In my graduate education class the other evening the teachers and I found
ourselves confronting the term postmodernism. One of the teachers, Alf,
has been delving into postmodern thought and was arguing that the ideas
and analyses of the critical theorists (Simon, 1987; Smyth, 1992) we were
reading were modernist; that is, based on a technical rationality which
postmodern theorists reject. So he was dismissing, out of hand, critical
As Alf advanced his argument the faces around the table went blank; the
conversation was suddenly dead. After a few moments of silence Evelyn
took a deep breath and admitted her ignorance. "What do you mean
by 'postmodern'? she wanted to know. "What exemplifies postmodern?"
I waited for Alf to offer some succinct explanation; he was unable to
provide one. He waffled by saying that the ideas are so complex they can't
easily be paraphrased. I didn't leap into the breach; instead, I proposed
everyone try finding something on postmodernism to bring to our next class.
My own reading in postmodernist theory has left me exasperated-I think
I understand the gist of the arguments but I'm not sure. The writing is
so dense, so academic, so obscure, that I keep asking myself "So
what?" Not being an architect, a literary, film, or art scholar,
I have neither the patience nor the interest to wade through the weighty
writing, the opaque debate, of those who call themselves postmodernists.
I figure if there's real substance to these arguments someone ought to
have written something I can understand easily. I haven't come across
A bit later in the evening, while the teachers were discussing a couple
of readings in small groups, I decided to slip away and surf the World
Wide Web to see what I could locate. I called up a search program, typed
in 'postmodern' and requested a listing of fifty items. The search turned
up two hundred and forty-three!
I discovered an electronic journal Postmodern Culture now publishing
its sixth volume. I checked the latest index. There were items on cyberspace
as well as Derrida and Foucault. I could select articles on social marginality,
on feminism, on discourse and distortion.
I also found listings for personal home pages. I located some conversations
on a variety of topics. I sampled my way through the mass of material.
Fortunately, I happened upon an article that I could make sense of relatively
easily so I downloaded it, then printed it out.
A postmodernist perspective, according to Brent Wilson (1994) ) is based
on four key features:
- a commitment to plurality of perspectives, meanings, methods
- a search for an appreciation of multiple meanings and alternative
- a critique or distrust of Big Stories meant to explain everything-including
grand theories of science and myths of religion, nations, cultures,
and professions that attempt to explain why things are the way they
- a recognition that there must be multiple 'truths.
"Postmodernists," says Wilson, "tend to reject the idealized
view of truth inherited from the ancients and replace it with a dynamic,
changing truth bounded by time, space, and perspective." Postmodernism,
he contends, emphasizes contextual construction of meaning and the validity
of multiple perspectives. It argues that all human activities are value-laden
and that science, that technical rationality (Schön, 1983), is as
biased, as subjective, as any other human activity.
What, you're probably wondering, does any of this have to do with language
learning, with whole language, or Susan Church's book? Why begin by telling
you about my foray into postmodernism? Because the class conversation
made me think about the arguments of the critical theorists in light of
postmodern theory. Are the shortcomings Alf was contending really inherent
in the political analyses of the critical theorists? If so, how would
that affect Susan Church's arguments in (insert current book title)?
But I'm really getting ahead of myself. In order for you to understand
why I'm concerned about what could be considered esoteric hair-splitting
I should provide some background. As you'll discover when you continue
reading (insert current book title), Susan Church and I have been colleagues
and friends for more than fifteen years. Recently I went back through
my course grade file (it contains grade sheets dating back to 1976; that's
when I taught my first university course). I located Susan's name on a
graduate course list from the Fall of 1980. It wasn't our first contact.
As she mentions, we first met during an institute the preceding summer.
Neither of us knew at the time, though, that the graduate course would
lead to a fruitful and long-lasting collaboration and friendship.
The important thing about our collaboration is that from the outset it
was never one-sided. I may have been 'the teacher;' I recall, however,
even in that first course, Susan asking questions that pushed me to consider
my assumptions and values about literacy learning and about teaching.
From the very beginning I learned as much, if not more, from her than
she learned from me. Later that year, Susan joined the teacher study group
I had convened a year earlier. Her contributions as a resource teacher
made the rest of us realize there were many more questions we needed to
be asking ourselves as we struggled to develop a classroom practice that
utilized what the then new research was telling us about children's spoken
and written language development.
In those days, what has come to be called constructivist theories of
learning (Mayher, 1990) were just being fleshed out. My own academic journey
had begun with graduate work at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
in the early 1970s. Later I would recognize that my journey had actually
begun much earlier-as a child, in fact, who resisted in a variety of subtle
ways, the constraints of school. Today, I would identify the episode in
grade four, when Miss Wright turned me over her knee and spanked me in
front of the class for having cut out the Hallowe'en lantern incorrectly,
as the start of my challenging the structures and authority of school.
But it was more than thirty years before I was able to name my resistance.
In that 1980 graduate class the teachers and I were exploring what were
then new ideas about children's literacy development. Kenneth Goodman's
miscue research (Goodman, 1973) had recently shown how readers of all
ages used a combination of pragmatic, semantic, syntactic, as well as
graphophonic cues to make sense of print. Frank Smith's ground-breaking
comprehensive synopsis of reading research-Understanding Reading (Smith,
1971)-made a strong case for reading being only incidentally visual (Kolers,
1969). These psycholinguists were making it very clear that reading was
considerably more complex than merely transcribing print to sound. Meaning,
we now understood, was at the heart of any literacy activity-readers needed
to bring more to the page than they received from the print.
A component of our class work involved working with at-risk children.
Each teacher worked with one or more students in a "clinic"
setting. We were exploring how to implement literacy instruction that
was more comprehensive than the phonics-based, workbook-controlled reading
programs prevalent at that time. We were attempting to find ways of building
on students' strengths.
Up till that point, remedial reading instruction had been operating from
a medical model-find the 'disease' and offer a 'cure.' A psycholinguistic
analysis offered an alternative: examine children's strategies, support
those that are functional, provide experiences which permit children to
experiment with new strategies. Instead of 'fixing kids,' we were trying
to learn ways of following their lead.
The teachers and I were working to build instructional contexts, which
we would subsequently call whole language, that focused on meaning and
helping students become strategic about reading. We also believed writing
to be an essential part of literacy instruction; we were experimenting
with a variety of writing activities as part of our reading instruction.
Our particular interest, then, was in developing literacy instruction
which would allow, students at-risk, students from low income backgrounds,
students with learning difficulties, to discover how to make sense of
written language. While we were interested in literacy instruction generally,
we were particularly concerned about helping children who were already,
or were in danger of becoming, non-readers.
It's true our efforts to change our instructional practices led to resistance
from other teachers and administrators. By challenging the prevailing
views about literacy instruction the teachers and I were placing ourselves
outside of the mainstream. The teachers certainly experienced alienation,
but we were so intent on discovering ways of inviting students into literacy
that we didn't really consider the political ramifications of our work.
We simply carried on. In hindsight I admit that was a serious shortcoming
of our work; but at the time none of us had much political savvy-although
we had a tacit understanding of the political dimension of what we were
doing, we didn't recognize the importance of articulating our political
agenda and making it explicit.
Over the next several years, Susan and I, as members of a growing collective
of Nova Scotia teachers, worked to develop and implement literacy instruction
based on a different but solid theoretical framework. Some of the underlying
- knowledge is dynamic
- learning is social and a natural consequence of performance
- learning/teaching is a negotiated construction of meaning
- problem solving is an inherent aspect of literacy development
- writing and reading are inextricably linked.
We wrote about our work (Newman, 1985; 1987); we gave workshops, we taught
courses. The circle of teachers grew. Susan played a key role in the development
of a new provincial language arts guidelines document (Language Arts in
the Elementary School, 1986). She and I worked closely with Patricia Barnes,
the language arts consultant at the time, to develop teacher networks
and plan the next province-wide curriculum implementation steps.
However, something unexpected happened. With the adoption of the new
provincial guidelines came an expectation and a need for teacher inservice.
Up to that point, teachers had been exploring literacy largely voluntarily.
Now literacy inservices were being mandated. As Susan describes in several
places in (insert current book title), those of us involved in inservice
efforts were being placed in a position which violated one of our fundamental
beliefs: learning/ teaching is a negotiated construction of meaning.
Many inservice sessions consisted largely in the transmission of information-there
was neither the time nor the funds to do much more. While we attempted
to engage groups of teachers in reading and writing experiences, there
was no way for people to assimilate the complex ideas and arguments underpinning
a whole language theoretical framework. Our best efforts were reduced
by the teachers to "nifty tips."
In fact, these inservices likely did more harm than good because they
polarized teachers-there were those who attempted to buy into the new
instruction and those who felt they were being blamed for students' literacy
deficiencies. So a good deal of resentment was generated. Nevertheless,
many teachers did go along with the various inservice efforts, they complied,
they incorporated some of the recommended instruction activities into
their teaching. But there were few supports to permit them to integrate
the theoretical framework, to make it their own. Consequently, classroom
literacy instruction changed relatively little. Oh, there were superficial
changes, children were given trade books, or basal readers that were more
like trade books, to read. They were provided opportunities to write much
more freely. However, the complex orchestration of cueing systems and
strategies required for proficient reading and writing were never fully
understood or appreciated by the majority of teachers who came to call
themselves whole language teachers.
As someone who has grown with and through whole language, Susan describes
her building sense of frustration as the whole language movement began
developing. She tells how she watched as whole language grew "from
a loosely-coupled network of small groups of teachers and teacher-educators
scattered across North America to a full-scale, sometimes disturbingly
messianic, worldwide movement." She points out how as "more
and more individual teachers, and sometimes whole districts, embraced
whole language it became increasingly ill-defined and diverse."
As Susan points out, the problem with this spreading of whole language
ideas was that a host of orthodoxies was spawned leaving teachers with
a very limited understanding of the complex issues integral to this theoretical
framework. Even more serious, was the fact that with the spread of the
movement, the social issues were lost. When textbook publishers entered
the arena the movement became more and more focused on white, middle-class
mainstream students. The materials offered to students and teachers became
homogenized, and concern for students in trouble dissipated. A spirit
of inquiry turned into instructional certainty; "it depends"
became "you should." Instead of instruction being contextually
bound, prescriptions (this time whole language prescriptions) became the
As well, the spread of whole language occurred, at least in Canada, at
the same time as the economy was beginning to be forced to downsize and
the country took on more and more conservative political values. A literacy
perspective which argued for inclusive education, for providing engaging
opportunities for all students, for learning as a collaborative endeavour,
flew in the face of the political shift to the right. The championing
of alternative forms of assessment, of creating inviting learning environments
for special needs, ethnically diverse, economically disadvantaged students,
of teacher as well as student empowerment, was perceived by business,
by government, by parents to be too radical. Whole language became an
easy target for anyone wanting tighter control of schools.
The attacks began with pronouncements of a decline in standards-in literacy
standards. As Maude Barlow and Heather-Jane Robertson (1994) point out,
the media (with the help of both government and business) asserted so
forcefully and often that "25% of Canadian's are illiterate"
that the public, including many teachers, could hardly help but believe
something must be seriously wrong with literacy education in Canada. Much
of the fuss had to do with spelling and the apparent absence of explicit
phonics instruction in the curriculum.
The financial and other resource cutbacks began taking their toll. Class
sizes began increasing. Money for diverse instructional materials began
disappearing. The Council of Ministers of Education of Canada (CMEC) took
control of the literacy instruction agenda by commissioning a national
testing program for 13 and 16 year-olds, the School Achievement Indicators
Project (SAIP), literacy being one of the initial testing focuses. Following
on the heels of the testing has come quasi-national curricula. Currently,
separate consortia of both the western provinces and the Atlantic provinces
have developed learning outcomes and standards documents for several curricular
areas, language arts being prominent among them. The purpose of these
documents is to limit collaborative teacher curriculum decision-making,
to force a uniformity of instruction across the country.
While the content of these new curriculum policy papers is current and
up to date, the tone is clearly one of regulation, of control-these are
the desired outcomes, here's how we're going to make certain you're teaching
to achieve them. There's no recognition of the enormous diversity within
the student population, that increasing numbers of students have severe
problems both in school and in their lives, that in the new large amalgamated
school divisions supports for classroom teachers have largely been eroded,
that student growth is contextually bound. These new policy documents
would have us believe that schooling and curriculum preparation are apolitical.
In (insert current book title) Susan Church details her personal experiences
as a whole language teacher and administrator. She shares with us her
beginnings as an educator and takes us through her growing understanding
of the need for a political analysis of schooling. She recounts critical
incidents which helped her understand the tensions of teaching and the
political realities of schools. She shows how she came to realize that
silence, that compliance, has political consequences and how that understanding
has affected her work with teachers.
Through critical incidents, both personal and of other teachers/educators,
Susan makes clear that the world of school, of classrooms, is a political
arena. In today's climate of shrinking resources, the competition among
social groups for their share of those limited resources is becoming fierce.
Yet, she makes a strong case for reinventing whole language-for not abandoning
the fundamental values of this theoretical perspective. She argues that
whole language, in a more politically aware form, could continue to provide
a vehicle for helping disadvantaged students to position themselves competitively.
As the reform agenda moves forward with the force of a runaway train,
many of us have a strong sense that there is a pre-ordained agenda which
will unfold in spite of our efforts to redirect it. There are many days
I'm convinced nobody is listening. Susan ends, however, by encouraging
us not to despair. She points out that she is encouraged personally by
the increasing politicization of teachers, by the growing number of people
writing explicitly and critically about the conservative political agenda
and challenging the myths perpetrated by government, business and the
media, by the alliances beginning to be built between teachers and teacher
educators, and by teachers who have taken on an explicit political agenda
in their teaching, who understand the need for inclusive education and
know something about how to achieve it in their classroom.
Susan's plea for remaining hopeful brings me back to my beginning and
my questions about critical theory (Shannon, 1992). The latest theoretical
direction seems to be a postmodernist perspective. Yet, reading Brent
Wilson's key features of postmodern thought I say to myself "those
feel familiar." I perceive a convergence with constructivist theorists
(Polanyi, 1962; Neisser, 1967; Vygotsky, 1962) when I read "a commitment
to plurality of perspectives, meaning, methods." I sense a resonance
with the reader response arguments of Louise Rosenblatt (1938, rev. 1968)
and Stanley Fish (1980) when I read about "a search for an appreciation
of multiple meanings and alternative interpretations." Postmodernism
contends that knowledge cannot exist independent of a knower, but in 1980
we already believed that meaning is constructed in communities.
A whole language perspective has always argued for and valued alternate
perceptions of the world. My response to any instructional question has
always been "It depends." That's because each learning situation
is unique and what I might do to assist a student or group of students
is affected by what strategies they have at their disposal, their instructional
history, the cultural context, and so on. Whole language has been built
on the search for an appreciation of multiple meanings and alternative
interpretations. It has always contended that instructional decisions
are complex and context dependent; there are no simple, quick, standard
But not everyone buys into a formulation of knowledge as both an individual
and a social construction. Not everyone accepts that there may be multiple
and conflicting truths. It's not surprising, therefore, that we find a
strong political dimension to current literacy debates. Differing world
views are in competition; hence we have questions about whose views ought
to carry more weight, whose have more power, who benefits from a particular
perspective, who becomes disenfranchised?
The critical theorists whom Susan refers to, writers such as Edelsky
(1991), Gee (1987), Giroux and McLaren (1986), and Shannon (1992), have
contributed to my understanding of the issues facing teachers and teacher
educators by helping me name the tensions and constraints we're facing
in education today. Those of us who helped shape the whole language movement
aren't swayed by the rhetoric of the conservative right-we still firmly
believe it is not only possible but necessary for students who score below
the mean on the new national standardized tests to be helped to become
literate, indeed to learn that they are not illiterate, and that literacy
itself is an arbitrary construction.
What Susan Church articulates so clearly is the impact on teachers of
our current political world, the personal choice we all must make-whether
to succumb to the conservative political agenda or to continue battling
on behalf of children and students.
Susan lets us know what her choice is. She invites us to "determine
if we will be among the significant people who 'think and do the best
things' in these difficult and challenging times."
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The Assault on Canada's Schools. Toronto: Kay Porter Books.
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Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
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Natural Inquiry, 2(1): 3-11.
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