Confessions of a Subversive Student

Confessions of a Subversive Student

My relationship with education has always been a kind of dissonant harmony. I have always loved learning, yet I have always felt like a rogue in the regimented institutions of homogenization. Today, the dissonance continues as I find myself at times upholding and perpetuating systems of conformity in education, while simultaneously trying to disrupt and subvert those systems in order to shake loose their inhumanities and ultimately help them evolve past obsolete structural paradigms. Reconciliation is slow-going and messy. The pendulum must swing a wide arc before settling in its consonant center.

In my fifth grade class, we had a mock monetary system in which we earned fake dollars for good grades and behavior. The “money” was to be spent at “sales” during which our teacher provided trinkets and candy, etc. that we could purchase. This fake economy — supposedly designed to teach us about the “real” economy — was a regulated, glorified reward system for obedience and the completion of worksheets. I used the fake currency to set up my own black market. I hired some classmates, and we expanded our business to other classes that didn’t even use the currency except in my shadow economy. I got in trouble for this.

That same year, my teacher asked me if she could try to publish a political cartoon about endangered species that I made for a class assignment (“sure,” I told her). Perhaps she wasn’t serious, but it made me consider the possibility that the things I did in school might have merit in the “real world.” The prospect of publishing a cartoon connected my education to the “real world” much more significantly than the fake money did.

In high school, I acquired forged hall passes and room keys, so I could spend as much time as possible in the band room playing instruments by myself. Despite my truancy I was no slacker on the academic front. I genuinely liked thinking and learning, but I preferred to do it on my own time and in my own style. I immersed myself in extra-curricular activities. I was like Jason Schwartzman’s character in the Wes Anderson film, Rushmore, founding or presiding over several clubs and organizations. The self-direction, autonomy, and real results of extracurricular activities (e.g., I co-founded a DJ club that DJ’ed actual dances) were more rewarding, both intellectually and motivationally, than the timetable courses.

There were a few teachers who recognized my rogue tendencies and responded in interesting ways. For example, an English teacher let me direct our class in a production of the play, “God,” essentially stepping aside and letting my classmates and me decide how to spend our time (very productively, as it turned out: we created a fantastic “God-machine” and performed the play for a special audience of “mature” friends in the cafeteria). Aside from such rare exceptions, I was generally disengaged from the lecture-based, textbook-centered, breadth-of-coverage curriculum that was the norm.

In college, my classmates wondered how I earned passing grades without purchasing textbooks or attending class (my secret: I showed up on test days). Obedience and short-term memory was still largely the game here (attendance, multiple-choice quizzes about names and dates, etc). Again, there were exceptions: I took every philosophy course I could. Philosophy courses were more like book clubs to me — unstructured, student-led discussions. By the time I had earned enough philosophy credits for a major, I discovered that a philosophy degree didn’t exist at my university. So, I became an English major. Outside of class, I worked for the school paper, writing tips about how to save money (e.g., “become a music minor to get free guitar lessons”), drawing cartoons that criticized the financial aid racket, and posting the aggregate of course evaluation scores to help students avoid professors with low scores. Outside of class, I had deep discussions with friends, classmates, and professors. This was where genuine learning took place.

After college, I took a tech writing job at the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology Development, where I was exposed to theories about alternative teaching methods, to strategies for using technology to improve learning, and to the potential of online education — things I wished were more widely adopted when I was in school.

I was able to recognize and apply names and theories to my earlier frustrations with the educational system. The system I had traveled through appealed to external behavioral motivators, like fake money, good grades, and attendance. New research about student-centered approaches appealed to me. The approaches were often coupled with innovative uses of technology. I had stumbled onto a path that would become my passion.

Today, I am an instructional technology manager at a university, an adjunct instructor of information science, and a doctoral student of education. I am about as immersed in the Academy as one can be, yet I still have a nagging feeling that something is amiss and that academia as a whole can more effectively develop all individuals to be self-actualized agents in an unstable world. On one level, this work requires a departure from the Aristotelian/Newtonian/industrial revolution-inspired concepts that have shaped our curriculum (and our organizational structures) into being linear, hierarchical, taxonomical, and box-like. It also requires teachers who embrace the values of freedom, empathy, and creativity, and who are permitted to experiment and to reflect their own interests and passions in their teaching without fear of repercussions for dissenting from the status quo (and allow their students to do the same).

Paulo Freire says, in the The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

As I increasingly participate in the systems and structures that tend to perpetuate the former, I am also doing what I can to promote the latter. I always have in the back of my mind when I manage, teach, or learn: “how am I promoting the values of freedom, empathy, and creativity?”

In my professional role, one of the things under my purview is a testing center. When I first visited the testing center, I was faced with rows of computers, faded white paint, and ominous signs with lists of rules on them. So the testing center manager and I painted the walls green and hung pictures of nature scenes, citing studies about how nature promotes better concentration and cognition, shifting the emphasis from obedience to success and shifting the environment from sterile to natural.

A recent article in Wired magazine describes a “radical new teaching method” where a poor, rural school in Mexico produced some of the highest test scores in the country. The teacher who is profiled in the article said he was inspired by Sugata Mitra and the hands-off approach of asking questions rather than providing answers. This perceptual shift of the teacher as question-asker / encourager challenges the authority structures of student-teacher relationships.

As a teacher, I try to ask good questions and admit my own limitations as an authority in the ever-evolving field of information science. I encourage students to draw their own conclusions, have informed opinions, and use good filters to critically question anyone (or anything) purporting to know the truth.

In one assignment, I could tell my students that the song “Happy Birthday” is copyrighted by Warner Music. The students would likely remember this curious bit of trivia. However, what I do instead is ask the students if they would record themselves singing “Happy Birthday” on YouTube. I suggest that they consider YouTube’s terms of service and think about the copyright implications of their choice. The students discover on their own through research and reason the surprising truth about the “Happy Birthday” song; many of them suggest that it may be an abuse of copyright law by a profit-seeking corporation, and in some cases, the students become upset and want to do something about what they perceive as an injustice.

And as a lifelong student, I still question everything. Despite my skepticism, my whole life has been connected to educational institutions and academic environments. The environments aren’t perfect, but it is because I love education and think it is one of the most important human activities that I always look for things that can be challenged, subverted, or improved.

Educational institutions are self-perpetuating machines. Occasionally the gears need to be jammed up so basic assumptions can be examined. Both educators and the institutions should see creativity as a boon rather than a burden. And both educators and institutions should promote self-efficacy among students of all ages by asking the right questions, providing the appropriate level of support and encouragement, and sometimes — despite all their urges to coerce, incent, and control — just get out of the way and let students lead.

[Image (“The world is wrong side up”) courtesy Eric May on Flickr.]

About the Author

Headshot of Leif Nelson

Leif Nelson (@leifnelson) is Coordinator of Instructional and Assessment Platforms at Boise State University, where he is completing his Ed.D. He was formerly the Learning Technology Manager at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he still teaches online for the Adult Degree Program.

2 Comments
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  1. Maha Bali says:

    Thanks for this great article, Lief. I might use it in y class this semester! I like how you bring in your memories as a subversive student. We should all build on that (even highly conforming students must have had criticisms)

  2. I agree that we need to uncover and examine the basic assumptions we make about school. As you rightly point out, the way we do school now is tied to a different age, specifically an industrial age that has now passed and probably won’t be seen again. Moving from the industrial economy to what Seth Godin calls the “connection economy” will require different skills and abilities that our schools are not designed to teach. But rather than rethinking our basic assumptions about school to match the new age in which we live, we try to tweak and test and refine the current school system. I don’t think this is going to work. I think we need to have an honest discussion about the fundamental question: what is school for? Right now that answer is too often to “bring about conformity” rather than to help “men and women deal critically and creatively with reality.”

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