Breaking the Binary, Embracing the Anomalous

In her book “Places of Learning” (2005), Elizabeth Ellsworth challenges the idea that knowledge is concrete––something that, once taught and learned, will remain constant over time. According to Ellsworth, if we view learning and knowledge in this way, it “becomes nothing more than the decomposed by-product of something that has already happened to us” (2005, p.1, emphasis added).  Instead, Ellsworth asserts that we need to come to understand learning as a continual process for it is based in our understandings and experiences of the world (social and biological contexts), which change and develop over time. To illustrate this point, Ellsworth offers the example of watching a film: If we watch a particular film at five years old and then watch the same movie again at fifty years old, how we come to understand and interpret the plot, the sounds, the movements, etc. of the film will be different because of the differences in our social and biological contexts. In this sense, the key to understanding knowledge is to focus on the “self” that emerges from a particular learning experiences (Ellsworth, 2005, p. 2).

In the introduction, Ellsworth calls for an urgency to challenge strict binary discourses of knowledge. The problem with binary discourses of learning is that perpetuate the notion that knowledge is concrete, for they demonstrate only one way of knowing/understanding the world. Furthermore, binary discourses of learning typically reflect the dominant ideologies in society––that is, White, middle/upper-class, heterosexual, etc. ideologies. In this sense, these binaries only make sense if they are viewed from a particular angle––an angle of privilege. Therefore, if we are presented with a new knowledge that does not fit into our neat and tidy categories, we immediately render it invalid or irrelevant, or we attempt to organize it to fit into our categories. Ellsworth asserts that there is urgency for new knowledges that challenge these binaries, especially in the Education system, in order to demonstrate that there is more than one knowledge system, and that each knowledge system is valid in its own right.

This is where anomalous learning comes in. Ellsworth defines anomalous learning as “peculiar, irregular, abnormal, or difficult … pedagogical phenomena” that do not make sense when viewed from a dominant lens. In other words, anomalous knowledges challenge our strict binary discourses of knowledge and provide a different perspective––a different way of viewing the world. In terms of LGBTTQIA bodies in the classroom, anomalous ways of learning serve to challenge the dominant ideology of heteronormativity. It demonstrates that there are alternates other ways of expressing our gender and our sexuality as opposed to the normal straight woman/straight man narratives.

However, anomalous learning can be uncomfortable. I have experienced these feelings of discomfort myself. In my first semester of university, in ECS 110, we watched a video about Jazz Jennings, a 14-year-old transgender girl. As I watched the video, I found myself trying to categorize Jazz: If she is a transgender female who likes boys, does that make her straight or gay? But then I paused for a second and thought: Who cares? Why am I so determined to qualify Jazz’ gender and sexual orientation? The thing was, I had been so used to working with neat, tidy, educational binaries, and Jazz’ story challenged these normalized ways of thinking.

I think it is important to note that the goal is not to make anomalous knowledges “normal”––we do not want to squish them into our common sense ways of knowing and learning. Instead, the goal is to promote anomalous knowledges so that they are represented and become respected on their own terms.

“Who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from”

“Who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from.” – Malcolm Gladwell

Place and identity are interconnected––who we are is shaped by where we come from.  From an education standpoint, students’ knowledges, beliefs, and values will be reflective of their sense of place––that is, their physical and social background. Many students, however, do not know where they come from.  Some students may have a lost connection to their family, to their homeland, etc.  In this sense, some students may lack a piece of their identity; they will not fully understand who they are.  On the other hand, some students may know where they come from but they may take their sense of place for granted, and as a result, they do not understand their place in society or how they are effected by their environment.  The article “Learning from Place” (2013) addresses the relationship between place and identity by discussing critical pedagogy of place, or place-based learning (PBL).

PBL aims to reconnect students with their environment by utilizing students’ physical and social environments as a medium for learning. The article argues that, in order to reconnect students with their environment, a critical pedagogy of place must work to “identify and change ways of thinking that injure and exploit other people and places” (Restoule, Gruner & Metatwabin, 2013, p. 74).  This work is known as decolonization.  However, decolonization should not be limited to simply rejecting and transforming dominant ideologies; rather, “it also depends on recovering and renewing traditional … material spaces that teach us how to live well in our total environment” (Restoule, Gruner & Metatwabin, 2013, p.74).  In this sense, decolonization and reinhabitation are connected processes.

The article describes a research project in which Cree youth from Fort Albany First Nation (Treaty 9 territory) took part in a 10-day river trip guided by Elders as a way of learning about Mushkegowuk Cree concepts of land.  The project was initiated as means of decolonizing Western beliefs about the land, as well as connecting students with the traditional land. For example, one of the focuses of the project was “bringing together Elders and youth so they could learn from one another about the role and meaning of the land … from a Mushkegowuk perspective” (Restoule, Gruner & Metatwabin, 2013, p. 73-74). The Elders shared stories and knowledges with the youth about the historical, physical, and spiritual importance of the land.  These stories provided the youth with a different understanding of land and its utility: In contrast to the Western ideology that land is a resource to be exploited, from a First Nations perspective, land is sacred and to be cherished. Furthermore, the Elders’ stories also acted as a reinhabitation process.  The stories “reestablish[ed] among the youth a sense of connection to [the] land, culture, and life” (Restoule, Gruner & Metatwabin, 2013, p. 76) that they had been separated from, and they evoked a sense of pride in the youth about who they are, and where they come from.

To me, PBL means to learn through place.  PBL immerses students in local environments, cultures, landscapes, opportunities, and experiences.  In doing so, PBL not only allows students to learn about the environment they are from, but it allows them to learn from that particular environment.  Furthermore, I believe PBL benefits minoritized students––students who are not privileged by our White, upper/middle class, Christian curriculum.  By allowing students to interact with their own personal environments, or by exposing students to different types of environments, minoritized students can more easily see their values, their beliefs, and their knowledges reflected in the curriculum. Essentially, PBL helps make curriculum relevant to all students’ lives.

For example, research shows that when Indigenous knowledges are incorporated into the curriculum, Aboriginal students are more likely to succeed in school because what they are learning shows relevance to their lives.  As a future math and sciences teacher, I have always struggled to find ways to incorporate Indigenous knowledges into the classroom in authentic ways. I have a hard time with this because schools focus solely on the study of European mathematics––the interpretation of numbers and symbols. After all, how do you incorporate Indigenous knowledges into a unit on chemical equilibrium or integration? Then in my second year of university, I read an article titled “Considering Indigenous Knowledges and Mathematics Curriculum” by Gladys Sterenberg (2013).  The article discussed one teacher’s approach to including Indigenous knowledges in the math classroom: During a lesson on ratios, geometry, and scale drawings, the teacher took the students to the nearby Sun Dance grounds to observe the circle of teepees.  Essentially, the teacher in this article used place as a vehicle for learning! This experience benefited Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students alike: The non-Aboriginal students were exposed to different ways of knowing, and the Aboriginal students, when they saw that they could relate mathematics to their own experiences and their own community, considered what they had learned that day as relevant. In fact, the teacher saw an improvement in the academic success of the Aboriginal students. (Sterenberg, 2013, p. 29-30). Not only did the teacher in this article incorporate Indigenous knowledges through PBL, but they also used PBL as a way for students to apply curriculum content to their real-world environment. Essentially, through the use of PBL, the teacher addressed the common question: Why is this knowledge important, and when am I ever going to use it again?

Above I have listed many benefits to PBL. However, I think that the most important aspect of PBL is that it does not take place inside a classroom. In my opinion, learning all too often takes place solely inside a classroom; therefore, students come to associate learning with school.  However, I think it is important for students to understand that learning does not take place inside a vacuum. PBL challenges this view.

Defining the “Good” Student

In the chapter “Preparing Teachers for Crisis”, Kevin Kumashiro addresses what it means to be a student in contemporary society’s commonsensical education system.

To me, society’s common sense idea of schooling is very much a traditional model of education that prides itself on memorization and regurgitation of information. Paulo Freire, a critic of the traditionalist approach, calls this the “banking” model of education, saying “[t]eachers ‘deposit’ ideas into students, who become receptacles or ‘depositories,’ waiting to be filled” (Roberts, 2000, p.54). In other words, a traditional model of education is one in which the teacher simply transmits subject matter to students who are expected to passively receive and memorize the content, and expected to repeat the content on an exam to prove what they have ‘learned’. Therefore, a ‘good’ student, according to society, would be a student who complies with this commonsensical notion of schooling. A ‘good’ student would be one who takes in the teacher’s lecture passively, yet attentively, and who is able to repeat the content––exactly as it was presented––back to the teacher during an assessment. Essentially, in this traditionalist approach, there is no capacity for original thought or critical thinking. In fact, a student who did this would be considered a ‘bad‘ student according to society’s common sense ideas of schooling.

By establishing a definition of a ‘good’ student, society both privileges and disadvantages certain students. Curriculum, or what is taught in schools, is a reflection of the dominant norms in society. For instance, in many schools today, math and sciences are taught from a Western world view that values a systematic, concise, departmentalized approach to these subjects. However, in many Indigenous cultures, math and sciences are taught from a holistic approach––one that focuses on the interconnectedness of the universe. Essentially, although there are many different ways to teach math and sciences, our curriculum reflects the Western approach because it is the dominant norm of our society.

That being said, students who are considered ‘good’ students are often those whose knowledges and experiences are reflected in the curriculum. These students are privileged because it is easy to be a ‘good’ student when your understanding of the world is reaffirmed by what is being taught to you in schools. In this sense, there is no need to question the curriculum––its common sense. Typically, these students are white, middle-class Christians because they are the dominant norm of society, thus the curriculum is tailored to them. In contrast, many minority groups are disadvantaged by the definition of a ‘good’ student because their prior knowledges and experiences do not correspond to what is being taught in schools.  As a result, these students might question a concept and be labelled as ‘bad’ students, when they are simply trying to understand a unfamiliar idea and locate it within their own perception of the world .

The problem with this commonsensical idea of what constitutes a ‘good’ student is that it hides the oppressive nature of our education system. We are made to believe by society that if a student understands a concept, they are a ‘good’ student. Similarly, we are made to believe by society that if a student does not understand a concept, they are dumb, or a ‘bad’ student. Essentially, what society does is it instills in us a victim-blaming ideology in which we blame the student for their misfortunes. However, the problem with this is that society removes itself from the equation altogether; we never stop to analyze the education system itself and the ways in which it produces structural inequality by benefiting certain kinds of students and disadvantaging others.

One-Size-Fits-All: The Traditionalist Approach to Education

Although it was developed in the early 20th century, the Traditionalist model of education is still commonly adhered to in education today––curriculum in particular. The Traditionalist model, founded by Franklin Bobbitt and Ralph Tyler, is a back-to-basics model of education––that is, the curriculum pays detailed attention to what students need to know in order to enter the workforce following their schooling. In this sense, the Traditionalist model focuses on producing skillful, well-rounded youth who are capable of serving their society.

In 1949, Ralph Tyler developed the Tyler Rationale, a simple, efficient four-step guide to curriculum and teaching and comes out of the Traditionalist approach:

  1. What educational objectives should the school seek to achieve?
  2. What educational experiences can be provided that are likely to achieve these objectives?
  3. How can these educational experiences be effectively organized?
  4. How can we determine whether these objectives are being achieved?

The Tyler Rationale is viewed as “common sense” in contemporary education for several reasons. First, it is simple––it is a straightforward, step-by-step guide for teaching. Second, the Tyler Rationale is considered “common sense” in education because it is efficient––it takes a one-size-fits-all approach. In this sense, the Tyler Rationale does not consider students individually; rather, it clumps students together in masses, and it aims to move these masses of students into the work force as quickly and as effectively trained as possible. Furthermore, the Tyler Rationale is practical because it can applied to any grade, any subject matter, and the steps will remain the same. As such, the Tyler Rationale is common pedagogical practice used in schools today. However, as analyzed in a previous post, the problem with common sense is that it goes unquestioned. So now we must ask ourselves, is this model of education still working?

While simplicity is one of the benefits of the Tyler Rationale, it is also its downfall. The Tyler Rationale paints education as black-and-white; however, I believe that education is a complex conglomeration of school, students, society, and pedagogy, and the Tyler Rationale tries to separate these parts from one another. For instance, one of the limitations of the Tyler Rationale is that it fails to consider social context. Social context is different for every school, and it includes the beliefs and expectations of the school environment, and the beliefs and expectations of the society. I believe that social context influences education; however, by removing social context from the equation, the Tyler Rationale excuses itself from difficult questions about the purpose and practice of education.

Another limitation of the Tyler Rationale is that is does not acknowledge student diversity; as aforementioned it is a one-size-fits-all approach to education. I am aware of the diversity in classrooms today in terms of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, ability, developmental stages, learning styles and more, and I believe that these factors can influence a child’s ability to learn. I also understand that some students are at an automatic disadvantage in society simply because of their race, their gender, etc. Therefore, I believe in providing individual learners with any resources that they need in order to make up for their marginalization in society, and in order for them to be successful in their learning. In contrast, the Tyler Rationale aims to provide the same, efficient education to every student.

The Tyler Rationale was a commonly used pedagogical approach in my high school. Although it was a boring educational approach, as a student, I was successful when the Tyler Rationale was applied in my classes because I knew how to memorize and regurgitate the information that my teacher wanted to hear in order for me to receive a good grade. Furthermore, even in classes where some flexibility was given, the Tyler Rationale was still applied: The teacher sets an objective, created a plan, applied the plan, and then assessed whether students completed the objective. In this sense, I was well suited for the Traditionalist approach––or at least I knew how to play the game. However, when I first entered university, I struggled with the academic freedom that I was given because I had been so used to this systematic, ridged way of learning. In contrast, some of my classmates simply could not learn based on the Tyler Rationale because of its rigidity and its lack of attention to students’ specific learning needs. In addition, rather than adapting to meet the needs of the students, many of my teachers forced the students to comply to their way of doing things.

The Tyler Rationale does have its benefits––simplicity being one of them. Perhaps this is why the Tyler Rationale was popular, and still is a very popular pedagogical approach in schools today. However, as future educators, we must ask ourselves: Is the Tyler Rationale the be-all, end-all of education? I believe that the field of education is not static; I believe that it is always changing, and always should be changing in the best interest of the students. Is it time we made a change?

Making Sense of the Common Sense

“Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible” – Frank Zappa

In the chapter The Problem of Common Sense from the book Against Common Sense: Teaching and Learning Toward Social Justice, Kevin Kumashiro unpacks the loaded term ‘common sense’, and he discusses what it means in relation to schooling.

Now, in the chapter, Kumashiro never explicitly defines in his own words the term ‘common sense’; however, after reading the chapter, I interpret common sense to be a set of preconceived ideas as to how society should function.  These ideas, or norms, are so rooted within our society that they are unconsciously accepted.  In other words, these preconceived ideas are taken as fact–they are rarely questioned.  If someone does question these societal norms, they are often viewed as lacking common sense.  To illustrate this definition, Kumashiro offers the example of the North American education system:

“[M]any aspects of schooling … have become so routine and commonplace … [S]chools generally open from early morning until mid-afternoon, Monday through Friday, from the end of summer until the beginning of the next summer … At both elementary and secondary levels, classes in each subject generally last between one and two hours, meet every day or every other day, and consist of one teacher … and a group of about ten, twenty, thirty, maybe forty students” (33).

Here, Kumashiro demonstrates that our education system is an institution plagued by common sense.  Aspects of schooling such as the duration of the school year, or even the subjects that are taught in schools (typically English, science, math, and social studies) have become so routine that society rarely questions if we could, or should, be doing things differently.

As a future educator, I believe that identifying, and more importantly, questioning common sense ideas in my teaching is crucial for two reasons.  First, if I rely on my understanding of common sense in my teaching, I risk being unconsciously oppressive in my actions because different people have different ideas as to what constitutes common sense.  Classrooms are so diverse in terms of students’ ethnicity, religion, family environments, socioeconomic status, etc., so it is fair to say that not all of my students are going to share my understanding of common sense. Therefore, if I push my beliefs onto my students, I am dismissing any alternative perspectives as irrelevant or invalid.  This idea relates to the attempted genocide of First Nations’ culture when Western-European knowledge was treated as superior to First Nations’ ways of knowing.

Second, educators need to pay particular attention to common sense because it goes against what we are trying to achieve in the classroom–critical thinking, and the exploration and expression of ideas.  As a future educator, I believe that it is my job to push my students to question and challenge societal norms, rather than accept them unconsciously.  Furthermore, educators need to be constantly challenging the common sense of teaching because education is not a one-size-fits-all mould.  We need to adjust our teaching according to the learners in our classroom, which sometimes requires new ideas and resources.  Ultimately, by challenging the way society tells us that things are supposed to be done, we promote change within society.