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Why an Unscripted Education is Vital for a Democratic Society

We often think of education as something that happens in schools, and where a curriculum is nothing more than a structure for lessons and learning. But Thomas Poetter, a professor of education leadership at Miami University, would challenge this as an extremely limited view. Education is about much more than schooling, and he argues that having a deeper, richer understanding of curriculum is critical for a thriving democratic society.

Why an Unscripted Education is Vital for a Democratic Society

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The views and opinions expressed in this podcast by the hosts and guests may or may not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Miami University.

[Music]

James Loy:

This is Reframe, the podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Just how do we learn what we learn, and where do we learn it?

It’s a simple question that can have very complex answers, and it’s one that education scholars have been wrestling with for centuries.

We often think of education as something that happens in schools, where assignments and tests define the kind of learning that happens, and where a curriculum is often used to put structure around those lessons and that learning.

But many education scholars, and especially those that focus on curriculum in particular, would like to challenge this limited view, and today they often question the balance between the ends verses the means of an education.

So should education, for example, be a way to get students to a pre-determined end, or to a measurable outcome, one that defines just what and how much has been learned?

Or, should education be about the journey, or a means to absorb the rich experiences that can teach students about life, about themselves, and about best ways to thrive in the world?

These are question that deeply concern Tom Poetter, a professor of Educational Leadership at Miami University.

As an expert in curriculum studies, Tom Poetter often thinks about the distinction between education and indoctrination, and about how we can best embrace the human nature of education.

He also argues that curriculum means much, MUCH more than just what happens inside a school, which is a perspective that can have deep implications for teachers, students, parents, and anyone, really, who hopes to play a positive role in a democratic society.

Thomas Poetter:

Typically people who studied curriculum were really interested in a school based curriculum, and typically worked with teachers and educators in college based programs, either to get teachers ready for teaching or school administrators ready for being a principal or superintendent.

But over the last 50 years in particular, the work curriculum studies has morphed, in some ways, away from school life altogether, but in other ways more deeply into it. You can go to university programs, and the focus there is on how curriculum manifests in the world, and then the functions of society and in educational institutions that are outside of schooling, maybe even in entities that are not typically associated with education like the military.

The military has a curriculum. All of our democratic institutions have a curriculum. All of our religious institutions have curriculum. Curriculum is in everything. Or everything is curriculum. And of course then the philosophical problem with that is: if everything is curriculum … then everything is. So what's the point of studying it? Right? But the point of studying it is that there are aspects of curriculum in everything that we do that has process in it, that has learning in it, that has some form of structure in it, some form of content, right?

And so, when people are talking about aspects of the world as manifesting with curricular implications, a curricularist reads the world, interprets it in ways that have to do with the educational possibilities of it? Or what are the educational outcomes of it? That's what a curricularist would be thinking about.

The same is true for social things that happen in the world. Like, there are things happening in our society that really deserve our attention. Educationists can be part of that conversation. Like for instance, all over the country people are talking about what's the curriculum of policing? It's a really important topic, right? In the 21st century, with a diverse public, being served by a public filled with officers, right? How do they interact in places where there is conflict and strife? And what is the curriculum of that? How do they learn to be that? Who teaches them? What are the rules? What are the standards? What is the content of really good policing in the 21st century?

That's really up in the air right now. Like, we're really working on that, and people on the ground in that field. And some educationists are trying to figure that out. What is what is the manifestation of our best moral selves as a society when someone who is mentally ill is confronted by police officers and non-compliant? And we know that the person is not well and doesn't really know what they are doing. What is the action taken? Like, that's a curriculum question. How will the training or the instruction or the learning that the officers have had…How will it help mitigate a potentially volatile situation?

So curriculum, like I said, curriculum is everywhere. Does that mean it's just nothing then? It's just everything? But there are aspects of our experience together as human beings in our world and culture and society that have curricular implications. And I'm really interested in helping point those things out to students, and helping them learn to inquire into them.

James Loy:

I think it’s interesting to hear about how curriculum can be this much richer, deeper thing. It’s not just limited to this conceptualization of just a bunch school subjects or lesson plans. It goes far beyond that. Can you talk about how this way of looking a curriculum changes the way we often view the distinction between the ends versus the means of a good quality effective education? And how do most schools typically view curriculum? Is it more ends-based? Is it more means-based? And could they or should they see it differently?

Thomas Poetter:

Yeah, that's a really good question. And of course one I thought about a lot my whole career. In most classes that I teach, I think that the content of it is important -- the ideas, the theories, the structures, the foundational ideas in it are necessary. But I don't always think that they're the most important thing. And that doesn't sound quite right to a lot of people. Right?

Well, if I'm taking an English class, I want to learn all about that period of English literature. That's what I came here for. Instead of learning about how I feel about the things that are happening in the novel, right? But it's both. Like, the relationship that the student has with the faculty member, and the relationships that the student has with the other students in the classroom, and the understanding or the meaning that the students make together as they grapple with difficult ideas that emerge out of the literature they're studying. All of that is really important. And sometimes putting a book in front of students, or an experience in front of students, or a set of possibilities that they could explore together -- like a project -- is a means, right? And you don't always have to have the ends scripted out for an experience to be meaningful, to actually constitute the curricular value at hand. Like, to trust ourselves that as human beings to get something out of the experience.

Think about how the best classrooms, or maybe the best classes or courses you ever took, and the person starts with a Socratic question. What did you make of that novel? Well, how did it make you feel? What things were upsetting about it? You're asking open ended questions that the students can fill with the knowledge they gain from reading the book and interacting with it, etcetera. So I'm using that as a broad based metaphor. A lot of times, I think, even at the university level, we get really caught up with the learning outcomes. And I think the learning outcomes, even when they're there, and even if the faculty are trying to focus on them, the outcomes are always different. They're made by the students and the faculty member together as they work on the content, or they work on the project, or they work on the experiences they are having together. That's the content.

A lot of people are uncomfortable with that because it's hard to measure. Well, all the students in Poetter’s class had a great time and they learn a lot. Well, what did they learn? And so Jerry says, “I learned that when I'm in the field working with teachers, I want to encourage them to create their standards or interact with their standards or create their learning outcomes in ways that are flexible and respondent to student interests.” Right? That's an outcome I think would be quite good. I'd like for students to say that.

I may have missed it with a student, Alice, who says, "I want to be as rigid and horrid as I can to make sure that each student gets these six things in my class, no matter come hell or high water." And I'm like, wow, I really missed it with Alice, because it's missing the human element. It’s missing the notion of the means. The ends aren't always the end of the story.

All the people who are working on some type of educational experience together, they should be working towards having experience together where they create memories and lifelong learning that they can translate into the next step they want to take, right? And it's hard to define that, what it is for each person. I know what those things are for me now. Now my job is to help my students discover what those things are for them. Not just lecture to them or teach them the rules of the trade.

James Loy:

Do you think that’s how most schools or teachers view it today? Or would that view you detailed represent more of a paradigm shift as opposed to what's currently going on?

Thomas Poetter:

I think a lot of teachers are trying to do that type of work. Because they're pedagogues. And they know how they've learned. Some of them are rigid, some of them are following the course of study really tightly, others are looking at it and casting it aside and taking students on journeys, hoping that they get to the same place as the other students at that great level do. I think our teachers are still all really very oriented toward the possibility that the class is more than just the scripted curriculum.

But I think that has been hard in schools, and it has been hard on teachers, and it has driven a lot of teachers away. So I think it's held, to some degree, but I think it's always up in the air and it's under fire.

James Loy:

And I want to ask you about what the value that comes with having an educational experience that is more off script or those that aren't so overly results orientated, or go beyond that strict transfer of knowledge, and you have a great example that I’ve heard you use about a scene from the movie Apollo 13 starring Tom Hanks.

And there is a scene where the engineers know that there is a carbon dioxide buildup in the space capsule and the have to figure out how to build a filter using only the materials that they know for a fact that the astronauts themselves had access to up in space. Can you describe that scene for us, or just explain how that movie is a good example of the kinds of benefits that come from this type of learning, or by using curriculum in ways that aren’t so scripted.

Thomas Poetter:

It's a really good metaphor for what actually happens in education, or what could happen in education. It could be any level of student working on a problem. Right? But the Apollo engineers, working in Florida and Texas, when Apollo 13 nearly collapsed in the air on the way to the moon. They had only a few hours to make some lifesaving decisions about how to use the materials on the spacecraft to repair it so it could come all the way home.

All the engineers, basically, had to think beyond their own educations with a novel, very difficult problem at hand and solve it. They had to bring all of their learning to bare, and some things that they didn't even have in their own discipline, or in their own thinking, or their own experience -- that they had to count on from someone else in the room to bring to bare. That's how you can really pool our knowledge and experience to solve important problems.

It's really good metaphor for democracy, right? Like, if we're going to be in this together and make it to the end, whatever that is, right, what are our means? Well, the means that we have at our disposal, at best, is the capacity to work together to solve problems. That's a very important metaphor, and it becomes more than a metaphor when you live in a Democratic Republic, right? Because the Democratic Republic requires that all of the institutions that funded -- meaning not with money -- but with knowledge and experience and capacity and structure -- All of those things have to constantly be working together in order to solve the problems of the day.

So if your rocket blows up, and you can't make it back to the earth without some type of lifesaving intervention, what is going to happen? How will we react? It's a really important great metaphor for the curriculum. So, this is the problem at hand. And the engineers on the ground create a curriculum for solving the problem. You don't have everything scripted out ahead of time. You build it together.

James Loy:

What do you think we lose when that’s not the case? When things are too scripted, or when that becomes the way too many educational intuitions view teaching and learning? Do we lose the ability to solve some of the biggest problems of the day.

Thomas Poetter:

Yeah, I think we lose a lot.

I worry that if we don't have a more open, maybe even you might call it progressive curriculum in schooling, is that student who might find the secret to solving the rule of cancer in the world. What if that student had had a more inquiry-oriented experience in school, that encouraged her to ask the questions in the lab that she had always had brewing, but she was discouraged from asking, or told weren't necessary for this class, or important to it? “You can do that later when you're in college,” but she wasn't going, she had no way to get there.

Like all of that loss -- that is a significant load to bear for educationists, who worry that the system is not delivering in a way that helps -- not only to like inculcate, like, to fill up and give, right? The system can give, like, a lot of students do get a lot from teaching and learning by being filled up. But it doesn't have the capacity to pull out the talent, right? We have to have more capacity to do that type of work.

And I'm not saying it's easy. I can't sit here in my ivory tower, this beautiful room, and say it's easy to do, and I can do it. Or I can do it better than anyone. I'm like, that's a really hard journey. You have to really be up for it, and to fail, to take risks that don't yield, or that you can't see right away.

That's one of the things that we also have a hard time with, I think, as a culture and society is that there has to be an outcome right away that we can measure. And I don't think that's the case for educational experiences. Sometimes things don't manifest for years to come, or decades. And I don't think that's bad. That might be okay, and unmeasurable. What educationists and philosophers might call the ineffable, like, just something you can't measure.

James Loy:

I wonder if you could talk about one of the most unique books you’ve written as an academic, because I think it does summarize or encapsulate a lot of the things that we’ve been talking about. It’s your book called The Education of Sam Sanders, and you say right in the forward of the book that it's to call attention to the great tragedy of our era of education. So I want to ask you about what that book was about, what you were trying to address, and also where are we as a society today in relation the sort of dystopian society you envisioned potentially happening in the book? How close are we to that scenario in real life at the moment?

Thomas Poetter:

Well, that idea for the Education of Sam Sanders came out of a conference I attended in 2000. The first curriculum and pedagogy group conference. It was held in Texas, and I went down. And I went to a presentation. It was about Ohio. It was in Texas. It was about Ohio's new standards movement and how it was manifesting in schools. And there were some artistic displays at that presentation that were disturbing to me. You know, like there was depiction of a crucifix and the words on it were “testing” and “the standards” and the metaphor was that, you know, this is killing us. It's actually destroying us.

This type of over compensation for a perceived weakness that we actually didn't have in our education system. And what it was doing was stealing opportunities away from children in schools, and adults who were trying to teach them, and making them focus on things that had counterproductive ends to them.

And I started thinking about communicating that to a public. And, you know, people were already writing books about this and doing it in standard prose. And I was thinking at the time about the novel, and fiction as a medium for consumption that maybe some citizens would find attractive to learn about this issue and problems. So I started writing a novel that used fiction as a way to communicate ideas in our area of curriculum studies that we thought were important, that we thought maybe some people might consume. So this novel, the Education of Sam Sanders, it was about a young boy who resists the standard movement in, at that time, it would have been 30 years in the future. 2029.

James Loy:

You wrote it in 2000. But it was set in and about 2029.

Thomas Poetter:

I don't know why I picked 2029. I thought it was a long time away. It's not now. But it seemed like a long time away. And I started predicting things that would happen. I'm no Nostradamus, but I started predicting things that would happen. Like everybody would be in one room behind computers taking the test together. I thought that was ludicrous to think that we would ever do that, like, standardized the to such a degree that anybody could take the test on a computer, together, in the same room, over the same content, and that the outcomes of that test would tell us much about the students.

But look at what happened. By 20 … I don't even know …  2012 or 2010 we were doing that routinely. And it all happened so fast. Like, to me, it was a real effort to show a dystopian view of what was possible. But the hopeful side of it is that, probably, what was going to happen was that the students themselves would figure out that schooling wasn't in any way, shape, or form like the world they wanted to be in, or create together, right? Like students wanna be engaged, and they want to be learning and experiencing the world. Not just sitting behind a computer, typically, learning content that somebody else created, or said it was important for them to learn.

So Sam Sanders is that character. He's a 13 year old boy who takes the world into his own hands and resists the test. And we found out later in 2013, 14, 15 and 16 that parents and students really were not happy with how schooling had turned, and they started to resist the test. There was a national opt out movement, and that gained some footing. I was part of that.

And it's really a depiction of a more student-focused, student-centered, project-oriented, growth-oriented, and creative schooling experience for children schools. That's what I'm thinking would be the most optimal for a nation like ours.

James Loy:

Yeah. Standardized testing is still around, even if we have moved away from No Child Left Behind specifically. It seems to have evolved in other ways and it still seems to be creating frustrations for many people at various levels throughout the educational system.

And yet, there is, I think, clearly more emphasis on student-centered learning, experiential learning, trying to understand children where they are and meet their needs as much as possible. So do you think we are moving in the right direction? Can we get to this ultimate goal at some point?

Thomas Poetter:

I think it's possible. But we really don't have … we still don't have a rather universal idea that … Like, not all swaths of society think that formal learning and education are all that important, that you really don't need it. Or that getting it does something to you that might be a little bit negative. I think that's in our culture and society right now, a pretty strong strain of it. That concerns me a little bit. Because I think that it's part of the larger democratic project.

A society like ours, a democratic republic like ours, could only be served well if more and more of its citizens were educated. There's some truth to that, I think, and I am concerned about that to some degree. How far will we get in the next 3 to 6 generations, and what's at stake if we don't?

Like, what's at stake if we leave some of that talent behind, and they aren't in the labs or in the universities or in the think tanks creating new ways forward for humanity?

Like, all these kinds of possibilities manifest, and we're not paying attention to them if we shut down opportunities. If we don't make opportunities more open. If we don't give children a chance, students chance to explore and experience the world.

I worry about that.

James Loy:

Tom Poetter is a professor of Educational Leadership and the chair of the department of Educational Leadership at Miami University.

And this is the Reframe Podcast. Thank you so much for listening. We have many more episodes for free right now available wherever podcasts are found.