is in helping re-framing my understanding of the educational enterprise. The change that my exposure to the progressive and mastery-learning theories has had can be illustrated in the change in metaphors that I have undergone. In an early assignment, Dr. Tagaris had us each imagine our metaphor for education. Mine was illustrative of a results- and procedure-oriented value set. I imagined that
Each of our students starts out as a fresh new freight car in an east coast factory. Each [in this conception] is built indenticaly with each other, and each has identical sets of identical wheels pulled by identical engines going west over the same track, in the same weather, at the same speed. The purpose of this enterprise is to get each freight car loaded properly and moving efficiently toward its endpoint–the Seattle shipyards where it will be loaded onto a sea-going freighter to represent America in the global market. It’s ultimate purpose it is to bring material value back to the home country.
In each freight yard along its way, the engine pauses, and the cars are attended to by a team of packing engineers. Their purpose is to make sure that each car is furnished with precisely the correct content from the stockyard. These engineers (teachers) make sure that the content is positioned in a way that allows maximum efficiency in unpacking and retail on the world market. The packing slip each teacher works with (the school’s curriculum) contains the content and placement of each parcel. If every freight yard in America does its job properly, no freight car left be left behind. None will show a gap between its value and any others. The public school’s job is to load intellectual and cultural frieght efficiently into each child so that American industry receives the revenue it needs to continue flourishing on the planet. This is useful for the continued existence of the railroads.
Apparent to most critics in my metaphor is the impersonal way in which it presents a very human process: learning. In my metaphor, there is no distinction among learners–totally and fatally ignored is their endless variety of capacity, motivation, and talent. In Paulo Friere’s (2000) educational imagination, the dehumanized model of oppressive education in which the educator is the giver of value and the learner the passive recipient of the value the “banking theory” of education. My model supposes learners to be inert, empty vessels. And while a lot of curricula that Eisner reviews (such as the “back to basics” and the Rational Humanist ideologies of education) suppose that students will be as passive and open as an empty freight car, experience in any American classroom will shows how unrealistic and impractical such theories are. My metaphor ignores the creative and dynamic role of a learner. It does not acknowledge that in a sense, all education is self-imposed, and that, even if two students have roughly the same talents, motivations, and capacities, the hazards of chance and circumstance they each experience will make their educations differ significantly.
And according to Parker J. Palmer (2000), my mental model totally ignores the teacher’s heart, the totality of his/her “intellect, emotion, and spirit.” In my metaphor, there was no allowance for the enthusiasm, creativity and energy (or lack thereof) that the freight handler (teacher) brings to the job each day. My model supposes that a teacher’s performance will be equitable, if not entirely equal, across the entire breadth of our nation’s public schools. How fatuous is that?
Eisner says that if you want to know a man’s values, just look at his utopia. For a harried public school teacher who faces hundreds of learners every day, the notion that they can each be equally served is appealing. To suppose that one is working toward absolutely precise measures and efficient means of knowledge transference is something an over-worked public school teacher might fantasize, if only to salve his conscience, which smarts with the denied but obvious truth that under his care, some are going underserved. So I am sympathetic with teachers like I was, who believe in the education as freight engineering metaphor. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished. But it poorly reflects the truth of the operational curriculum in teaching, so I am developing what I believe is a more accurate metaphor for curriculum.
When I am faced now with a class of 30 learners, I will approach them as a successful personal trainer at a gym who has a long list of clients. Each one of these learners has unique strengths, injuries, training histories, motivation levels, talents, and capacities. It is my job as teacher to diagnose where each trainee is, understand his particular motives for becoming more fit, and provide for him a regimen tailored to his situation. The teacher is armed with a flexible set of tools, a whole gymnasium of workout equipment as it were, so that the needs of each learner can be met. Will I succeed in correctly diagnosing and challenging each learner? I can try, and may get most of them–may even devise a program for a successful class that engages many students at once. Will the trainee work as hard as I wish, or as hard as the other trainees in the gym? Will he respond to my encouragement and “pep talks”? These matters are out of the trainer’s hands, and so long as he does his best to help each learner progress on his own idiosyncratic path to mastery (a criterion-referenced entity), he leaves the gym each day with no guilt. Ultimately, fitness will be self-imposed.
My new metaphor shows the influence of “Mastery Learning” theory on my notions of curriculum. Once the objectives are formulated (and regardless of their individual details, all of the objectives come down to the same goal: maximum realization of the trainee’s potential), the process of getting mastery can vary according to the individual learner. In Mastery Learning, there is an appeal–that of the fitness test. Mastery Learning brings in the enthusiasm and optimism of the gym teacher to the classroom. Each student in PE will succeed, if only against his prior weakness. The students have criterion-reference–their own baseline–to grow upon. The gym teacher sets goals toward achievement of those formulated by the experts to be appropriate, and almost everyone passes gym and becomes more fit.
I have faith that as our understanding of human cognition grows, and as curricula are developed in harmony with it, and as we exploit the capacities for delivery of customized curriculum for each learner that IT holds, it will be possible in several years for every school to have a successful “mastery learning” enterprise.
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