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Questions on Readings #2

Daniel Coffin
Concordia University, Nebraska

Submitted in partial fulfillment of


the requirements for EDUC 501
May 16th, 2015

Having surveyed several philosophical paradigms from antiquity to the modern


day, let us stop to consider how some aspect of each has manifested in my classroom
practice.
First, let me start by saying I find Knights characterization of idealism ethically and
intellectually repugnant. Knight writes that The understanding of reality is a rare gift that
is possessed by only a few people. These people should fill the most important posts
in society if the social order is to be just. By way of contrast, most people live by their
senses and are not in contact with reality. They maintain a definitely inferior existence
(2008, p. 46). This paradigm is not only elitist, but bound by its metaphysics to be
reductive. Frederick Neff writes that idealism is essentially a metaphysics it attempts
to rationalize and justify what is metaphysically true rather than to utilize experience and
methods of knowledge as a basis for the formulation of truth (as cited in Knight, 2008,
p. 46). In this sense, one could say that my teaching practice was originally influenced
by idealism in that I used teaching practices because I had been taught they were best
practices, without really testing to see if that were actually the case, because I had
subscribed to a particular ideology. As I grew in my profession and developed my
praxis, I learned to judge the worth of a particular practice by the results it delivered
rather than the ideas underpinning its existence.
Realism, on the other hand, is characterized by Knight as a common sense
approach to the world that bases its method on sensory perception which utilizes the
inductive method in investigating the natural world and arriving at general principles
from observations (2008, p. 51). This practice of noticing, noting, and thinking or

evaluating is at the heart of my close-reading strategy for my middle-school students.


While I could introduce a new literary genre, for example, through direct instruction and
lecture, I have found it more effective for students to be exposed to multiple examples of
that genre and ask themselves, what is this thing? What do they have in common?
What differentiates them from other texts? Students then draw from their experience to
answer their questions and arrive at their own conclusions about the genre they have
discovered. Students become explorers of literature and great organizers and
classifiers, after the example of Aristotle (Knight, 2008, p. 50).
Scholasticism sought to synthesize Christian idealism with Aristotelian philosophy.
From Aristotle, the scholastics took the notion that humans are rational animals and that
reason and logic are means by which humans might discern truth; from Christianity, the
scholastics took the notion of a creator God which was equated with Aristotles First
Cause and Unmoved Mover. God, then, is reason, and is the mind from which is
sensible world was created (Knight, 2008, p. 46, 56). While formal training in logic isnt
part of my language arts curriculum, I do try to emphasize the use of reason in testing
inferences, predictions, conclusions and generalizations, as logic is a component of the
construct of background knowledge so important to reading comprehension. While I
do not hold to the notion of absolute Truth (with a capital T) outside of the realm of
mathematical reasoning, I do like to show that through the application of reason, we can
narrow down the possibilities or make a murky picture clearer.
I characterize reading for my students as a meaning-making task. In an of
themselves, absent of cultural context, letters on a page are nothing but squiggly lines.

It is custom that turns those marks into letters, the letters into words, the words into
sentences, paragraphs, and whole texts. The text by itself just is, and we as readers
must enter into it and make sense of it. Are there limits to the meanings I can make of a
particular text, or is my interpretation impervious to the critiques of others? The answer
to this question is the difference between pragmatism and existentialism, respectively.
The pragmatist believes that reality is not an abstract thing. Rather, it is a transactional
experience that is constantly undergoing change reality is not fixed but is in a
constant state of flux as humanitys experience broadens (Knight, 2008, p. 68). The
pragmatist takes in information from his or her senses, acts on that information, deals
with the consequences of that action, and from this exchange with the sensible world
learns about the world as he or she experiences it. Since the ways in which we perceive
the world can change and the experiences of one person will of necessity be different
from another, if only slightly, it follows that experiences are unique and there is no
ultimate or supreme reality. The closest a pragmatist can come to a universal truth is
one that is perceived to be true by the majority of the individuals who encounter it
(Knight, 2008, p. 68). Pragmatists conceive of knowledge as beliefs born of individual
experience which can be verified as valid by other sense perceivers (Knight, 2008, p.
69). If I look outside my window and perceive it to be sunny, but my wife, daughter, and
neighbor look out the same window at the same moment and perceive it to be sunny,
the consensus knowledge of the group is that the day is sunny and my perception is
invalid. This is similar to how I teach critical interpretation in my class. Texts can support
any number of themes, even contradictory ones, but a theme, once articulated, but

stand up to the scrutiny of another observer in order to be valid and helpful in


interpreting the meaning of a text. Existentialism conceives of meaning as being
generated by the self, but denies that the meaning so generates must (or even can) be
verified by an outside observer, as every individual has the freedom and the obligation
to decide for ones self (Knight, 2008, p. 78). To further my analogy, if my class was
reading CInderella and one of my students decided to read it as a Marxist satire of
bourgeois materialism or a fable of how the oppressed proletariat will be uplifted to the
heights of power through the seizure of the government, regardless of the historical
origins of the fable or the prevailing political philosophies at play when the story was
written, the existentialist would say I would have no valid ground to gainsay that student.
He or she saw what he or she saw in the story and thats that. Existentialism, taken to
its extremes, makes for fascinating thought exercises, but Im not sure how it would play
out in todays schools.
Let us say it out loud, just to get it out in the open air: students in schools are not
free. They do not enjoy freedom of speech, they do not enjoy freedom of thought, and
they often do not enjoy freedom to move or associate or dress as they will. We subject
students to behavioral controls which would drive an adult to madness. Not only do
teachers and school administrators have the power to punish with confinement in
detention, teachers also frequently employ positive control techniques to incentivize
behavior - earning points for observed pro-social behavior which can be redeemed for a
prize, or Accelerated Readers contests to win praise or ribbons or medals. Whether
teachers and school leaders punish or incentivize a particular behavior, they are

structuring the environment to influence students to act (or not act) in a particular way,
and this is the heart of behaviorism as elucidated by Carson Bennett (as cited in
Koonce, 2014, p. 36). I myself have given pieces of candy in thanks to students who
have helped with classroom chores. In doing so, I am incentivizing helping out. I did not
always do so, as I once thought that students should want to help out to pitch in and
clean up our classroom, but having a tidy classroom within which to learn has not
been a community value in every school within which Ive taught, and so I have used
this incentive, justifying it by saying that students would (deservedly and correctly)
expect payment for similar tasks outside the classroom. In contrast to the stark and
mechanistic view of behaviorism, a humanist model of classroom management would
have teachers getting to know students, building relationships with them, making
changes where possible to the environment or the instruction to better meet their needs
and head off problems before they begin. I myself frequently make changes to
assignments based on what I know of my students interests, intellectual ability, and
previous reading, which Laura Zucca-Scott describes as a humanist teaching technique
(as cited in Koonce, 2014, p. 40). My ability to forge relationships helps me to be a
better teacher. Behaviorism and humanism neednt be exclusive. I know that I will not
forge meaningful and lasting relationships with each of the 125 students I will teach
every year. I structure the environment of my classroom in such a way as to minimize
distractions and maximize learning, and this is hopefully help me reach those students
with whom I have yet to break through personally.

Jamin Carson defines the basic philosophical assumptions of constructivism and


objectivism as follows: constructivism presumes that reality is dependent upon the
perceiver, and thus constructed; reason or logic is not the only means of understanding
reality, but one of many; and knowledge or truth is subjective and relative to the
individual or community, while objectivism presupposes that one reality exists
independent of anyone perceiving it, humankind is capable of knowing this reality only
by the faculty of reason, and objective knowledge and truth is possible (as cited in
Koonce, 2014, p. 52). I teach at the sixth grade level, in a Language Arts class, and
Carsons critique of constructivism in practice in a classroom rings true to me. Many
students, when asked what they want of a classroom, either have no idea what to say
(perhaps believing the exercise to be a trick or a sham) or give farcical answers (i.e., I
want no homework and to be able to do whatever I want). Students need freedom, true,
to make mistakes and try new things and to discover for themselves why certain
practices or ideas dont work, but this trial-and-error is best done, in my experience,
under the guidance of someone who does know better, thanks to experience, who can
give these experiences needed context. I love that Carson also used the example of
making sense of text to illustrate the divide between objectivism and constructivism (as
cited in Koonce, 2014, p. 54). I am still uncertain how that example supports the
existence of objective knowledge and truth as two effective readers can use different
examples of text evidence and differing background knowledge to arrive at radically
different interpretations of a text. Delving into this matter, however, will turn an already

too long paper into a far, far too long paper. I trust I will be able to return to this question
later in the course.

References
Knight, G. R. (2008). Issues and alternatives in educational philosophy, fourth edition.
Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press.
Koonce, G.L. (2014). Taking sides: Clashing views on educational issues, eighteenth
edition expanded. McGraw-Hill Education.