A Contagious Vagueness

Last year, Salon ran an interview by Alice Karekezi with a New York City public school educator and curriculum advisor Diana Senechal. Senechal had recently released a book, The Republic of Noise. Her critique of some standard educational practices is intriguing, and while not empirically verifiable, rings true. (I am definitely going to be stealing the phrase, contagious vagueness.)

Below is an abridged version of the interview. (The whole thing can be found here.)

What’s your definition of solitude?
The idea of solitude as an attribute of the mind goes back to antiquity. The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus distinguished between a negative sort of isolation (helplessness, removal from others) and the strength that comes from relying on one’s own mental resources. Quintilian wrote about the importance of overcoming distractions through mental concentration and separation. “In the midst of crowds, therefore, on a journey, and even at festive meetings,” he wrote, “let thought secure for herself privacy.”
Solitude is not about being in a hut out in the woods or being out in the desert or living without other people around. I define solitude as a certain apartness that we always have, whether we’re among others or not. It is something that can be practiced — maybe to think just on one’s own, even when in a meeting or in a group and so forth — but that also has been nurtured by time alone. So there’s an ongoing solitude that’s always there, and there’s also a shaped or practiced solitude, which requires both time alone with things, to be thinking about things and working on things, and time among others when you nonetheless think independently.

You’re critical of certain educational philosophies in practice in schools today, especially the workshop model. Why?
The workshop model has an emphasis on group work and a de-emphasis on teacher presentation. What happens is the teacher is supposed to give a mini-lesson which is about 10 minutes long. From there students are supposed to work in groups on something related to that mini-lesson, sometimes independently, but most of the time in groups. At the end they are supposed to share about what they learned. This was mandated across the board, across the grades and subjects, in many schools. Every lesson is supposed to follow a workshop model. (Of course some schools were a little bit more flexible about this than others.)
The problem with that is that the workshop model is very wonderful for certain lessons and topics, but when you apply it across the board, you are constraining the subject matter. You need a variety of approaches in order to deal with a topic. You may need a lesson where the teacher gives an extended presentation to give the students necessary background. Or an extended discussion. For instance, the students may have a project that they will have to do together, but they have to work on their own to build up to that point.
Also, schools have put an enormous emphasis on skills – or what are called skills – at the expense of content. This has been going on for decades. No one wants to specify what students should read, but they say that they should be analyzing and comparing and contrasting. Well, none of this has meaning unless you know what it is you’re comparing and contrasting or analyzing. What happens is, students write essays that show that they haven’t read very closely, and yet this passes because it meets the checks on the checklist: that it has the right number of paragraphs; it has an introduction, body, conclusion; it seems as though they’re comparing something with something. There is a contagious vagueness because we don’t specify what we’re talking about and what students should learn. We then encourage in them a certain vagueness and carelessness. The problem perpetuates itself, and it turns up much later when students enter college and don’t know how to write a coherent essay. Well, the reason this comes up is that they’re in courses where they’re expected to read on specific topics, and that’s where things fall apart and it’s no longer about the rubric.
So the problem lies in the idea of putting the model above the actual subject. You have to think about the subject and think about how you’re going to bring this to the students, and think about the type of lesson that will do that best. Often you’ll find that you need a combination of types of lessons.

You write that we “mistake distraction for engagement”? How so? How does it affect even mental cognition?
I’m not a psychologist, but in the classroom and in many discussions on education, what I see is an emphasis on keeping the students busy from start to finish. Not letting a moment creep in where they don’t have something specific to do, something concrete where they are actually producing something. So if you keep them busy, busy, busy, and doing something at every moment, then supposedly they’re engaged. And when supervisors walk into classrooms and look and see the students writing and turning and talking, their conclusion is “Oh! What an engaged class!” The problem with that is then students don’t learn how to handle moments of doubt, or moments of silence, or moments where they have to struggle with a problem and they can’t produce something right on the spot. So, the students themselves come to expect to be put to work at every moment. If you want to give them something more difficult, you have to expect a little uncertainty.

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