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Unsettling Education

Searching for Ethical Footing in a Time of Reform


Edited By Brian Charest and Kate Sjostrom

Unsettling Education: Searching for Ethical Footing in a Time of Reform offers a counter-narrative to the prevailing orthodoxies of schooling and school reform that conflate education and learning with that which can be measured on state-mandated examinations. Despite the push to "settle" the purposes of teaching and schooling in ways that see education as the teaching of a discrete set of skills that align with standardized exams, there are teachers and students who continue to resist standardization and whose stories suggest there are many ways to organize schools, design curriculum, and understand the purposes of education. Unsettling Education shares stories of how teachers have resisted state and local mandates to teach to the test in dehumanizing ways, how such teachers have sought to de-commodify educational spaces, how they have enacted their ethical commitments to students and communities, and how they have theorized such practices, sometimes even reconsidering their roles as teachers and the very purposes of schooling. Volume contributors offer concrete ways in which teachers might challenge the structures of schooling to reveal the full humanity and potential of students through different forms of resistance pedagogy, institutional critiques, and critical self-reflection. Featuring a wide range of voices and contexts, the collections’ chapters blend story and theory, resulting in a volume both accessible and thought-provoking to varied audiences—from undergraduate students of education and concerned citizens to veteran educators, teacher educators, administrators, and policymakers.

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It seems that everywhere we turn these days we encounter the claim that feeling unsettled is essential to growth. In education textbooks, we read of the disequilibrium integral to Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. At Curriculum Night at our children’s schools, we hear references to Lev Vygotzky’s Zone of Proximal Development as teachers preview the necessary discomfort students will feel as they stretch their brains. Friends send us links to TED Talks about how important it is to get comfortable with discomfort.

So why does so much within our public education system feel settled? In the following chapter, “Against Measurement: Making a Case for School Play,” high school teachers Avi Lessing and Glynis Kinnan suggest that it is difficult to make schools safe for students’ intellectual experimentation and failure—and thus eventual innovation—when “external … performance metrics trump all.” In other words, teachers pressured to continuously document linear student growth and students pressured to continuously achieve high scores will find it difficult to linger in the unsettling moments necessary for authentic development. Kinnan and Lessing propose that students’ processes and present should trump a preoccupation with students’ scores and future. Moreover, they insist on the value of “nonachievement, rupture, spontaneity, nonconformity, uncertainty, puzzlement, nonclosure, and tentativeness” in the classroom. As they show through stories of both planned classroom projects and unanticipated classroom moments, such “immeasurables” can “enrich the experience of all the people who inhabit schools.”

Like Lessing and Kinnan, elementary school teachers...

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