One of the most important messages conveyed in Betsy Krebs and Paul Pitcoff’s Beyond the Foster Care System is that we can and should alter our expectations (and the policies that reflect those preconceptions) of the intellectual abilities of youth in foster care. This conviction is consonant with my belief that if you expect and demand a lot from your students, more often than not they will work hard to meet those expectations. This is not to say that people will write brilliantly and earn all ‘A’s just because you “believe in them.” But it is important for educators to truly have confidence in everyone’s capacity for creativity, careful thought, and improvement. Students are more likely to put in the effort when they sense this on your part; and conversely they will sooner write you off if they think you have given up on them.
How does this work in practice? For starters, educators can set the tone immediately at the beginning of a course. Krebs and Pitcoff do this by being explicit about their attendance policy in their GBS seminar and eliminating all of the common lures used to bribe foster teens to make appointments (food, Metrocards). The message this sends out is that participants in their workshops are treated as adults who choose to do the work because they want to, not because anyone is making them do so. More importantly, GBS facilitators employ the Socratic method to engage students’ critical faculties, rather than treating them as vessels to be filled by expert knowledge.
Most teachers admit that one of the best aspects of the profession is being surprised by the insight of their students. In their book Krebs and Pitcoff recount how the teenagers in their acquaintance repeatedly amazed them with their thirst for knowledge and their ability to plow through pages of complex and abstract law codes.
Krebs and Pitcoff regard Paolo Freire as the inspiration for their pedagogical approach, but as I was reading their book I was reminded of Jacques Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster, which tells the history of a nineteenth-century teacher by the name of Joseph Jacotot, who spoke only French yet managed to instruct his Flemish students (who spoke no French) in a stunning range of subjects, after which he concluded (as does Rancière after him) that all men have equal intelligence and that everyone has the capacity for self-instruction (as, for example, when we each learn our mother tongues). The Ignorant Schoolmaster will confound you and challenge your deepest prejudices, and the miracle at the center of it will urge you to regard your students in a new light.