Mere Philosophy versus the Fickle Flea Market of Ideas and Tools: Part II (Better PD?)

"It cannot be too often repeated that philosophy is everybody's business. To be a human being is to be endowed with the proclivity to philosophize."--Mortimer Adler in Six Great Ideas

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”--Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride.

In the previous post, I shared my concerns that a sort of unhelpful flea market approach to education has become too common, characterizing it as a philosophy “of” education. In contrast, I advocated that we need a sort of mere philosophy “for” education that will guide us into more effective and coordinated teaching and learning efforts. A mere philosophy approach helps coach my students to make meaningful connections with their learning and long-term flourishing in my English courses. If we could get mere philosophy working for professional development thinking, I believe we’d have healthier and more inviting schools in which to teach and learn.

In discussing philosophy “for” education, I think there is an almost comic (if not absurd) dynamic that happens between teachers and leaders that relates to the difference of philosophy “of” education versus “for” education. A previous encounter from my teaching years illustrates the difference.

Years ago in my school setting as a teacher, we were getting trained in The International Baccalaureate® Middle Years program. Our general purpose for this program was for the sake of “having a philosophy” that would help our teachers and schools coordinate better learning and academic achievement for our students. Looking back, I can see an interesting and somewhat humorous philosophical problem concerning how leaders and teachers differently understood the notion of “philosophy” (hence, the reference to Inigo Montoya).

For many of our teachers, IB’s Middle Years Program was about developing more skills at making philosophical connections through teaching and learning by applying theories of knowledge (a.k.a. epistemology) and intellectually rich reflective practices. That approach fits well with what I’m thinking in line with philosophy “for” education. From my perspective, I found IB’s approach to knowledge and curriculum rigorous and stimulating, though I had to admit that it seemed a bit too expensive to sustain over time–it was.

In contrast, I think administrators looked at the program through the lens of a philosophy “of” education. From an administrators point of view, items from Interview Question: “What Is Your Teaching Philosophy?” apply well:

"Your philosophy is often a combination of methods you studied in college or graduate school and lessons learned during any professional experience since then. It may also draw upon your own experience of childhood education either as a parent or as a child yourself."

In a bizarre moment of PD discussions, I had asked a question of our leaders about implementing IB, and they responded that they didn’t really want to get into philosophy. I really wasn’t trying to be difficult when I asked, “Wait, aren’t we doing this because IB is a philosophy?”

With the approach to philosophy “of” education, our efforts easily become a sort of flea market of ideas of practices as I explained in the previous posting. It’s hard to have ongoing, helpful discussions for growth and coordination in that scattered context. That flea market approach characterizes PD that comes and goes as the funding dries up–usually coming from grant monies. We didn’t discuss anything that we might have learned from IB for the sake of ongoing practices and improvements (such things die, but we don’t do autopsies of any sort to see what we can learn for next time?).

Again, as I asked about such continuity concerns, I often hear the refrain of how it’s all “tools for our toolbelt.” As I mentioned before, I see many tools over the years in terms of concepts and strategies, but I don’t sense much in the way of purposeful and sustainable building plans with those tools. Such is the vaporous trail of many PD experiences in my career of 27 years so far.

Philosophically and historically, I’m sure that I can trace much of my frustration with current educational philosophies and practices back about 100 years to weaknesses in John Dewey’s educational pragmatism, but I doubt that will help matters much.

So, what could we do to make this better? Along with several colleagues, I believe it would help to have experienced teachers lead the direction for and support of professional development.

I recently found that Kristina Rizga’s 2019 article from The Atlantic aptly characterizes this better approach: “How to Keep Teachers From Leaving the Profession: After 38 years in education, Judith Harper thinks what teachers are missing is more time to learn from one another.” 

Basically, Rizga asserts that The best way to develop teachers is to have them learn from other experienced teachers. I hear rumors that some high-performing nations practice this sort of approach.

I suspect that for the mentoring approach to work well, leaders would need to clarify and commit to a mere philosophy of teaching and learning that is rightfully subject-centered while addressing students’ holistic growth. Furthermore, we would put any technology training in its rightful place to support subject-centered, holistic education and to support practical communication and information sharing practices as secondary priorities. (Unfortunately, too much PD is getting hijacked by what Neil Postman called Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.)

On a positive note in my setting, I’ve found that the College Board’s AP resources and training have facilitated professional peer development and collaboration in a counter-culture fashion, mainly at the junior and senior levels. Over the years with AP resources, I’ve experienced the joys of seeing my English courses and my colleagues’ history courses develop in our mutual, coordinated growth in teaching and learning. Collaboration has tended to more organically and effectively grow in our curriculum planning and instruction. With AP’s relatively similar and substantive goals for reading, writing, thinking, and overall learning growth, our students sometimes express amazement that we must be planning these things together on a weekly basis (sometimes we are, and sometimes it just happens).

Having relationships with retired teachers who started teaching over 70 years ago and working with young people new to the teaching field, I’m especially grateful to see Rizga’s focus on veteran teachers being respected and empowered to guide better PD and support in schools. Rizga’s has much more that is noteworthy in her article, and there are several more articles in the related series that I look forward to engaging in the near future.

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