On luxury beliefs in education
Low cost, high return - for some
I’ve been thinking about the concept of luxury beliefs and how they might apply in education. A caveat: I realise that Twitter doesn’t represent the ‘real world’ of most educators but I do think a lot of the divisiveness stems from a trad/prog divide that does exist and shapes teaching practice in classrooms. Rob Henderson coined the term in this New York Post article, where he explains them like this:
We feel pressure to display our status in new ways. This is why fashionable clothing always changes. But as trendy clothes and other products become more accessible and affordable, there is increasingly less status attached to luxury goods.
The upper classes have found a clever solution to this problem: luxury beliefs. These are ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.
He gives the example of the ‘luxury belief’ that marriage is unnecessary or out of date, a belief that the wealthy hold but usually disregard in their own relationship decisions. Wearing these fashionable beliefs like a handbag holds few consequences for the rich, while the lived realities of single parenthood are keenly felt by the poor.
I do think education is a little different to Henderson’s model. We tend to downplay this, but many of us are highly educated; participating in certain modes of online debate is a way to position ourselves as a part of the intellectual elite; we are (usually) by virtue of our education middle class. I’m not arrogant enough to exclude myself from this qualification. But rather than wealth signalling, teachers engage in other types of signalling. It may be that the position of saviour confers status and that particular progressive views qualify as luxury beliefs.
A few examples. You might remember Ilana Horn calling to cancel Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champ a couple of years ago. Terms like ‘carceral pedagogies,’ and her public concern with the oppression of black and brown bodies (looking at the teacher while they speak) confer status on Horn - note the retweets. She certainly qualifies as the kind of elite educator that I’m referring to and her call to action hurts nobody but students, whose teachers might then be inclined to not expect full student attention while they speak, believing normative (and effective) classroom expectations to be politicised and oppressive.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and offer the idea that the ideas underpinning progressive reading and writing instruction are also luxury beliefs. A lot of progressive thought about reading and writing instruction is based on a kind of naturalistic fallacy. What is natural is considered good; student failure has no real consequence to the teacher, who is publicly affirmed for their beliefs about the inherent capability of the child to learn by osmosis.
Let’s start with balanced literacy: its proponents look at the way that adults seem to read in a ‘natural’ and effortless way, seeming to recognise whole words, or are able to infer with a little context. Believing this is ‘natural’ and completely skipping the part where letter sounds need to be recognised (a step that most adults have long since left behind), word recognition is promoted. Likewise, with writing instruction, teachers look at grown adults (and often they include professional writers in this) who ‘write about what they know,’ ignoring the fact that ‘what they know’ is likely to have formed from a lifetime of enriching knowledge and in a lot of cases, research.
Luxury beliefs about reading are well documented, writing not so much. There are two problems with the ‘just do it’ approach to writing. Take for example two creative writing samples of students at the same grade:
Student A writes from their own experience. Their experience is considered valid by their progressive teacher. They write about their Labrador who runs away.
Student B recognises, with their teacher’s support, that readers might not be engaged with stories about Labradors and that this might not enable them to show their creative range. They decide to research the peat bogs at the time of The Troubles and the hidden secrets beneath, drawing on the allusion of Seamus Heaney.
This luxury belief about writing stems from the same place as balanced literacy and presents a romanticised view of the writer. But Kazuo Ishiguro tends not to write about Japan. Joseph Conrad wrote in English about places far away from Poland. Progressive beliefs about writing instruction confer status on educators as they (often publicly) validate the backgrounds of disadvantaged students but do little to extend student skill, knowledge and understanding.
You might think this last example is a stretch. At first, I did too. But then I remembered that poor instruction is more likely to affect the disadvantaged. A student with highly educated and wealthy parents, who is ready to learn, will be one of the survivors. This is where luxury beliefs in education hurt our most vulnerable. But that Louis Vuitton looks good, doesn’t it?
I agree with you entirely when it comes to writing. I will often hear colleagues I respect and esteemed presenters point out that forms like the 5 paragraph essay, for example, or other "antiquated" formats are artificial and constraining. Or that students should come up with their thesis and then do the research, instead of researching the subject before drawing conclusions, so as to validate their own lived experience. Well, yes, of course the 5 paragraph essay is artificial and constraining. That's called scaffolding. That's why most people learn to ride a tricycle or a bicycle with training wheels before they can jump on a mountain bike and hit the trails.
As a history teacher I often encounter students stating things without any evidence except their own feelings. Now, I am known for my class discussions and try very hard to allow all students to feel heard, but that is different from treating their uninformed feelings on Imperialism or the Industrial Revolution or Nazi Germany or Globalization as equal to that of primary sources and scholars who have devoted years of research to the subject. I am sometimes astounded when I am told to have students answer questions about history that I do not feel qualified to answer because I only have two Master's degrees and would need a Ph.D. - or at least several months of in-depth research - myself. Yet a 15 year old on the basis of two or three class meetings and maybe a short reading or two is being told that they are qualified to answer fantastically complex analysis questions, not in the dissertation or journal article that would be required, but in a paragraph or a short essay or an infographic.
It is not demeaning to say to someone, "You are not yet an expert writer or an expert on 20th Century geopolitics, but I believe you can be someday, so in this class I am going to help you build the skills that you will continue to build through the rest of your academic career, whether it ends when you graduate high school in two years or college in six or go on to be a world renowned author or scholar in any field."
There are many versions of this quote attributed to many famous people (usually men), but one version I like is attributed to Picasso: “Know the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” Picasso was apparently an excellent draftsman who could draw realistically as well as anyone ever could. Nothing wrong with telling a kid you believe they can write like Picasso painted, but, like Picasso at 15 or 16, they need to master the basics first. Otherwise, they'll never advance.
I love your writing and despite being a language teacher and having an M TESOL I am not a very articulate person, but I'd like to have a red hot go at commenting on your awesome article (and sorry if I've misinterpreted some of your ideas..)
I think you make an important point that systemic teaching of literacy is not always going to be engaging, or effective as a student centred approach. I may have misread, but I believe one point is that teachers could allow themselves to hold a fallacy that the 'off the beaten trail approach' to literacy worked for them due to their engaging teaching practice, and disregard/be unable to see the fact that they are working with students who have a high literacy background. Is that correct?
I noticed at the start of the article that you mentioned the unfortunate gap between 'trad/prog', and I feel like your further writing makes some solid points as to the merit or a traditional approach (and as a second language teacher whose other teaching area is English, I fully agree with you). I want to suggest there are more holistic (?) reasons to want a more progressive approach that raises engagement.
I wonder if progressive education has merit (and a grounding?) in a more 'macro' sense, where we see that over 90% of kindergarteners engage in and are excited to go to school, yet this number decreases to around 20-30% in high schools (statistics from an Australian college of educators evening I attended). In our individual silos as secondary teachers, we can all see the most effective method for acquisition of our subject knowledge. Yet in the big picture, I think that students feel lost in translation, or perhaps overloaded, that the big picture of school doesn't make sense to them, which makes teachers try to 'innovate' and work outside the box and leads to 'progressive' approaches.
Two caveats/considerations I can see:
- The reasons for doing this in a low SES vs a privileged school would be different, and I'd assume so would the outcome and perceived efficacy..
- 'Literacy' as a concept is a cornerstone of education, and directly questioning the pedagogy we know works, seems a bit foolish to me. It's very interesting to read your work from the perspective of a second language teacher, as we also know that high input and direct instruction are the keys to language acquisition, and yet we often 'innovate' to games and edtech - because without slowing the journey down and being 'fun' we may not have our elective classes!
Excuse the long reply and thank you for always making me think, Rebecca. Likewise please feel free to let me know if I haven't articulated something well or if you have a different perspective (not that I expect it, you've already written this awesome article).