Educational Philosophies and Power in the Classroom
Its that time of year. The yellow school buses are back on the road. The stores are stocked with Disney-theme lunch boxes, pencil cases and loose-leaf paper. Kids are wondering about their teachers. Parents are worrying about the quality of education. And educators are arguing about educational philosophies.
One of the controversies is over the whole language versus phonics approach to literacy.
Proponents of whole language believe that the best way to teach reading is to immerse the child in literature, encouraging a love of books, an emphasis on overall comprehension (rather than correct syllable-by-syllable sounding out), and confidence that children learn words best in the context of literature (rather than drill and kill flash cards). The whole language reading method carries over to writing as well, emphasizing fluency and expression over correct spelling, grammar, and paragraph structure.
Proponents of a phonetic approach to reading believe that children need tools to help them decode written words, and that learning the rules of word families, vowel sounds, the silent E, etc., will make children better readers. Writing skills are rooted in correct grammar and structure, with less emphasis on expression.
In liberal circles, whole language is considered progressive, holistic and positive for all learners. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), in their promotion of the whole language approach, say they support the empowerment of learners and teachers and believe that learning is easiest when it is in authentic contexts, and when it is functional for the learners.
The phonics folks are the bad guys who will submit your child to dictatorial rules and rote learning. One (perhaps extreme) example of phonics teaching is the Distar program, which employs a strong teacher-lead behaviorist model to familiarize children with letter combinations and sounds. Some refer to this program as fascist. (Delpit, 28)
Enter into the debate Lisa Delpit African American scholar, elementary school teacher, and author of Other Peoples Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. She argues that while whole language purports to be about empowerment, it actually undermines less privileged childrens ability to gain access to power. The problem is that fluency and authentic contexts and functional for the learners are politically charged concepts that mask power in the classroom and in language.
African American parents, for example, may have children perfectly fluent in Black English, their fluency evident at home and in their neighborhoods in rap songs, jump rope games, and storytelling. But those skills will not get them far in a society where power is brokered using white middle-class American cultural tools. Middle-class white kids grow up in families and neighborhoods that impart the skills, cultural cues, and language ability needed to get along in white society. Black kids go to school for those skills. If they dont learn them there, argues Delpit, they are being shortchanged.
Delpits contribution to the debate about whole language versus phonics is that she recognizes the existence of power in the classroom and in the wider culture. Unless we acknowledge the existence of that power, and the fact that different children have different amounts of access to it, we will not see the ways that a whole language approach to reading and writing can potentially withhold important tools from underprivileged children. Delpit says, If you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring power easier. (Delpit, 24) She adds,
When I speak, therefore, of the culture of power, I dont speak of how I wish things to be but of how they are. I further believe that to act as if power does not exist is to ensure that the power status quo remains the same. To imply to children or adults (but of course the adults wont believe you anyway) that it doesnt matter how you talk or how you write is to ensure their ultimate failure. I prefer to be honest with my students. I tell them that their language and cultural style is unique and wonderful but that there is a political power game that is also being played, and if they want to be in on that game there are certain games that they too must play.
Whole language proponents have good intentions. They want to foster a lifelong love of reading, which will in turn foster autonomous learners and thinkers. But progressive educational philosophies must take into account the existence of power in the classroom and in society. As one parent demanded of the school, My kids know how to be black you all teach them how to be successful in the white mans world (Delpit, 29). Delpits model acknowledges the importance of biculturalism, which she believes will allow children in the non-dominant culture to value their native style and language, but at the same time will equip them with the tools and skills they need to negotiate the dominant culture. This is an important short-term strategy. It will help the African American teen have a successful job interview or write the kind of personal essay that will get him or her into college.
In the long-term, of course, we need to address the balance of power finding ways to fight institutional racism so that white skin, white English, and white culture are not the only keys for opening doors to power and influence and privilege. Because, as Delpit argues, those with power are frequently least aware of or least willing to acknowledge its existence [and] those with less power are often most aware of its existence, educators should prioritize listening to parents in the communities where they teach. Educators battling over how to teach reading and writing would do well to pause and listen to what community members have to say about what they want for their children. Cultivating and truly valuing grassroots participation in the schools would do more to democratize, diversify and address the existence of power in schools and society than any single educational philosophy.