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Randi Kreiss

Let’s end classroom education as we know it, they said

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You probably haven’t read “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner.

“What is it that students do in the classroom?” the authors ask. “Well, mostly they sit and listen to the teacher. Mostly they are required to believe authorities or at least pretend to such belief. It is practically unheard of for students to play any role in determining what problems are worth studying . . .”

“Teaching as a Subversive Activity” was published in 1969. The war in Vietnam was ablaze. The anti-war movement in the United States was galvanized, and militants were taking over university offices, bombing draft offices and picketing ROTC buildings. In the midst of this civic unrest, when it seemed as if the country was so divided it might never come together again, Professors Postman and Weingartner wrote their book, which was called a “no-holds-barred assault on outdated teaching methods.”

They were two obscure and uncelebrated professors who taught at Queens College during the Vietnam War years. As it happens, I was a student in Weingartner’s class in secondary school education in 1968. I studied with him that year, and then took another class with him while working on my master’s degree in education, all at Queens College. The background noise was Vietnam 24/7. In fact, during the worst of the protests, students commandeered our dean’s office and threw his furniture out the window onto the quad.

I was a bystander to the drama, just trying to get my degree and get on with my life as a newly married woman and a newly hired English teacher.

I never forgot Weingartner’s class and his “subversive” approach to education. He and Postman were captivating and provocative, and although many of their suggestions proved to be impractical, we knew inside that they were right. They were right to say that schools needed to stop the rote teaching and testing. Their emphasis on critical thinking and process was spot on. They said schools needed to do away with grades, tests, textbooks, courses and full-time administrators. They said teachers should be more like life coaches (although the term didn’t exist at the time) and not authority figures.

I thought about Weingartner’s theories all the time I taught English. I was a good teacher, but we were constrained by a stagnant system in which students passively listened to teachers present “course content.”

Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, we accomplished the unthinkable: We shut down the nation’s schools and changed how kids learn.

Postman and Weingartner taught before the internet and devices and virtual teaching. It’s hard to know what they would make of this. They might be glad kids were liberated from the classroom, but their vision of educating children was more dynamic than sitting down with screens. I remember Weingartner telling us future teachers to get our kids out of the classroom and into the world, where they could experience art and music and literature firsthand, with us along as guides.

Our school shutdown is a unique opportunity. If we can do that — and we did — why can’t we task our best and brightest with making learning a process and not a product, as David Hill proposed in an article in Teacher magazine in 2000?

Teachers, Weingartner said, should ask provocative questions. “What bothers you most about adults?” “How would you distinguish good from evil?” “What are the most dangerous ideas floating through our lives today?” “Why do you think so?”

The professors encouraged students to be creative and tolerant, and to learn to deal with ambiguity and failure. They encouraged teachers not to be in the business of giving answers, but to let students think through problems on their own or in peer groups.

This problem-solving approach to teaching has found traction in recent years. But too much dead wood anchors our education system. Too many classroom experiences are based on lesson plans and note-taking and tests. “Don’t plan a lesson,” the professors wrote in their book. “Confront your students with some sort of problem that might interest them. Then allow them to work the problem through without your advice or counsel.”

We are at a tipping point in education because of the pandemic, and we have an extraordinary opportunity to improve the public-school experience for our students and teachers. We could make some lemonade from this lemon.

Copyright 2020 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.