Thursday, December 21, 2006

Curriculum and the different flavors of nominalism

As far as my philosophy-of-ed naivete is concerned, perhaps the best example of a contemporary equivalent of whole-cloth curriculum theorizing in the vein of progressivism, Summerhill, etc., is Marion Brady's Seamless Curriculum.  As someone who has taught at different levels but whose arguments don't explicitly come from any single intellectual root, Brady is iconoclastic and sometimes hard to read when he tries to squeeze his curriculum perspective into a shorter piece of writing. Disclosure: My difficulties may come less from Brady than from my own background, which is fairly far from curriculum theorizing. I'm aware of the conventional stuff (formal v. hidden v. taught v. tested v. ... curriculum) as well as the classic critical readings (e.g., Apple) and standard curriculum historiography (e.g., Kliebard).

My reading of Brady is that he's a nominalist: He places his view of the world in opposition to what he sees as a disciplinary slicing of the world, which looks remarkably like a modern version of realism (i.e., that there is a reality, and that the disciplines really do connect up with that underlying reality). He argues that reality is not that sliced up and, moreover, we can't teach children how to understand the world in that sliced-up way. Instead, he says, we should teach students in a way that matches up with the who-what-when-where-why questions (or the 5 Ws, for those familiar with journalism), which he says is more useful pedagogically. Maybe I'm mixing up my philosophies, but that seems very close to the nominalist position—that whatever reality may or may not exist, we tend to put categories and names on that reality in a very human way rather than a way that directly reflects reality.

But these days, there are many different varieties of nominalism. Just to name a few modern ones, there's pragmatism, where the categories are human and a good thing, too; there's deconstruction, where language serves as an inpenetrable barrier between categories and any reality; there's the radical science-studies field of Bruce Latour and others; there are the softier philosophers of science such as Ian Hacking, who simultaneously play with social constructionism and yet don't buy into Latour's and others' arguments; etc. And I suppose within each flavor, there are different attitudes one can take towards the nominalist position.  Should we be regretful nominalists, who see dangers in however we slice up our description of reality? Should we be enthusiastic nominalists, who see the human classifications as potentially heuristic? I know I'm taking huge liberties with these concepts (the real philosophers who contribute to this blog will probably slap me with dinner-plate fish over this), but there's a point here... I'd place Brady as a regretful nominalist, though he may well disagree.

There are two weaknesses in Brady's argument.  One is the inconsistency in his nominalist argument: Holism is as much of a construction as disciplinary silos. If the disciplines are an arbitrary division of reality, so are the 5 Ws. On what basis is the 5-Ws template a better one than academic disciplines? He asserts it's easier for children to use, but I'm not convinced.  It may be easier for children of journalists to use, but young children at around four generally use only one of the W questions (why), and to my calloused parent ears it's not clear when that question functions as an interrogatory and when it's performative/interactive. Brady's ideas may also ignore the capacity for children to understand abstract ideas and categories (see Rick Garlikov's essays on teaching math to young children for another iconoclastic and very different approach). On the other hand, there's a long history of such underestimates, including Piaget.

The second weakness is the regretful approach to towards nominalism, the implication that just because academic disciplines may be artificial, that means that they're suspect for teaching children. My guess is that if you've gone to read Brady's online essay, my classification seemed right or wrong instantly. Why? Because the realism-nominalism duality has a clear meaning to those who've had some philosophy. (Those who have the professional expertise to slap me with dinner-plate fish over my errors will note that I'm ignoring conceptualism.) So having had some philosophy helps put Marion Brady's ideas into a larger context. But academic philosophy is a discipline, and if Brady is right, it's part of the artificial division of the world by disciplines. But it's helpful for explaining his rejection of philosophy as one of the disciplines.

I'm much more of an enthusiastic nominalist than Brady is. The disciplines are not perfect, but they provide useful perspectives, and to throw them out just because they're often used poorly or reified in schools today is tossing the baby out with the bathwater. That doesn't mean that cross-disciplinary themes/approaches can't be used—far from it, as Central Park East Secondary School's Habits of Mind (five organizing questions) comprised one example of a successful unifying approach. But that approach seems inherently interdisciplinary rather than being rooted in holism.


Aaron Schutz said...

I think it's important to point out that the Free Schools vision of holistic learning that Brady seems to be drawing from was almost entirely designed around the experience of the children of the the educated middle class. I've been meaning to write a post--I will at some point--arguing that middle class kids who don't watch too much TV basically don't need to go to school *at all* until about middle school. I think Summerhill has proved this pretty definitively.

So Brady's vision may be a vision for people who don't really need a vision (but are tired of structured schooling). But is it relevant to kids who don't already come to school equipped with the discourses of successful students?

So I'm not sure the issue here is as much philosophical, or as much a debate between disciplinary and non-disciplinary learning as it is a debate between the needs of different students who come from different backgrounds. My point is not that these methods can't work with working-class kids. But with middle class kids you can sit around and ask *why?* all day and they'll be fine. With working-class kids making this work really requires a teacher who is very much an expert. Whole Language/John Dewey/Nel Noddings revidivus?

The issue for me isn't whether something is "real" or not. Actually, I couldn't care less about that question. Instead my question is who is it "real" for, and who does it serve when we discard or adapt particular structures of knowledge for particular contexts? And I get worried when people make these kind of arguments while impling that all students are the same and that the implications for different students of different perspectives will also be the same.

James Horn said...

Is there a reason that Brady has been singled out for a negative review?

And what is value of describing any "vein" as "progressivism, Summerhill, etc?" Is it intended to form one end of a dichotomy that goes sliding over a cliff on the left side of the page?

Anonymous said...

Aaron, thanks for pushing the conversation in a different direction! Jim, I raised Marion Brady's ideas here because I haven't seen them taken seriously elsewhere. Maybe it's because my father grew up on Flatbush Avenue, but criticism is evidence that someone thinks an idea is worth arguing about.

Kathryn M. Benson said...

Of course, I am sure we all agree with much of his analysis of the need for educational reform....the punitive system that is forced on teachers, students, and administrators...the mind-numbing processes of skill and drill, etc. How convenient to focus on content rather than context, structure rather than substance, policy rather than politics. Sure we have always worried the notion of the artifical constructs of the "disciplines." Obviously there has been a dearth of logical connection of knowledge with experience. We teach what to whom for what reason? Or, even more pertinent, we don't teach what to whom for what reason? The five "w"s can be used to consider the implications of curricular dis-ease. With Brady's work I fall off the ladder in the section of "how the brain organizes informationn to make sense"....and those columns of categories and sub category and then sub sub and on to "infinity." This is how we make sense of reality? And we agree that reality is.....?

Anonymous said...

Jim Horne has suggested that I post my response to his view of my view on the general education curriculum. I'd be happy to do that but it's too long to re-type and I see no provision here for cutting and pasting.
But now that I'm here, I'll try to describe a 45-minute activity which pretty much serves as the foundation of my work. Maybe it'll speak to Aaron's assumption that I'm drawing on "the Free School's version of holistic education" and has a middle-class bias, Jim's categorizing of it in a particular philosophical school, and Kathryn's falling "off the ladder" of the conceptual framework on my homepage.

So, picture this:

I'm in a typical middle school classroom with a diverse mix of kids of no particular ability level. They're arranged in small groups of four to six members.

I tell them to choose someone in their group who can write fast, and get ready to write.

"OK, kids,here's what we're going to do. I'm going to say 'Start,' silently count off five seconds, then say 'Stop.' During that five seconds, I want you to concentrate really hard on what's true" right here in this room during those five seconds. Just the facts. Then, you're going to reel these off in single words or short phrases while your secretary
writes them down. I'll give you about 10 minutes. See how long you can make your list."

There's some confusion, so I give a couple of examples: "The fluorescent lights hummed." "Jamie snickered." "Tony was wearing white sneakers."

They go at it, and probably list 20 to 40 items in each group.

We then talk about how long their lists COULD have been if I hadn't stopped them, and they tell me that, depending on how finely they sliced reality, it could have gone to 1,, a, indefinitely.

"That, for just one little room for only five seconds?" I ask.


"So, what if, instead of just this room and 5 seconds, we dealt with all of reality for this continent since 1492?"


I point out that, in fact, we DO deal with it, that if we didn't, we couldn't survive, at which point I tell them to put everything on their lists on the board and have at it---devise systems of organization and play with them until they think they've got the best possible approach.

What eventually emerges is a five-component model, the components being the usual ones from which we create stories, plays, reports, conversations, etc. - some version of stage, actors, plot, and action, set in time.

For each of the five, they generate sub-categories, sub-subcategories and so on. Lots of arguments, but these sub lists and sub-sub lists eventually emerge. No matter if they're crude. The rest of the story is moving bck and forth between reality and model of reality, refining elaborating, testing, changing a sub-component (Likely systemic effects of increasing life by five years? A two meter rise in average sea level? Universal acceptance of the idea there's no god, or that God routinely intervenes in human affairs? Discovery of limitless free energy?
This is the base on which all else builds.

Jim's objection that I'm dumping the disciplines? No. I argue that the disciplines are powerful and useful elaborations of certain random PARTS of the list on the board. But unlike the knowledge organizing system THEY'VE illustrated with their work, the disciplines neglect a lot of important stuff, provide no criteria for determining relative importance of specific content, don't relate systemically, (and suffer from a dozen or so other problems).

I don't know whether the fact that all groups end up with the same approach to organizing means its hard-wired or culture based, but I don't see that as important. I treat societies as the basic units of human organization---as coherent systems, as the
"inventors" of meaning, and therefore the proper focus of comprehensive study, with the disciplines as sub-studies, incapable of being integrated in any intellectually manageable way, but that's OK because they're already using a really sophisticated, comprehensive system.

Whatever all this is, it arises entirely from "the bottom up," from asking kids to deal directly with what Whitehead said we all seek, an understanding of "an insistent present."

I can't bring myself to participate in yet another listserv, but I'm at if you want to take issue.

If you're still here, thanks!

Marion Brady
Cocoa, Florida

Kathryn M. Benson said...

In response to this section: Jim's objection that I'm dumping the disciplines? No. I argue that the disciplines are powerful and useful elaborations of certain random PARTS of the list on the board. But unlike the knowledge organizing system THEY'VE illustrated with their work, the disciplines neglect a lot of important stuff, provide no criteria for determining relative importance of specific content, don't relate systemically, (and suffer from a dozen or so other problems).

Yes, this points out the gaps in knowledge when "only" the specific content of the particular disciplines are taught in isolation from each other (as if they really are) and the lives of the students (as if this knowledge has a life at all apart from human life). So, building curriculum from the students' perspectives is quite relevant and effective. Yes, I do think the narrative is hard-wired. The disciplines are part of the table of contents or maybe only the index.