I returned to my class after finishing my Valbonne courses, I was energized by my new perspectives in classroom democracy. I decided that if presented with an opportunity to affect change positively, I would try to affect change and empower the students in the process. The chance came soon after the beginning of the year, and unfortunately it reinforced the contradiction between the right to question and the inability to democratically affect change. My eight grade social studies class that year happened to be during periods two and three which fall between 9:30 to 11:20am. It was evident to me that there were many students coming to class hungry because our kids have to ride the bus to school for an average of one hour, and even if they have eaten breakfast the time lapse between their morning and noon meal is about five hours. Add the fact that many kids do not eat breakfast because they wake up late, and many do not eat lunch because they have tests to make up, or homework to do. The result was that many kids began to ask me if they could eat a little snack in between the two halves of my class. In our handbook it was specified that students could not eat in the classroom except at the discretion of the teacher. Although the status quo in the school is that food equals “party” and that therefore it would be disruptive to the process of learning, I asked my students for a vote since my concern was to affect democratic change. All the students were for the idea of having a snack in the class, so I decided to give them the right to have a snack with the condition that it was my understanding that they would be responsible for three things: not being late for class (in order to go get a snack), not letting the food distract our activities, and also making a concerted effort to bring a “healthy” snack (the school at the time was going through a “healthy choices” campaign related to drugs and alcohol, so I decided it would be a good piggy-back idea to include it in my “democratic experiment.”) For about four months everything went very well.
The kids acted responsibly, lessons continued as planned, and the kids increasingly made healthy eating decisions about their mid-morning snack. One afternoon at a faculty meeting one of the other eight grade teachers confronted me with the question: What is going on in your class Sara? Are you partying every day? When I asked him where this accusation was coming from he said that two students had asked him if they could leave early from his class because they needed to go to the kiosk to get a snack for my class. As a result a gigantic can of worms was opened in the middle school regarding my class and my decision to allow the students to make a decision about the food. Teachers were angry because the “understood policy” was no food or drink in the building (even though under the handbook I was within my right to do so). Throughout the debate no one ever questioned their assumptions about students’ behavior when given responsibility; no one listened to what I had observed for the last four months. To them, I had created the problem, so it fell to me to “solve” it. My superiors were also very much against the idea of the food, and although they and others had valid arguments, there was never a chance for me, or the student council to debate this issue (which was clearly important to many students) and to come to a democratic conclusion or compromise. Students in my class were outraged, first at the two students who had abused their “privilege,” and second, at the school because they had once again been denied a voice in the system. Once again I heard them say “What is the point?” and once again, they gave many examples of the many issues in which they had been denied a say. Democratic empowerment in this case, only made their fall harder in the end; the loss of a privilege that they had overwhelmingly benefited from became harder to swallow.
I told them at the time that if they really believed in the issue, they should write petitions, protest and even strike (and I said I would back them in public, which I meant), but they gave up because in the end they knew that the power was not in their hands (or mine). Reading the book “The Predictable Failure of School Reform” by S.B. Sarason during my TE 870 class reminded me of this event with the quote: “Teachers regard students the way their superiors regard them-that is, as incapable of dealing responsibly with issues of power, even on the level of discussion.” (p. 83). This year in my TE808 class I am learning about the value of “Action Research,” and I wish that I had thought about this methodology before starting the food “experiment” because perhaps with actual data or field observations, I could have attached more validity to my observations, or at least, I could have looked at whether my assumptions about their “responsible behavior” could have been put to the test. It is unfortunate that since that incident occurred, the handbook has been altered (the limitations of when a teacher may use food in the classroom are now clearly stated), so trying to affect change on the school’s policy in the same way will be very difficult if not impossible.
In my own experience as a student in the MSU Program I have felt the intangible but real struggle of power issues. Because I teach students and I have expectations regarding preferred outcomes in my class I can understand the power issues that arise due to time constrains, high expectations and logistical issues of the program. Still, it has been interesting for me to observe these issues as a student not as a teacher. Two experiences come to mind. One was during my TE 811 class where I wrote a paper based on Dewey which looked critically at the current educational system by giving some examples from past ideas that I had collected through readings, or by talking to people that had experienced marginalization in American schools. My professor did not agree with my ideas, and although I understood and accepted his valid criticism of it, the arguments in my paper (my criticisms of the system as a democratic one) were never addressed or argued in class, which I felt was the essence of the assignment: To discuss and explore how the many philosophies we learned about relate to contemporary education. To me, other than the hard lesson of having the burden of proof beyond doubt when arguing against the accepted norm, that experience taught me that even at the highest levels in our educational system there is fear of thoroughly examining the criticisms of those who like me, feel that our system of education has very serious shortcomings as a truly democratic one.
More recently, in our TE 870 class, power struggles between students and even between the professor and students became evident. Large class discussions, for example tended to be dominated by very few students, and more than once I heard people outside of class complaining about a discomfort or a lack of power in the class. In my view, we all have equal power potential, but we choose to give that power away because we either fear reprisal or criticism. Still, even here, where we are all teachers and colleagues, the sense of different power levels was experienced, and students seemed to quickly adjust to their roles as either more, or less powerful instead of trying to affect change in the structure of the class system. The fact that our discussions centered on the issue of “Power and School Reform,” gave the tone of the class an ironic twist in my mind. Our professor’s power held us to the set curriculum agenda he had planned regardless of our discontent. We, the students, adjusted to it by either complying or refusing to participate actively. Power struggles in the classroom are not rare. Indeed they are forged daily by the teachers and students, and being a student helped me see that regardless of age or status, questioning those that are above us in power (whether real or perceived) is a very difficult process that most of us shy away from.
So, what do these personal lessons as a student in the MSU program mean to me in my classroom? Certainly, experiencing issues of power as a student makes me question how I come across to my students in my classroom as the holder of power (Teacher Power paper). Granted, I have experimented with the idea of the democratic classroom with the issue of food, and also with the practice of letting the kids decide the scale of grading for the year after a class discussion. Still, I know I have a tendency to want to control the outcomes in my classroom greatly. Other than the obvious pressures that I feel from the administration or other colleagues to follow a set school agenda, I realized that I am afraid of giving up too much power because there are definite ideas that I would like my students to “learn” in the class. I do not think this tendency to be unique, but I do think it is in the end deleterious to true learning and therefore empowerment of the student in my classroom. I know that my curriculum is mine, not the students’. Lessons are forced on them even if they are given small choices within that curriculum. Perhaps, the students become too aware of what my agenda is, and are less likely to truly open up in discussions. That is not an outcome I want to perpetuate in my class, so I strive to constantly be aware of my tendency to hold too much power in class, and let the students take more control of their own outcomes. This coming year I will be conducting an action research project in which I will give more autonomy to my students in discussions and activities to ascertain whether my Immigration Unit actually affects any changes in their perceptions of immigration. My hope at this point is to see them more interested in their own ideas and in developing those ideas to the best of their abilities because they see the intrinsic value in doing so, not because it is dictated to them.
It was also fascinating for me to realize how much rigidity I have in my curriculum. I had always thought that my class was a bastion of freedom, a place were the post-modernist student would find herself truly at home. Although discussion sessions in my class do offer opportunities for “free” discussion, when it comes to curriculum and expected outcomes, there is a definite agenda that I subscribe to in my teaching. Both “My Modernistic Tendencies in Curriculum” and “My Concluding Remarks” papers from my TE 818 Curriculum in its Social Context class gave me new and unexpected insights into my teaching and expectations of my students. I realized that even though one of my biggest hopes for my students is that they learn to question assumptions thereby thinking critically for themselves, my curriculum has to follow a set agenda. The best I can do for my students then is to tailor that curriculum to not only fit the school’s agenda, but also mold it so I can give every student enough flexibility to grow. To further understand how I hold power in the classroom, I will begin an action research project that will look at my classes’ discussion sessions during the year after completing my immigration action research project mentioned above. I would like to further understand my use of class time, and explore whether truly every child in the class feels empowered to participate actively in class activities and discussions.
Going back to the Matrix example I spoke of earlier, the question of what is the value of affecting critical thinking in myself or my students (of taking the pill of questioning), becomes an important moral question for me. We have all heard the phrase: “Ignorance is bliss,” and when I look at the difficult experiences I have gone through by questioning my assumptions and my beliefs, I sometimes wonder whether there is not a grain of truth in that phrase. Certainly, not being aware of my prejudices and actions which may harm others may mean that I would not worry about such matters, and would go about my daily life with ease. Perhaps if I lived somewhere in the past, in a place where all that was expected of me was to get up, cook meals and pray for good weather that might be possible (again, assumption!), but the fact is that I do not live such a life and neither do my students. I am a part of the modern world, a world that is full of complications, injustice, environmental degradation and interconnections that are increasingly affecting all of us regardless of where in the world we live, what our daily life is or what our economic circumstances are. It seems to me that it is no longer a choice of “to be a part of the system that we live in or not”, but rather it is a choice of “how we want to live in the system of which we are a part.” Many times in my classes I have seen the pain my students go through with the lessons we have (looking at present day slavery, examining our responsibilities in environmental degradation, etc). Still, I feel that it is my responsibility to open up questions, possibilities and doubts through which students can begin to not only be empowered to analyze their society, but more importantly gain the necessary tools to affect change in the future.
The examination of how technology affects our lives, for example, has presented me with the opportunity to affect critical thinking in my students. New technologies have always exerted tremendous power in the process of change in our societies ever since people learned how to harness fire. Twenty-first century history is certainly no exception. In our lifetime, the computer has been such a technology. Before entering the MSU program I would have never thought that the computer would become a major tool in my life as a teacher and personally, I still feel that the technology we use today (computer, cell phone, email, etc) although useful in some ways is not necessary for learning or for a happy life. Still, it became clear to me that computers are here to stay and more importantly, our students view them, as well as other modern technology, as we might have viewed the T.V.; as a natural part of their lives. Further, modern technology has always been the tool of the powerful over those that do not have it, and in our world today understanding how such tools are used in affecting power is an essential part of becoming an empowered individual. With this realization in mind, I felt that learning how to use technology effectively would be far more positive than complaining about it, so I embarked on the path of MSU’s Virtual University. In my EAD860 course we examined the learning styles of the “Net-Generation”, and the different perspectives that kids today may have about learning, schools and society as a result of the internet. I had experience trepidation about knowing less than my students when it came to computers, but I never thought about how I might be trying to control the use of technology in the classroom because of my fear that the kids are the “Experts,” not me. In regards to technology, power relations between teachers and students are changing because of the dissemination and availability of information on the internet. The teacher may have a certain curriculum and information that she accepts, but the students have the “expertise” of thousands of sources that may or may not coincide with the teacher’s point of view. Learning how to use technology became a central theme for my own professional growth as a teacher.
Such growth became a reality through my CEP813 Electronic Portfolio’s class, in which I learned how to make web pages for myself (this portfolio is the result), and also, I explored the use of the internet to create a “paperless” class. I was very excited not only to find a new medium for my own creativity, but also, to realize the great possibilities that such a medium can give to my students for their own empowerment. In academia, publishing has been reserved for the “experts,” but now those with web access can become published writers and can gain a worldwide audience. Such individual power may in the future begin to radically alter the relations of power in education, although that is yet to be seen. I decided to give my “Earth 911” students the opportunity to publish their work, a class that seemed like the perfect place to get started because of its small size and the fact that creating a “paperless” class is environmentally sound. At this point I feel that I need more time to assess the learning outcomes of the project, but overall, the response from both the students and the school community has been positive about the new format of the class. Certainly, for my students it became very important to do a good job with their work after they realized they were going to publish it on the web. The effects of using computer technology in education are yet to be fully explored, but I would venture to guess that the power relationships between teachers and students at all levels might be altered as it will no longer be a relationship between two people, the student and the teacher, but a relationship between the student, the teacher and the world! Accountability for student performance, curriculum and assessment could drastically be altered. Perhaps it is because technology represents such an “unknown” and “uncontrolled” power that we still fear its effects in our classrooms even though we enjoy the benefits it may afford us.
My TE866 K-12 Social Studies Curriculum class became the catalyst of my study of Globalization and how its power over the global scene is affecting all our societies. Globalization, in my opinion, is the new battleground of world power relations, one in which all of us already play a part regardless of whether we are aware of it or not. As producers and consumers of the goods that continue to increase the economic and political power of multi-national corporations we are an integral part of the Globalization game, and above any other topic, I feel it of paramount importance that my students learn about it, and also critically question their role and choices within the new system. In my TE866 class, I had the opportunity to explore the technology unit that I teach, and to develop new projects that ask the students to explore issues such as labor relations, corporate influence, materialism, consumerism, environmental issues, and new corporate practices such as genetic engineered food to name a few. Both my Analysis papers #1 and #3 helped me clarify the agendas I had for my projects. I also had the opportunity to read and write a review of the book “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” which most definitely gave me great insights into the issues behind globalization and much food for thought. Although I have not yet been able to implement all the changes that I developed for my unit on technology in school, my goal is to continue pursuing the ideas I developed while at MSU to continue providing my students with tools for exploration.
In conclusion, there is no end to the process of learning, either for me or my students. My experience at MSU has been invigorating, intellectually challenging and most of all, it has helped me achieve actual curricular goals in my classes. Right now I feel that having taught my immigration project, changing my Earth 911 class procedures and exploring my technology unit are reasons enough to feel that my time at MSU has been well spent. The most valuable lesson I take for myself as a teacher is the realization that I have a great deal to learn about my practice through action research and exploration, so that I can continue to learn about the issues that affect my life and that of my students on a daily basis.