Teaching as a Subversive Activity – A Short Review

Teaching as a Subversive Activity
Teaching as a Subversive Activity

Anything with “subversive” in the title has my attention, especially if it relates to teaching.

Even though this book is more than 40 years old (1969) Postman and Weingartner are making an argument that is very similar to the argument that is being made today around the bankruptcy of an educational system that is based on the needs of an industrial society. They write that for the first time in history change has become so fast that we can’t assume that what made sense to us, makes sense to our children. This means that the focus of education should shift towards helping children learn how to learn (“leren leren” as we would say in Dutch). Teachers (and thus teacher education) are the starting points to initiate this change.

Their suggested way to do this is by the “Inquiry Method”: asking questions of students and allowing students to formulate their own questions. Very similar to what others might call the Socratic method. The inquiry method is grounded in the realisation that we always perceive the world with our own meaning making machinery. People will only change if they can give meaning to what they learn in some way. The students own thinking is the only starting point for learning.

Reading this book has made me reflect hard on my own teaching practices. I dare say that it will fundamentally change the way I will address any future classrooms. I will have to start by asking myself the following questions:

What am I going to have my students do today?
What’s it good for?
How do I know?

There are many things to quote from the book, but let me just focus on a statement from the end of the book:

Learning to suspend judgment can be most liberating. You might find that it makes you a better learner (meaning maker) too.

If you then think about this statement in the context of judging (i.e. grading) students you should ask yourself the following set of questions:

  1. To what extent does my own background block me from understanding the behaviour of this student?
  2. Are my own values greatly different from those of the student?
  3. To what extent have I made an effort to understand how things look from this student’s point of view?
  4. To what extent am I rewarding or penalizing the student for his acceptance or rejection of my interests?
  5. To what extent am I rewarding a student for merely saying what I want to hear, whether or not he believes or understands what he is saying?

I used to do this as a teacher and found the results quite disturbing. As the authors write:

A grade is as much a product of the teacher’s characteristics, ability, and behaviour as of the student’s.

How many teacher’s realize this?

The book is well summarized in it’s last paragraph (although it is very dense and requires reading the book to get its full meaning):

The new education, in sum, is new because it consists of having students use the concepts most appropriate to the world in which we must live. All of these concepts constitute the dynamics of the questing-questioning, meaning-making process that can be called “learning how to learn.” This comprises a posture of stability from which to deal fruitfully with change. The purpose is to help all students develop built-in shockproof crap detectors as basic equipment in their survival kits.

You have to love “crap detection” as the ultimate skill for our times!