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How the Program Approach Has Failed Big Education

These new subjects are then given distinguishing labels such as “Major Currents,” “Communication Objectives,” “Transfer Abilities,” “Development of Learning Skills,” “Integrating Activities,” and “Knowledge of the History of the Disciplines.” Several of these objectives may apparently be achieved in one course or, variously, several courses may be required to achieve one objective. “The courses,” we are told, “become a means to achieve the essential objectives of the program” -- but when, one may be forgiven for asking, was it ever otherwise? When did teachers of the better sort not teach with an array of complementary purposes in mind, goals like general literacy and research proficiency, which in the very nature of things transcend the specific determinants of the given discipline?

But Programs homeward plods its weary way. Objectives are duly tied to courses and disciplines and these latter are tidily bundled into “time units” and “fields of study” (or programs) garnished with legitimating credits and obligatory “contact hours.” The language and the mindset being put in place testify to the desire to turn the “structures” of student learning into an assortment of logic gates, computer hardware components that consist of any number of input wires (courses) and one output wire (the pre-specified objective). When more than one objective is specified, the technician can always introduce a “branching gate,” which has several output wires, to direct cerebral traffic. Since logic gates are able to perform only three basic operations, represented as “not,” “or” and “and,” the future envisioned here does not especially look like an epistemologically rich environment where human freedom, complexity, and differentiation may be expected to flourish.

So dehumanized, students and young people are on the way to becoming something quite unprecedented in the history of our civilization, hybrid creatures whose mental operations are patterned on the functioning of electronic circuitry and whose ratiocinative “elements” are meant to be easily replaceable and upgraded when necessary. The various internal circuits which form part of the larger instrumentation of the motherboard must obviously be carefully integrated if they are to work properly. Thus the culminating objective which the Programs transaction seems to envision is the aforementioned “Integrating Activities.”

The difficulty, of course, is that on the level of both reflection and feeling, which are categorically distinct from neurological activity in itself, human beings are not “integrated circuits” and simply do not “integrate” like electronic devices or programs obeying a set of algorithmic instructions. The fact is that “Integration” is only a synonym for systematic aimlessness. One of my students wrote: “I have an Integration Seminar -- don’t ask me what that’s all about, I have no clue -- and all we do and have done is talk about what we’ve done.” A Programs update that made the rounds at my college nervously agreed, allowing that “teachers are not sure what they are supposed to be assessing” (let alone teaching) but went on confidently to assume that all will be well once we have managed to determine “what different disciplines have in common, which could be assessed at the end of a student’s program.” The endemic arbitrariness and, indeed, futility of this proposition seems to have escaped the planners altogether.

The attitude that prevails in the committee rooms and administrative offices is one of assumed intellectual supremacy not justified by the facts. The Program druids are content with the propagation of high-sounding abstractions and accordingly spend most of their time formulating a new kind of brogue which obscures the stubborn deficits that the “target population” (a.k.a. students) brings with it into the “learning context” and which, as a pseudo-scientific creole without purchase on reality, must necessarily resist workable translation into practice.

And so what used to be known as grading becomes “a summative appraisal activity.” Knowledge is defined as “an integrated set of skills, abilities and attitudes” -- but an ability is further defined as an integration of “content, skills and attitudes,” which would seem to lead to tautological saturation. Competency weighs in pleonastically as “capability and ability which allows success in the completion of a task and the exercise of a function.” The term “performance” variously signifies “an action or a group of actions” on which, mirabile dictu, “assessors will base their evaluation” or, in the words of Dianne Bateman, one of our local gurus in the yoga of reform, “any act you might want someone to perform [and] that can be directly observed and assessed.”