How Many Teachers Really Understand Dialogue?

hickmangarrisonikeda“A Multiplicity of Dialogues” is a thought-provoking article from the Ikeda Center in regard to the explosive flurry of interactions within such online groups as the Badass Teachers Association. I have spent the past week engaging with the BATs with an odd mixture of joy and dismay. On the one hand, it is a long time coming that such bold, open and honest discussions occur between educators. On the other hand, there is much spouting of opinions, venting of frustrations and often an unwillingness to go deeper. On this latter point, however, I wonder if it isn’t an unwillingness so much as not-knowing-how to deepen and expand conversations?

In this article, Jim Garrison, Professor of Philosophy of Education at Virginia Tech University, and Larry Hickman, Director, Center for Dewey Studies, and Professor of Philosophy, Southern Illinois University Carbondale spoke with students about the role of dialogue in terms of identity and the greater self. As is the focus of the Ikeda Center, both professors centered their comments on the work of Daisaku Ikeda, observing that he:

articulates an important perspective by insisting that “in striving to discover the greater self, the genuine Buddhist approach is not to try to suppress or wipe out the lesser self, but to control and direct it so as to help lift civilization to better, higher levels.” …Buddhism, Dr. Garrison added, also teaches through the doctrine of dependent co-arising that no self or phenomenon exists independent of other selves and phenomena. Thus, the movement toward a greater self must always occur in relationship. Dialogue, he said, is a form of relationship that is especially fruitful in fostering the greater self.

This is heady stuff, and I encourage a full reading. What I found particularly pertinent to teachers’ online discussions was this passage, in reference to the ideas of John Dewey (1859-1952):

Dewey insisted that we must understand our identities not just as individuals but also as members of what he called “publics,” i.e., groups that form around shared concerns. According to Hickman, Dewey believed that for these publics to thrive and contribute to society they must first develop “a clear sense of what internally the group is about.” Second they must develop “a clear idea of how that public relates to other publics.” The possible combinations of negotiations and dialogues in this framework are nearly limitless.

Clearly, groups such as BATs, Teachers Letters to Obama, and many others are such “publics”. How much progress or effectiveness such a public has, I think, depends on the dominant perceptions of the group members. Some are clearly coming to these online forums to vent. Others are genuine activists who want change in public education. In the case of BATs I see a real tug-o-war between these two streams, but genuine, transformative dialogue? I am not so sure yet. Oddly, I have seen individuals very vocally drop out of the BATs group, ironically complaining that there is too much complaining, among other things. I have felt this same frustration, but I am sticking around to see where things go. The bigger question is, can online forums such as BATs become genuinely dialogic, as Paulo Freire would have termed it, or are they by their very nature doomed to be nothing more than pressure valves for the disgruntled? A potential answer, or beginning of an answer, can be found in the latter part of the article:

To provide some more context, Professor Garrison took a few moments to talk about popular misperceptions about dialogue. First of all, we need to acknowledge that there are some situations in which dialogue is not appropriate or helpful. Resonating with Dr. Hickman’s remarks on the tasks of publics, Garrison noted that dialogue across groups, especially when power differentials are present, are often counterproductive until after dialogues have first occurred within given “affinity groups” as a means of strengthening identity and self-conception.

It may be premature to think that a Facebook forum can make real change in a social context, but perhaps building “affinity”, as messy a process as it is, will be the start. I am keeping my eyes and mind open.

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Filed under education general, John Dewey, K-12 public schools, Lost Apple, Nichiren Buddhism, teachers

18 responses to “How Many Teachers Really Understand Dialogue?

  1. Interesting subject! I think national ‘publics’ such a on-line groups have their place and are excellent for sharing information and testimony, but….the real changes can only happen when people join and act on a local level. If local (and similar )action is multiplied nationwide, it will be noticed by more people than is now the case when organizing a march or conference which is like preaching to the choir and will have no effect on those who need to know.

    So “Think globally, act locally” is key in bringing about change.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful and well written analysis. I too have felt some of the same frustrations. At this phase of the group, it seems that the posts with the greatest responses are the ones that pose an open ended question rooted in organic divisiveness (we against them, you against me, etc.). And I agree, much of the “dialog” is venting in one form or another. Many of my posts have been shining examples of that. But why?

    The phenomenon of the BATs is remarkable on many levels. Clearly any group that can attract over 19,000 members in two weeks has hit a chord. And for the BATs it is the “I’m as mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” place so many teachers are in stemming from the policies of the “reform” movement. This is the same sentiments that gave meteoric rise to the Occupy movement.

    In the development of any organization, the beginning can be characterized as the “Chaos” stage. In “The Phases of Organizational Development,” Renee O’Farrell writes “The chaos stage of organizational development has rightly been called the “firefighting” stage because everyone always seems to be putting out fires. Operations tend to be extremely problem-focused; people react to situations rather than enact them, an issue that keeps focus in the short term. Typically good intentions float around but not enough commitment, follow-through or know-how for staff to unite and take action. There tend to be informal routines and processes; procedures and accountability may not always be clear.” In many ways, the rapid-fire, kinetic venting is as it should be – the response of a large body of teachers decompressing. Without this decompression, the ability to coalesce into a unified body that sets defined goals, strategies, and meaningful and effective actions cannot happen.

    You rightfully ask “…can online forums such as BATs become genuinely dialogic…” I believe that the answer lies in the structure of Facebook itself. In effect, Facebook is, by design, one long and arduous stream of very noisy thought where anyone can usurp the flow or clog the stream with any random idea. By virtue of Facebook’s structure, it is difficult to establish different “rooms” where people can go to apply their energies with like-minded people. But for the BATS to emerge from the chaos and begin the work of coalescing into the Stability and High Performance stages there needs to be an avenue where folks who, for example, want to frame of the message can break out and go frame.

    It is becoming apparent to this BAT that the time is rapidly approaching where the inherent and uncontrollable “noise” factor found on Facebook will increasingly quagmire the group in the often superficial angst of the masses. The culture of the Reformers is not an accident. It has been designed, refined, and opined since before the release of “A Nation at Risk” back in 1983. These framers of the reform movement are well versed, precise designers of strategy, and masters at rhetoric, propaganda, and cultural manipulation. If the goal of BATs, both as a collective and as individuals, is to debunk the reformers myths and effectively dismantle their well-entrenched machine, then the onus to establish break-out groups and begin planning and taking action is now.

    The cloud of BATs has the potential bourn of desire. The essential question now is does it have the ability, commitment, and focus to emerge from the quagmire of Facebook and coalesce with the drive, focus, and unflinching authority to be the David who brings down the reformers Goliath?

    • Wow Dave! Quite a well thought out response. I agree with you wholeheartedly. As I’ve said elsewhere in various comments, I’ve never seen the likes of the meteoric growth of BATs. You’re right about a chord having been struck. From the get-go I’ve been aware of the very much needed decompression going on with BATs. And the challenges posed by Facebook that you point out are very real ones. I think it is too early to tell where this will all go. If it continues and becomes a real movement, just as you say, the manner and structure of forums will have to evolve. If we are not able to clear this first hurdle of the chaos/firefighting stage, then we’ll end up exhausting ourselves.

      Critical to building real, lasting unity is an understanding of the Buddhist concept of “Many in body, one in mind,” of which I will elaborate if you so request. In short, this concept means each member of a group (public), must be personally invested in seeing the group’s objectives put forward; each person is a leading proponent of the movement and, in the spirit of Kennedy, asks not what can be done for himself by the group, but rather what can he do for the group. This is a tough sell for some, but they’re the ones who won’t stick around in the long run anyway. I think the important take-away here is that if you don’t like the direction of the group, redirect it yourself. Others will follow if your course is true. Thanks so much for responding!

  3. I suspect the direction of the posts would follow the stages of grieving. Most teachers are grieving “the death” of education and teaching with which we chose to marry ourselves, thus it is reasonable to read angry posts. As we move through the various stages, we will find a way to move on. I hope that will manifest itself in constructive ways to get back to the “essence” of teaching and at the same time ensure that all parties who are fully immersed in the educational system positively and actively contribute to its health.

    • I am sure you have a valid point about teachers going through a process, although I am hesitant to call it a “grieving” process. This has been such an interesting experience of the past several days of the rise of the BATs. I am already composing a post about my experience with thoughts on where all this is going. I would add that whatever direction activist teachers go will be determined less by natural process and more by adopting a viable perspective, call it a philosophy of teaching. I believe Soka education is that philosophy, and hence my work here and in my novel. Thank you so much for replying. It means a great deal to me to receive responses from readers, and I appreciate every one!

  4. PS Resident

    I wonder what type of research has been done regarding the size of a group. BATS currently number over 20,000 from all fifty states. The individual experiences of the members vary widely depending on the politics of their state and their localities. Attempting to achieve common goals is a major task with a group this size. Many are there simply because they know there is a problem and they have no idea how to solve it or why it has become a problem in the first place. Throughout the past two weeks there has been an education component for all of us, a component that has involved the realization that the experience of one in a part of the country is not the experience of all. Some have been on the Common Core journey for up to three years and others are just now learning of the Common Core and the implications for their own classrooms. There is a lot going on and if you look at the process of grieving as a whole, the 20,000 member of BAT are not all in the same stages. There is one thing for certain, none of us are prepared for acceptance. Our students and our profession depend on this.

    • You’ve hit the nail on the head re: the unwieldyness of the FB forum’s size. Now that they’ve created a website that one can join they may be able to create a focus and centralize their leadership more, or perhaps find an orderly means of devolved leadership, esp. on a state by state basis. I hope they can gel and really come together as a voice for teachers. That being said, I saw too many problems with the free-for-all that the forum was becoming. Perhaps I lack patience, but I have been confronting the corporate assault on education for a decade now. I am not wanting to vent, or “grieve” as you put it (by the way, this is the second time someone has referred to the grieving process in regards to BAT). Not to sound pompous in this regard, but I want to see a movement emerge, not a riotous outburst. It was the lack of any clear, sensible vision for going forward that drove me away from BAT as much as the self-destructive in-fighting and grandstanding of far too many members.

      • PS Resident

        This is the reason the state BAT sites were created. It gives us a chance to think more locally and learn about what is happening in our state. We have many more similarities on those sites and I think we will most likely have a better opportunity to act.

  5. ebrinear

    I am not sure if this addresses the dialogue issue but here goes. The conversation about common core seemed never to be a conversation. My understanding at the inception of this common core was that it was going to be a list of skills and topics expected to be addressed at each grade level. It would be up to teachers and districts as to how those things won be presented and taught. With our society being so mobile, it seemed like a logical idea so students would not repeat things. I didn’t even mind a suggested book list of 100 novels etc per grade level. My objection reached critical mass when lessons were provided, time schedules were suggested and tests that have no positive impact on students or teachers were imposed. Project based learning should be encouraged and the classroom teacher trusted enough to assess a students progress.

    • Were these provided lessons, suggested time schedules and tests are product of your school, district or state, or all three? I would be curious to know. In my district CCSS is being treated like the standards they are and teachers (thus far) have the professional autonomy to implement them through PLT consensus. I hope it remains this way for me, but so far, so good. I am not in opposition to CCSS, but were I in your shoes, I might very well be.

      • Slowly the word modules are being used. There has been more than one conversation about everyone doing the same thing at the same time. The state has provided units and our district loves it. It is just a matter of time.

    • PS Resident

      Districts are frantically trying to come up with lessons and units. Many of these are being written in a hurried fashion by teachers who are by no means curriculum writers. Our Superintendent came from a high level position in Washington DC under Arne, her interpretation of CC is that units will be provided to teachers and all teachers must teach them, a day by day plan is being worked out in English, Math, Science and Social studies in my district as we speak. No more teacher autonomy. The biggest alarm that needs to be sounded is that there will be a common test for states that are implementing CC and since the only focused effort is the SBAC, this will almost certainly be the test. The test is convoluted and designed for failure. In my opinion, that failure will result in the necessity of canned curriculum purchases nationwide by the company working on designing the tests……….Pearson. All of these efforts to write curriculum will fail because only one group has a lock on what the tests look like and these tests will be used to evaluate students, teachers, schools and districts. By the time everyone wakes up to what has happened, it will be too late. It is frightening. Make no mistake, it is a package deal, standards, testing and evaluation of teachers based on those tests. You cannot separate your love for the standards from everything else that goes with it.

      • For now, I am on an island in a raging sea. Will I eventually be inundated? Perhaps. You raise grave concerns here which I do not take lightly. I have never denied that standards, testing and evaluation are a package deal. It just happens that I am on this very safe island…for now. Until things change I am going to do my utmost to use these standards to the advantage of my students. Not because I am a go with the program kind of guy, but because I see an opportunity to teach authentically in my building, in my district. I really thank you for sharing your experience here. Social media provides such a wonderful means of keeping on top of what is happening outside of one’s purview. On another note, you mention teachers who do not know how to write curriculum, and this resonates with me. Planning around CCSS in my school has been frightening and difficult for some teachers because they entered the field during the NCLB years. I work with teachers who have never had to plan before and I am sure there is a whole generation of them out there, just ripe for the likes corporate canned curricula.

  6. PS Resident

    It is not just the newer teachers that will be ripe for a canned curricula. Everyone will be ripe for it once the SBAC testing begins. Pearson and SBAC will have a lock on national curriculum because this will be seen as the only viable solution for increasing test scores which will be a basis for evaluation of teachers, schools and districts. We are being set up to wander in the wilderness and then bow down before the companies that write the tests begging for the insight into how to achieve on these tests. Why would we continue to flounder around trying to guess what the test will look like when we can buy materials from the publisher of the test? I know you are cautiously optimistic but mark my words and look for the signs that this is happening. I fully believe that it will.

    • You don’t have to convince me of the integrated structure of standards, tests, evaluation. Regardless, in my location, I have to be successful with CCSS, and I believe that I can for the time being. I spent too many years living in fear of overstepping the line. At this point I am determined to set an example of instruction that others will follow. For now I have to try and do that. So it isn’t that we have disagreement or divergent understandings here. It is that my situation requires different actions than perhaps your own. That being said, going to a state level of BAT organization is a good idea for the very reason you point out. Still, the fundamental tenor of the group needs to change if their movement is to be successful.

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