Friday, August 29, 2008

We're Not all the, Really Part II

By Rich Bordner

(continued from the previous post)

Why is it when the pulpiteers in education utter certain broad-brush aphorisms, that hardly anyone sees the humor in it? Why is it that few people in education think to speak truth to THAT power?

Here's another silly moment I witnessed at the staff development conference I attended recently. The presenters were waxing eloquent about the necessity of having ambiguity in your classroom discussions and lessons. That is, in your discussions, you should stress that there is no one right answer that you are looking for. There is "more than one way to skin a cat." When the students see that their thoughts will be validated and not "put down," they will buy into the discussion more.

The problem isn't so much that ambiguity is always a vice. The problem is that the presenters lacked balance. Though it was never said, the unqualified aphorisms the presenters made it seem like ambiguity was almost an unmitigated good. In fact, the video they showed for this segment was of a MATH teacher teaching the kids that "there is more than one way to skin a cat." She said in the lesson, "gee, I see a whole lotta different answers here. Which one is wrong? (students pause, then answer "none of them!") "That's correct!" (To her credit, the problem was not a straightforward algebra equation. The problem did lend itself to more than one answer. The issue I take with her was the unqualified application she had.) One presenter even went so far as to say, "When discussing morals and ethics, you as the teacher should not try to steer the discussion towards your own view. You should not impose your view on them. That is the job of their parents and churches and communities. Your job is to lead them in thinking about their OWN viewpoints."

GAH! Where do I start?

Sometimes teachers need to stress that there are, indeed, a range of interpretations that are valid for a certain work of literature (not that anything goes, though). When the issue really IS grey, ambiguity is a virtue. But when the issue is black and white, ambiguity is a vice.

As I said to my fellow colleagues, if I hire an engineer to build me a house, and he comes to me and says, "Gee, um, well, this is such a sticky issue, you see. There's no one right way to build the foundation. We're gonna get creative and wing it," I would promptly fire him. If someone walks into my classroom and doubts whether rape is ok, we aren't going to ponder that viewpoint tolerantly and let him "clarify" his values. We will refer him to the school psychiatrist.

That thought had not occured to ANY of my colleagues. When I said that, they muttered, "hmm...I wasn't looking at it like that. I guess you're right....that's a very ambiguous point, Bordner!" (laughter)

The trick is having the wisdom to discern when ambiguity is a virtue and when it is a vice.

While I'm at it: I'm fairly sure that the educator presenters would quickly drop their "ambiguity" and "values clarification" stance if a student voiced a point of view that threatened the pillars of a relativisitic, secular worldview. In a discussion on homosexuality, if a student stood up and said, "I used to be homosexual, and I was miserable. With the help of Exodus International, I have left the gay lifestyle and have experienced much healing and repentance from that sin," I'm pretty sure the teacher would not allow that value to be clarified. The teacher would probably step in and announce concern that the student wasn't being "tolerant" of gays.

They are only interested in ambiguity when it suits them. Start threatening the cherished worldview of the establishment, speak truth to THEIR power, and its game o-v-e-r.

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