Sunday, February 19, 2012

Official Knowledge, Michael W. Apple

Title:  Official Knowledge: Democratic Education in a Conservative Age
Author:  Michael W. Apple
Pages:  175
Genre:  Nonfiction
Source:  Amazon
Why I picked it up:  Another required read for my current grad class.
What you'll love:  Interesting.
What will bug you:  A little one sided.

Friends, I can't wait until this class is over!  I've never read more in my life, and it's not stuff I would ever pick up.  It's kind of textbook-ish and I'm reading with a highlighter.  Two thumbs down.  Although I must say Official Knowledge was not a textbook.  It was fairly interesting.  Isn't it interesting how when you're being forced to read something it just isn't as enjoyable?  When you're making notes so you can write a paper, when you're highlighting so you have stuff to talk about in the class discussion, there's a huge element of joy taken out of the reading.  

Sorry to be posting a required read again.  I feel like it's all I'm reading, and I really miss being a part of this space.  So you get to see my journal entry (mini-paper) I posted for class.  It's supposed to be informal, so don't think I write all my papers in this casual way!

I enjoyed "Official Knowledge" by Michael W. Apple a lot more than "Pedagogy of the Oppressed", mainly because I found the writing style to be less dense and more conversational in many ways. In addition, I felt that the ideas and situations presented were not only (for the most part - I do not agree with Apple on every issue) in line with my personal philosophies, but were more accessible. There was a lot of material presented in this reading, and I will touch upon some of the key areas; text books, media and captive audience, and curriculum (specifically the computer literacy unit described in chapter 6).

Part of me actually understands the initial need for approved and standardized textbooks. Apple describes situations where teachers were trying to pull material from books that the students happened to have in their homes. Of course this will differ greatly from region to region, so in theory I understand that there was need to make sure students are receiving the same information. Like many things, I think the initial implementation of standardization had some good intentions. Although, as time goes on and the dollar plays more and more an important role things begin to derail. Apple states on page 49 that "text made available to the entire nation, and the knowledge considered legitimate in them, are determined by what will sell in Texas, California, Florida, and so forth." This is disconcerting because the focus is not on the quality, or the accuracy, but on dollar value.

The variable, of course, is the person who is actually teaching from the text. Apple mentions school districts that have specific rules and lesson plans that dictate not only the text book being used, but exactly what the teacher must do with the text. This is horrifying to me, as it is not the way I was taught as a student (in Southern NH), or the way my school system operates (Northern MA). Many of my colleagues use the text as a way to give the students a base for the material being discussed and presented the following day. I teach a music appreciation course and I can say that I pull some material from our textbook (which is incredibly outdated, but new music textbooks are not exactly high priority!) to give some definitions, but then explain the material myself. Although I do find it disturbing that certain themes (patriotism, free enterprise, etc.) are being pushed in textbooks, and that the political leanings of a particularly large state determine what is able to be sold to schools elsewhere in the nation, I take more heart than Apple in the fact that there are independent individuals presenting these texts to students.

I found the chapter about Channel One and the captive audience to be astounding. The concept of a news broadcast for students is not a bad one. I could actually picture this as an interesting way for a government class to present current events. For example, if a specific class had a weekly project to gather current events of the past week and film a short news report to air to the school I would be on board. The situation that Apple describes in Channel One is quite different. First, what is considered to be "the news" is determined by a company with a message, and the inclusion of commercials is just sickening.

It's always amazing to me to see how much opinion can be inserted into "the news" and then accepted by the viewers. Back in 2008 (before the election) my grandmother started telling me incorrect and surprising "facts" about Obama. When I asked her where she heard this she would say "the news". After a few weeks we discovered "the news" was in fact "Rush Limbaugh". It took some explaining to make her understand that although it was on the radio (a method she had always relied on to give her news updates in her 90 years on this planet), Rush's show was an opinion program. When it was perceived as "the news" by my grandmother, it immediately became valid and factual.

This same situation could arise with Channel One. It's pretty easy to flip through the 24-hour news channels and see a leaning to either the Left of the Right. To present material to children and label it as news could be a powerful way to bend the thoughts of our nation's youth. In addition, who is determining what qualifies as news? On page 99 Apple quotes that "Stories are stories. News reports, particularly televised news reports, are likely to be shaped into a narrative-dramatic structure... a news item is likely to begin with an action identified as a problem, develop through a narrative of increasing tension and conflict... and close with a suggested or predicted resolution." This formula is seen in news programs everywhere. The news is being marketed, not simply presented. Depending on the marketability of the story, "news" can be included or excluded based on how likely it is to catch the attention of the viewer.

The idea of including commercials in a public school is really sickening to me. I am of the opinion that a school is a place for knowledge. Period. School is not the place for advertisements and marketing. It's an institution for learning.

I wish Apple had included some specific examples of news stories, showing how that particular story is leaning in one direction over the other. In addition, I wish he had given some specific examples of commercials. He states that "a number of its commercials, though certainly not all, take the form of "public service messages" (stay in school; don't use drugs) that make them difficult to distinguish from "the news"." Personally, I do not consider these "public service announcements" to be commercials. I think the message "stay in school" and "don't use drugs" cannot be stressed enough in an educational setting. If the bulk of the commercials were like the two mentioned above, then I disagree with Apple about their inclusion. I'm assuming that the rest of the commercials were for products (especially when he quotes a teacher on page 108 that her students "would try to guess which commercials would be on and would sing along with the jingles."). In this case, I would agree with Apple that they are not appropriate in an educational setting.

Finally, I'd like to touch upon Apple's chapter about curriculum and the computer literacy unit described there. The situation he described is something I've seen before in education. Something comes "from above" that needs to be taught. Little materials and training are provided, yet the expectation is that the teachers will make something out of nothing. When taking notes in my text, I wrote "set up for failure" on page 123 where Apple describes the unit (specifically that this is a computer literacy unit that is to be taught despite the fact that the students will have barely any time in front of an actual computer).

I do think that computer literacy is incredibly important. "21st century learning" is something that is highly stressed in my school system, and although some of my colleagues become frustrated when being asked to present material in new ways (make worksheets available on the classroom webspace, for example) I think that in order to prepare our students for life outside of high school these skills are paramount. I felt so disheartened when reading about the computer literacy unit described in chapter 6; it is an important skill, but how is it supposed to be taught without the proper training and materials? (Apple mentions that this is an "advantage" to Channel One; you have to watch the new and commercials, but the rest of the time you have a piece of equipment you may not have otherwise had.)

This links directly with the "intensification" that Apple talks about in chapter 6. A point is reached where there is so much to be done and not enough hours in the day. Corners are certainly cut and "quality is sacrificed for quantity". (Apple, 119) The teachers at Lakeside-Maple Glen are being asked to take on this additional task because it needed to be done. Of course it would make the most sense to bring in a professional along with equipment for the students; the students would have gotten a lot more out of the lesson. Instead, this unit is thrust upon individuals who teach an entirely different subject and who do not know the new unit well enough to execute it properly. What was most unfortunate was that the students seemed to be really excited at the prospect of learning about computers, but they were let down when the majority of the unit was worksheets and lessons on tape. Students (especially middle school students) will benefit far more from an experiential experience than from doing a worksheet. The individual touch of the teacher was removed. One of the teachers was quoted on page 132 saying "You didn't have to be a teacher to teach this unit." It is not just the presentation of material that teaches the children, but the ability of the teacher to explain it and adapt it depending on the understanding of his/her class.

Apple lost me a little when he spoke of gender issues in the unit at Lakeside-Maple Glen. Apple mentions that of the 5 math teachers teaching the computer literacy unit, it was the male teachers who designed the unit. Previously he had also mentioned that these two teachers were the only ones of the five with any computer knowledge. In my mind, this is not an issue of gender, it is an issue of selecting the most qualified two people to design a unit. For example, our music department will be offering a music technology course next year where students will learn how to use Finale and other music software. My male colleague has been asked to design and teach this unit. I'm not in the least bit insulted because it's very obvious that his knowledge of Finale far exceeds mine.

Apple also mentions on page 135 that "the real lives of many women teachers, when seen close up, are complicated by the fact that one often returns home exhausted after being in the intensified setting of the classroom only to then face the emotional and physical demands of housework, cooking, child care, and so on." This sentence bothered me. My husband and I are equal partners in our home. Cleaning and housework is a joint effort. Cooking is done depending on what we're making and who is home first. Our first child won't be here for another 6 months, but from our numerous conversations about child care there is no doubt in my mind that this will also be a shared effort. When I read page 135 I literally checked the publication date of "Official Knowledge". I do consider myself to have two jobs - work and home - however my husband feels the same way. Perhaps I am seeing this through my personal experiences, but I do not believe I am alone or unique in my home life.

With a few exceptions, I thought both readings were interesting and thought-provoking. Both Freire and Apple got me thinking about my classroom and my school environment in critical ways.

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