Does Community of Learners Sound Warm, Fuzzy and Harmless? It’s Not

Community of Learners (CoL) is a phrase that first came on my radar when a new high school principal who prided himself on being a Change Agent kept mentioning it. Sandwiched in between troubling references to the teachers “may no longer teach or lecture” and “students should construct their own learning.” So the term was on my radar screen as probable trouble in a way that most parents or community leaders or politicians are unlikely to pick up on. My guess is the first time any of you or the political decision makers hear of  a CoL or its earlier name, Collaborative Classroom, will be something along the lines of the way Lee S Shulman, the President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and another Stanford prof, described it. He called it a “pedagogic reform”–”Fostering a Community of Learners.” My comments are in brackets.

“The essence of FCL is the creation of learning experiences in which students who are working on big ideas [now frequently called essential questions as in McTighe/Wiggins Understanding by Design] become interdependent in their investigations and their collaborations around new tasks. [remember CCSSI is student-centered and all the mentions are to activities, tasks, and projects. Virtually all group]… FCL rests heavily on the deep understanding [emotional; affective; grounded in feelings and beliefs based on experiences]. [FCL] is primarily concerned with achieving changes in the social relations among students [paging John Dewey to the 21st Century classroom!!]. Moreover, we argue that this form of task division and distribution is not merely a pedagogical tactic; it mirrors the ways in which complex problems are addressed in both academic and entrepreneurial contexts in the modern world.”

Now, minus my snarkiness or inserted explanations prompting a recall of earlier points in previous posts, this explanation of a reform might sound pretty convincing. Especially if sold as a means to decrease the drop-out rate by increasing student engagement. You can bet this would come with all the university presidents and business people who think it is a wonderful idea. Left out of course would be the fact that the higher ed accreditation agencies required the change in the classroom and probably pushed the “independent” endorsement of FCL to boot. Or that virtually all the businesses being cited for support have some undisclosed conflict or are looking forward to being a designated vendor of a NEED in a hoped-for new kind of Capitalism as we have talked about.

So I see things differently because I understand more pertinent facts than what is typically supplied by the sales campaign for these education or economic reforms. And those of you who are hearing horror stories (finally!!) about the new Common Core Science Standards and its emphasis on consensus science, remember Carnegie financed those standards. So the real point of FCL is pertinent to the real point of those Science Standards. Which is to replace objective, experimental Science as a body of disprovable  knowledge. Instead we are to get experience knowledge grounded in personal perspectives. As you can appreciate Experience Science is much more susceptible to influence from political power. Very convenient in a hoped for government-led economy of the future.

Now what Shulman and others advocating CoLs as a key component now of Effective Teaching and Classrooms and Positive School Climates and Cultures are likely to leave out is that this is yet another export from the Soviet Union from the time of the Cold War. Professor Bronfenbrenner was not the only American prof dropping in on Soviet psychologist Leon’tiev for some advice on how to teach American students in the future. Then Harvard Ed Prof Courtney Cazden just happens to mention in her book Classroom Discourse: The Language of Art and Teaching that FCL came from observations of a mid-70s trip to the USSR she and Professor Ann Brown and Professor Michael Cole took.

The late Ann Brown is considered to be the creator of the US version of FCL along with her husband Joe Campione. She grounded it explicitly in the theories of Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky who we have talked about before. He was trying to come up with a way to create the perfect Soviet personality for the future. The FCL Project is described as a “system of interactive activities designed to create a self-consciously active and reflective learning environment.”  Which sounds ever so much like the actual intentions for the Common Core classroom all over the globe now when you read the documents the insiders send to each other on what they wish to achieve.

If you are wondering why now after the USSR went poof, let’s remember all the cited political theorists and business professors and systems thinkers I have described as seeking economic democracy globally in the 21st century. Scharmer, Zuboff, Harry Boyte, Benjamin Barber, and John Dewey himself. Cazden herself said that these types of social interactions in the classroom are “essential for students’ development toward active citizenship in a pluralistic democratic society.”  Professor Michael Cole cited John Dewey for this reason:

“the social environment … is truly educative in the degree to which an individual shares or participates in some conjoint activity. [a nerdy way to say group learning]. By doing his share in the associated activity, the individual appropriates the purpose that actuates it [don't be surprised if it's about global warming or overpopulation], becomes familiar with its methods and subject matters, acquires needed skill, and is saturated with emotional spirit.”

That last part really got my attention as another one of the books being cited to push for a different kind of economic system to go with these ed reforms is called The Spirit Society imported from the UK. Plus Zuboff described her distributed capitalism in terms of using education to infuse the desired spirit. We seem to have a consistent theme and desire going here.

Cazden described the importance of FCL and its emphasis on social relationships like this: “Now each student becomes a significant part of the official learning environment for all the others, and teachers depend on students’ contributions to other students’ learning, both in discussions and for the diffusion of individual expertise through the class.”

Yes that is the real reason Gifted programs and tracking are being discontinued. Those fine minds and excellent vocabularies and outside school experiences become common property of the classroom. To be accessible to everyone instead of the talented students moving on in the subject-based, abstract world they are capable of and may prefer. That would be selfish in our hoped for economic democracy where everyone’s needs come first and individualism is no longer a concept to be cherished or even accepted. See Cazden’s colleague James Paul Gee’s rejection of even the concept in an earlier post.

Professor Cole likewise said the Community of Learners concept is grounded in Vygotskyian “cultural-historical activity theory” or CHAT for short. His acronym, not mine.  Like Dewey, Professor Cole sees these learning theories where “humans are [supposedly I add] created in joint mediated activity” as about changing the prevailing society and its customs, feelings, values, attitudes, and beliefs. In fact, Cole said the “acid test of CHAT” would be its “success in guiding the construction of new, more humane forms of activity.”

Like Boyte’s Cooperative Commonwealth or Zuboff’s distributed capitalism or Otto Scharmer’s Capitalism 3.0? Every time we peel away the cover of the rhetoric intended to be the sales campaign about the US Common Core and its related education reforms globally, we find these radical Transformative intentions. Cole says “Culture is exteriorized mind; mind is interiorized culture.” So if you make the classroom about social interaction and the use of a visually-oriented external thinking devices like Smartphone or tablets like an IPad, the hoped-for change is the student’s mind from the inside out. Hopefully largely empty of accurate facts. Do that to enough students, especially making the activities about emotionally provocative or insoluble complex world problems, and you can change the prevailing culture.

Implementing these ed theories may also though destroy everything that works without gaining viable substitutes in its place. Except the strong arm of government coercion. I have not made too heavy of an emphasis on how the Communitarian aspects of all these reforms harkens back to what was going on in 19th century German education reforms. I will simply add that the Germanic term Gemeinschaft keeps being cited in these related reports for internal consumption. One such report from December 2000 went on with the definition of a desired school community “where the value of individuals working together for the common good is upheld and respected.” It also referred reverentially to Amitai Etzioni by name as well as his anti-individualism “social movement.”

Can you see why I see the reality of the Common Core so much differently? It is all there once you treat education reform like an onion and peel away the rhetoric. And track back to the actual creators of these implementation practices.

 

Using Teacher Evals To Coerce Irreversible Change in the Drive Towards Statism Globally

One of the ways I deal with all the Schemes and Blueprint reading it has taken to pull together this story of the Common Core’s real aims or the CAGW hyping to cover all the meddling to gain a Crony economy based on Low Carbon or Green Growth or Sustainability–whatever this week’s buzz word is, is to retreat into history. Usually I try to read scholars who have been cited in those ever revealing footnotes in order to get to a “these are our intentions, this is who is involved” level of discussion. This blog is actually not Robin’s opinion for the most part. It is a searching out the actual facts in the relevant places where most people would never think to look.

It’s impossible to read through the last several posts or the entirety of the blog and not recognize all these education reforms and the insistence on redesigning the economy under government direction and not think–”that’s Statism and aren’t we past the L’etat, c’est moi mentality of Louis XIV or a Stalin?” Well no, state control over people and natural resources for the benefit of the political class is actually the historical norm and we forget that at our peril. All the references to the Knowledge Society while actually trying to restrain any unapproved accurate knowledge and then calling it College Ready is par for the course. A common aspiration when the drive is towards organizing people and an economy around Statism.

As an image of the palace at Versailles may remind you, Statism is oriented toward power-maximizing for politicians, public employees, and their Cronies. These can be Big Business wanting to protect their current revenue with no need to innovate. Or media seeking influence and access. Or foundations and colleges and universities all wanting to participate in the redirection of the future. For Statism to work, at least short term, it needs an ideology to march under–like Equity or Social Justice or Sustainability in a World at Grave Risk without Intervention. Check. Statism needs to keep going after an ever increasing number of subjects and issues to control and regulate. And it needs to go after its citizens at ever deeper levels of consciousness. Hence all the social and emotional emphasis with no lecturing unless it’s about a politically useful topic.

Professor Manuel Castells commented on how the Soviet authorities were able to move away from submission due to outright terror to a passive routine based on  “a lack of information and views of the world.” That appears to be the intended model for people all over the West in the 21st century. Use education “reform” to cultivate false beliefs, new values, different attitudes. The dominance of feelings and intuitions and impulse. The exact kind of initiative that enraged people in Hong Kong  http://www.invisibleserfscollar.com/using-education-to-shut-down-free-choices-and-then-redefining-as-personal-autonomy-orwell-lives/ going on in the US or elsewhere but off our radar screen. The invisible aspect of the drive for power and control.

We have talked on numerous occasions about Michael Barber. From foisting Cambridge Education on the US in 2007 to tell classroom teachers they may no longer teach the material to his leadership in that 2011 UNESCO meeting in London. You know the one where they wrote:

“Responding to climate change also starts in the classroom. Education is the way to shape new ways of thinking and forge new sustainable behaviour. . .

Fundamentally, education is about values.”

Well, back in 2000 when the UK was in the midst of its controversial reforms in education that mirror what is going on in the US now, guess what? Teachers in the classroom were seen as the main impediment to creating “radical change.” That phrase “radical change” and the desire to control and alter the classroom interactions of teachers and students (sound familiar?) caused several papers and presentations by Barber and Vicki Phillips from our last post. Back then she was  the School Superintendent in Lancaster, Pennsylvania but somehow she and Barber knew each other and were seeking to Unleash Irreversible Change-Lessons for the Future of System-Wide School Reform. Apparently their presentation style on how to win consent for Labour’s education programme was memorable because a description of it made it into a 2003 book.

A graphic description. As the authors of the book, Chitty and Simon, describe Barber & Phillips analogizing to prayer saying “You learn to pray by first going down on your knees. Only then will you create the conditions for belief, and be able to address God accordingly.” The analogy for education, they said, was “you don’t try to change minds through argument, consultation, debate, dialogue. You change them first of all through changing people’s behavior, through the element of compulsion.”

Having had children at a high school in the throes of an ideological Super and Principal, using Cambridge classroom reviews and Spence Rogers for professional development of teachers, compulsion is the right word. Psychological terror is also apt. But this was actually already envisioned and long before Vicki had the money and leverage of the Gates Foundation to back up her intentions to coerce. Students and teachers. First do, then believe. Here in Barber and Phillips own words from the book:

“There is a popular misconception about the process of change. It is often assumed that the key to successful change is ‘to win hearts and minds.’ If this is the starting point then the first steps in the process of change are likely to be consultation and public relations campaigns…The popular conception is wrong. Winning hearts and minds is not the best first step in any process of urgent change. Beliefs do not necessarily change behavior. More usually it is the other way around–behaviours shape beliefs. Only when people have experienced a change do they revise their beliefs accordingly…Sometimes it is necessary to mandate the change, implement it well, consciously challenge the prevailing culture [to make it Positive, perhaps?], and then have the courage to sustain it until beliefs shift…The driving force at this critical juncture is leadership.”

That is a mindset that appeals to political fanatics and greedy bureaucrats with a chip on their shoulders about their own childhoods. Or intimidates frightened teachers trying to keep their jobs. It makes promotion these days in education not about what teachers or administrators know or can do with students but what they are willing to impose on teachers and students.

Professor Castells writing in 1998 about the lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union said this:

“As for intellectuals, the most important political lesson to be learnt from the Communist experiment is the fundamental distance that should be kept between theoretical blueprints and the historical development of political projects. To put it bluntly, all Utopias lead to Terror if there is a serious attempt at implementing them.”

Well the Common Core implementation is overflowing with theories and  blueprints in pursuit of political, social, and economic Transformation. At the level of the student. From the inside-out. The local results of the piloting districts have been miserable when not outright tragic. Yet still we proceed. By compulsion. Nationally and internationally.

Political lesson not learned in the least. And no distance between theory and sought action at all.