Saturday, July 18, 2015

Flat Tire

A Response to Lankshear & Knobel, New Literacies, Chapter 7

I noticed that the left rear tire seemed low on air pressure. I finally measured the pressure, and sure enough had to add air. I kept an eye on the tire, and every so many days I had to add more air. Then I had to add air every day. Finally one morning, after adding air, the tire was noticeably low by the time I got to work. Thank God I work at a technical school, I thought, I'll just drop the car off at the automotive shop and give the kids something to do. When I had the chance I walked over to automotive and waited while the students were given their assignments. The shop was full of cars, most of them from paying customers. An instructor had a job list, and he barked out orders to the students using technical language that I vaguely recognized. The students got to work. "Oh I just have a slow leak in a tire," I said, a little embarrassed to be presenting such a puny task. "Which tire? Where's your car parked?" The instructor was perfectly happy to have a simple task, more real-world work for his students. I gave him my spare key. Later in the afternoon a student approached me in my classroom. "Mr Calhoun? Here's your key. Tire's all fixed, and the car is back where you parked it." He was very business-like, and obviously proud. We talked a bit, but he was ready to go back to work.

This kind of exchange goes on all day in the school. The young children of teachers attend the day-care program. Customers from the community are in the cosmetology shop having their hair done, or go to the culinary shop's Thursday lunches. Teams of plumbing or carpentry students head out to work sites in the community. The graphic design shop prints up agendas for that night's city council meeting. Eighteen different shops provide in-house real-world experience for the students. By the time they are seniors, many of the students don't even come to school during their shop week, they go to cooperative work experiences in the community and receive a paycheck. Seniors often have state certification in various applications by the time they graduate.

As I read Lankshear & Knobel's presentation of the concept of social learning, I kept being reminded of why I love working in my technical school. The students are
mastering a field of knowledge . . . not only 'learning about' the subject matter but also 'learning to be' a full participant in the field. This involves acquiring the practices and the norms of established practitioners in that field or acculturating into a community of practice (quoting Brown and Adler, 2008, p. 218).

When I was in high school, students in the technical program were thought to be less intelligent. They were not prepared for college and were thus doomed to menial labor in the work-a-day world. What did it mean that one was prepared for college? I recognize this now as the "push" process described by Lankshear and Knobel (p. 226). In college one would finally join a community of practice. Or maybe not, maybe college was to prepare for graduate school, where one would finally join a community of practice. And possibly the joining of a practice might not happen until one was finally hired into a practice. The "pull" process exemplified by the technical programs in my school allows students to participate in a community of practice right away. The shops themselves are platforms that allow for learning by novices while still providing professional services in the real world.

In my own practice as a physics teacher, I am aware that very few of my students will participate in any kind of physics community in their lives. A push program would accomplish little - I have nowhere to push my students. What I can do is add my practice to the practices they experience in their various shops, where "physics" is happening all the time, and add one more facet to the pull process in which they already participate.


  1. Hello Bill,
    Thank you for the interesting review of Chapter 7. I enjoyed your real world story introduction. It sounds like your school is an incredible example of the importance of different teaching styles and the “pull” process of learning. Your technical school would have been much more motivating for me. I usually feel a great deal of satisfaction when I am able to repair something. Our educational system needs to realize the value of technical skills and require all students to have at least one trade skill combined with their education. I feel that this would provide more flexibility in a student’s marketable skills. I do not think it would hurt our country to increase manufacturing capabilities either.

    1. Hi Aaron, thanks for reading. I agree with you. Even our students who go on to college and grad school still feel that their shop was a valuable part of their overall education.

    2. Thanks for sharing your story and experience at your school which you teach. You are lucky to have these experiences and teach at such a great school. I look forward to reading more stories from you!