A Pedagogy of Possibility

Child Study is altogether different from the social efficiency conception of education, chiefly because it conceives the child as a dynamic organism rather than as a social machine—that is, it conceives the child as a person.  A curriculum that centers itself around and grounds itself in the personhood of the student can certainly include measurable aims, but it can never reduce the outcomes of education’s mysterious process merely to the achievements of those specific aims.  A curriculum that inspires is one that encourages the child to engage in the pursuit of the truth, which, Parker Palmer (1998) broadly defines as “an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline” (p. 104). This discipline requires our openness to possibilities.

When a classroom culture embraces possibilities rather than absolutes, every consideration remains on the table, including the consideration of choosing literature from time to time that challenges the child’s outlook and intellectual capacities by exposing him to the insights and experiences of characters from a different time and culture.  We turn here, briefly, to consider the debate surrounding the Western Canon, in order to illuminate the ways in which we can utilize canonical texts in the classroom with regard more to the child’s development, motivation, and interest than to the questions surrounding the legacy of universal representation presumed by the history, values, and interests of a dominant social group (C. E. McGee Banks, 1996).

As I mentioned previously, our national dialogue surrounding education has become somewhat antagonistic.  It has revealed, in my estimation, a measure of bad faith among some of its participants, especially in regards to the classroom selection of literature in a multicultural world.  Agrees James Banks (1996): “The debate between the Western traditionalists and the multiculturalists…has resulted in little productive interaction between the two groups” (p. 4).  It will be useful here to touch on some of the contentious issues and to shed some light on their connections to Child Study.  Milner and Milner (2008) present one problem with the canon posed by critical theorists:

“These theorists quarrel with the canon because it distances students from their authentic experience and is usually taught by the banking method that Freire describes….If the  works of  the canon are central to the English classroom, the danger is  that the gulf widens between class life and the real life lived utside of class.”  (Milner & Milner, p. 227, 2008)

My interest as a classroom teacher is in providing authentic experiences that might connect students’ learning lives to the real life that happens for them when they leave the school building.  Ultimately, I want for them to take on learning as a life-long commitment and to learn to be inquisitive in every life situation in which they find themselves.  If I were to build my curriculum around traditional Western literature without considering my students’ individual stories and interests, I believe I would be doing them a grave disservice and that I would be dishonoring their personhood –not because I will have denied students “of color” the exposure to literary sources which deal in the currency of racial identity; and not because I will have designed a curriculum founded on the assumption that the stories, values, mores, standards, and ideals of white European ancestry represent those of all social groups—but because I will not have taken into account who and where my students are as individuals.  As a person-centered educator, I feel responsible for inspiring my students.  I cannot inspire them with a curriculum that I have adapted from a cultural template created by standardizing committees in the 19th century (Eliot, 1890) nor from an ideological position –regardless of its merits- which selectively champions the marginalized or the celebrated.

I have great respect for the Western classics; I would not discard Shakespeare or Thoreau from the assumption that these writers have ceased to be relevant to my students by virtue of the distance between their cultural heritage and that of these writers.  I would wait, instead, until I have come to know the students themselves.  Who they are, and knowing who they are, after all, are my chief concerns as an educator.  Yet, I do recognize that I must have a curriculum and that I must arrive to class with some kind of plan.  The safest bet is to center my curriculum in a theme that is likely to be relevant to the lives and concerns of my students and to choose selections from a wide variety of literature.  In any case, rejecting wholesale the works of the Western Canon is not likely to contribute to mutual understanding and cultural literacy any more than leaving out the works of women, minorities, and other frequently-silenced voices.

To illustrate what this approach might look like in a classroom, I will offer a hypothetical example of a 13-year-old girl in my journalism class who displays a penchant for grandiloquence and a preoccupation with intrigue and manipulation.  Some of these thought and speech patterns may manifest in her frequent indulgence in spiteful gossip and a hyper-vigilance regarding how others are treating her and those in her inner circle.  In this scenario, I might hand her a copy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and guide her through selected readings during independent reading sessions.  I might ask her to analyze Lady Macbeth’s role in Macbeth’s demise and to write an article for the school newspaper comparing Lady Macbeth’s actions to the kind of bullying tactics young girls use in the middle school years to marginalize other girls.  In this circumstance, we can circumvent the Canon Debate and simply acknowledge the substantial learning that such a precocious child might experience from exposure to the syntax, the themes, and the rhetorical elegance evident in the work of the Elizabethan playwright.  We cannot know beforehand what will pique the curiosity of a student, but when we make very specific discoveries regarding a child’s interest, we can respond in a variety of ways.

Recently, Marco, a student of mine, complained that he found my journalism class boring.  He told me that it was the same as last year.  Instead of demanding that he accept my position (every feature story is new and therefore uniquely challenging), I inquired into his interests and his life to see if I might find something.  After some questioning and a phone conversation with his mother, I learned that he was depressed and unmotivated about school because he had failed an exam school test in the previous academic year.  Marco watched as many of his friends transferred out of our school, leaving him behind to learn alongside young people whose interests and investment in their schooling differed significantly from his own.

I responded to what I felt were his actual needs of the moment; I asked him to consider writing a personal column for the school newspaper about what it was like to be left behind and encouraged him to explore the disappointment of failure and the feelings of loss and abandonment he might be experiencing.  He went a step further and decided to include a critique of the testing process itself, presenting the viewpoint that a person’s intelligence and academic abilities are not always adequately measured by a standardized test (Howard, 1992).   It has been interesting to see the effect this new project has had on Marco in light of Freire’s (1975) declaration that “individuals begin to behave differently with regard to objective reality, once that reality has ceased to look like a blind alley and has taken on its true aspect” (p. 152). The true aspect to which Freire refers is the liberating understanding that we may come to in a specific situation and our immediate impulse to act upon our new understanding.  The next day, Marco entered the classroom with demonstrable enthusiasm for his new project, and immediately began typing his thoughts on a computer.  His entire outlook on the class had changed, because he now had a sense of agency that was directly related to a project that was in alignment with what was dear to him. Clearly, what worked was my commitment to engage the thoughts that mattered to him, and that is what matters most in the person-centered approach.

Contrary to what some believe, this open process does not negate academic rigor; rather, it serves the purpose of situating a student’s scholarship in a meaningful context. The kind of knowledge borne from the circumstances of following the child’s lead is the most meaningful kind, because the questions and problems belong to the students –and, thus, the knowledge gained from the process of seeking answers and solutions belongs to them, too.

Of course, this approach is not an easy one.  We may need to remind ourselves now and then to open ourselves and our students to all possibilities –including the critical questions that might be raised concerning the various dimensions of reality students will encounter in their lives (socio-cultural, political, spiritual, philosophical, scientific, etc.).

A Culture of Questioning