On Bias: II. Wrong Bias?

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Click here to read On Bias: I. Disparate Bias

On Bias: II. Wrong Bias?

The school must conduct its affairs in some way or other; the curriculum must include some areas of human experience and omit others. In doing so the school thereby commits itself on these issues, often without proper, or any, consideration of alternative possibilities.

Mackenzie, 1997 (p. 499)

The first half of Mackenzie’s remark, a priori, I accept: school must conduct its affairs in some way or other, and the curriculum must include some areas of human experience and omit others.

As to the second half… hey, we all have opinions, and as we take each other to be informed to greater and lesser degrees, we agree and disagree. So, where I can imagine the dearth of “any” consideration of alternative possibilities, I’m still uncertain what Mackenzie means by “proper.”

So long as an attempt is made, wouldn’t literally any consideration leave us free to judge school’s conduct of its affairs… unless, of course, somebody’s gone and figured it all out on behalf of the rest of us. Did some school back in ’97 really manage to offer it all in one go? Who were the teachers and administrators demonstrating that kind of wisdom? Who sat for that District Board, staffed that government ministry? By all of which I’m really asking, who gets to say what’s proper and, thereby, what’s improper? You? Me? Mackenzie? Further still, who even gets to say who gets to say? Don’t say “Mackenzie’s parents.”

To be fair, “proper” in this case could be interpreted more procedurally than substantively, as some generic curriculum development protocol – a proper approach to considering alternatives versus proper alternatives per se. Yet similar questions remain about who sits as part of that process, and who chooses who sits, and who chooses who chooses, and on it goes, the politics of education.

If you ask me (i.e. thanks for reading), a conscientious teacher faces questions analogous to these every single day while enacting curriculum many times a day, balancing their own perspective with how they interpret each student’s needs and interests. I say “each” student, but we all know its sometimes less individuated than the world of idealism. Teaching anyone, much less young people, much less 2–3 dozen at once, is no singular thing, which the gerund “teaching” hardly conveys.

By the same turn, though, teaching’s no crap-shoot either, or maybe better to say it can’t afford to be. Isn’t the real trick of teaching learning to live with uncertainty? And isn’t that last sentence funny for juxtaposing teaching so cavalierly with learning? Teachers learning? as in, don’t they have it all already figured out – aren’t teachers already supposed to know things?

Don’t be misled as to what you imagine teaching to be, despite any time you may already have spent in a classroom.

Teachers owe a duty of care to meet people (if not each person) where they’re at, then help them along. So… how does a teacher balance their own knowledge and awareness with what matters to themselves? That’s a real distinction, by the way. And if they can balance this, how next do they balance this with their duty to help students learn what students feel matters to students? Trust me, that last sentence is even harder to do than it is to read because, sometimes, students just don’t know yet what matters to themselves – the same can be said of some teachers I’ve met, too, since we’re on the subject.

Convolutedly, the reverse is also true – for some other teachers, their politics is inherently part of their classroom curriculum, something I’ve heard insisted to be not only good teaching but moral teaching. This opens an always nuanced and often contentious discussion – he said from experience – such as precluding an opportunity for students to reach moral ground on their own terms in their own time. Rather than discuss it further here, though, I’ll suggest another way to ask my question about teachers balancing self with students: how might education be made “simultaneously both responsible and free” – it’s something Dr. Shulman wondered as far back as 1983. I gather he was leaning more towards teachers acting on behalf of students whereas I’m definitely asking on behalf of everybody in the classroom. For me, this ultimately seems a question of autonomy, the heart of which is bias.

Oh boy, I know this is a series on bias, but really… always bias? It may be safe to say, or totally ironic, that the principal curricular consideration we face is What is most worth teaching? That’s a collective ‘we’, by the way, not the royal one, and fair play if you disagree. In any case, this infamous question inevitably leads to an even bigger one, What is school for? What’s the purpose of this thing we call K12 education? Lately, though, as we’ve particularly hitched our wagons to constructivism, I wonder if these are the wrong questions.

Lately, I’ve been trying out something different, and just to be clear, I’m not referring to subject-specific curricular anything. To be clearer still, I’m considering what teachers bring with them through the classroom door each day because they’ll be bringing it, whatever question we ask. And what are we asking?

Up til now, where someone may have been asking, What is school for? I’m asking Who participates? and further, What are some suitable attitudes or expectations for participants? How best to proceed in K12 with this thing called ‘constructivism’… I mean, if we’re genuinely committed to living it out, because I don’t yet see that we are – not even when we think we are. Yes, still collective, not royal, only now I wonder if anyone’s upset with me lumping them into the collective. In responding to these questions about school and curriculum, I’ve obviously been considering neither content nor skill but people. So, as we’ve hitched our wagons to constructivism, I wonder whether people might be the purpose of school, making the principle curricular consideration not ‘what’ we teach but ‘who’ we teach, alongside which both ‘how’ and ‘why’ we teach find appropriate kinship.

If you disagree thus far, please don’t let your bias run away with you while, if you agree, please don’t go clicking ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ just yet – he said with smug presumption – because this is still far more nuanced than I’ve offered just yet.

I think it’s fair to say this idea is something I’ve wondered more broadly throughout this blog, primarily as a facet of curriculum since teaching and coaching and mentoring are some things I’ve come to know fairly well, so write what you know.

There’s a common distinction between curriculum, mandated documentation about what to teach and learn in K12 schooling, and pedagogy, the manner in which curriculum’s taught to this or that class of students. Both lack nuance for being oversimplified. From all my pondering, I’m lately gathering that an ill-advised separation of this dialectical pairing may be an ongoing source of trouble faced by teachers, students, and education in general. I think curriculum and pedagogy may be better considered one concept, and I think so because of bias, and I wish I had something more substantive to offer – as I say, it’s threaded throughout this blog, but that’s a lot to synthesise.

I’m no longer certain that school’s the place for any superseding authority, either the kind we commonly associate with curriculum or the kind we commonly associate with pedagogy.

I think how or why we’ve made this separation is an issue of a higher order; for now, suffice to say I suspect Illich was on to something. The bottom line is that I’m no longer certain that school’s the place for any superseding authority, either the kind we commonly associate with curriculum or the kind we commonly associate with pedagogy… what I mean by school is the sort of experience I had, where the superseding authority was largely into ‘telling’ and ‘explaining’ things – maybe that resonates for you, too. On the other hand, what I mean by “no longer certain” may not be what you think, so bear with me.

“… are we doing this right?”

We all come away from ‘school’ with an idea about what it is and how it works because we all went through those years, ourselves. Honestly, though, in this era of constructivist halos, I still see plenty of telling ‘how it is’ and explaining ‘how it’s done’, and ‘this is what’ and ‘here’s how’ and just all sorts of expectation and behaviour from teachers and instructors and professors that suggest, to me, how little has actually changed.

We find all sorts of ‘student-centred’ this and ‘self-regulated’ that in today’s educational circles, and we call it constructivism, but I’ve felt far less certain about the constructivist perspective since it came to, er… rule the day dominate the landscape become so popular since we adopted it. Apparently, we tend to repeat what ‘school’ is and how it works, even when we say we’re changing… I guess because we all went through those years, ourselves.

But hey, changes take time and patience, and people who spend their time waiting to arrive miss the time they spend. And I can only judge from my own perspective, but in the classrooms I know, what I take Mackenzie to mean by “proper” for schools may even be finally gradually changing.

I say so with some non-final gradual assurance because what I’ve been seeing is only four or five years old while institutional changes seem to be generational – did you notice I chose a quote that’s twenty-five years old? Someone might have embellished for effect – “more than two decades” or “a quarter-century ago” – but I didn’t want any rhetorical ‘why’ to diminish all the teachers and students whose efforts at change arose and are having effects all their own.

So fair play to all the teachers and students in schools I know. Also noteworthy… the roots of their change seem to reach well beyond any teen angst, or that world-conquering spirit of twenty-somethings. Their changes also seem to be found in more than one institution, even one as ubiquitous as school. It’s the cultural shift we’ve all been experiencing for a few years now, a stand-out willingness to confront assumption and habit and bias, and behaviour, and prejudice and bigotry and hatred. And it’s the determination against all these to assert an alternative superseding authority – although whether as a challenge or as an equal seems dependent on circumstance. I won’t label this change since most people probably call it something for themselves, but the overwhelming sentiment has seemed to be that this time is different.

As for me – and of this I’ve had far longer to be convinced… the greatest obstacle to change is the force of habit, which can manifest any number of ways and which is maybe just another way of saying bias. If I have one analysis to offer, it’s to be conscious of bias as its perceived by an audience, something along these lines: “… to the creatures outside looking in from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again, it was already impossible to say which was which.” So for me, anyway, not sure for you, I’d say we have a ways to go before we’re okay characterising any “changes” as thorough or convincingly different just yet.

Still, things sure seem different this time around.

Click here to read On Bias: III. Fun With Dialectics

Author: Scott Robertson

Scott is a Canadian school teacher, a doctoral candidate in Education, an avid gardener, and a football (soccer) coach. He is also a Dad. Scott worked in high school classrooms for 17 years, teaching mostly Secondary English. He describes learning as a continual renovation: intentional self-reflection aimed at personal growth, alongside people who share similar aims. At the core of his lessons is personal responsibility, an approach to living with integrity by adopting the habit of thinking. It's a blend of philosophy, literature, grammar, history, and science, all tied in a bundle by classical rhetoric. His students often described his approach to be unlike others they knew—mostly in a good way—which prepared them for post-secondary school and adulthood, citizenship, and whatever else. Outside the classroom, Scott has been coaching football (soccer) since 1990 and still enjoys playing, too, except when he’s too injured—then he tries to play golf instead.

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