Three Bold and Fresh Ideas for Education in ‘Teaching as a Subversive Activity’

“The function of the What’s-Worth-Knowing Questions Curriculum is to put two ideas into clear focus. The first is that the art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge…The second idea is that question asking…has to deal with problems that are perceived as useful and realistic to the learner.” Teaching As a Subversive Activity (p 81)

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by Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, first published in 1969

“Teaching as a Subversive Activity” puts forth ideas about education that are radical, controversial, bold and fresh. It suggests eliminating syllabi, formal curriculum and textbooks from education settings. It introduces ideas of student-centered learning over teacher-centered teaching, and leading students to learn by asking questions, not by teachers giving lectures. The book was first published in 1969—considered radical among educators then, and today.

Hands down it’s on of the most challenging, thoughtful, practical books I’ve read about transforming education. I read it on the heels of “A New Culture of Learning” the book by John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas published in 2009 (my review here). The books complement each other well; Brown and Thomas write about learning in a digital age though don’t provide specific strategies. Postman and Weingartner do. The principles in “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” are applicable and relevant today just as they were forty-five years ago—how to change education where students learn how to think, to detect ‘crap’, and to learn how-to-learn that continues beyond high school and higher education.

In this post I highlight and share with readers three themes from the book, still relevant in today’s digital culture: 1) facilitating ‘crap detection’, 2) What’s-Worth-Knowing? and 3) bold proposals. There are more than these three within the book’s 218 pages, and I plan to address at least two in future posts. One readers may find interesting is the authors’ perspective on teacher education—the methods associated with teaching content. Postman and Weingartner suggest that content and method, are considered separate processes in teacher education programs, which is according to them, the wrong approach. This idea is compelling. Look for this post in the weeks to come.

Overview
To provide some context for the book, I found it helpful to dig more into the background of Neil Postman, one of the co-authors. He’s an American educator, author, critic of media and culture. Postman is known mostly because of his book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (1985), a book about the corrosive effects of television on culture and politics. He’s written several books on education, technology and children’s development.

Postman’s style of writing is blunt. The subtitle of “Teaching as a Subversive Activity”, ‘A no-holds barred assault on outdated teaching methods—with dramatic and practical proposals on how education can be made relevant to today’s world‘ gives the reader a glimpse into not only the content, but the authors’ tone. I adapted to the writing style; I tried to view the remarks about education not as criticisms but as a perspective. Though some readers of the book have dismissed the ideas because of the harsh criticisms of education practices, sometimes teachers (one can read the book reviewers comments on Amazon to get an idea). Saturday Review Magazine captures the implications of the authors’ tone and the books content in its review of the book featured on the back cover:

 “It will take courage to read this book…but those who are asking honest questions—what’s wrong with the worlds in which we live, how do we build communication bridges across the Generation Gap, what do they want from us? These people will squirm in the discovery that the answers are really within themselves”

The Three Themes

1) Cultivate learners to be experts at “Crap Detecting”
Crap detecting may sound harsh. Though what the authors suggest is that “schools serve as the principal medium for developing in youth attitudes and skills of social, political and cultural criticism“, where schools cultivate students that are discerning, can view problems from multiple perspectives, identify what’s valid and not, and most importantly why it is so.

Is this not an essential skill for all youth in a digital age, determining what information is ‘crap’—information that is not valid or worthy of examination, yet determine what is relevant, deserves consideration, sharing and building upon (remixing)? I’d say so. The authors use a quote from an interview with Ernest Hemingway to emphasize their point:

Isn’t there any one essential ingredient that you can identify [to be a great writer]?” Hemingway replied, “Yes, there is. In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.”

It seems to us that in his response, Hemingway identified an essential survival strategy and the essential function of the school’s in today’s world.  page 3

I can’t add much more to that—relevant in 1969, and in 2014.

2) The Inquiry Method — What’s Worth Knowing?
In “A New Culture of Learning”, the concept of inquiry based learning is the fulcrum of learning in the digital age. The premise is that only when students are interested in following a path of inquiry, based on something they are passionate about, will they be motivated to learn. It’s up to educators then to harness the passion and leverage the abundance of resources to guide their learning.

This idea of inquiry learning is not new. In fact Postman may have been one of the first educators to fully develop and implement the method in a public school setting. Postman started, along with another educator, a model school dedicated to the inquiry method. The program named the “Program for Inquiry, Involvement, and Independent Study” was located within the New Rochelle High School in New York. The “open school” experiment survived for 15 years. 

Two chapters discuss the inquiry method and go in great detail; chapter three, and an extension the questioning technique in ‘Whats-Worth-Knowing?‘ described in chapter five. The latter chapter stimulates much thought. Authors challenge the reader to imagine a classroom without syllabi, textbooks, and curricula. Then suggests:

 “…suppose that you decide the entire curriculum consists of questions. There questions would have to be worth seeking answers to not only from your point of view but, more importantly , from the point of view of the students.”

The next challenge—on a blank page that exists within the book (it really does in the hard copy), authors instruct readers to take a pencil and list questions that might be starting questions to use with students. Though authors warn, these are starting questions given that:

“…the ecology of the inquiry environment requires that the students play a central, but not necessarily exclusive role in framing questions that they deem important”

It’s a provocative exercise. I came up with six questions, though after reading the rest of the chapter, I cut it down to four.

3) Bold Proposals
I won’t cover all of the strategies, proposals and ideas presented by the authors for education transformation, given the detail of each, and for the sake of your time. There are many.  But here is where the practicality comes in where “A New Culture of Learning” left off. As I said in my previous post, “A New Culture of Learning” didn’t provide practical solutions, or ideas for application for the new ways to learn. This book does. Some seem preposterous, some not. But perhaps it is time for preposterous ideas, though one’s perspective will determine just how preposterous the ideas are. In future posts I’ll discuss ideas put forth in the book for educating teachers and about pedagogy. In another I will share a summary of the authors’ ideas for inner city schools, classroom learning and teacher roles.

Conclusion
“Teaching as a Subversive Activity” is on the top of my list of best books for educators. If read in conjunction with “A New Culture of Learning”, one can gain an in-depth view of what education transformation really is, or what it could be, and what’s needed—which is dialogue and action that is bold and fresh.

Further Reading:

3 thoughts on “Three Bold and Fresh Ideas for Education in ‘Teaching as a Subversive Activity’

  1. I was impressed back in — well maybe around 1979 — when I read this book originally. From a current perspective I would say, yes, but how? It seems much more difficult to promote the kind of critical awareness, thinking, attitude, that Postman and Weingartner were rightly pointing towards. At least, in my view, one needs to understand more about adult development, e.g. from the perspectives of William G Perry and Robert Kegan. I have yet to see any substantial claim to have a method for deliberately advancing this kind of development. I would be delighted to see any programme with any evidence that this is practical.

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