Hard and Soft, Open and Closed

Somebody “just happened” to share this thoughtful piece from MindShift with me yesterday, and that led to a Google+ conversation about hard and soft forms of power and control.  One teacher featured in the MindShift piece said the engagement problem in schools would have to be solved before student-directed learning could happen … and she seemed to attribute that engagement problem to culturally low expectations and a cultural expectation of hard power on the part of students and their families.

I see where she’s coming from; I’ve worked with a lot of students and families who seem to expect, even crave, hard power.  But then I read this piece by Mimi Ito, and I thought about the work I’ve done over the years with those students and parents.  And I started to wonder whether hard power and soft power are actually opposites, or whether they’re different, independent dimensions.

What if that’s also true of open and closed approaches to learning?  What if they’re different dimensions, not opposites?  We’ve all seen learning environments that are very closed, very teacher- and textb00k-directed … and we’ve all seen (or at least heard and read about) environments that are very open, very student-directed and interest-driven.  But can an environment be open and closed at the same time?  (If I remember right, Parker J. Palmer in The Courage to Teach talks about such environments at length.  I think he calls them open, but bounded.)

It was Andrew’s Google+ comment that started me thinking about hard and soft as something other than opposites:

The article explores a link between educational models and the cultural biases of the intergenerationally-poor vis a vis “what education looks like.”  The suggestion is that the learners and families who are also poor actually crave a “hard-power” (e.g. authoritative and didactic style) in the classroom and do not do well with teaching styles that demand learner behaviors based on unarticulated expectations (e.g. so-called intrinsic motivators) or soft-power.  Paulo Friere would probably argue that this is precisely what makes high-poverty schools such excellent vehicles for class replication.  The teacher in this article seems to argue – falling in line with the important work of Lisa Delpitt – that it’s actually an important cultural competency for teachers to meet low income learners where they are, rather than where the teachers’ innovative and/or progressive fancy might otherwise take them.
I would suggest this is the central challenge — let’s call it the “liberation dilemma” — that faces all progressive educators of the poor.  Fascinating stuff, and a really important and under-represented perspective in my view.

And then Dang Ren Bo pointed out that hard power expectations don’t neatly correlate with poverty and wealth:

Yes, “meet low income learners where they are,” but provide scaffolding to go where we want them to be, just as we do with other skills. I teach in Taiwan, where even the wealthiest students come into an international school with a “hard power” expectation — trying to immediately teach them in a student-centered style will completely fail. It takes years to slowly move the students into inquiry-based learning, a time during which the teacher needs to provide lots of support.

At least in These Parts, I’ve found that the time frame can be a lot shorter than “years,” but the key to a “liberation dilemma” is that you can’t do liberation for somebody else.  You can work on it with them, of course, but that requires transparency … and something like an extended joyful learning community of learners and their families.

And that “just happens” to change everything!

Here’s what I said to Andrew and Dang Ren Bo this morning:

When I talk with families that I know who expect a hard power approach, I usually find that hard power isn’t a goal or end in itself; it’s a coping strategy, a means to help your children survive (and, ideally, thrive) in a world where the odds seem stacked against them.  Nobody talks about that, of course, because parents and teachers (in factory-model schools, anyway) usually find themselves in adversarial roles … and that, in turn, increases both parties’ reliance on hard power dynamics.

“This is why we do things this way rather than that way in this class” … those are powerful words, especially when the short-term goal (learning to manage yourself rather than be managed) is clear and is connected with a desirable long-term goal.

I was thinking about K and his mom as I wrote that comment.  She’s one of those “single mothers who rule with an iron hand,” to quote the MindShift article … but her purpose was to help K thrive and to make sure he escapes from all the perils that still surround young, talented, intelligent African-American men.  The iron hand was a means, and as soon as she could see that K had internalized the external control she imposed on him, she was glad, even delighted, to see him managing himself.   That was always the goal anyway.

I thought about means and goals as I read Mimi Ito’s closing words in that BoingBoing piece:

True “disruption” and access beyond the echo chamber of the digital elites requires more than creating sophisticated educational content and building high-end online learning platforms. We need to spend less effort escalating the tech and bandwidth intensiveness of these platforms and more on meeting diverse kids where they are in their local communities with the resources they have on hand.

Is that the opposite of the factory-model, one-size-fits-all approach where you build it and then make them come?  Or could it be that, like hard and soft power, there’s an entirely different dimension involved?

As we all work on those next right steps on our journeys, it’s important to live these questions, and it’s increasingly important to maintain the joyful learning communities that will help us live the questions and, eventually, find some answers.  I wonder what other new questions and answers await us all today!

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Published in: on July 8, 2014 at 2:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

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