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Day 12/03/2014

{ Rethinking Form + Content in the Classroom, Part II } Shaking Off Comfortable Assumptions [h/t Postmodernism]

Don't assume — it makes an ass out of you and me

Don’t assume. You know what they say about assumptions.

{ Read Part I }

Dubbing myself “Queen of the Question Sheet” in Part I of this post, I may have created a false impression.

In truth, back when I was an English teacher, I did vary my students’ daily activities. We did class-wide work, small-group work, and solo work. We rewrote endings, enacted scenes, and played wickedly competitive games of Grammar Bowl. I knew I couldn’t approach the material the same way, day in and day out, and I didn’t.

But looking back, I imagine my students perceived these activities as departures from the norm. And what was the norm? A devotion to a content-above-form, teacher-knows-best approach, one exemplified by those infamous question sheets.

Now I see that my devotion to content was perhaps the kind of devotion only an English teacher can feel. I came to the classroom with a built-in passion for Salesman, Huck Finn, and Othello. I didn’t need any enhancements of the content to still be moved by it.

But how many students come to the classroom as enamored of the content as the teacher is? rethinked...* logo

In what’s becoming a theme in my posts, it took an MFA in design for me to detect and deconstruct the blind spot in my teaching practice.

The first thing that chipped away at this blind spot was being among designers who were more at home in form than I. They explored “formal explorations” inexhaustibly. This is design-school jargon meaning that they designed the same content (often quite slight content) three dozen different ways, for the sake of it. I didn’t always share their enthusiasm for formal variations, nor the variations themselves, but I had to take notice of their devotion to form — which, if I was honest with myself, I just didn’t share.

The second thing that chipped away at my devotion to content was studying Postmodernism, the second major movement in design history.

While Modernism is often considered The Reign of Form, I argue in Part I that Modernism’s fundamental conformism disqualifies it. In my view, a one-size-fits-all approach to form is no way to exalt form.

Instead, Postmodernism is the true Reign of Form. Which I also think of as, Form Goes Bonkers:

Examples of Postmodernism in Graphic Design

The significance of all of this form-driven work wasn’t that I suddenly wanted to emulate the aesthetics of my classmates’ formal explorations or of Postmodernism per se. To the contrary.

The significance of this form-driven work was that it opened my eyes to the fact that form is simply more exciting, more meaningful, and more motivating for many, many people than it is for me.

Recall that, even after working as a designer for several years, I considered myself a liberal-artsy, left-brain, content-focused critical thinker. And candidly, there was a smidge of self-satisfaction, of superiority, in identifying myself that way. Furthermore, I had sought out, and been surrounded by, similarly content-focused people my whole intellectual and professional life. I was at home in that camp.

The designers I was newly encountering in grad school represented a very different camp: they were lovers of form for form’s sake. For people in this camp, form — in and of itself — is deeply engaging and motivating, maybe more than content.

That camp represented a whole motivation, a whole mode of perceiving and operating in the world, that I had never much considered, much less given a fair shake.

I think of it this way: Whereas I would run through traffic to understand or express a compelling idea (aka, compelling content), they would run through traffic to admire or create a compelling artifact (aka, a compelling example of form).

Or another way: I’d rather read about advances in textile manufacturing than spend time putting together a cool outfit. But lots and lots of people prefer the latter option. And it’s a valid option. It’s an option that deserves my attention and respect. 

I’m sure there were many of “those people” in my English class. In any class.

For them, form — ie, the shape the content comes in — can’t be treated as an add-on, a once-a-week departure from the norm. Form is everything.

And the less interested a student is in the particular content of a class, the more form carries the burden of capturing and holding her attention. In other words, if the idea of English class leaves her cold, the only way to “get” her (at least at first) is through the delivery.

I think this is true for every learner, irrespective of what side they fall on in the form-versus-content debate. Really compelling form can make just about anything interesting to just about anyone.

rethinked...* logo

For me, the foregoing account captures the seeds of a profound transformation in my perspectives on teaching. As a result, I’m getting better at recognizing my own preferences as just that — preferences — not empirically superior viewpoints. I’m getting better at recognizing the values, interests, and perspectives that motivate other people (but not me). More importantly, I want to be the kind of communicator and educator who engages those other values, interests, and perspectives from the outset.

As for you, I can’t say whether this essay will seem like much more than a[nother] reminder that one size does not fit all.

In spite of that, I’m moved to share this account because I believe — perhaps controversially — that we teachers are particularly susceptible to one-size-fits-all thinking, despite our efforts to the contrary. I think we’re more insulated from the kinds of confrontations, realignments, and deference that are inevitable in professional interactions that occur exclusively among grown-ups.

Consider the fact that we have chosen as our profession the one environment we’ve been exposed to our entire intellectual lives. Even teachers who work in schools very different from those they attended, it’s fair to say they’ve chosen a familiar environment with familiar challenges.

And for many teachers if not a majority, the school environment is one in which we thrived as students: our formulas worked in this environment. What discourages us from resorting to those formulas as teachers? What encourages us to take risks and inhabit unfamiliar spaces?

Also consider the fact that, as teachers of kids, our daily work takes places among people whom we objectively outmeasure in terms of experience, knowledge, and authority. While that context may not normalize or reify our subjective assumptions, what situations do we face that have the potential to destabilize them?

I leave you with those questions, and two more:

How might one-size-fits-all assumptions be unconsciously informing your teaching decisions? And how might you seek out, or create for yourself, constructive opportunities that will destabilize them… make the familiar unfamiliar… help you rethink…*?

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