The true answer to every question: “It depends”.

Chapter III: The Inquiry Method

Continuing with my re-read of Postman & Weingartner:

This chapter put me in mind of my first philosophy course in my second round of grad school. I was an older learner. I had been teaching for a good long while by then. I had had no exposure to the study of philosophy at any point in my formal education up to that point. I knew little to nothing about what philosophy was/is/might mean to me as a scholar. I had the good fortune to sit in that class with a master teacher. She was a brilliant scholar who brought even the most recalcitrant to entertain ways of knowing and thinking that we had never considered. I distinctly remember several sessions when she would chuckle and say that the reason we needed to study philosophy as we were about to embark on programs of research was that we needed to understand an important truth going in: The answer to every question is “It Depends”. Yes, she was a qualitative researcher. She taught us to carefully question the drive to prove with research…and she taught us to hold suspect any expectation that results be ‘generalizable‘. I learned healthy skepticism from her. I learned to ask questions and to interrogate what I read and assumed in entirely new and different ways. I never completed my ‘big’ research or that PhD. But my ability to question is something i have never forgotten.

In this chapter, the authors begin to describe their vision for what classrooms ought to be like. They present ideas for how developing the ability to question is central to education. They describe “the inquiry method” in some detail.

I like this bit as they create their vision:

The inquiry method is not designed to do better what older environments try to do. It works you over in entirely different ways. It activated different senses, attitudes, and perceptions; it generates a different, bolder, and more potent kind of intelligence…It will cause everything about education to change.

Ummm hmm…preach. I love “…works you over“. How about it? A learning environment that does that? Is the result of that work-over measurable I wonder? ūüėČ

I’m picking highlights here and skipping a lot of goodness (you really, really should read this for yourself)…moving on to their assertion in this chapter that the inquiry method “…makes the syllabus obsolete”. Wait, what now? Further on,

All authorities get nervous when learning is conduced without a syllabus.

They sure do. What about mass-produced curriculum and schooling resting on foundations of standards? Compared to what they describe in inquiry environments: “…delightful, fitful, episodic, explosive collage of simultaneous…” They liken this environment to a Jackson Pollock canvas. (LOVE it! Chaotic and yet beautiful).

The crux here, at least for me, is what they get to next. That is the idea that the inquiry method rests upon this purpose: “…to help learners increase their competence as learners.” (It is NOT about covering content, btw). They carry this idea a bit further by listing characteristics of good learners (assuming they are given an environment in which to thrive…and to do the things that they are inclined to do). Good learners:

“…are living, squirming, questioning, perceiving, fearing, loving, and languaging nervous systems…and because they believe and do certain things…good learners

  • have confidence in their ability to learn
  • enjoy solving problems
  • seem to know what is relevant to their survival
  • rely on their own judgment.
  • are not fearful of being wrong
  • are emphatically not fast answerers
  • are flexible…and frequently begin their answers with “It depends” [emphasis added]
  • do not need to have an absolute, final, irrevocable resolution to every problem

Then the authors proceed to a portion of this chapter that is quite relevant to my current work in higher education. They turn their attention to teachers and teacher attitudes.

There can be no significant innovation in education that does not have at its center the attitudes of teachers, and it is an illusion to think otherwise. The beliefs, feelings, and assumptions of teachers are the air of a learning environment; they determine the quality of life within it. When the air is polluted, the student is poisoned.

Got that? The teacher is the air.

This one is getting a bit long. There is more, but I’ll close now with the ending thought in the chapter that if teachers exhibit different behaviors, so do their students.


“Nobody likes a smart educationist.”

Chapter II. The Medium is the Message, Of Course

Ha! Gotcha! I bet you thought I wouldn’t write again for months and months! Back today though to continue my walk-through Postman & Weingartner’s book.

In this brief chapter the authors describe circumstances we create in classrooms – and by intentional design – that are really fail to support learner’s in a most important endeavor. That is, we fail to help students learn how to learn. School design is based upon compliance and control – students are expected to comply with controls imposed by the environment. This control trickles down to everything including attitudes and perceptions as we pay homage to king content. It is what we cover. As the authors say, “…’real’ courses are the content courses, …” This centrality of content keeps us from recognizing that ways of knowing within a given discipline are at least as important as “content” of the discipline.

So, how about a few choice quotes. Following are a few striking ones:

In order to understand what kinds of behaviors classrooms promote, one must become accustomed to observing what, in fact, students actually do in them…Well, mostly, they sit and listen to the teacher. Mostly they are required to believe in authorities, or at least pretend to such belief when they take tests. Mostly, they are required to remember…They are rarely encouraged to ask substantive questions, although they are permitted to ask about administrative and technical detail.”

Oh boy. As I read this I recalled (painfully) my earliest days in classrooms where i admonished my students that my notes over-ruled the text, that my answers were the right answers. I was striving to emulate more experienced colleagues who were considered seasoned educators. I taught as they taught (or told me I should). Being tough and unwavering was a badge of honor. And never, ever, ever were we to admit we might be wrong.

So, asking questions is important, eh? I’ve been thinking as I read this about my current “population” of students/learners – and that is my faculty colleagues. I wonder about our ways of approaching things we offer them. I wonder about how well we are supporting their inquiry – into their methods and practices of their own teaching craft. I wonder if we imply that our way (infused with digital tools) is the right best way.

I’ll end this one with a last quote from this chapter:

The most important intellectual ability man has yet developed – the art and science of asking questions – is not taught in school.

They talk a good bit in this chapter about the learning environment we design. I’m thinking about our efforts here to redesign the physical learning space – and how in spite of our best efforts – some of the response to those new designs continues to be constrained by contents of the room. We have some work to do.

On Subversion – Blogging Postman and Weingartner

Subversion: obsolete :  a cause of overthrow or destruction

So, I have a whole bunch of other things I ought to be working on, but I’m going to commit to a low-stakes (as in I am writing in a hurry and not overthinking as I typically do….which is the reason I publish so infrequently)¬†blog-along of my re-read of Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner’s prescient writing – a refresher if you will. My daughter asked me yesterday for recommended reading on pedagogy of resistance and disobedience. She aspires to be an educator herself. She is at the very beginning. Of course this was the first title I thought of. I hope after as many years in her career as have past since this book was written, she will have seen more change than we have. Maybe she can help make some things Postman & Weingartner suggest actually come true.

Postman Weingartner

Cover of Teaching as a Subversive Activity

Intro & Chapter 1 – Crap Detection

In the Introduction, dated 1968, the authors write a bit about what they call “insoluble problems” and whether anything can be done to solve them. The first striking quote for me occurs as they chronicle a lengthy list of those problems. They write this one on p. xii:

Still another problem concerns misinformation – commonly referred to as ‘the credibility gap’ or ‘news management.’ The misinformation problem takes a variety of forms, such as lies, clich√©s’, and rumors, an implicates almost everybody, including the President of the United States.

Were they looking into a crystal ball? Richard Nixon was elected in 1968. To whom were they referring at this point? Could this sentence be more relevant today?

They refer a bit further in the into to school being something we “inflict”. That is, something to be suffered, something unwelcome and imposed. What do you think? Does that still seem relevant?

They go on to explain that one constant – change that is accelerating and ubiquitous –

is the most striking characteristic of the world we live in that our educational system has not yet recognized this fact.


And finally from the intro – They talk about the few men [I sincerely hope they meant women too]

…working as educators striving to deal with qualitative problems in quantitative terms, and, in doing so, miss the point.

All. The. Time.

On to Chapter 1. Crap Detecting

We believe that the schools must serve as the principal medium for developing in youth the attitudes and skills of social, political, and cultural criticism.

Amen. Is that happening? Could we have landed in the place we find ourselves today if this had actually been happening in schools?

This one made me smile and think of the important work of folks like Donna Lanclos¬†as Postman & Weingartner school us on importance of “the anthropological perspective“.

This perspective allows one to be a part of his own culture and, at the same time, to be out of it. One views the activities of his own group as would an anthropologist, observing its tribal rituals, its fears, its conceits, its ethnocentrism. In this way, one is able to recognize when reality begins to drift too far away from the grasp of the tribe.

Have we entirely lost the empathy born of that perspective? They explain more about this and why they believe it is important, then proceed with 3 particular problems they offer as particularly needing attention as schools remake themselves into “training centers for ‘subversion’.”

  1. Media change – Boy, they didn’t see that coming did they? How¬†VERY MUCH media would continue to change after their writing. They talk in this section about how the addition of something – especially¬† a technology – creates a totally new environment requiring a whole new set of responses. They note that we have “…more media to communicate fewer significant ideas.”¬†And on censorship they write:

    What we get is an entirely new politics, including the possibility that a major requirement for the holding of political office be prior success as a show-business personality.

  2. The second problem they suggest in need of subversive schools has to do with change and the knowledge explosion“. The lament the state many of us recall from our own educational experiences of becoming well-schooled on already outdated information. This problem is particularly wicked as they note the critical need for individual thought and action rather than blind acceptance of policy without question or dialogue.
  3. The third problem they write in this chapter in need of subversion and crap detection has to do with what they term “burgeoning bureaucracy”

    …bureaucracies are the repositories of conventional assumptions and standard practices.

Sound familiar?

The chapter closes with descriptions of teachers who believe they are in the “information dissemination” business or the “transmission of our cultural heritage” business. Neither of these get at the “future shock” they go on to describe. That is, the realization that the world you were educated for actually no longer exists (if it ever did).

I’m excited to dig into this again…and make my way through recording my own personal nuggets. If you land here and feel so moved, share your own thinking about education, and subversion, and dissent, and pedagogies of resistance.