||Volume 23, Number 2, October 2010
Teaching is a political act
By Jane Turner
John Dewey was an early proponent of the importance of public education. He knew that literacy and numeracy skills were needed if the United States was to become a truly democratic society. The populace needed to know how to read, write, add, and subtract if they were to engage in the public discourse of the country. Dewey was supported in his democratic goals by industrialists who needed workers with these skills so they could engage in productive work in their factories and businesses. It was not an accident or an oversight that black Americans, the slaves, were not allowed to learn to read. Keeping a group in ignorance was one important aspect of exercising total control.
Subsequent generations, and the governments that have ruled them, have known about the importance of what is being taught to students. Every time curriculum revisions are contemplated, interest and lobby groups line up at the government’s door trying to ensure their perspective is included. Why do they do this? Because what is taught and how it’s taught matters.
Paulo Freire understood this. He looked at learners and saw they could occupy one of two positions. They could be objects or subjects. An object in an educational setting is someone who is taught to, the proverbial empty vessel who is filled with a few facts. Objects are done to; they do not do for themselves. Freire observed that in his homeland there was a culture of silence and that the whole educational system was one of the major instruments for the maintenance of this silence.
Subjects, on the other hand, engage in their education, using it to become self-aware, critical thinkers and “agents of change” either for themselves or their community. Teachers in British Columbia’s public schools make choices every day as to whether they teach their students as objects or subjects.
When we ask students to reflect on their learning, what it means for them and how they might use it in their lives, we are encouraging them to take charge of their own education. If we offer extra-curricular activities that allow students to grow, expand their skills and view of the world and self-knowledge, we are supporting their sense of self and as people who can change the world. However, if we demand that they blindly obey the rules, take in the information without question and regurgitate it on a test, then we are encouraging passivity and conformity. In other words, we are treating our students as objects.
Freire said there is no neutral in the education process. We are either recreating what is, conformity, or critically evaluating our world and knowledge, agency. Teaching a child to read and understand what the words mean is not neutral. Neither is teaching them how to phonetically sound out a word, but not how to understand its impact. Both are political acts; one supports independent thought and action, the other supports compliance.
Just as what we do as teachers has an impact on our students, what and how we learn has an impact on us. If we are presented with information and not allowed the time to critically engage with it on a PD day, are we being treated as objects? Is the expectation that we will unquestioningly take it all in and conform to the actions and norms that are being urged upon us?
Teachers have fought for decades to be in control of their own professional learning. Setting our own PD agenda is an integral part of exercising professional autonomy, which in Freireian parlance means we are demanding to be subjects, not objects.
I have often joked that teachers take on the role of PD chair in their locals because it is the least “political” of all the jobs available. Then they get into the role and find out everyone is trying to get control over teachers’ learning. Just like those who lobby for curriculum that reflects their point of view, many have a vested interest in controlling teachers’ learning. The past decade’s focus on literacy, numeracy, and assessment supports a political agenda.
Teaching is a political act and many try to sway the political agenda in favour of their interests. Fortunately, teachers are committed to the interests of children, public education, and the community at large. That’s why we teach using the methods of inquiry and critical reflection. That’s why teachers resent using precious learning time to prepare students for tests, be they FSAs or Grade 10/11 exams, that focus on recall, not higher-level thinking. That’s why teachers want to protect their professional autonomy. That’s why our PD chairs are so important. They are the main interface between an agenda that sees teachers as objects, to be done to, and the teachers in the local who want to be subjects, engaging in learning that is meaningful to them.
Jane Turner is an assistant director, BCTF Professional and Social Issues Division.