Colliding Interpretations?

One of the first things to catch my attention was the difference between theory and interpretation.  Theories, which are general things, need to be true and there cannot be more than one theory about the same thing—one necessarily will need to disprove the other.  We are not nearly as interested in ‘theory’ in this way in the teaching of literature; instead, we are more interested in ‘interpretations.’ Interpretations are “contextual and specific” and also “are bound by the personal, social, cultural, and historical contexts in which they arise,” (91).  I’m reminded of our read-aloud activity where all three students had different ideas about the poem “Gretel in Darkness,” that amounted to three different, legitimate interpretations.

Another thing to catch my attention in the six facets of learning (which were all fascinating and I thought, succinctly defined), was application.  Application (Facet 3) deals with taking knowledge and applying it in a realistic context.  I think so often, we as teachers, especially working in a high-stakes testing environment of public secondary schools, don’t necessarily work to put knowledge to work in an entirely “real world problem” context.  And I think this can be the hard thing about making sure that learning is “engaging,” which comes up in chapter 9.  Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe highlight the need for the learning and accompanying work to be “purposeful from the student’s point of view in order to properly focus attention and provide direction” (199) and also the need for schools to move away from the “carrot” and “stick” system of extrinsic motivation and into a more intrinsically motivated classroom (202).   It’s so easy to fall back on the idea that “you need to know this in order to ‘pass the SOL’ or ‘do well on the AP exam’ or ‘get a good score on the SATs.’” And while this system of high-stakes standardized testing is not going away and cannot be ignored, neither is the best way for students to learn.  Unsurprisingly, the best way for students to learn is to make what they’re learning about interesting.

And now these two ideas– theory/interpretation and application of knowledge–collide.  Sometimes we treat testing and intrinsic motivations are ‘theories’ which cannot coexist together and therefore we must sacrifice the one (intrinsically motivating the students, because that’s the part we can control), because of the other. Or we say we’ll devote time to the ‘testing curriculum’ and cover that boring, dry stuff, and we’ll devote time to the ‘interesting curriculum’ and make that engaging.  But what if, as a practice, we saw the realities of 21st century education and engaging students simply as different lenses that we might use to interpret our curriculum?  Regardless of how frustrating or annoying one interpretation might be, it’s still a valid one for secondary teachers.  Is this a challenge to me (and everyone else)? Is it possible to make what we see as SOL test prep into reading that is engaging, meaningful, and mysterious?

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