Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

The Culture of Learning to Teach: The Self-Perpetuating Cycle of Conservative Schooling

Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

The Culture of Learning to Teach: The Self-Perpetuating Cycle of Conservative Schooling

Article excerpt

In his consideration of the developmental consequences of education, Cole (2005) takes a cross-cultural and historical perspective that leads him back to the earliest classrooms of Indo-European civilization. To consider the historical depth of educational traditions, he infers great stability based on his consideration of the arrangement of a Sumerian classroom in the ancient city of Mari, Syria.1 This classroom likely originated in the city's second golden age under the Amorite dynasty that lasted from roughly 1,900 BCE through 1759 BCE, when the city was sacked by Hammurabi, sixth king of Babylon.

Cole surmises that the last 4,000 years have seen great continuity in educational practice in a number of regards. As the photograph reveals, students sat in rows--here, fixed in stone--facing the teacher. This template, in spite of other developments in teaching practice, has served to guide instruction in most Western educational settings from Sumerian civilization through the present. Students occupied its seats 1,400 years before Nebuchadnezzar II is believed to have built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It is as old as the idea of formal teaching and learning in the history of human social life.

Other ways of teaching and learning have been developed over the millennia. Over 1,500 years after students nodded through their teacher's Sumerian lessons, Socrates stepped out from behind the lectern and taught by means of cross-examining and typically refuting his students' assumptions, revealing their sophistical reasoning through the dialogues that he manipulated. Whether he did so as a means of inquiry or as a bully remains open to question (see White, 2001). In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi formulated educational visions that centered on the learner. Rousseau pioneered the Romantic conception of the (male) child as learner and the adult as guide and companion in educational experiences rather than director and authority, an idea that has endured in many forms in Western education, if largely on the margins of the pursuit.

In his history of English education, Applebee (1974) notes that a number of pedagogical traditions are available to teachers, including those that center on the learner, yet most rely on a teacher-and-text-centered approach that could easily have found its home in ancient Mesopotamian classroom spaces (cf. Cuban, 1993). While the students' seats are no longer made of stone and only rarely remain bolted to the floor, they typically stay fixed in one location, facing forward so that students may concentrate on the teacher undistracted by the chatter and shenanigans of their classmates. The image presented in Figure 1 of my aunt's elementary school classroom in Brooklyn in around 1920 shares similarities with both the Sumerian classroom described by Cole (2005) and the University of California, San Diego classroom in which I presented a version of this paper (Smagorinsky, 2008) in which the chairs were indeed bolted to the floor.


Alternative pedagogies originating in the 20th Century, while often aligned with the views of Socrates, Rousseau, and a handful of others, tend to be based in some way on Dewey's progressive views, which generally emerge from the following tenets:

[D]emocracy means active participation by all citizens in social, political and economic decisions that will affect their lives. The education of engaged citizens, according to this perspective, involves two essential elements: (1). Respect for diversity, meaning that each individual should be recognized for his or her own abilities, interests, ideas, needs, and cultural identity, and (2). the development of critical, socially engaged intelligence, which enables individuals to understand and participate effectively in the affairs of their community in a collaborative effort to achieve a common good. These elements of progressive education have been termed "child-centered" and "social reconstructionist" approaches, and while in extreme forms they have sometimes been separated, in the thought of John Dewey and other major theorists they are seen as being necessarily related to each other. …

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