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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Friday, April 24, 2009

Readers Comment on Education Policy and Educational Possibility

It has been quite a while since I’ve responded to the many posts on this blog, and I apologize. My entries during that time included a commentary on the paucity of deep knowledge about teaching and learning in the formation of education policy (“‘Reform,’ ‘Accountability,’ and the Absence of Schoolhouse Knowledge in Education Policy’”), a reflection on cognition and diversity (1/27/09), and a series of portraits of students thinking through a problem: a student taking a standardized test (2/20/09), a novice cabinetmaker (3/5/09), a freshman writing a college essay (3/19/09), and a class of first-graders engaging a science problem (4/3/09). In all, 57 comments were posted by my readers, quite a few on the policy entry and on the college writer.

The portraits of thinking (and I will be presenting more of them in the months to come) are intended to be elaborations of the main ideas in the entries on education policy and on cognition and diversity: 1) the majesty of human cognition and its many manifestations, especially when the environment invites its display and 2) the loss to education policy when this kind of understanding of thinking—particularly as it plays out in teaching and learning—is absent from the development of policy.

Let me begin with the comments on that discussion of education policy and then move on to the portraits.

Several readers expressed pessimism about change in the machinery and substance of policy development, for so many elements of that machinery—from the legislature to think tanks to universities—are invested in the status quo. There are more than a few times when I share this pessimism: when I consider the continued power of reductive testing and accountability models, the absence of new perspectives among the reigning policy elite, the apparent dismissal of classroom wisdom about teaching and learning, the Orwellian distortion of language and history in our current education politics.

But I hold onto the belief—hope, even—that it remains important to articulate as best as we can alternative visions of education policy. To be sure, power politics are at play here; recently we saw that in full display. But, ideas do matter, as a number of readers argued. They called for a rethinking of “accountability” in terms of “improvement,” “visibility,” and “responsibility,” seeking a new language that represents a more multi-layered notion of accountability built on a robust set of ideas about both professional development and about teaching and learning.

The disconcerting thing—here I have to return to that pessimistic view—is that such a move so easily gets characterized in this political environment as the education establishment’s party line and/or, as another reader observed, as teacher union special interest. This sad fact reminds us that though ideas matter, they play out in a charged political environment. I’ve asked this question before, but I’ll ask it of my readers again: How can we get better at the politics of all of this? How do we get the kind of understanding of teaching and learning reflected in those 57 posts into policy formation?

Let me turn now to the comments on the portraits of thinking.

One of the interesting things about the comments was the range of vantage points represented by the writers. Some wrote as students themselves, sitting for multiple-choice tests or currently taking or remembering writing classes. We get a sense from them of what it feels like—the experience—to be on the receiving end of instruction that seems narrow or rigid or distant from one’s own thinking and motives. Some wrote as practitioners of a craft (for example, crocheting), or to pay tribute to a family member skilled in the manual arts. And some wrote as teachers—novice or experienced—and shared stories about educational practices that enhance or restrict students’ expression of mind.

Collectively, these posts provide a number of perspectives, lines of sight, on teaching and learning and on our current educational and social landscape. What is striking is how absent all these perspectives are from so much current education discourse. You won’t find students or teachers at policy deliberations or the public events that issue from them.

The point here is not that perspectives from the classroom should be the only source of information in policy formation, but that without them, education policy will be stunted—as we have been witnessing.

Perspectives from the classroom provide one more related and powerful benefit. They remind us what education is for. The full potential meaning of going to school comes through in the readers’ comments: the human connection, the development of mind, the nurturing of curiosity and creativity, the sense that one is growing, learning to do something new.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Portraits of Thinking: Science In a First-Grade Classroom

Here is a fourth story about cognition in action, a spontaneous science lesson in a first-grade classroom in inner-city Baltimore. For those of you who missed the previous entries where I discuss the purpose of these portraits of thinking, I’ll repeat two introductory paragraphs now. If you did read the earlier entries, you can skip right to the story of Stephanie Terry and her students, which is drawn from Possible Lives.

As I’ve been arguing during the year of this blog’s existence—and for some time before—we tend to think too narrowly about intelligence, and that narrow thinking has affected the way we judge each other, organize work, and define ability and achievement in school. We miss so much.

I hope that the portraits I offer over the next few months illustrate the majesty and surprise of intelligence, its varied manifestations, its subtlety and nuance. The play of mind around us. I hope that collectively the portraits help us think in a richer way about teaching, learning, achievement, and the purpose of education—a richer way than that found in our current national policy and political discourse about school.


As we enter the classroom, teacher Stephanie Terry is reading A House for Hermit Crab to her students. Hermit crabs inhabit empty mollusk shells, and, as they grow, they leave old shells to find bigger ones; in this story a cheery hermit crab searches for a more spacious home. The class has a glass case with five hermit crabs—supplied by Stephanie—and over the year, her students have seen this behavior. The case holds thirteen shells of various sizes, and more than once students noticed that a shell had been abandoned and a new one suddenly animated. As Stephanie reads the book, she pauses and raises broader questions about where the creatures live, and 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 them 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. “Watch the hermit crabs closely,” she says, “while I go to the kitchen. Be ready to tell me what you see.” She runs down the hall to get warm water from the women who prepare the children’s lunches. 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,” adds Miko.

Stephanie gives the crabs a bit longer, then asks five other students to transfer the crabs to the second tub. They do, and within seconds the crabs start to stir. Before long, the crabs are really moving, antennae dipping, legs scratching every which way at the plastic, two of the crabs even crawling over each other. “Okay,” says Stephanie. “What happens in the warm water?” An excited chorus: “They’re moving.” “They’re walking all over.” “They like it.” “They’re happy like the crab in the book.” “Well,” says Stephanie, “What does this suggest about where they like to live?”

That night the students write about the experiment. Many are just learning to write, but Stephanie tells them to write their observations as best as they can, and she will help them develop what they write.

The next day they take turns standing before the class and 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 changes its 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 read their observations, halting at times as they try to figure out what they wrote, sometimes losing track and repeating themselves, but, in soft voice or loud, with a quiet sense of assurance or an unsteady eagerness, reporting on the behavior of the hermit crabs that live against the east wall of their classroom.