Conceptualizing Educative Practices

By Michael Scroggins*

I believe that the school, as an institution, should simplify existing social life; should reduce it, as it were, to an embryonic form. – John Dewey, My Pedagogical Creed

In a series of works beginning in the 1970’s, Lawrence Cremin reworked Dewey’s utopian vision of the school as a model cooperative community, by taking it, to borrow a phrase from Joseph Dunne, back to the rough ground of everyday life. Partially in response to Illich’s withering broadsides against schooling, Cremin put forth an ecological theory of education positing that the school was but one of many institutions which educate. Instead of “deschooling society” as Illich argued for, we should turn the problem over, look to the broad range of educative practices occurring in the course of ordinary life, and treat the school as but one of many institutions which inevitably educate.

I would like to suggest here that Cremin’s reconceptualization of Dewey’s educational program from the school as society writ small to an ensemble of institutions that educate also demands an equal shift in the methods we employ to study educative practices: a shift from methods predicated on measuring the product of educative practice to a method of research more in line with Dewey’s theory of inquiry. That is, methods focused on the metacognitive process of figuring out what to figure out, which is both a process and a reflection upon the product of that process. This is necessitated by a shift in educational research from problem solving in a well-characterized domain, the classroom, with its fixed ends and means, to problem seeking in an ill-formed domain, everyday life, where the ends and means of educative practice exist in reciprocal relation.

Though Cremin’s program leans heavily on Dewey, he was also influenced by Margaret Mead, with whom he studied during a transitional period in her thinking on education. Following on the heels of the 1954 Stanford Conference, in 1958 Margaret Mead wrote a short article for the Harvard Business Review contrasting two modes of education: vertical transmission, the traditional transfer of traditional knowledge between successive generations implying a strong moral element, and horizontal transmission, the transfer of knowledge without the power/knowledge implications of the teacher/taught relationship. Mead writes that horizontal transfer has become the dominant mode in technological society and that educational research needs to develop new concepts and from them methods to keep pace.

To illustrate the point, Mead uses the mundane, for 1958, example of a child teaching her grandparents how to use a television. The grandchild can offer technical instruction on television tuning in an instrumental mode by imparting know-how to her grandparents, but the grandchild cannot be said to also impart sentimental guidance about what to and what not to watch on the television. The technical instruction in tuning from the grandchild is just one moment in an ongoing process of figuring out what to watch, which started with the idea that in 1958 a television is necessary and continues as long as there is a television to be watched. The grandchild’s instruction, therefore, doesn’t set the television watching in motion, but rather meets the grandparents in media res.

As Cremin wrote of people’s everyday efforts in Public Education (1976): ”Everyday in every part of the world people set out to teach something to others or to study something themselves. . . They deserve a theory specifically addressed to their problems and purposes, one that will assist them to act intelligently, ever hopeful of the possibilities but fully aware of the limitations and risks that attend their efforts.” Implied in the quote, as in his reworking of Dewey’s program, is a theory of educative practice for “the ordinary business of living;” it’s a theory focused on the public process of instruction and deliberation; not its private products.


*Michael Scroggins is a PhD student in Anthropology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia. Currently he is conducting research in and around Silicon Valley on DIYBio and Citizen Science in hackerspaces and other informal institutions (this means garages and kitchens for the most part).

Whither the Future of Anthropology in Education?

For more than half a century, anthropology and education have had a productive relationship. Ethnographic methods have enhanced understanding of how education happens, inside the classroom and outside, close to home and abroad.

TC has always been a leading voice in this exchange. Margaret Mead, who taught at the College from 1948 to 1960, was among the first to focus her field on American schools, and her young protégé, future TC president Lawrence Cremin, absorbed her vision of education as occurring not just in classrooms but in all the theaters of daily life.

All of which made the College the logical venue, in mid-October, for a two-day conference titled “The Future of Anthropology and Education” – a future that currently seems very much in question.

“Anthropology is disappearing as a focus in many education schools, and major foundations no longer back anthropological research in the classroom,” TC President Susan Fuhrman said in welcoming attendees from two-dozen institutions, including Stanford, Northwestern, McGill, Princeton, Oxford, and the University of Pennsylvania. Anthropology also is losing ground to the tidal wave of large-scale “Big Data”-driven projects that increasingly attract funds.

“It is not self-evident that our discipline and its approaches are sustainable,” said the conference’s convener, TC Professor of Education Herve Varenne. “We must figure out how to educate our audience about the power of what we do.” (Varenne has received the 2013 George and Louise Spindler Award, from the Council on Anthropology and Education, recognizing his lifetime achievement in the field.)

Many of the field’s central values hark back to the creation of the Council on Anthropology in Education in 1970. For example, Nancy Hornberger, outgoing editor of the Anthropology & Education Quarterly (AEQ), said that the journal’s mission “remains the same: to publish ethnographic studies on learning and teaching both in and out of school.”

“We want research that goes deeper than just talking to people,” Hornberger said, adding that long-term participant-observation is still what distinguishes the field. “But today submissions based on narrative and discourse analysis are growing,” she said. “We need more systematic ethnographic accounts.”

But today submissions based on narrative and discourse analysis are growing, she said. The impact of digital media spaces on ethnography is an important new concern. The relationship between researchers and participants is in constant flux, partly due to new methods and partly due to constraints such as those imposed by institutional review boards. Meanwhile, Hornberger said, public schools and districts “are making it harder for teachers to feel free to have researchers in their classroom, and that is having an impact on our field.”

Another major challenge facing the field is how to influence policy and hold power structures accountable.

Peter Demerath, of the University of Minnesota, said that anthropologists should not speak in a private language, but “should speak as we do in public, be clear and lay out our arguments in terms of the conventional wisdom that they are responding to.” Instead, he said, Demerath added: “we need to get over our deep-seated fears of reductionism and our reluctance to generalize. Policy-makers need to hear unitary messages.”

In the conference’s final plenary, Jill Koyama, of the University of Arizona, called for anthropologists in education to speak out more and worry less about the precise institutional status of the sub-field.

“We’ve been so preoccupied with how anthropology of education came together, and is maintained together,” Koyama said. “I do not feel that anthropology needs to be in the service of education. Collaborate, integrate, critically inform – but do not subsumed.”

Koyama urged her colleagues to be forceful in asserting the role of anthropology in education, calling for more work on race and class, more critical scrutiny of the anthropologists’ own institutions, and more blogging and other public work, even when this is not encouraged or rewarded. “We have ourselves to blame for not being invited to the table,” Koyama said. “We need to get our voices out there.”


Post originally posted here.

TC Education Anthropologist Herve Varenne Receives Lifetime Achievement Award

Herve Varenne, TC Professor of Anthropology and Education, has received the George and Louise Spindler Award for lifetime achievement from the Council on Anthropology and Education. The honor – named for the husband-wife team who, along with TC’s Margaret Mead, did much to establish the field – was announced this past week at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association. Varenne and Elsie Rockwell, a prominent Mexican education anthropologist, each received this year’s Spindler award.

The Council’s award committee credited the French-born Varenne with exerting a “profound effect” on the field of anthropology and education, noting that his first book, Americans Together: Structured Diversity in a Midwestern Town (1977), “sparked a comparison to another famous French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, because of [Varenne’s] insights into American culture as expressed through the actions of ordinary people.”

More broadly, the committee said that Varenne is “widely recognized for advancing theory and asking the counterintuitive questions…including: Are people really predisposed toward anything? Is there an ‘American culture’? Is learning outside school settings as powerful or more powerful than that of in-school settings? Why do we assume ‘community’ and is it even possible?”  

The flavor of Varenne’s ideas comes through in an essay he wrote in TC Today magazine in the spring 2012 issue of TC Today magazine, which was dedicated to technology.

Noting the ease with which non-experts from children to grandmothers have learned to operated computers, Varenne asked, “What if teaching and learning are not specialized activities? What if they are ubiquitous processes regularly activated when conditions require them? Dewey intuited this, but we must investigate a more radical set of opportunities. Could schools simulate the conditions under which newcomers realize that they must learn a skill and find the people who will help them? Perhaps by specifying curricula, pedagogies and the experts one must go through to be certified as knowing something, schools have been unwittingly limiting educational activities and the rewards they produce.” 

In nominating Varenne for the award, Jill Koyama, a faculty member in education leadership and policy at SUNY Buffalo, praised him for demonstrating how “cultural categories have perceived, real, and often, enduring consequences,” particularly for those in education.”

Another nominator, Lesley Bartlett, TC Associate Professor of Education, hailed Varenne “for shifting the attention of the social sciences from ‘learning’ as a process with lasting individual consequences, to ‘education’ as an open, collective, and deliberative process of continual transformation and change.”

And Ray McDermott, Professor of Anthropology at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, wrote in his nomination of Varenne:  “Call him genius, call him creative, call him the new de Tocqueville (150 years later), they all apply, but the important point is that he puts on the table, every time he speaks, every time he writes, a different and important point of view on the American nation, the American school, and the American family.”

At TC, Varenne’s many courses have included the Ethnography of Education, American Culture, Technology and Culture, and The Dynamics of Family Life. His books include American School Language: The Rhetorical Structuring of Daily Life in a Suburban High School (1983); Ambiguous Harmony: Family Talk in America (1992); Successful Failure: The School America Builds (1998; with Ray McDermott); and Alternative Anthropological Perspectives in Education (2008, with TC Professor Emeritus Edmund W. Gordon).

In each of those works, the emphasis has been on determining an applied approach for his field that answers the needs of the day. Or as Varenne himself put it at a conference he convened at TC this past October on the future of anthropology in education: “It is not self-evident that our discipline and its approaches are sustainable. We must figure out how to educate our audience about the power of what we do.”


More info here