Class theory in engineering education (notes 2 of 2, “AAH we’re perpetuating it!” and “whoa intersections with deafness!” edition)September 9, 2013 – 1:17 pm
“Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work” by Jean Anyon fascinated me so much that I would love to sketchnote it sometime, but in the absence of time to do so: Anyon studied 5th grade classes at a number of schools, and observed a “hidden curriculum” — just like the heavily-conditioned kids in the dystopian novel Brave New World, children are being taught not just how to do math or write, but how to do math as members of the worker class, the middle-class, the professional class, or the elite class… depending on the occupations of the parents of the students at each school.
Working class students are taught to do work as “following the steps of a procedure” (p.73). It’s mechanical, rote, and based on the teacher’s instructions. You aren’t evaluated on correct answers so much as you are on whether you follow the correct steps (from the teacher’s instructions). ”Remember, when you do [long division], it’s the same steps over and over again — and that’s the way division always is.” (p. 74) Teachers control classroom time, space, and materials: students need to sit still and ask permission to move. Classroom equipment “belongs” to the teachers, who will order students to get “my garbage can.” And it is an order; there’s no would-you-please, could-you-please, if-you-like. (It reminds me, actually, of a lot of education in the Global South.) They’re being taught to take orders… but also how to subtly sabotage those orders by following them too slowly, complaining about them, and other forms of resistance that adult factory workers carry out against their management.
Middle class students are taught to do work and get the right answer, usually from books or the teacher. There’s some degree of choice: as long as the kids get the right long division answer and can explain how, they can do it the long way, the short way, or in their head. Lessons are textbook-based. Controversy is avoided, especially visible in history classes, because parents might complain.”What has happened in the past, and what exists now may not be equitable or fair, but (shrug) that is the way things are, and one does not confront such matters in school.” (p. 78) Creativity/self-expression exists, but peripherally; it is on the side, for fun. These kids are developing a bureaucratic relationship to capital. Do your job, know the answers/procedures, and you’ll get paid.
Affluent professional students do independent, creative work. It’s important whether they’re satisfied with their work outputs or not, and “when right answers are called for [as in math], it is important that the children decide on an answer as a result of thinking about the idea involved in what they’re being asked to do.” (p. 80) An example is given of a language arts lesson where children remix the punctuation in a book excerpt and discuss how satisfied they are with how it sounds — in contrast to the middle class classroom where the goal would be “getting it right” (aka “imitating the book”), the book here isn’t “The Right Answer,” but rather simply a point of comparison. In contrast to the working class students, the teacher primarily “controls” the class by trying to have them understand the consequences of their actions, and allow the children to negotiate with them on what will be done. This trains them to have an instrumental/expressive relationship to capital as adults: they may need to negotiate for resources to do their projects, but then their project work will be largely autonomous and self-determined (as with, say, engineers).
At the executive elite school, the development of analytical intellectual powers is emphasized. Children move freely through the school space. Creativity, critical thinking, and individuality is emphasized. Not only do teachers ask students to come up with sample test questions, they critique those questions: ”That’s just fact. If I asked you that question on a test, you’d complain it was just memory! Good questions ask for concepts.” (p. 84) This is the only school that teaches students how to manipulate the “socially legitimated tools of analysis of systems” (p. 89) — the only school that specifcially teaches students that the system is a system to be shaped and gamed by them, because these kids will be the owners of capital when they grow up; their parents manage hedge funds, run multinational companies, and that sort of thing.
My take on this: lower-class students are all steered away from mastery-gaining behaviors. I’m a fan of the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, as anyone who’s read any research I’ve ever done will know. That model describes the journey towards mastery as an increasing grasp of context. Novices follow rote instructions, blind to the bigger picture around them. Experts move freely through a world they hack. By Anyon’s description, the students with “executive elite” parents are being groomed for expertise, where as the children of “working class” parents are penalized for exhibiting anything other than novice behavior. Hm.
Now, this is interpretative research – it’s painting a somewhat oversimplified picture of what the researcher was probably looking for in the first place. I do wish contradictory evidence had been included, and that there were more disclaimers that the story was simplified. But it’s a good primer nevertheless.
On a more personal note, I think my hearing trumped the “class” I would have otherwise been educated in. My parents would probably now be classified as “executive elite” or “affluent professional,” but when I was young we were pretty solidly middle-class immigrants from a third-world country whose school system is largely of the working-class mentality. But I was deaf! So even as a little kid, I got asked by teachers to “hack my system” all the time — to tweak the rules, to work around the situation, to do whatever worked for me so I could learn without needing to hear. And so when I got older and went to a magnet high school and an excellent engineering college, I slipped right into the “higher-class” pedagogy because I was used to hacking my universe. (I also thought that people would only “hack the universe” if they were broken. It didn’t quite occur to me that the universe could be broken, and I could be making it better.)
This reading isn’t about engineering per se, but it’s got a ton of applications to engineering education. Why do the undergrad engineering stories of state school students sound so different from MIT, Olin, and Harvard students, and how does that affect the jobs we get, the expectations we have of our employment environment, the way we think “school ought to be”? What effect might the elimination of full-scholarships-for-all at Olin have on the class background of the students coming in — and why do working-class students sometimes struggle (especially in the beginning) with Olin’s super-independent, super-creative pedagogy? Why might activities like Honors classes or creative-style engineering projects (like engineering community service capstones, build-a-racecar teams, and so on) or startup incubators be populated mostly with affluent students? What sorts of signifiers gain you social capital in what realms of engineering — following orders? Disobeying them?
I also found myself thinking, unavoidably, about how I want to raise and teach my kids someday. I… I don’t know. I want them to be hackers of the universe, to see the world as something big that’s theirs to wander and explore. But I also don’t want them to take that perspective for granted and dismiss those who don’t share it, which is something that really frustrates me about some of my classmates at the “excellent” schools I’ve gone to (no, not everyone looks at a computer and thinks “IT IS MINE AND I CAN MAKE THE THINGS I WANT ON IT!” — first of all, not everyone has a computer, and secondly because sometimes you get drilled to think the computer is for Doing Things Grownups Tell You To Do…). My worldview spans and sympathizes with a lot of these perspectives because of how I grew up between cultures and between classes — I’ve thought, at one point or another, that all these schooled relationships to capital were basically normal — but my life’s been such a weird individual path that I can’t really replicate it for my kids (for one thing, my hearing’s not hereditary). So that’ll be an adventure, if and when it comes.