A taste of Postman’s “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” (1969)

Notice the clever cover stamping? Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)

I finally received my copy of Neil Postman’s “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” (1969) in awesome condition (thx RoundTowerBooks!) when I noticed the beautiful stamping on the cover…

Look carefully
pretty clever huh?

Howard Rheingold recommended this ancient text over a twitter conversation, where he also linked to a downloadable PDF version (820kb). I later found an abstract of the method advocated in the book, namely Inquiry Education.

Towards inquiry education, authors Postman and Weingartner realized that good learners center their activity on the “dynamic process of inquiry itself, not merely on the end product of static knowledge”.

As such, a teacher adhering to the inquiry method in pedagogy must behave very differently, by having the following characteristics (pp. 34–37):

  • They avoid telling students what they “ought to know”.
  • They talk to students mostly by questioning, and especially by asking divergent questions.
  • They do not accept short, simple answers to questions.
  • They encourage students to interact directly with one another, and avoid judging what is said in student interactions.
  • They do not summarize students’ discussion.
  • They do not plan the exact direction of their lessons in advance, and allow it to develop in response to students’ interests.
  • Their lessons pose problems to students.
  • They gauge their success by change in students’ inquiry behaviors (with the above characteristics of “good learners” as a goal).

Some of us educators might already be well-aware of learning as “a journey rather than a destination”, so this book certainly helps provide both the motivation and framework for achieving just that with your students. If you’re so inclined, you can get a physical copy for yourself through Amazon.

19 thoughts on “A taste of Postman’s “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” (1969)

  1. Thanks for posting about this book; unlike Coleman, I don’t remember hearing about it.

    Thanks, too, for the summary of ways we “ought” to teach, by this book. Specifically, these two give me cause for concern:

    > They do not plan the exact direction of their lessons in advance, and allow it to develop in response to students’ interests, Their lessons pose problems to students.

    In the mainstream K-12 culture, the second one would be a big stumbling block for some classes: the kids find the curriculum lacking in interest. The first, this would be a problem for a lot of administrators: “What do you mean you don’t have a well scripted lesson? What standards are being covered?”

    As many have already discovered in the K-12 arena, truly great education is being held back by rules and constraints outside the instructor’s control.

    Thankfully, many educators today are approaching the other points you list, and are doing some very interesting things adding technology to the mix.

  2. John, Dr Alex Halavais (the first commenter) is quite a shining example of someone who teaches in this way. Scan through his blog archives to see what I mean. He would lead the first few classes, then intentionally have students take responsibility for classes by letting them take over. It’s risky, and best done in smaller class sizes (like graduate class).

    I’d agree that it’s hard to follow the ideals laid out, especially if schools are pressuring teachers to cover more classes in one semester.

    Ironically, I think it take more planning to run an open-ended class, as it would seem to work the same way when I was a dungeon master during my tabletop RPG days.

  3. “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” is, in my opinion, a must-read book for every teacher and teacher-wanabe. Postman and Weingartner wrote a great critique of schooling. I feel sorry that most of the teachers in my country, Singapore, have never heard of it, much less read it.

    Amran Noordins last blog post..Using GPS for inquiry-based learning

  4. The pdf link is dead now. Would anyone be interested in e-mailing a sucker a copy? I actually own the hard copy, but am in the process of moving to Japan and won't see it for about a month.

    tlw1915-at-gmail.com

  5. The pdf link is dead now. Would anyone be interested in e-mailing a sucker a copy? I actually own the hard copy, but am in the process of moving to Japan and won't see it for about a month.

    tlw1915-at-gmail.com

  6. The pdf link is dead now. Would anyone be interested in e-mailing a sucker a copy? I actually own the hard copy, but am in the process of moving to Japan and won't see it for about a month.

    tlw1915-at-gmail.com

  7. The pdf link is dead now. Would anyone be interested in e-mailing a sucker a copy? I actually own the hard copy, but am in the process of moving to Japan and won't see it for about a month.

    tlw1915-at-gmail.com

  8. The pdf link is dead now. Would anyone be interested in e-mailing a sucker a copy? I actually own the hard copy, but am in the process of moving to Japan and won't see it for about a month.

    tlw1915-at-gmail.com

  9. The pdf link is dead now. Would anyone be interested in e-mailing a sucker a copy? I actually own the hard copy, but am in the process of moving to Japan and won't see it for about a month.

    tlw1915-at-gmail.com

  10. The pdf link is dead now. Would anyone be interested in e-mailing a sucker a copy? I actually own the hard copy, but am in the process of moving to Japan and won't see it for about a month.

    tlw1915-at-gmail.com

  11. The pdf link is dead now. Would anyone be interested in e-mailing a sucker a copy? I actually own the hard copy, but am in the process of moving to Japan and won't see it for about a month.

    tlw1915-at-gmail.com

  12. The pdf link is dead now. Would anyone be interested in e-mailing a sucker a copy? I actually own the hard copy, but am in the process of moving to Japan and won't see it for about a month.

    tlw1915-at-gmail.com

  13. The pdf link is dead now. Would anyone be interested in e-mailing a sucker a copy? I actually own the hard copy, but am in the process of moving to Japan and won't see it for about a month.

    tlw1915-at-gmail.com

  14. The pdf link is dead now. Would anyone be interested in e-mailing a sucker a copy? I actually own the hard copy, but am in the process of moving to Japan and won't see it for about a month.

    tlw1915-at-gmail.com

  15. The pdf link is dead now. Would anyone be interested in e-mailing a sucker a copy? I actually own the hard copy, but am in the process of moving to Japan and won't see it for about a month.

    tlw1915-at-gmail.com

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