My last five blogs (here
) have dealt in some way with perception and knowledge, with what we see and hear and from what vantage point, what we make of it all, and what we do with it. I want to continue exploring this web of issues with a passage from Back to School that takes us right to the center of the web.
What you see depends on where you sit, and for how long. You enter the classroom from the rear, wanting to be discrete on your first visit, and slip into the desk closest to the door. A few students notice you, but most are walking around or leaning over to the person next to them talking. Except for one woman, the class is all men, twenties and thirties, a few White guys, the rest Black and Latino. Hoodies, baggy pants, loud profanity. The teacher is in front at a cloudy overhead projector. Three men are around him – each seems bigger than the next – and they are arguing.
The room is old and dingy, no windows, bare except for the irregular rows of desks, the table with the projector, a cart holding pipes and metal bars, and in the corner a worn flag from the American Welding Society. You’re trying to take it all in when a sullen guy in an oversized t-shirt, a bandanna around his head, walks over to you and asks, “What are you doin’ here?”
The classroom is attached to a large welding shop in a community college vocational program. Two days a week, the welding instructor teaches basic mathematics to his novice welders because some of them checked out of school long ago and never learned, or learned poorly, how to divide decimal fractions and calculate volume. And some knew it but have been away from it in the military or in a job that folded. Most people who make policy that affects students like these – and a fair number whose research involves them – haven’t spent time in such classrooms. And, with few exceptions, those who do aren’t there for long.
But if you stay… and come back… and come back again, you’ll notice that on some days the baggy jeans and oversized tees are traded off for work shirts with company logos on the back. As you move around the room, you’ll hear that amid the f-bombs, students are explaining to each other how to solve a problem or challenging someone else’s explanation. The men walking over to other men’s desks are typically bringing their open notebooks with them. The big to-do that can flair up around the projector – lots of pointing and trash talk – usually involves a disagreement among students about coursework that they take right up to the instructor, the shadows of their fingers flitting across the diagrams on the overhead screen.
And that guy who wanted to know what you’re doing here? Well, it’s a legitimate question, isn’t it? And everything depends on how you answer it. When it was posed to me, I said I was here to study programs like this one because we need to know more about them to convince our politicians that we need more of them. The man’s features softened, and we moved out into the hallway. “We need programs like this,” he said. “People like us.” “It’s the teacher that really makes a difference,” he continued. “He treats us like we’re people.”
I later found out more about this man – his name is Ray. Ray has been in the two-year program for a year, is doing well, and, in fact, just got a job. The boss sent the instructor an email praising Ray, adding that he’d hire anyone else that good. The instructor then told me Ray’s story. During his first few weeks in the program, he tried to cheat on a test of welding terms by erasing the name on a paper being handed toward the front and writing his name quickly across the top. This was so pathetic a move that several students called him on it – and, besides, the instructor could clearly see the traces of Ray’s handiwork. Ready to throw Ray out of the program, the instructor called him into his office the next day, angry at both the stupidity and insult of Ray’s stunt. Ray was mortified and begged to be given another chance. Ambivalent, uncertain, the instructor relented. “You just don’t know,” he said to me. “You have to be open in a program like this, give guys a chance to leave the streets behind.” For the instructor, the program was a buffer zone. Some people will change. Some won’t. It’s hard to know in advance. But Ray seems to have made it.
Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, pp 115-117.
Let’s consider the kinds of knowledge involved in this little vignette—and the dynamic, evolving nature of that knowledge.
What the narrator sees and what he comes to understand about what he sees shifts as he spends more time in the setting. And his interaction with Ray, the fellow who approaches him, adds to what he learns. Because the narrator is part of a state-wide research project, the knowledge he gains can be used to inform other occupational program administrators and policymakers.
This is also the story of what Ray is learning. He is becoming a skilled welder. He is also acquiring other ways of being in the world of school and the world of work, ways of being involving knowledge that is an alternative to the knowledge he brought into the welding program.
The instructor possesses knowledge of welding—valued capital—and also knows how to teach it, what educational psychologist Lee Shulman calls pedagogical content knowledge. The instructor possesses yet another kind of knowledge, knowledge of the world many of his students come from—which has a significant effect on Ray’s opportunity to gain knowledge of welding and of other ways to lead his life.
And then there is the knowledge of applied mathematics being generated as the students interact with each other, at their desks, around the projector. Teachers would pay serious money to have their students care enough about math to argue over it.
Though not explicitly present, there is one more kind of knowledge surrounding this scene, a powerful, consequential knowledge: the knowledge that informs public policy. Such knowledge can include some of the kinds of knowledge I’ve listed, though too often doesn’t. It is primarily demographic and administrative knowledge (student background information, rates of enrollment and retention, cost). It is important, for it provides a broad view of trends and contributes to administrative and financial operation and accountability. But it is limited, lacks the lived experience of the people it represents. As the narrator explains to Ray, he hopes to add other kinds of knowledge to this policy-making knowledge.
Finally, there is the knowledge-rich nature of the scene itself, its epistemological abundance. This richness is not always granted to settings and populations represented by that spare occupational classroom. Yet much depends on perceiving it, from our individual responses and interactions to the development of further programs to foster it.