intentionality in education


A lot of my work recently has been on the idea of adjectivizing education--making education more aligned with a particular set of values and principles, such as those related to sustainability, democracy, social justice, and so on. In doing this, I've found it necessary to elaborate on the idea of intentionality.

The basic premise for a lot of my work is that if we want to go beyond educating *about* a certain subject, and actually educate in a way that will create some social movement towards the related ideal, then we need to go beyond talking about the content of instruction, and look at the actual educational experience of students. This frames education as a formative act, rather than an informative one. It is concerned with the deep development of students, not just head stuffing.

The method I advocate for this type of education is tacit teaching--essentially, working to align the various contextual factors which impact students' experiences with the values and principles we are seeking to develop in them. I make the argument that we need to become intentional about the environment in which explicit teaching takes place, because this environment is itself inherently educative. The medium is the message in education, as in anything, and the context trumps any explicit content. So we should be intentional about the context. Seems simple enough.

The problem, of course, is that good teachers would claim they are already being intentional about the environment. And they are. I can't rightly claim that the environment is being left to chance. To be sure, there is pretty solid footing for the argument that much of what's going on in many classrooms results from a combination unquestionned assumptions about how things should be, market forces, and shortcuts.. but on the other side, effective teachers make many conscious decisions about how to arrange the classroom: the rules, the routines and procedures, the physical arrangements, the decor, the grading processes, the types of instructional strategies, and so on. While some aspects of the context likely go unnoticed, the majority reflect active decisions on the part of the teacher. What is this if not intentional? So where is the problem?

If we acknowledge that teachers are already being intentional about many factors in the educational context, we need to dig a little bit deeper than labeling things as intentional or not. In the context of adjectival education, the question becomes, "What is guiding that intentionality? What is motivating those decisions?" The idea of intentionality only denotes some kind of conscious decision. The concept is agnostic towards the substance of the decision. It doesn't care what the intentions are hoping to achieve. Beneath the surface, any conscious decision is made in relation to particular objective(s). This matters in adjectival education because the proposed method suggests it is important to have contextual factors aligned with said adjective. If we want sustainable education, then factors of the educative context should reflect the values and principles of sustainability. If we want education for democracy, we should be looking for democratic values and principles to be reflected throughout the educational experience. So, it's not enough that teachers are *simply* intentional about factors influencing students' experiences. It matters what the intentionality is directed towards.

To get further than this, it is useful to come back to our first principles--what are we trying to accomplish with education in the first place. We have massive education systems which purport to serve certain high level goals. But to what extent are those goals reflected in the thousands of little pieces which comprise these systems? Few if any of those pieces have intrinsic value. Moreover, intrinsic value doesn't even make sense when it is positioned in relation to some other goal. Rather, the value of these pieces is much more of the instrumental nature. This is to say that they are valuable because they have a function in relation to achieving the end goals. But if we pursue this thought, we quickly realize that not all factors are instrumentally valuable in the same way.

To illustrate this, we should take an example. The end goals of any humanistic concept of education would have something to do with empowering students. Those factors whose instrumental value is directly related to the end goals can be considered to have first grade instrumental value. So, in the context of humanistic education, we could claim that teachers have first grade instrumental value, as they are (or should be) directly involved in empowering students. Teacher training, on the other hand, is an important part of the system, but its value would be of a lower grade, as it is not directly linked to the end goals. Teacher training curricula, in turn, are a further step removed. This model is reductive because it suggests simplistic chains of events, when in fact, educational outcomes emerge through complex systems, but it is nonetheless useful as an illustration of how different aspects of the education system are situated in relation to the end goals. We will build on this to enrich our concept of intentionality.

The idea of intentionality is similar to the model described above, but it is less static because it involves choices. If we have education systems organized around certain end goals, we can look at intentionality in terms of whether the choices made are focused directly or indirectly on achieving those end goals. This is to say, are decisions being made with the end goals in mind, or with a view to greasing the wheels of other aspects of the system somewhere further out in the network of activities leading to those end goals. When intentionality is focused principally on the end goals, we can consider it first order intentionality. When it isn't and is instead directed at greasing the wheels, so to speak, or supporting the surrounding bureaucracy, it is some kind of lower order, or subordinate intentionality.

Most education systems have a formal curriculum of some sort. This formal curriculum would, ostensibly, have been devised specifically to help achieve the end goals of the system. This is clearly first order intentionality. However, teachers who set out to teach the curriculum, without a meaningful regard for the end goals, are already a step removed from those end goals. This means that the teacher's efforts in teaching the curriculum are at a subordinate level. We could call this second order intentionality. This positioning is debatable, of course, because some teachers may be very much attuned to end goals, and so some are no doubt directing their teaching more towards those end goals, rather than the minutia of curriculum outcomes.

Working our way along, effective teachers will have devised a number of strategies for the efficient functioning of their classroom--routines, discipline systems, grading procedures, and so on. These are generally devised to support an environment which is conducive to teaching the curriculum, or making the teaching process itself easier--rather than being of direct value to the achievement of the end goals. It is relatively less common for teachers to devise these structures with clear mindfulness around how they contribute to the end goals of education. Speaking honestly, most teachers arrange their classrooms to make their lives easier. So, while they reflect intentional decisions, it is, very likely, intentionality of a third order. And so on down the line. By the time we get to the tools and reports of the deputy district supervisors, we have, very likely, completely lost sight of the end goals of our education systems.

Of course, teaching is a complex act, involving multiple goals, and few decisions are made for a singular purpose. So again, the model is reductive. But is it, nonetheless, useful, because it illustrates an important point--that much of our intentionality in education is directed towards things which are only of indirect (low-grade) instrumental value to the end goals of education. The factors affecting students' experiences reflect intentional choices, but these choices do not necessarily reflect any of the values and principles which our education systems are supposed to be about. This matters because the myriad factors themselves matter. Nothing in education is neutral. Everything impacts how students come to understand and act in the world. All of the aspects of schooling which impact students' experiences are either educative or mis-educative in relation to our end goals. Everything has a message, and if the message isn't explicitly informative, then it is tacitly formative. So it's not enough to be intentional. We must work to reorient the contextual factors which impact students' experiences to reflect the values and principles we claim as the end goals of our education systems. We need to bring those factors which are currently intentional at subordinate levels up into the first order.

If you've been paying close attention, you may have a concern at this point. You may be concerned that I seem to be suggesting that instead of organizing our classrooms to make them easier to teach in, that we organize them instead to reflect certain values and principles. Fortunately, these approaches are not necessarily at odds with one another. We can, for instance, incorporate democratic values and principles into our classrooms without losing anything. It turns out, democratic approaches are pretty good for governance, and pretty good for keeping people engaged. It works for society and it works for education. Classrooms and schools which reflect democratic values and principles are engaging and manageable. Other values, such as sustainability or gender equality, can similarly be reflected throughout the way we *do* education, without making our work any more difficult. All that is required is for a heightened awareness of what these things look like in practical terms, and the will to work these things into our practice.

Matthew Hiebert 2013-10-01