This paper is going to address two key relationships that happen during the education process: 1) the educator and the teacher, and 2) the policy maker and the educator. In most classrooms the arrangement is set up so that the teacher teaches, the student learns, and at the end of the year there is an assessment that is given. Most of the classrooms have the teacher in the front of the room dispensing knowledge with most of the students sitting and receiving. Teachers often teach like they do because of the policy that is created by those in state and local government. There is very little dialogue between those who are doing the teaching and those who are creating the policy. The current state of these relationships, from student to teacher to policy maker has created a system of oppression and close mindedness. Educational systems, for the most part, still resemble the systems that have been in place for hundreds of years. The design of the school grounds is very similar to that of a prison, which compounds the power issue. This paper will address both of these issues.
When one looks at the way that the education system is organized in our county, with all of its emphasis on testing data, there is one conclusion that you would come to: students are required to regurgitate what has been given to them by the teacher. The system is designed to measure the ability of the student to accurately produce very specific answers to very specific questions. Students are tested based on age, not ability. In Oklahoma all students from grades 3-8 must be tested each year and high school students must pass four of seven end of instruction exams. These tests are given no matter the personal circumstance of the student; a student with special needs takes the same test as everyone else, a student still learning English takes the same test as everyone else. The tests are not differentiated instruments designed to truly measure how much a child has learned over the past year, but are instruments of standardization. Teachers know when these tests are given and teachers must have students prepared for these tests, so it is practice, practice, practice.
As this system is put into effect, teachers lose agency – they no longer have the freedom teach the students in their classrooms. Teachers become clerks of information, making deposits of this information directly into the brains of the students. What have the students done to participate in the learning process? Nothing. What have the teachers contributed to the learning process? Not the education that teachers want to give students. Instead the teacher is placed in a position of power inside the classroom. This position is not to be challenged by the students and creates a toxic classroom climate. This environment ensures that the students understand that they are to be submissive.
As a result students are receptacles that receive information only. They have vey little choice in how they will participate. They receive an education, but are they truly participating in that education? This concept of just giving the students an education comes from Paulo Freire and his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire discusses the banking concept of education, where teachers give information directly to the students. Teachers make deposits only, all of the information is in one direction. He considers this type of education to be dehumanizing for both students and teachers (Freire, 2000). It is designed so that the teacher is the end all be all for a particular course. Student input is not sought out. Student choice is not an option. The teacher is the expert and as the expert, will tell the student what the student needs to know. This style of education is very one sided and Freire argues that this approach stimulates oppressive attitudes that carry into society.
In order for students to truly shine, to truly learn, they need to be given some choices. Students need to explore the world around them. Students need to have the opportunity to interact with the teacher as a fellow learner, someone on the journey with them. The teacher should be on the side, guiding and offering counsel when needed. A classroom that adopts a problem-posing style, a style that emphasizes critical thinking for the purposes of liberation is in stark contrast to a classroom that resembles banking (Freire, 2000). Teachers should see students as people to dialogue with, where conversation goes back and forth on a two way street. In this culture the classroom becomes a true community, one with hope, love and trust.
When students have the opportunity to grow and learn together with the teacher, they have the opportunity to liberate themselves from oppressive situations. They will have the skills to understand when they are being oppressed and can start the process of creating an open dialogue with those in a position of power. The goal of a dialogical situation is to achieve liberation for those who are being oppressed. Educators have such a key role in equipping students with these skills. If students do not understand how to communicate and advocate for themselves, what happens in the future? Open communication can lead to understanding differences and can lead to people living in communion together, in a culture of trust and acceptance.
Creating a classroom where both the teachers and the students are empowered to grow together can lead to stronger communities. Schools can develop students who become the next generation of leaders, who can break cycles of oppression in their neighborhoods. School can develop students who look critically at situations, who can decipher the news to understand exactly what is happening. Schools can develop students who understand what it feels like to break free of an oppressive situation, to liberate themselves. When students learn how to do this and truly understand, then as they grow into positions of leadership, they will be better equipped to communicate with those around them. Students would stay away from anything that resembles anti-dialogical thinking, thinking that is designed to keep one in power and severs communication with those under them.
What if teachers could have a more open dialogue with those who create policy? What if those who create policy had a different world view, one of interaction instead of separation? What if the relationship was not so bitter, but was more understanding? The educational system that would come from an open and honest dialogue between policy writers and teachers could be dynamic. In a system where the policy makers work alongside the teachers who work alongside the students, where anything can be freely discussed, a stronger world view would become more visible.
As this world view develops we learn to accept others for how they are and accept people for the differences they have. In her book, Cultivating Humanity, Martha Nussbaum shares why it is so important for all students to participate in a course that discusses gender, race, and human sexuality (Nussbaum, 1997). Having the opportunity to understand why people are different from each other will allow for greater dialogue, without essentializing who someone is. When someone is essentialized, they are automatically categorized based on perceived traits. “Teachers like teaching so that they can have the summer off” is a phrase that essentialized teachers. This phrase reduces teachers to people who enjoy having summers off, which is not true for every single teacher. I know several teachers who work very hard all summer long to get stronger in the classroom. Nussbaum feels strongly that the limited exposure to those who are different continue to foster very close minded cultures. As policy makers and as educators, what are we doing to eliminate all forms of discrimination? Developing a strong world view will help break down some of those perceived walls.
Moving from the banking system of education, into a system of problem posing could be great for all involved. We have tried the banking system, we still have significant issues. Let’s move our education system away from those who would manipulate it for the own gain, to retain the power that they have. Let’s move the education system into one that develops a love of learning, with open dialogue between all members of a society. A society where each person is valued and has a voice, where no one is dehumanized for their beliefs or for being forced to do something that they do not believe in.
A further look at the education policy that impacts our state and to some extent our nation, the question I most often ask is “Why?” Why don’t you (politicians) trust us? Why must we be under constant surveillance? Almost everything that is being legislated concerning education results in more data for someone to look into. In some states there is discussion to test kindergarten children to see if they are ready for first grade. All of this data is being collected and is going to be used to determine how well a teacher is teaching. In his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison, Foucault discusses the panopticon, the all-seeing surveillance (Foucault, 1977). The surveillance was a form of power, ensuring that those in power could always see those who were not.
The panopticon is most closely associated with prison as a central guard tower, in the middle of the prison yard. The inside of the tower has an unobstructed view into every cell in the prison. Prisoners were not aware of when they were being observed and when they were not. The prison cells were open on the side of the panopticon with a window opposite, silhouetting the prisoner at all times. I was unaware of idea of the panopticon as a teacher, but looking back on my time as a teacher I felt like that prisoner. Not from my building and community. Not from the people that I worked with or the administrators that I worked under, but from our political leaders and policy creators. I believed that my profession was always being watched, with those in power eagerly awaiting a teacher to take a wrong step. Then the punishment would follow.
The next time you are by a penitentiary, take a look. Does it resemble a school? Think about the inside of a penitentiary, it is divided into little rooms with closed doors. Behind each one of those doors, isolated from all others, is a prisoner, wondering when the guard would be looking. Now think back to your school, with the doors that are closed and the teachers in isolation with their classes. Sometimes the teacher wonders when an administrator is going to make a surprise visit. Prisons were designed in a way to control everyone inside of them and they have not changed much over the centuries. Our schools have been set up in a way designed to control all of those on the inside and they have not changed much either. Going back to the beginning of this paper, what would a school look like that practiced a problem posing curriculum? What would the culture of that school look like?
Students have become what Foucault would refer to as docile bodies; they go all day with uninterrupted, constant coercion. The philosopher Gayatri Spivak in her essay Can the Subaltern Speak? discusses a class of person called a subaltern, a person excluded from society and who does not have the opportunity to make their voice heard (Spivak). An argument could be made that most students are this class of person. They are expected to do what they are told, they have very little choice in their education, they go from class to class following the schedule that was given to them. I know that there are schools where students have voice, but there are a lot of schools where they do not. I am not advocating for complete anarchy in the school building. Some rules are important, but so is student choice.
What if we could create a system where students had agency in their decisions, where they participated in their education instead of get an education. Allowing the student to break out from the mold of the docile body, where they can choose what they want to learn. As they move through school, there are some courses they would be required to take, but their school day would not be as tightly regulated as it currently is. Some students do not want to go to college, yet they have no choice, they must choose courses that prepare them for higher education. The education system needs to view the student as a colleague on a journey with us, mutually sharing the education. If the people who create the regulation of the school system were to participate in this journey as well, there could be such beneficial dialogue. Instead our system is turned on its head, with those creating regulation keeping a close eye on the schools through the panoptic eye of data. The administrators follow suite, keeping a close eye on the teachers who need to make sure that the students perform on the end of instruction exams. The entire system goes from one level of surveillance to another all the way down.
The education system in the United States operates under a power structure that is controlled by those who are not a part of day-to-day operations. Those who create the policy designed the policy in a way that would ensure that the educational system would always need them. Most of these regulations are related to the funding that the school can receive and where the money can come from. There are new regulations that now tie standardized test scores to the funding that schools so desperately need. By ensuring that the schools are always tied under some of these burdens, those in power can continue to stay in power. By putting test scores together with funding, the surveillance of the school is now permanent. There is a difference here between surveillance and allowing the community to come into our schools. Just like there is a difference between watching someone from a distance and engaging with them on a personal level every day.
As part of the surveillance that teachers are under, they are constantly aware of exactly what their students need to do on the end of year assessments. The data from these assessments is recorded and given back to the teacher the following school year, to late to make an impact on the student taking the exam. Data from all of the teachers go into the building administrators file. The result here is that if test scores are not good enough, no matter where a student started from at the beginning of the year, the teacher, administrator and school are sorted out and ranked. Those in power say that a student must be able to perform and when they do not, then there is punishment for all involved. If enough students in one building do not perform, then all of the adults in that building could be in jeopardy.
Our schools should be beacons of light and places where all who want to learn are welcome. We should have open doors to our communities, parents and family members should want to visit our schools. Schools today are under constant surveillance, never having the opportunity to let their guard down. Schools would also fall under the definition of a docile body. They are doing what they have been regulated to do, they have not been given the opportunity to have any choice about the position they are in. Schools have not truly been asked, “What can we do for you?” If the people who regulate schools asked what schools truly needed, they may be surprised by the answer. When people in power assume what those below them need, they often send or give things that are not needed or necessary.
Policy makers also need to be careful about creating a situation of false generosity. This occurs when the person who is not in position of power depends on what is given to then by those who are. From Friere, false generosity compels those who are subdued (schools) to continue to ask for more. Being truly generous means working toward a solution where the subdued (schools) ask for less and less and are eventually able to be self-sufficient. I know there are different communities all over the United States, with different socio-economic status and levels of support for their community schools. What if schools had the opportunity to not be so dependent on the government for their existence? Communities use school bonds as a means of helping to purchase equipment and fund buildings, what if they didn’t need to? Some communities’ struggle passing bond issues no matter how important, some districts this year are ending their school year early because of lack of funding from the government. Is there a way to change this, to create a system that can support itself so that it is not so dependent on outside help?
Communities do have some responsibility for the local school system, but that is slowly being eroded by policy. Each student in every community has the right to an education and is should not matter what zip code you live in. Inner city school districts deserve to have the same type of facilities that can be found in the suburbs, but do not get that opportunity. Is there a way that this situation can be changed? It would be difficult, but with open dialogue between communities and those who write school regulation, it is possible.
There was never any dialogue with our political leaders that was meaningful; those people who write policy assume they know exactly what we need. They did not ask us what they could do to create helpful policy. They did not come by my school and teach a class for a week to see how school operated. They automatically assume they know what I need. Those who have created such difficult policy for educators have taken our voices from us. I have learned to speak up for myself and have tried to advocate for teachers and the public education system. How many teachers have not advocated for themselves because they did not know how? How many teachers have not done anything because they did not know what to do? Yet policy creators continue to tell us that they know what is best to help us.
Teachers have to work harder now than ever before to make their voices heard. Along with teaching students, communicating with parents, working with administration, and doing all of the other things they do, teachers must now pay more attention to the political aspect of teaching. Teachers must work to create an open dialogue with those people who create policy. Teachers need to look at things with a critical eye, approaching policy creators in a dialogical way not an anti-dialogical way. Elected leaders need to recognize that even as they have positions of power, they should participate in that conversation. By working hard to force things onto teachers they continue to push a system of surveillance, where the panoptic sees all things. Where those in power use their influence to coerce the education system to do things that they do not believe in. When this happens the school system becomes a docile body.
We need to move away from such polarizing attitudes, positions of power, surveillance and punishment. None of this is appropriate for any the people who are involved in the educational process. By moving away from a system of power and control to one of open dialogue, true progress can be made. Examining both policy creators and educators can start this conversation; both groups of people need to do what truly is best for educating young people. Dialogue that goes both ways will help this. Understanding that both groups have different points of view will help this. Looking for commonality to begin building will help. By working together we can move education from a system of power and surveillance, to one of community and trust.
Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison: Vintage.
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Nussbaum, M. C. (1997). Cultivating humanity: a classical defense of reform in liberal education. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Spivak, G. C. Can the subaltern speak?