About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Showing posts with label teaching as art. Show all posts
Showing posts with label teaching as art. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reform: To What End?, Part II

This is a continuation of the post from June 28.

Learning-Friendly Environments

For me, the bottom-line question is whether a particular reform will enable or restrict the kind of thing we see happening in Stephanie Terry's classroom. The hermit crab episode is, of course, drawn from a few days spent in just one classroom, but it represents some qualities I've seen again and again in good schools—K–12, urban or rural, affluent or poor. Let me delineate these qualities, and as you read them, ask yourself to what degree the reforms currently being proposed—from national standards to increased data collection to plans to turn around failing schools—would advance or impede their realization. Just as the representation of teaching is diminished in current education policy, so is the representation of learning. I have yet to see in policy initiatives a depiction of classroom life anywhere close to the one I just shared.

  • Safety. The classrooms I visited created a sense of safety. There was physical safety, which for children in some locations is a serious consideration. But there was also safety from insult and diminishment. And there was safety to take risks, to push beyond what you can comfortably do at present—"coaxing our thinking along," as one student put it.
  • Respect. Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels. It means many things and operates on many levels: fair treatment, decency, an absence of intimidation, and beyond the realm of individual civility, a respect for the history, language, and culture of the people represented in the classroom. Respect also has an intellectual dimension. As one principal put it, "It's not just about being polite—even the curriculum has to convey respect. [It] has to be challenging enough that it's respectful."
  • Student responsibility for learning. Even in classrooms that were run in a relatively traditional manner, students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, and became authorities on their own experience and on the work they were doing. Think of Stephanie's students observing closely, recording what they saw, forming hypotheses, and reporting publically on their thinking. These classrooms were places of expectation and responsibility.
  • Intellectual rigor. Teachers took students seriously as intellectual and social beings. Young people had to work hard, think things through, come to terms with one another—and there were times when such effort took students to their limits. "They looked at us in disbelief," said one New York principal, "when we told them they were intellectuals."
  • Ongoing support. It is important to note that teachers realized such assumptions through a range of supports, guides, and structures: from the way they organized curriculum and invited and answered questions, to the means of assistance they and their aides provided (tutoring, conferences, written and oral feedback), to the various ways they encouraged peer support and assistance, to the atmosphere they created in the classroom—which takes us back to considerations of safety and respect.
  • Concern for students' welfare. The students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that these classrooms were salutary places—places that felt good to be in and that honored their best interests. They experienced this concern in various ways—as nurturance, social cohesion, the fostering of competence, recognition of growth, and a feeling of opportunity.

The foregoing characteristics made the rooms I visited feel alive. People were learning things, both cognitive and social; they were doing things, individually and collectively—making contributions, connecting ideas, and generating knowledge. To be sure, not everyone was engaged. And everyone, students and teachers, had bad days. But overall, these classrooms were exciting places to be—places of reflection and challenge, of deliberation and expression, of quiet work and public presentation. People were encouraged to be smart.

How directly do current reforms contribute to promoting such qualities?

The Most Important Question

In an important 18th-century essay on education, journalist Samuel Harrison Smith wrote that the free play of intelligence was central to a democracy and that individual intellectual growth was intimately connected to broad-scale intellectual development, to the "general diffusion of knowledge" across the republic.

As we consider what an altered school structure, increased technology, national standards, or other new reform initiatives might achieve, we should also ask the old, defining question, What is the purpose of education in a democracy? The formation of intellectually safe and respectful spaces, the distribution of authority and responsibility, the maintenance of high expectations and the means to attain them—all this is fundamentally democratic and prepares one for civic life. Teachers should regard students as capable and participatory beings, rich in both individual and social potential. The realization of that vision of the student is what finally should drive school reform in the United States.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Reform: To What End?

This is a reprint of an article I had in the April 2010 issue of Educational Leadership. The issue was focusing on the broader topic of "reimagining school," so my article was part of a cluster of pieces proposing different school reforms and perspectives on reform.

Because of its length I'm going to break it into two parts. The second installment will come in about a week to ten days.


We need a different orientation to school reform—one that embodies a richer understanding of teaching and learning.

This is an exciting time for education as the federal government, state houses, and private philanthropies are all focusing on school reform. A lot of good ideas are in the air—thoughtful proposals for ways to change things, to imagine a new kind of schooling in the United States.

The history of school reform has taught us, however, that good ideas can become one-dimensionalized as they move from conception through policy formation to implementation. Also, in the heat of reform, politics and polemics can become an end in themselves, a runaway train of reform for reform's sake. In addition, reforms can have unintended consequences. As a reform plays out in the complex, on-the-ground world of districts, school boards, and classrooms, it can lead to counter productive practices. In the case of No Child Left Behind, for example, we saw the narrowing of the curriculum to prepare for high-stakes tests in math and language arts.

At this moment, when we're focusing so much attention on school reform and so much is possible, it would be good to step back and remind ourselves what we're ultimately trying to achieve. What is the goal of school reform? Most would agree it's to create rich learning environments, ones with greater scope and more equitable distribution than those we currently have.

As we reimagine school, some basic questions should serve as our touchstone for reform: What is the purpose of education in a democracy? What kind of people do we want to see emerge from U.S. schools? What is the experience of education when we do it well?

Happy as a Crab

One example of good teaching I saw comes from my book Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America (Penguin, 1995/2006), an account of my travels across the United States to document effective public education. This 1st grade classroom in inner-city Baltimore has 30 students, all from modest to low-income households—the kinds of kids at the center of many school reforms.

As we enter the classroom, teacher Stephanie Terry is reading a book to her students, Eric Carle's A House for Hermit Crab (Simon and Schuster, 1991). Hermit crabs inhabit empty mollusk shells; as they grow, they leave their old shells to find bigger ones. In this story, a cheery hermit crab is searching for a more spacious home.

There's a glass case in the classroom with five hermit crabs—which Stephanie supplied—and 13 shells of various sizes. More than once during the year, students have noticed that a shell had been abandoned and that a larger one had suddenly become animated. As Stephanie reads the book, she pauses and raises broader questions about where the creatures live. This leads to an eager query from Kenneth about where in nature you'd find hermit crabs. "Well," says Stephanie, "let's see if we can figure that out."

She gets up and brings the case with the hermit crabs to the center of the room, takes the crabs out, and places them on the rug. One scuttles away from the group; another moves in a brief half circle; three stay put. While this is going on, Stephanie takes two plastic tubs from the cupboard above the sink and fills one with cold water from the tap and the other with warm water. Then she places both tubs side by side and asks five students, one by one, to put each of the crabs in the cold water. "What happens?" she asks. "They don't move," says Kenneth. "They stay inside their shells," adds Miko.

Stephanie then asks five other students to transfer the crabs to the tub of warm water. They do, and within seconds the crabs start to stir. Before long, the crabs are moving like crazy. "OK," says Stephanie. "What happens in the warmer water?" An excited chorus of students replies, "They're moving! They're walking all over! They like it! They're happy like the crab in the book!" "So what does this suggest about where they like to live?" asks Stephanie.

That night, the students write about the experiment. Many are just learning to write, but Stephanie told them to write down their observations as best as they could, and that she would help them develop what they write. The next day, the students take turns standing in front of the class reading their reports.

Miko goes first: "I saw the hermit crab walking when it was in the warm water, but when it was in the cold water, it was not walking. It likes to live in warm water."

Then Romarise takes the floor, holding his paper way out in his right hand, his left hand in the pocket of his overalls: "(1) I observed two legs in the back of the shell; (2) I observed that some of the crabs change [their] shell; (3) When the hermit crabs went into the cold water, they walked slow; (4) When the hermit crabs went into the warm water, they walked faster."

One by one, the rest of the students state their observations, halting at times as they try to figure out what they wrote, sometimes losing track and repeating themselves. But in a soft or loud voice, with a quiet sense of assurance or an unsteady eagerness, these 1st graders report on the behavior of the classroom's hermit crabs, which have now become the focus of their attention.

There's a lot to say about Stephanie's modest but richly stocked classroom and the skillful way she interacts with the children in it. But I'll focus on two important points: what Stephanie demonstrates about the craft and art of teaching and the experience of learning that she generates for her class.

Growing Good Teachers

Everyone in the current reform environment acknowledges the importance of good teaching. But most characterizations of teaching miss the richness and complexity of the work. The teacher often becomes a knowledge-delivery mechanism preparing students for high-stakes tests.

Moreover, reform initiatives lack depth on how to develop more good teachers. There is encouragement of alternative pathways to qualification (and, often, animosity toward schools of education and traditional teacher training). There are calls for merit pay, with pay typically linked to test-score evidence of student achievement.

There are general calls for additional professional development. And, of course, there is the widespread negative incentive: By holding teachers' "feet to the fire" of test scores, we will supposedly get more effort from teachers, although proponents of this point of view never articulate the social-psychological mechanisms by which the use of test scores will affect effort, motivation, and pedagogical skill.

But when you watch Stephanie, a very different image of the teacher emerges. She is knowledgeable and resourceful across multiple subject areas and is skillful at integrating them. She is spontaneous, alert for the teachable moment, and able to play out the fruits of that spontaneity and plan next steps incrementally as the activity unfolds. She believes that her students can handle a sophisticated assignment, and she asks questions and gives direction to guide them. Her students seem comfortable taking up the intellectual challenge.

What is interesting is that none of the current high-profile reform ideas would explain or significantly enhance Stephanie's expertise. Merit pay doesn't inspire her inventiveness; it doesn't exist in her district (although she would be happy to have the extra money, given that she furnished some classroom resources from her own pocket). Standardized test scores don't motivate her either. In fact, the typical test would be unable to capture some of the intellectual display I witnessed in her classroom. What motivates her is a complex mix of personal values and a drive for competence. These lead her to treat her students in certain ways and to continue to improve her skill.

A Human Capital Model

Some professional development programs are particularly good at capitalizing on such motivators. Several years earlier, Stephanie participated in a National Science Foundation workshop aimed at integrating science into the elementary school classroom. Teachers met for several weeks during the summer at the Baltimore campus of the University of Maryland, one of several regional training sites around the United States.

The teachers were, in Stephanie's words, "immersed in science"; they were reading, writing, observing presentations, and doing science themselves—all with an eye toward integrating science into their elementary school curriculums. The summer workshop extended through the year, as participating teachers observed one another's classrooms and came together on selected weekends to report on how they were incorporating science into teaching and give presentations themselves. "It gave us a different way," said Stephanie, "to think about science, teaching, and kids."

Because we are in the reimagining mode here, let me offer this: What if we could channel the financial and human resources spent on the vast machinery of high-stakes testing into a robust, widely distributed program of professional development? I don't mean the quick-hit, half-day events that so often pass for professional development, but serious, extended engagement of the kind that the National Science Foundation and the National Writing Project might offer—the sort of program that helped Stephanie conjure her rich lesson with the hermit crabs.

These programs typically take place in the summer (the National Writing Project runs for four weeks), although there are other options, including ones that extend through part of the school year. Teachers work with subject-matter experts; read, write, and think together; learn new material; hear from others who have successfully integrated the material into their classrooms: and try it out themselves.

Electronic media can be hugely helpful here, creating innovative ways for teachers to participate, bringing in people from remote areas, and further enabling all participants to regularly check in as they try new things. Such ongoing participation would be crucial in building on the intellectual community created during this kind of teacher enrichment program. All of this already exists, but we could expand it significantly if policymakers and reformers took into account this richer understanding of the teaching profession.

Although pragmatic lifestyle issues certainly come into play in choosing any profession, the majority of people who enter teaching do so for fairly altruistic reasons. They like working with kids. They like science, literature, or history and want to spark that appreciation in others. They see inequality and want to make a difference in young people's lives.

The kind of professional development I'm describing would appeal to those motives, revitalize them, and further realize them as a teacher's career progresses. Enriched, widely available professional development would substitute a human capital model of school reform for the current test-based technocratic one. And because such professional development would positively affect what teachers teach and how they teach it, it would have a more direct effect on student achievement.

[Part II to come]

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

On Teaching

The other day, my college buddy Bruce Scrogin, a voracious reader, forwarded to me an article from The New York Times Magazine by psychiatrist Daniel Carlat, “Mind Over Meds.” (4/25/10) Dr. Carlat bemoans the split in contemporary mental health care between the pharmacological approach and the talk therapy approach, not a new observation but the article had several gems in it, like this quotation from pioneering psychopharmacalogist Leon Eisenberg, “…in the first half of the 20th century, American psychiatry was virtually ‘brainless.’ . . . In the second half of the 20th century, psychiatry became virtually ‘mindless.’”

The passage that particularly caught my eye – and it is relevant to the concerns of this blog – was this:

Like the majority of psychiatrists in the United States, I prescribe the medications, and I refer to a professional lower in the mental-health hierarchy, like a social worker or a psychologist, to do the therapy. The unspoken implication is that therapy is menial work — tedious and poorly paid.

The elevation of the technical and the diminishment of the human and relational is, as many social commentators have observed, a characteristic of our time. Reading Dr. Carlat, it struck me how much this diminishment of the human and relational applies to teachers and teaching.

Certainly his comment on status and pay applies: as you move up the administrative chain of command, the work in education becomes more bureaucratic and these days, technocratic – and is more rewarded financially. But I’m interested in another aspect of Dr. Carlat’s comment: the focus on the technical side of teaching with increasingly less frequent mention of values, passion, or artistic touch.

This technical focus has been amped up and institutionalized in our time by NCLB. The teacher is reduced to a knowledge-delivery mechanism that prepares students for high-stakes tests. The Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” is not much different. “Effective” teachers are praised; however, effectiveness is defined by the scores students get on standardized tests.

Another manifestation of this technical orientation is the increased focus on teaching techniques and, in a similar vein, best practices. Before going on, I want to be clear about this: I’m all for pinpointing good techniques – from gestures to ways to ask questions – and I do believe that some pedagogical practices (for example, particular ways to address grammatical errors in student writing) are, one the whole, better than others. Teaching does involve a good deal of technique, skill, tricks of the trade, and good teacher education and professional development includes a worthy dose of such knowledge.

But good teaching also involves values, emotional connection, belief systems, artfulness, instinct born of experience. I certainly appreciate that fact that these factors are harder to measure than, let’s say, the frequency of certain kinds of questions, but because there’s not an easy metric for them does not diminish their importance.

This issue was recently brought home to me by an article in the New York Times Magazine, another Gotham piece sent to me by a student of mine, Shirin Vossougi. (It’s my friends and students who keep me up to date.) The article “Building a Better Teacher” (March 7, 2010) is written by education reporter Elizabeth Green. It is a welcome addition to the current wave of mainstream articles and commentaries in that it isn’t hostile to teachers and attempts to stay close to teaching itself. But what made Shirin and then me uneasy is its exclusive focus on two aspects of teaching: on techniques that some claim work regardless of context (for example how to give directions) and on content knowledge in subject areas, mathematics, science, literature. The article is set up such that the two are treated pretty much as separate entities, and little else about teaching is addressed.

At the end of the article, Greene wisely takes us to the obvious next step, and moves toward a combination of the two approaches. But she doesn’t mention that many people before this moment have given a lot of thought to this very blend, from John Dewey to educational psychologist Lee Shulman. For that fact, with the exception of two paragraphs on the Normal School and early schools of education, there is a historical and cultural flatness to the discussion of teaching. One gets the sense that teaching is strictly a technical pursuit. There is no mention of the other factors that contribute to good teaching, from value systems to a love of the subject. Nor is there a reflection of the long and rich discussion of teaching that, in the West alone, goes back to Plato.

I’m not laying the blame for this narrow treatment on Ms. Greene, for she is rendering a current big buzz – though I wish she would have been a bit more critical of it. The sad thing is that we have come to this place where influential school reformers and policy makers conceive of building a better teacher in such mechanistic terms. This is our new common sense about teaching and learning.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A New Book: Why School?

I just had a new book come out, Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us. The book is a series of thirteen interrelated essays with an introduction and conclusion. In it, I try to bring the topics of my work over the last thirty years to bear on educational policy in our time.

Below, I reprint the Preface and Table of Contents.

I would sure appreciate it if you spread the word. 

Introduction: Why School?

1. In Search of a Fresh Language of Schooling
2. Finding Our Way: The Experience of Education
3. No Child Left Behind and the Spirit of Democratic Education
4. Business Goes to School
5. Reflections on Intelligence in the Workplace and the Schoolhouse
6. On Values, Work, and Opportunity
7. Standards, Teaching, Learning
8. Remediation at the University
9. Re-mediating Remediation
10. Politics and Knowledge
11. Soldiers in the Classroom
12. A Language of Hope
13. Finding the Public Good Through the Details of Classroom Life

Conclusion: The Journey Back and Forward


Why School? comes from a professional lifetime in classrooms, creating and running educational programs, teaching and researching, writing and thinking about education and human development. It offers a series of appeals for big-hearted social policy and an embrace of the ideals of democratic education – from the way we define and structure opportunity to the way we respond to a child adding a column of numbers. Collectively, the chapters provide a bountiful vision of human potential, illustrated through the schoolhouse, the work place, and the community.

We need such appeals, I think, because we have lost our way.

We live in an anxious age and seek our grounding, our assurances in ways that don’t satisfy our longing—that, in fact, make things worse. We’ve lost hope in the public sphere and grab at private solutions, which undercut the sharing of obligation and risk and keep us scrambling for individual advantage. We’ve narrowed the purpose of schooling to economic competitiveness, our kids becoming economic indicators. We’ve reduced our definition of human development and achievement – that miraculous growth of intelligence, sensibility, and the discovery of the world – to a test score. Though we pride ourselves as a nation of opportunity and a second chance, our social policies have become terribly ungenerous. We rush to embrace the new – in work, in goods, in the language we use to describe our problems—yet long for tradition, for craft, for the touch of earth, wood, another hand.

We do live in uncertain and unsettling times, but one can imagine all sorts of responses, and we have been taking—and have been led to take—those that are fear-based, inhumane, less than noble. We yearn for more and as a society deserve better. This yearning was one of the forces that drove the election of Barack Obama.

My hope is that the contents of this book in some small way contribute to a reinvigorated discussion of why we educate in America, maybe through a particular story, maybe because of information I can provide from my own teaching and research, maybe from a perspective that provides a different way to see.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

One More Round on Non-Traditional College Students: Teaching Matters

Sparked by the article in the June Atlantic Monthly, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” my last three entries on this blog have dealt with teaching non-traditional college students and, more specifically, with teaching literature and remedial writing. Readers responded with close to 35 comments, many of them long, all of them thoughtful. Collectively, they contained assignments and techniques, anecdotes drawn from personal and professional experience, educational philosophies and thoughts about the social order. In sum, they contained a great deal of the wisdom of the classroom.

I want to dwell on that on-the-ground wisdom, for we don’t get much of it in policy deliberations about remediation in college or about education in general. And, as I wrote in a previous entry, we tend to get a pretty dreary and dispiriting rendering of non-traditional students and remediation in the media. Witness the Atlantic Monthly article.

So let’s go to the readers’ comments.

They display a commitment to teaching (some from people new to the game, others in it for more than thirty years) and an affinity for writing, books, literacy. Together, the writers of these comments offer a wealth of suggestions on authors to use and how to use them, on assignments and the sequencing of assignments, on ways to play back and forth between speech and written text and among and across books and stories from very different times and places. Reading these suggestions – some of which are embedded in descriptions of teaching – you get a feel for the intellectual sizzle of these teachers’ classrooms.

Related to the above is a refreshing discussion of culture, teaching, and learning that emerges in the collective comments. The writers sometimes disagree with each other, but in the aggregate you read people thinking hard about how to understand and honor the complex cultural backgrounds of their students while not reductively defining them by those backgrounds alone.

So, too, there is a rich discussion of social class and education. There is mention of economics and who gets what kind of education, both before and during college, the funding, the resources available. And there is a good deal of discussion about the toll some students’ class backgrounds have taken on their current levels of skill. But this poor academic preparation is not a cognitive prison house, and the writers offer powerful testimony to the achievements of underprepared students, given the right conditions. (This general issue of social class and achievement is an especially important one to me, and I plan to devote a future entry to it.)

It was interesting how many writers speculate about the likely education of the author of the Atlantic article. Professor X’s discontent might well originate in his own graduate study in English, study that typically includes little serious training in teaching, particularly teaching literature to a wide sweep of humanity. Such narrow graduate education will affect the kinds of intellectual relationships a teacher is able to foster.

And I was struck by – and savored – the feel for teaching you get reading these thirty-plus comments. The detail ranges from the specific technique and strategy (reading a paragraph from “Araby” in multiple voices), to long-haul reflection on the purpose of education, to the pleasures of the work itself. “I love to pull my teaching cart out into the dark, smelling the trees and flowers that are now only shadows,” writes a community college instructor, “knowing that I and my students are tired from doing something worthwhile.”

Some of the students in the courses taught by these teachers will struggle and not do well – though I’d bet those students will be treated with dignity and with an eye toward their future development. And some students will do just fine, and from the comments we get a sense of their resilience and ability. We also get a sense of teaching as a subtle and humane art.

All of this takes us back inside the basement of the Ivory Tower and enables us to rethink what might go on in that basement and, for that fact, how the basement might be closer – might be made closer – to the rest of the tower itself.