Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Democracy is a learning theory.

This is cross-posted from my own blog, Technopaideia, because it seems relevant to Education Policy Blog as well. -Craig

If you ask most Americans about the meaning of democracy, you will likely hear the response: “Democracy is when everyone gets a vote.” You might also hear about representative government, “one man, one vote,” or something about elections of executive, legislative, or judicial authorities. The American public thinks that democracy is the political system that the American revolutionaries fought England for—replacing its monarchy with our constitutional “democracy,” and why the United States has been the “leader of the free” world since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. A more sophisticated American will tell you, following Abraham Lincoln, that democracy is government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” suggesting that there is more to democracy than a particular mode of conducting elections.

Etymologically, “democracy” in ancient Greek meant rule by the “demos,” or "people," implying the possibility of participation in “rule” by “regular people,” rather than by the elite, as in an aristocracy or oligarchy. It strongly implies that no particular social class (at least not free white men above a particular age who own property) has any greater right to participation than any other. If we acknowledge that “participation” means more than just voting for elected officials—activities such as actual service in community organizations and political campaigns, on school boards, and in public discussions through newspapers, talk radio, blogs, and other media—you begin to get a sense that democracy doesn’t refer simply to a form of government or a political system but to a type of society.

A democratic society is a society in which each person has an equal opportunity to reach his or her potential. The great American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) explored this deeper meaning in much of his work, most notably Democracy and Education (1916). According to Dewey, democracy is “more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience” (Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:93). For Dewey, who believed that experience is, in a sense, everything, to communicate experience “conjointly,” or through mutual and dynamic participation by all, was to share in experience and thereby to share in growth, or an individual and society progression towards personal and social fulfillment, or the good life.

Democracy, then, is shared progression by all people—all people, not just free white men over a certain age with property—towards the good life, both as individuals and as a society. This progression happens because of conjoint communicated experience. To put it differently, society progresses through communication, which is—in essence—educative:

Not only is social life identical with communication, but all communication (and hence all genuine social life) is educative. To be a recipient of a communication is to have an enlarged and changed experience....The experience has to be formulated in order to be communicated. To formulate requires getting outside of it, seeing it as another would see it, considering what points of contact it has with the life of another so that it may be got into such form that he can appreciate its meaning. Except in dealing with commonplaces and catch phrases one has to assimilate, imaginatively, something of another's experience in order to tell him intelligently of one's own experience. All communication is like art. It may be fairly said, therefore, that any social arrangement that remains vitally social, or vitally shared, is educative to those who participate in it. Only when it becomes cast in a mold and runs in a routine way does it lose its educative power. (Democracy and Education, 1916; MW 9:8-9)

The implication of this line of thinking is that democracy is not only a form of government, or a mode of social living, but essentially a broad conception of education as the movement of individuals and societies forward, towards….well, towards something better. Dewey believes that the ultimate ends of such movement cannot be determined in advance—that goods, like other objects of experience, are continually reconstructed in the light of ever-changing experience. Since each new experience carries with it the possibility of new insights, knowledge, skills, or attitudes, each new experience contains within it the possibility of new conceptions of goods, new capacities for attainment, and new conceptions of how best to support such attainment by a greater number of persons within the society. Thus, experience for Dewey is inherently progressive…and an education that conduces to progressive experience is inherently democratic.

(By the way, this suggests a new way of looking at the particular role of democracy in the United States. Dewey writes: “An American democracy can serve the world only as it demonstrates in the conduct of its own life the efficacy of plural, partial, and experimental methods in securing and maintaining an ever-increasing release of the powers of human nature, in service of a freedom which is cooperative and a cooperation which is voluntary” Freedom and Culture, 1939; LW 13: 187.)

Further inquiry into the forms of education that are most conducive to “an ever-increasing release of the powers of human nature in service of … freedom” reveals that education can no longer be a simple matter of transmitting the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of the older generation to the younger. Democratic education cannot be static—it cannot serve to limit the young or bind them unnecessarily to traditional ways of seeing and doing. Of course, it also cannot be completely disconnected from tradition…for tradition represents, in some form, the accumulated experience and wisdom of the society. So democratic education must both open access to stored knowledge and wisdom and—at the same time—develop the capacity among the young for critique of that tradition through inquiry, experimentation, and imagination of new ideals and the means for securing them.

It turns out that democratic education is considerably more difficult than a form of education that seeks primarily to induct the young into the ways of the old. Dewey spent considerable efforts during his career to try to outline the principles and methods of democratic education, and remained frustrated that many readers of his works seemed unable to escape the tired dualism of an education that is primarily grounded in tradition and one which is primarily aiming to free the myriad possibilities of each child. The best education, Dewey argued, would take account of both the curriculum—taken from the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of intellectual and social tradition—and the child, with his or her creativity, fresh perspective, and lively imagination.

It is important to understand how Dewey’s concept of democracy connects with this nuanced and hard-to-achieve conception of education. Education cannot be considered apart from the conditions of associated living in the society, and such conditions cannot be considered separate from education. Life rooted in “conjoint communicated experience” is inherently educative; young people in a democracy inevitably grow to become participants in shared activities and shared governance; and schools—as institutions explicitly designed to further education—must necessarily be continuously redesigned to serve—and reflect—democracy.

This isn’t the time or place to inquire further into what schools that serve and reflect democracy look like—nor shall I get drawn too far into the criticisms this particular perspective offers educational policies such as No Child Left Behind (for such analysis, see the Education Policy Blog which I participate in separately from Technopaideia). Rather, this summary of the relationship between democracy and education is designed to provide some background for understanding a sentence I heard at the recent American Educational Research Association annual meeting in New York City (March 24-28). The occasion was a symposium sponsored by the John Dewey Society (JDS) called “Cloistered Scholars and Community-School Engagement.” JDS president Jim Garrison put the panel together to further his notion—shared by others including the JDS Commission on Social Issues, on which I serve—that if scholars paying attention to Dewey’s works wish to do more than talk amongst themselves about arcane issues in the history of philosophy, but wish to further Dewey’s democratic vision in the real world, then they need to find ways to engage publicly in their local schools and communities.

Speaking on the panel were several scholars with impressive credentials not only in scholarship but in public service. Each put their comments in the context of ways in which university scholars can engage in activities which support democratic schools and societies. Mary John O’Hair, associate provost at the University of Oklahoma, described the K-20 project, which aims to link the university closely with schools throughout the state to foster higher quality curriculum and instruction. Derrick P. Alridge, history professor at the University of Georgia, talked about some little-known activities of African-American philosopher and activist W.E.B. Dubois involving the formation of a “People’s College” at Clark University in Atlanta in the 1940s. Carl D. Glickman, professor of educational leadership at the University of Georgia, talked about his career working in various projects related to school improvement, emphasizing the role that generalists can play in bringing together experts from diverse disciplines to work on complex problems often not effectively addressed through the kinds of universal policy prescriptions that emerge from state and federal legislatures or departments of education. Glickman was the one who said, almost in passing, that “Democracy is a learning theory,” which has become the title of this post and on which I will have more to say in a moment.

Perhaps the most interesting speaker on the panel, for me, was Ira Harkavy, who is co-author of a book (wth John L. Puckett and Lee Benson) entitled Dewey's Dream: Universities and Democracies in an Age of Education Reform. According to that book, Dewey’s dream of participatory democracy cannot be realized without the full and conscious participation of schools from preschool to university level, with a special need for universities—which both train the teachers at other levels and set the expectations and content for the curriculum at all levels—to take the lead. This vision, of energizing and transforming schools through the active participation of universities, was one that Dewey took from the first president of the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper, after Dewey arrived in Chicago in 1894. Dewey took Harper’s idea and gave it a philosophical depth, and also connected it to Jane Addams' idea of schools as community centers. However, when Dewey left Chicago in 1905 and joined the faculty of Columbia University, he abandoned this vision, and turned away from using schools to foster democracy. Harkavy believes that this was a major mistake, and not only contributed to Dewey’s slide into irrelevance in terms of American educational practice, but also to the deterioration of American democracy as well.

Harkavy issued a call to arms for all American scholars to focus at least some of their efforts on promoting democracy in American society. His call is a compelling one. According to Harkavy, the problem of fostering participatory democracy in the United States and in the world at large is the “most singularly urgent” problem of our times, and is related to war and peace, terrorism, violence, and poverty, among other issues. It is also one of the most difficult to solve. Since it is so difficult to solve, working towards a solution will inevitably require new ways of thinking and working that will require new approaches to academic disciplines such as political science, sociology, psychology, public health, and education. And, as most academics know, the most difficult problems to solve are also likely to be the most rewarding to solve: not only in terms of solving a big problem but in terms of the collateral learning that results.

Indeed, according to Harakvy and Dewey, working to solve real and urgent problems is also the best way to learn about the world at large. This is one of the major ideas behind the expansion of the service learning approach to education, and is also at the root of problem-based and inquiry-based learning.

Harkavy described some of the efforts of the University of Pennsylvania to foster participatory democracy by helping the local community schools build curriculum focused on local community problems. By focusing on local problems instead of a seemingly irrelevant or generic curriculum, schools encourage students to become knowledge creators and problem solvers rather than passive recipients of knowledge and, what’s more, they become truly schools of the community, providing both the means and the motivation for parents and other members of the local community to become involved in the schools. Universities, Harkavy said, are the one institution most positioned to support these efforts in schools, since universities tend to endure through changing political times and despite funding variations, and universities have the expertise to help solve problems of all sorts. And, since universities have students—and students learn best by working to solve problems—universities have a natural workforce for helping local schools.

The biggest challenge both for schools and for universities is finding ways to connect the core academic mission of these institutions to the local problems. More effort needs to be devoted to this task. It doesn’t do merely to have students at all levels talk about local problems. Academic expertise, disciplinary skills, and scholarly dispositions must be fostered and leveraged through the changed curriculum. But through engagement in the processes of participatory democracy, students become immersed in participatory learning. In this way, democracy itself becomes an approach to learning.

Carl Glickman had one very specific suggestion for how university instructors can become more democratic in the way they teach, and foster more and better democratic participation. After three classes in each course he teaches, he takes time out to ask the students to discuss among themselves how the course is helping them, and what he, as the instructor, can do to make the course more relevant to their needs and concerns. Most students are surprised that an instructor is taking time to listen to what they feel they need, but it definitely helps his courses improve. The idea, according to Glickman, is to become better at listening to those whose lives are different from our own. By doing so, we move beyond seeing people in terms of single categories and come to see that each person’s perspective is unique, and complex, and that there are many different ways to come to terms with one’s own experience….but that coming to understand the experiences of others helps broaden our own understanding and helps us to learn from each other. Through paying closer attention to fostering better communication with the people around us, we can better participate in their lives, and in the solutions of their problems, thus strengthening local democratic practice at the same time. The main idea is that learning is a matter of making connections between various ideas, and that such connections are more likely with heightened communication among different perspectives, and that as such learning occurs, democracy is strengthened at the same time.

In this way, Glickman tells us, democracy is a learning theory. Learning theories are “attempts to describe how people learn, thereby helping us understand the inherently complex process of learning.” According to this theory, learning is inherently social, participatory, based on the communication of different perspectives, and active. Understood in this way, learning and democracy are simply two sides of the same coin, both leading towards, as I wrote above, the good life.

To the extent that universities can overcome their traditional isolation from daily life…and their traditional “ivory tower” mentality towards their local communities and the concerns of local people…they may find their own missions as centers of learning to be re-energized, and, at the same time, do some good for their own students, faculty, and staff, and for the world at large.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Series on Community Organizing at OpenLeft.com

For those who are interested, I have been writing a weekly series on "Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing" at the blog Open Left, which they have kindly been promoting to the front page. Some of these are rewrites and expansions of posts that appeared here earlier, and others are and will be new. I'll cross-post them when they seem most relevant to educators, but I think the Open Left audience is more likely to be open to broader discussions of organizing in general.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Taking on Teacher Education III

I didn't want to cut off the lively discussion about NCLB -- whose ox is getting gored and who is complicit in its consequences, both intended and unintended. But that conversation is slowing some and I want to talk one last time during April about teacher education in particular. I'll focus on the third of the questions that I raised early on: Are the people responsible for teacher education doing the job?

There are numerous individuals (e.g. the Washington Post's Jay Mathews) and blue ribbon panels (e.g. the one headed by former Teachers College President Art Levine) who are inclined to say that "Ed Schools" are presently responsible and they are simply not doing the job. Art Levine goes so far as to call teacher education "unruly and chaotic." This will not be a defense of ed schools. Criticisms of teacher education are too often warranted. Still I want to think a bit about the question of who is currently responsible for teacher education.

Responsibility in its richest sense implies the prospective ability to respond to challenges. Accountability, on the other hand, is linked to the kind of retrospective judgment that assigns blame. In the case of teacher education, I think ed schools carry accountability without responsibility. Let me explain.

As I suggested in my last post, teacher knowing is dynamic and contextual. It involves different kinds of claims (logical, cultural, pedagogical and professional) on different bodies of knowledge (their subject field, the liberal arts generally, popular culture, the social science of teaching, learning and interaction) in the context of practice. And they make those claims out of their own understanding of (or way of being) social self and teacher. This means that the education of teachers cannot possibly occur solely in ed schools. Nor can it occur solely in colleges and universities. Some phases of teacher education (more now that we have easy access to web video and other technologies that make case study possible at a distance from P-12 schools) can well occur in ed schools. Some phases must (and do currently) occur in liberal arts colleges. But significant portions of the education of teachers can only occur in practice contexts, in practice contexts where the value commitments of all are transparent and open to discussion.

This means that responsibility for teacher education is already located in P-12 schools (with responsibility shared by teachers and their unions and administration) and in liberal arts colleges and in ed schools. It seems curious to me that we would only hold ed schools accountable.

So why are ed schools nominally in charge? There's a long history there, the story of normal schools and their development into/absorption into universities, a story that's still being told at my normal school turned university where the glee that we have risen above our teacher education roots to become a liberal arts school is palpable. Teacher education is low status, partly because there's still a tinge of "women's work" associated with it. Accountability has been dumped on ed schools without the economic resources and the authority to marshal intellectual resources and the resources of practice. Teacher unions and school administrators and liberal arts deans all say "not my job."

So folks in schools of ed fool themselves into thinking that 18 year old university students can become 22 year old mature teachers by sitting in classrooms first listening to us talk about Piaget or No Child Left Behind or reading in the content area and then going into the schools to "apply" what we've told them. Do we really think that can work?

There's been lots of talk about teacher "career ladders" over the past two decades, but that talk comes and goes without changing a reality – that a teacher's responsibility is as great the day he or she enters a classroom (at 22!) as it is the day he or she retires (post-55). The idea that we have truly "educated" a teacher by 22 seems ludicrous. Holding ed schools accountable for what's not happening also seems ludicrous.

There have been significant efforts to bring the domain of practice, the liberal arts and the ed researchers together with respect to teacher education. The move to create professional development schools is significant. The Project 30 initiative, funded and sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation in the late 80s was another. But these efforts – because they are limited to certain institutions, often research institutions with small, "boutique" teacher ed programs -- don't begin to address the deep and growing need for teachers. And rarely are teacher unions significant players in the effort.

Some have argued for a 4+1 approach to teacher education. That is, let future teachers earn a liberal arts bachelor degree before diving into professional study. I have never been a fan of this proposal because of the way I think about the knowledge of teachers. I will gain more from my academic study if I have a pedagogical intention – and at least minimal opportunity to ply the pedagogical trade – while I'm trying to make sense out of that subject matter. I can learn it – and learn it more effectively – if I'm thinking about how to teach this subject matter to some group of students. So I think it does make sense to integrate professional ideas and sensibilities with intellectual study.

I'm also not a big fan of five year undergraduate programs. Those programs insure that teachers will be 23 instead of 22 when they accept accountability in the classroom, but it's not enough. And we need people in classrooms now. And those novices need real formation in practice on site, formation guided by master teacher/mentors.

So "teacher education" isn't a four-year effort and it isn't an ed school responsibility.

Here's what I'd do if I were the Queen of the education universe: Those who want to be teachers – at any level – earn a bachelors degree in a discipline (about 1/3 of their study) with a strong general education component (about ¼ of their study), and take "pre-ed" studies (ed psych, social foundations and philosophy, assessment and inquiry, developmental psych, learning theory and student difference, pedagogy seminars linked to liberal arts courses that help them students of teaching and learning, linked to time in schools). They graduate with the option to go into or away from "ed school".

But "ed school" cannot be a university place though it can and should involve partnership with a university. Ed school has to be an institution unto itself, akin to a teaching hospital – run by teachers unions in collaboration with university-affiliated educator/researchers and permeated with reflection on teaching as intrinsically relational, as a moral craft. (I'm thinking about what happened to med schools after the Flexner Report when the AMA stepped up to take control – and exert quality control.) In my imagination, ed school is a three year program with increasing levels of responsibility and compensation. First years eke out a "Peace Corps" type existence as they learn practice through integrated work and case-based study. Second and third years earn a modest salary (say $20-25K) as they work under the direction of a master teacher who is responsible for collaborative planning. Only then are they ready to be sent out with primary responsibility for a classroom of students.

My proposal is "unrealistic," of course. I get that. It would require a restructuring of schools and their financing, a refocusing by teachers unions, the creation of a range of roles in some schools, the ones that devote themselves to being "teaching and learning schools." But isn't there something appealing about the idea? Until educators at all levels make common cause around the education of their peers, teacher education will remain "chaotic and unruly."

And by the way, that might be the answer to the fourth question that I posed originally but won't have time to answer this April: In what kinds of schools can talented, well-educated teachers be most successful? In schools where they and their students (including future teachers) are teaching and learning all the time.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

New Report on "Democracy at Risk"

Today the Forum for Education and Democracy released an important new report on the 25th anniversary of the release of "A Nation at Risk." Entitled "Democracy at Risk: The Need for a New Federal Role in Education," the report--written by Linda Darling-Hammond, George Wood, Beth Glenn, Carl Glickman, Wendy D. Puriefoy, Sharon Robinson, Judith Browne-Dianis, John Goodlad, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Deborah Meier, Larry Myatt, Pedro Noguera, Nancy Sizer, Ted Sizer, and Angela Valenzuela--argues strenuously for a new approach to education at the Federal level.

The authors write:

"We do not provide equal access to a high-quality education to every child in this nation. And even though we have made strides in this direction, we have miles to go before this task is complete. There is a pressing need to redesign our schools to meet the demands of a global 21st century society in which knowledge and technology are changing at a breath-taking pace, and new forms of education are essential for individual and societal survival. Yet, our current policy strategies are constraining rather than enabling the educational innovation our school system needs. Indeed, the path we are pursuing promises to leave our schools, as well as our children, behind."

While the report notes that some innovations have been fostered "on the margins," such as the New Technology High School in Sacramento, California, the overall approach has been to maintain "a compliance-andcontrol regulatory approach that holds the bulk of the system in place, trapping most schools within the constraints of a factory model designed a century ago for another purpose."

The report specifically attacks the No Child Left Behind approach that uses "compliance checklists" instead of true reform initiatives. "Rather than providing access to new programs, technologies, and supports that could dramatically change schools and communities, the law has been managed in ways that push schools back to out-of-date notions of learning and stifle the use of new technologies."

[One example of the ways that NCLB stifles the use of new technologies is the ways in which it forces many schools--particularly those with high numbers of poor and minority children--to focus the curriculum exclusively on "drill" in so-called "basic skills," rather than the type of higher-order thinking tasks and inquiry-based problem solving that new technologies foster.]

The report cites statistics showing that reading improvement under NCLB has been slower than before the law was enacted, that high school graduation rates have started to decline again, that pverty rates among children in the US are the highest in the industrialized world, that the US ranking on international tests has plummeted, that "trust" and "community involvement" among people in the US is in rapid decline, and that increased expenditures on the prison system have far out-paced increases in spending on education.

The report draws a link between the poor quality of education in the US and the poor quality of democracy:

"The challenge is clear: Improving education and improving democracy go hand in hand. We need to build upon the natural curiosity of children to help them make sense of the world. We need to arm them with the knowledge and skills, as well as the resourcefulness and inventiveness, that will be required to invent solutions to tomorrow’s problems. We need to give them the tools to live their lives respectfully and collaboratively with others, building communities that can tackle the challenges that lie ahead. We must think of education as more than a collection of standardized tests if we are to reverse the decline of democracy and create a stronger fabric for “We, the people” among the next generation of citizens."

The report lays out four major priorities that a new Federal policy on education should include:

Federal Priority #1: Pay Off the Educational Debt
  • Link federal education support to state progress toward opportunity to learn
  • Meet the federal obligation for funding programs for students with special needs
  • Invest in high-quality pre-school and health care that enable students to come to school ready to learn.
Federal Priority #2: Develop a World-Class Cadre of Skilled Educators
  • Create incentives for recruiting teachers to high-need fields and locations.
  • Strengthen teachers’ preparation by focusing on how to teach diverse
  • learners, evaluating teacher performance, and creating professional development schools.
  • Launch teaching residency programs in high-need communities.
  • Support mentoring for all beginning teachers.
  • Create sustained, practice-based, collegial learning opportunities for teachers.
  • Develop teaching careers that reward, develop, and share expertise.
  • Mount a major initiative to prepare and support expert school leaders.
Federal Priority #3: Support Educational Research, Development, and Innovation
  • Document and disseminate promising practices.
  • Invest in the development of higher quality standards and assessments for genuine accountability.
  • Develop data bases, shared measures, and tools to advance educational practice.
Federal Priority #4:Engaging Local Communities
  • Foster family engagement in school life and school improvement.
  • Provide for genuine community involvement in school improvement processes.
  • Place schools at the center of community education.
You can obtain a copy of the full report here.

Monday, April 21, 2008

GET OUT YOUR POM-POMS: PREP ASSEMBLY

As a retired NEA member, I get their monthly Works4Me e-newsletter, a cheery little number usually dedicated to small, homey tips and tricks for making a classroom run more smoothly—items on the order of inexpensive (but cute!) bulletins boards and what to do when those darned kids forget their pencils.

I skim W4M because I want to know what’s important to teachers, what they care deeply about—enough to share with a million of their colleagues. The well-established gap between practice and policy is usually on full display, but I hold out hope, every month, that Works4Me will feature a hard-hitting column on six ways to retain promising novice colleagues, or a creative lesson on inspiring civic awareness and responsibility in high school juniors. But no.

This month’s Works4Me left me slack-jawed, however. The lead article was titled “Peppy Test Prep.” Quoting:

"We have a pep assembly for the third and fourth graders a couple of days before standardized testing starts. Two teachers pretend they are cheerleaders and shake pompoms as they give a ‘pep’ talk about doing a good job on the tests, getting a good night's rest, etc. We have three teachers sit in desks and pretend to be examples of how not to take the test. One keeps turning around and bothering his neighbor, one cries, and one is not paying attention to directions.”

If I had any doubt about the piece being legitimate, the use of the phrase “bothering his neighbor” was pure teacher-speak. This was the real deal, sent from a teacher in South Dakota, who felt that a good dose of, unh, pep was the ticket to raising student achievement, and was generously sharing some bright ideas on effective ways to boost those all-important scores:

“Another teacher is showing the ‘right’ way to take the test. Breakfast is provided for the students and the teachers/helpers on testing mornings. We also borrow an archway from the local hardware store and put Christmas lights on it with a sign that says, ‘Entering Testing Zone’. We set it up in the hallway that leads to the third and fourth grade rooms. The lights are on whenever we are testing."

There’s a disclaimer from the NEA printed on the page—they’re just providing space for their members to “share” (and soliciting advertisers to pay for that space). Still—showcasing a member who feels that putting up the third grade equivalent of prom decorations and offering a special full breakfast on testing days is the right way to prepare kids for the rigors of standardized testing seems more than a little schizophrenic to me.

I live in union country. And I know that many—maybe most—of my teaching colleagues are marginally interested in the state and federal policies that shape their work. I understand--they’re busy. But blanket testing of kids beginning in the third grade has a major impact on the instructional cycle, curriculum development and resource distribution. We need a more thoughtful response than a pep assembly.

How about organizing members to demand that tests mandated by NCLB be spaced throughout the school year to minimize disruption to the instructional flow and actually assess progress? Why not lobby for teams of third grade teachers to write the tests, to ensure their alignment to reasonable but challenging third-grade skills and knowledge? And if a good breakfast makes such a difference in academic success, why isn’t the NEA sending out articles on rallying the community to feed kids every morning?

Monthly Forum: What should teachers know and be able to do?

She had imagined that she knew the material on Thoreau and Emerson almost by heart, that preparations for these first lectures would be easy, but she soon discovered that knowing something and teaching it are as different as dreaming and waking.
May Sarton
The Small Room


This is the second in my April series of musings about teacher education. Thanks to all who commented after the first post about whether one can be taught to teach well. Today's question: what must teachers know and be able to do?

This is the usual way of phrasing the curriculum question. The usual answer to the knowledge part of the question is some listing that includes subject matter content, teaching methods, knowledge about students (their development, motivations/interests and cultural backgrounds, and understanding of the contexts of teaching. The usual answer to the skills part of the question might list planning instructional units and lessons, managing classrooms, connecting with kids, differentiating instruction for students with special needs, selecting/creating instructional materials, etc. NCATE has added "dispositions" – the tendency to act in ways that might be characterized as professional -- to the mix.

Let's think for a minute about the epistemic assumptions that underlay this answer. How do we have to imagine knowledge for this answer to make sense?

The simple response is that knowledge comes in the form of items that can be stored and listed in columns. Planning for teaching involves choosing one from Column A (some piece of content), one from Column B (a "method"), and one (or more) from Column C (representing student profiles), and one from Column D (based on the resources of my location). The act of instruction requires that I paste this all together and make sense of it, somehow both managing students and motivating them to want to learn while being sure to meet the needs of each and every individual.

This may be the way that beginning teachers – whose knowledge is often "thin" -- operate but it clearly is not the way that experts proceed. As I suggested before, expert teachers engage in an ongoing cycle of interpretation and response, trying to make sense out of the experience of students in light of the goals (academic standards) society sets out for them. Think with me about a concrete example.

It is the second week in September and I plan to mark "Constitution Day" with my seventh grade social studies students next week. I don't know them well yet but I know a little something about them. I know, for example that seventh graders are no longer the youngest students in my middle school and will test me more that six graders would. I'm not confident that they "get" our classroom routines yet. I know that each of my four classes has a particular character, one chattier than another, one more willing to engage with ideas than the others. I know that Constitution Day can be a "snooze" But that my students have a fierce sense of what is fair and not fair. I know that fewer than half of them have any real sense of what the Constitution is but that most of them read well. I know that I know and care the most about the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment. I remember watching the HBO special "John Adams," admiring Charles Willson Peale's portrait of George Washington, reading The Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson, and loving the thoughtfulness of The Federalist Papers. Would those sources help me? Our social studies text is a World Cultures book that barely makes it to the Renaissance. Given what I know, what shall I do?

Before imagining the process of answering this question, ponder for a minute how we might categorize the "knowledge" above. Which column and box does each bit occupy? Is it easily categorizable? I would argue no. Most of teachers' viable knowledge emerges in lived experience, in what we later label the "intersections" of categories content and method or child and curriculum. In other words, knowledge arises and is warranted as a function of action and only later is classified in a way that wrenches it away from the terms of experience that give it meaning. It is the categories of knowledge that are the later reconstructions; the act of knowing is primary.

If this is accurate, how can we ask and answer the epistemic questions related to teaching?

I really loved the John Adams special and would like to use it somehow. I love the series' focus on the culture of the time and the fact that gender perspectives are spotlighted. But wait, these kids aren't there; it would take me too long to get them into Adams. And anyway, the Constitution isn't the focus of that series. What do I really want them to get out of this? Is there any way I can tie it into what I'm really supposed to be teaching? I know! I'll compile the "constitutions" of several ancient cultures – perhaps the Code of Hammurabi and the Hebrew Covenant along with a "fragmentary" version of the US Constitution, give them to the students without identifying them, and ask them to red them and figure out the differences in the cultures that ordained them – and which culture they would want to live in. We'll see how many of them figure out that one of the documents is their own Constitution. That should open up some discussion about why the Constitution we have is the one we want.

Oh, I can't forget to find a state standard I can cite in my lesson plan … .


Knowledge is a mode of participation, valuable in the degree in which it is effective.
John Dewey


What kind of education would enable a teacher to do the sort of thinking described above? The answer is not a simple function of coverage and courses. Rather, it's a complex constellation of encounters with texts and ideas and students over time. Those encounters involve ways of knowing, of wrestling with text and ideas and students (well, not literally wrestling ☺), that have different purposes. And if we can articulate those purposes, we may generate a conceptual apparatus constructing a teacher education – not teacher training – curriculum.

Teachers make claims on developed bodies of knowledge for logical, pedagogical, cultural, and professional purposes. They make logical claims on their academic disciplines, i.e. they must know the basic outlines of the discipline – its facts and its forms of inquiry -- as an expert; this logical understanding provides credibility within the field though only slight pedagogical power in that students are generally not prepared to "hear" the logically-formulated claims of any discipline. For purposes of teaching real students who don't yet "get" the field, teachers make pedagogical claims on the body of knowledge that they are responsible to teach; i.e. teachers know their subject matter in terms that students can grasp and manipulate. This is what John Dewey called "the pedagogical formulation of subject matter" and what we are now calling "subject matter knowledge for teaching" or "pedagogical content knowledge."

It is often overlooked that teachers have to know more than a single discipline in order to teach that field of study to students; they must know quite a lot about many different domains of formal study and popular culture in order to construct the metaphors and similes (the "It's like … 's) that are the stock-in-trade of good teachers. Thus teachers lay cultural claims to what we call in universities "general education" as well as the everyday education limited only by the constraints of our concept of communication and community.

Finally, teachers make professional claims on the theoretical bodies of knowledge that inform their pedagogical interactions with other persons and with public demands within an educational intention. These include what we call psychology -- especially educational psychology, the social sciences – as formulated among educators as the social foundations of education, curriculum theory, and, recently, assessment theory.

[Caveat: When I use the locution "bodies of knowledge," I mean discourses formed and framed in human interaction; I do not understand bodies of knowledge as sets of true facts that match the world and somehow pre-exist the actual lives of real persons.]

The point of talking about a person's claims on "bodies of knowledge" that are the discursive residue of past personal experience is to keep the focus on action, to understand knowledge-in-use (ideas/skills embedded in action) as the premier focus in framing teacher education.

If we think about teacher knowledge in this way, how might it reshape our attempts to educate teachers?

First, I think it explains why an academic major does matter but is not enough to ground effective teaching. I need to "know my stuff" if my students (and their parents) are to take me seriously, but knowing my stuff in a way that impresses and knowing my stuff in a way that connects unknowing others to that stuff are not the same claim. We need to find ways for future teachers to think through what they know with both logical and pedagogical intentions in mind.

Second, it explains why general education – not just the kind that universities provide but also the kind that media and culture and human interaction provide -- is not a luxury but an integral piece in the puzzle of teacher education. This may also explain why older persons often seem better prepared for teaching. They simply have greater experience to which they can lay cultural claim as an entrĂ©e to stimulating students' motivation.

Third, it makes clear that the theoretical studies that are often part of certification requirements are not included for theoretical purposes. They are included for professional purposes. Whatever experiences are made available and/or required, those experiences must include grist for the mill of professional reflection on practice.

Fourth, note that these claims sidestep what is normally considered an integral part of learning to teach: methods courses. Teaching is, as Alan Tom and others have argued, a craft, one that incorporates intelligence and habit. Teaching methods are habitual ways of responding, grown from what Dewey calls "the method of intelligence." The schema for understanding teacher knowledge I outline above calls into question the centrality of methods courses as they currently exist.

A teacher's claims (logical, pedagogical, cultural and professional) on bodies of knowledge aren't purely instrumental. They are constrained by one's way of being a teacher and one's way of being in the world. Both ways of being are moral stances and it is here that the moral shapes the educational intention, shapes the academic. Every teacher, whether he or she knows it or not, lives a way of being – partly chosen, partly socialized – as teacher, as human. The claim he or she brings to various knowledges are a function of how the role of teacher is understood relative to the student and social educational imperatives. This is what people often refer to as a teacher's "philosophy of education" but it involves far more than a statement of belief. It involves one's self. Attention to this is a critical facet of "what teachers know and can do."

There is nothing in what I outline here that requires that teacher education continue in its present guise, set in the university with P-12 push-in (what we call field experience.) I raise this question in this way to leave open the possibility that the university is the wrong, or partly inadequate, setting for teacher education – while leaving open the value of a college education generally for those who would be teachers. The question of who should do teacher education and how is the topic of my next installment.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Be a Teacher. You Can Make A Difference.

This is crossposted from Gene Glass's Education Review for whom this was originally written. It was "published" on 4/15, and as copyright holder I can crossposted whereever I choose. I think it is relevant at least in part to some of our recent discussion. It is long, but I hope also useful.

Bigler, Phillip & Bishop, Stephanie. (Eds.) (2007) Be a Teacher, You Can Make a Difference: By America’s Finest Teachers. St. Petersburg, FL: Vandamere Press

Pp. 224 $20 ISBN 0-918339-70-7

Reviewed by Kenneth J. Bernstein




April 15, 2008



Let me begin by quoting from the end of the forward of this interesting book.

Today’s new teachers are facing numerous challenges and obstacles. Indeed, the attrition rate for novice teachers is appalling, but much of this attrition is caused by a sense of isolation or a perceived sense of inadequacy. It is our fondest hope that this book will serve as a source of inspiration and guidance and that it will help new educators become great teachers. We have created a website (www.great-teaching.com) to supplement the chapters in this book. It will serve as a resource where you will find additional materials that will assist you as you begin your career journey as a classroom teacher.
Our ultimate goal in writing Be a Teacher is to celebrate and elevate the teaching profession. It is important that our society recognize the great service that teachers perform, but it likewise important that teachers conduct themselves as true professionals and worthy role models for their students. We honestly believe that you can make a difference through teaching. (p. viii)


Both of the editors are Milken Award winners. Bigler may be the most honored teacher of recent years, having also won one of the now gone Disney American Teacher Awards and having served as the National Teacher of the Year in 1998. All of the teachers selected to participate in this book are themselves award winners, although it is important that the stories they share are not of unbridled or instantaneous success. Twelve teachers, including the two authors, offer their tales. There are also five appendices offering a variety of resources.

Appendix A contains a series of ten Top 10 Lists, such as “Suggestions for a Successful Opening of High School” and the one perhaps most relevant to one of the main concerns of this book, “Ten Ways to Prevent First-Year Burnout.” Each list has a name and school affiliation of the author, although it is not clear how or why they were included in this volume.

Appendix B contains “Twenty-Five Inspirational Quotations about Teachers and Teaching” framing historical figures like John and Abigail Adams, Confucius, John Dewey, and Jefferson, to more contemporary figures like Roger Mudd, Rod Paige and Thomas Payzant. This is followed by a somewhat shorter Appendix C entitled “What is a Great Teacher? The Student Perspective.” The final two appendices are “Must See Movies for Teachers” which lists films intended to inspire, and “Important Resources for Teachers” which includes websites and software that teachers might find useful for preparation and in the classroom. Finally, there is a four-page “Selected Bibliographic Resources for Educators” that is listed separately, after the five appendices.


The individual offerings vary greatly in structure and in content. Given that great teachers are, despite some efforts to accumulate lists of characteristics and thereby attempt to clone them as was scene in the teacher effectiveness movement so visible in the 1980’s, equally varied in what they bring to the classroom, this is actually a positive: it enable readers, perhaps aspiring or beginning teachers, to have a greater probability of encountering material that speaks to them and their condition. To give a sense of what one can draw from the book, I am going to look at parts of the offerings of four of the authors in a bit more detail.

We have material from Gus Teller, who as a “Virginia Teacher of Promise” began with his own classroom in 2005, explores what he gained from is student teaching, and on page 198 tells us:

The first thing I discovered when I actually became a practicing teacher is that I just couldn’t teach. Fortunately during my student teaching experience I had been prepared to multi-task. All of these additional assignments hadn’t been given to us by an evil, arbitrary advisor, but instead they were carefully designed to prepare us for the million different directions we would be pulled while teaching. Additionally by completing my student portfolio, article reviews, and the other aforementioned assignments, I add been forced to reflect and rethink my approach to teaching, which is important for all teachers to do on a regular basis.


The emphasis on reflection and thinking about one’s teaching practice is usually an important part of teaching success. I was fortunate to train as a teacher in a program (at Johns Hopkins) which insisted upon reflective practice so that we would develop the habit of taking the time for it even when buried in the seemingly overwhelming tasks one encounters when one first gets one’s own classroom.

Phil Bigler writes from the experience of looking back at a long period in the classroom. Like many of the authors in the book, does offer a list of key points he wants the reader to consider, each then expanded upon with explanation and illustration. He offers five “rules.” Although These are, in order Thou Shall Change; Thou Shall take Pride in Your Profession; Thou Shall Have Passion; Do What Is Best for Kids; and finally, Don’t Seat the Small Stuff. One quote he offers for the 2nd rule, of taking pride, is quite cogent, and matches the experience I have had with adults who have visited my own classes, which during my 13 years have ranged from 7th through 12 grades. As we read on pp. 82-83

Indeed, to captivate, motivate, and inspire young people is hard and creative work, and, in truth, few people can do this on a daily basis. I have personally seen $400 per hour K Street Lawyers, who are comfortable debating the most intricate and obscure point of law before their peers, quiver in fear in front of a group of 16-year-old students. As Roger Mudd observed in a commentary for the PBS documentary, Learning in America: “From sunup to sundown, the school teachers you have seen tonight work harder than you do – no matter what you do. No calling in our society is more demanding than teaching. No calling in our society is more selfless than teaching. No calling in our society is more central to the vitality of a democracy than teaching.”


This passage reminds the teacher both of the serious of the task before her, as well as provides a context for the pride one should feel in accomplishing it, even if our remuneration as educators never approaches the $400 per hour that K Street lawyer receives!

Bigler, as honored as teacher as he has been, performs an important service on p. 72 by describing his own initial failure as a teacher:

Rather than try to develop my own personal style of teaching, I instead mimicked my own teachers from high school. I stood rigidly anchored to my podium and lectured every day for 45 minutes to the students, sometimes with the assistance of a handwritten transparency displayed on an overhead projector. Periodically, I would break this monotony by showing a 35-mm film from the county’s centralized media repository. One schedule every Friday, I would administer a 25-question, easy-to-grade- multiple choice quiz on the material I had covered. I was content competent, but I was merely conveying information rather than actually teaching. My classes were uninspired and boring; they had become an endurance trial for everybody involved. Fortunately, I quickly realized that something had better change and soon.


Hearing words like these from one who is universally recognized for the inspiring quality of his teaching served as an important challenge in several ways. In context it reminds the reader of the need to develop one’s own style. And what should never be forgotten, many who become great teachers do not start that way – they may struggle, they may feel frustrated, but if one will examine what one is doing, one can go from being the rigid and ineffective teacher which is Bigler’s description of his own beginnings as a teacher to a man who tech his students how to march and wheel as did Civil War soldiers on the actual hallowed ground referred to by Lincoln in his Getttysburg Address.

To help us understand the impact teaching has on lives, Wade Whitehead entitled his chapter “A Legacy of Excellence, My Great Teacher” and tells us about his experience in Miss Sandy Chapman’s kindergarten class. Himself the child of two master teachers, he uses what he has drawn from his experience in Chapman’s class as the basis for a reflection on great teachers. His list of qualities of great teachers includes that they Believe That Every Child Has Talents, Intelligence, and Gifts to Offer; Find Something Likeable in Every Child; Listen to Their Students as Often as They Speak; Make the Student (Not the Teacher and Not the Standards the Center of the Classroom; Know that It Takes a “Fleet” (which he derives from a poem by two brothers who are friends of his, which he offers in its entirety); and Realize That One Size Fits Few. Whitehead describes some of what he does, and why, usually relating it back from the lesson he learned from Miss Chapman (with whom he appears in a picture from 2006 on. 38). I find the final three paragraphs of his offering, which appear on pp, 37-39, offer as cogent a summary of the importance and impact of great teachers as I have seen:

Great teachers create a customized school experience for every one of their learners. They differentiate instruction. They alter schedules. They provide personalized enrichment and remediation. Most importantly, they look at each child as a unique individual with gifts, curiosities, abilities, and potential. They see the development of those strengths as their duty, and they apply themselves exclusively towards it.
The tradition of great teaching has been around as long as teaching itself. Great teachers, like Miss Chapman, will continue to shape the boundaries of the profession and will always push the envelope of achievement. Some have received credit for their efforts, but most have worked for years without any recognition whatsoever. All have been part of a legacy of excellence that manifests itself in a dynamic mix of imagination, discovery, and sharing.
Why do I teach? I have the opportunity to add to the rich legacy built by my parents and the great teachers before me. I have the potential to create, out of the elements around me, that which did not exist before. By acknowledging the great teachers of our time, I hope to ultimately impact the lives of thousands of learners and, possibly, make my own unique contribution to the paradigm of teaching and learning. This is the least I can do, because this is what great teachers, like Miss Chapman, did for me.


The longest offering is by Frank Winstead, and is entitled “Wayside Teaching: In a Place Called School.” He began his own teaching career in the 1960s. and after an opening epigraph describes an incident where he was contacted in 2005 by a student he had taught in 1965 – and whom he immediately recalled – and derives the title of his offering from a piece that appeared in May, 1987 Middle School Journal. Entitled simple “Wayside Teaching,” it was authored by John H. Lounsbury, from whom Winstead derived the epigraph with which he opens his chapter:

One rarely becomes a ‘significant other’ on the basis of actions when formally instructing. It is in relationship developed in wayside teaching that one is most likely to influence the lives of others.


Winstead uses the example of student seeking him out 40 years after being in his classroom to explore the concept of wayside teaching, of the relationships that matter. He remembered David because of his wicked wit among other things. And when his wife told him that David had tracked him down on the internet to tell Winstead he had been his favorite teacher, Winstead acknowledges that a tear came down his cheek. Before exploring further, he tells the tale of man who wrote a letter to express gratitude to at teacher from 3 years before, the author being a distinguished doctor, who received back a handwritten note that his was, for the retired teacher of 50 years to whom it was sent, the first letter of appreciation she had ever received. From this Winstead tells us that he was but 24 when he taught 14 year old David, but interestingly he had carried for more than a decade a photograph of David with another student to remind him that ‘every once in a while, we enjoy bright and shining moments with students that last a lifetime” (p. 43). Winstead had an extensive and warm telephone conversation with his former student, after which he reflected upon it. He writes (p. 44)

Since students forget about80 percent of the material we teach them within a year, he was certainly not calling to express fond memories of studying the Punic wars, the Ottoman Empire, the French Revolution, or the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. David was calling to thank me for providing a classroom experience that featured humor, interaction, warmth, and academic rigor. Many of our students, if only in later years, remember teachers who demanded self-discipline, commitment, and quality workmanship However, I have come to believe that the lasting influence of a teacher are outgrowths of the culture and caring made evident in meaningful relationships and personal experience.
As a young teacher, I did not have a name or term to identify the kind of teaching that helped me create a joyful but productive learning environment. However, even in my youth I had enough wisdom to understand that successful teaching was rooted in building relationships.

Related to this, read this one paragraph from the article from which Winstead derives his title:

Wayside teaching, however, is neither as casual nor as completely accidental as it may appear. Preparation of the heart as well as the Mind has to precede it. If teachers have credence with pupils, they will often seek opportunities to engage students in conversation, and vice versa (p. 47).


Winstead quotes 9 paragraphs of the Lounsbury piece, ending with the passage that appears in the epigraph. He then writes what may be the key parts of his 28 pages:

Teachers, hold on to this concept throughout your career. Do not allow the regulatd conditions of teaching, as difficult as they may be, to case you to abandon what so many students desperately need – a teacher who listens and provides a habitat for meaningful learning in the classroom. Furthermore, never minimize the importance of those opportunities that arise on the school campus for dialogue, as John Lounsbury says “between classes, when walking in the halloos, after school, and in dozens and dozens of one-on-one encounters, however brief. . . .” (p. 47).


There is much more, both in Winstead’s chapter, and in the offerings of other authors. It is clear that all the participants in the volume, from most to least experienced, care deeply about their profession of teaching and about the students who come into their care. The approaches vary, which provides a way for those of many different orientations and even in stage of teaching beyond that for which the volume is primarily intended to make a connection. As I look at my copy of the volume as I complete this review, I have 17 yellow stickies to help me quickly access passages that I though particularly apt. And as I leaf through it I find dozens more where I have underlined and/or made marginal notes. I first read the book almost two months ago, then stepped away to let it sink into me, to see how it connected with my day to day live as a very overburdened classroom teacher now in his 13th year. Having come back to the book, I still find it relevant, and know that in my own beginning having access to a book like this might have helped me maintain my own spirits when I, as did Bigler, struggled to find my footing in my first year. I was fortunate in having other teachers to support me, and a principal who was very understanding and encouraged me to find my own style. All teachers should be so fortunate. Eve absent such a situation, a book like this can serve as a useful resource - perhaps taking time each weekend to read another chapter and reflect on how it connects with one’s own teaching practice.

I would not describe this as a mandatory read. It is a very positive contribution to the literature. No, it is NOT research based, although some of the authors to refer to specific research. It is more than anecdotal, even as it often relies upon the personal anecdote – and that reliance is actually one of the strengths of the volume, as it provides a more meaningful connection with the lessons each author offers. And because it provides a variety of perspectives, the reader should realize that s/he cannot simply emulate another person, but needs to reflect upon what makes sense in one’s own situation and practice. If it does that, if it provides encouragement to those confronted with the sometimes overwhelming nature of life in the classroom for any teacher, especially the novice, it will have served a useful purpose.

The book will also be valuable for those not in the classroom. For those working on educational policy, they should know and understand more of the reality of the lives of teachers, in order to better understand why some approaches will and others will not have a positive effect upon learning. And for parents? Well, perhaps in seeing the variety of approaches offered but the common commitment to students and the professions, you will realize the importance of providing a supportive environment in which such good teaching can take place.

Let me end as I began, by quoting from the end of the preface:

It is important that our society recognize the great service that teachers perform, but it is likewise essential that teachers conduct themselves as true professionals and worthy role models for their students. We honestly believe that you can make difference through teaching.


The book provides the words of a number of such role models, not only for students, but for those of us who also need to be role models for our own students. It is well worth the purchase price and the time spent in engaging with what the teachers therein offer us.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Community Organizing and Schools: It Works (Community Organizing and Urban Education)

I've been off blogging at OpenLeft, I'm afraid. But here are the "key findings" from a new study on community organizing and schools:
Data suggest that organizing is contributing to school-level improvements, particularly in the areas of school–community relationships, parent involvement and engagement, sense of school community and trust, teacher collegiality, and teacher morale. Successful organizing strategies contributed to increased student attendance, improved standardized-test-score performance, and higher graduation rates and college-going aspirations in several sites.

Our findings suggest that organizing efforts are influencing policy and resource distribution at the system level. Officials, school administrators, and teachers in every site reported that community organizing influenced policy and resource decisions to increase equity and build capacity, particularly in historically low-performing schools.

Data indicate that participation in organizing efforts is increasing civic engagement, as well as knowledge and investment in education issues, among adult and youth community members. Young people reported that their involvement in organizing increased their motivation to succeed in school.

Our research suggests that organizing groups achieve these schooling and community impacts through a combination of system-level advocacy, school- or community-based activity, and strategic use of research and data. Continuous and consistent parent, youth, and community engagement produced through community organizing both generates and sustains these improvements.
Does anyone know of any other educational intervention that has these kind of effects? I don't.

Of course, schools of education will probably continue to ignore this. We do teaching. We work inside schools.

The authors of this study have done a lot of really important work on the relationship between organizing and education.

Teaching as craft?

As the launching pad for this short entry, I'm going to use two comments from Barbara's entry last week, both of which argued that teaching is an art. That metaphor is ambiguous, perhaps usefully so, because it implies that there is creativity involved, and that there are also aesthetic norms with which (and against which) teachers work. But sometimes people use the phrase to refer to the improvisational nature of teaching, the thousands of decisions that must be made on the spot that can work beautifully but also often shapes the first phase of a teacher's career into the professional equivalent of hazing (I think that's Linda Darling-Hammond's phrase).

Those who argue over the nature of teaching often are arguing about the appropriate metaphor: are teachers artists, craft workers, intellectuals, technicians, babysitters, ... ? In the long run, I am not sure that the metaphors are that useful. (Then again, I read Howard Becker's Writing for Social Scientists my first year as a grad student, so I may have imbibed a distrust of metaphors from that book.) Instead, I'd argue for a close examination of how teachers make decisions.

There are a variety of ways in which people can and do make decisions, and perhaps one way of looking at teaching is matching up decision-making against these templates, perhaps creating some others, and seeing what is required for each to work successfully. The list below is not an attempt to be comprehensive or even fair:

  • Improvisation. Jazz musicians start with a basic melody that is repeated, and then improvise either a solo or background.
  • Scripting. Actors follow a script that is thoroughly rehearsed (for stage productions) or recorded repeatedly until satisfaction (for television, movies, etc.).
  • Clinical best practices. Medical practitioners diagnose a case and follow best-practice guidelines for making decisions based on data for an individual.
  • Open-source software engineering. Programmers divide tasks into modules, try to make a reasonably-working module available as soon as possible, and then use feedback from the user community to fix bugs, decide on further development, etc.
  • Throwaway sketches. Designers sketch multiple disposable options before anything is produced, subject the ideas behind those sketches to a social critique, and winnow the options down to what is interesting and workable.
Please remember: I'm not proposing additional metaphors but asking you to look at the decision-making involved. How do teachers make decisions, and what is required for different ways of making decisions to be workable/successful/pleasing?

Friday, April 04, 2008

I hope to generate some conversation about teacher education and development this month. So I'll post a "provocation" once a week and welcome comments from member bloggers and guests about this issue of particular interest to me. Right now, I imagine asking the following questions:

1) Can we teach someone to teach?
2) What must teachers know and be able to do?
3) Are the people currently responsible for teacher education doing the job well?
4) In what kinds of schools can talented, well-educated teachers be most successful?

So here goes: Can we teach someone to teach?

I've spent three decades trying to do it, so I guess my answer is yes. But I don't ever want to stop asking the question.

A decade ago at the May commencement in the normal school turned state university at which I educate future teachers and instructional leaders, commentator Andy Rooney was the featured speaker. Partway through a typical Rooney speech, he noted that some 40% of the graduates were receiving education degrees and wondered aloud whether it was possible to teach somebody to teach. He allowed that teaching was both difficult and important. He suggested that "really knowing the subject matter" was the key, but that teaching well was something one came to on one's own with the help of a solid disciplinary education.

Rooney's question is, it seems to me, an important question to answer if the enterprise of teacher education is to flourish – and I'm delighted that Rooney raised it in so blunt and public a way. At the same time, I am well aware that lots of folks aren't too sure that the answer is "yes." Most people would agree with Rooney, I suspect. As long as a teacher "knows his/her stuff" and has the right personality, that teacher will be fine – or so the taken-for-granted wisdom goes. Educating a teacher is a matter of insuring extensive study in an academic discipline and then throwing the candidates into a classroom (we call that student teaching) to see if they can "handle the kids." The NCLB requirements for "highly qualified teachers" seem to want to tilt in this direction.

Teacher educators tend to swing the pendulum in the other direction. They specify a long list of courses (courses that justify their own existence, of course) that a teacher must have taken in order to be a good teacher. That list of courses translates into the "requirements for teacher certification," and includes things like reading in the content area, multicultural education, and methods of teaching some subject matter. When the teacher educators let go, the state regulators step in. In Pennsylvania (my base of operations), we are implementing regulations for 12 new credit hours of study in special education and ESL. With undergraduate prospects for liberal arts education already being squeezed out by professional mandates, prospects for developing teachers who are broadly educated may be diminishing. I'll talk more about what kind of education might push in the direction of teaching that is both effective and inspiring in my next post.

For now, let me say this. I can teach someone to become an excellent teacher if "teaching" implies inspiring, provoking, prompting and coaching. I can shape environments (within college classrooms – liberal arts and professional education, and by placing students in novel school and community setting) so that candidates will inevitably learn to navigate the compelling (and sometimes competing) calls of official curriculum, disciplinary inquiry, time-tested habits of mind, prior knowledge and experience of specific students, the specific data of students' learning, developmental crises and possibilities, cultural and institutional contexts of schools, pedagogical strategies and tactics – all the while making use of what John Dewey refers to as "the method of intelligence." What I can't do is tell them what to do. So if teaching is telling, then the answer is no. We can't tell someone how to teach. But we can give them opportunities to teach, invite them to reflect on what they intended to do and what they did do and what actually happened in the light of accepted theory, time-honored practice, and richly conceptualized research, and we can coach them through this process. In this way, they can be led (in another Dewey locution) "in the direction of what the expert already knows."

Please note that there is nothing in this view that suggests that "anything goes" or that "everyone has their own teaching style" or that the quality of my teaching is independent of what my students learn. Implicit in the process I recommend above, there is a faith that this kind of thoroughgoing inquiry will result in teachers who reconstruct the knowledge of those who have gone before. They reconstruct both in the sense that they come to know – and in the sense that they bring new value, new understanding to what has passed for pedagogical wisdom previously.

Note too that there is no "allergy to prescription," as Michigan Dean Deborah Ball would characterize it, in my formulation of how future teachers learn their craft. There are what Lee Shulman might call "signature pedagogies" for various fields of study. There are "best practices." There are specific pedagogical interventions that have a proven track record. These must be taken seriously, taken on and tested anew in instructional practice. But I can't just tell students to do this or that and expect their actions to translate into rich growth on the part of their students.

Finally, note that our present system of educating teachers – lots of undergraduate teacher education courses sprinkled with early field experiences and capped off with student teaching – doesn't obviously fit the demands of the answer I articulate here. But that will be the topic for another post.

One other provocation for now: Recent studies show that Finland (always at the head of list of countries where schools succeed) recruit only highly talented persons into the teaching profession and then compensate them well. The Woodrow Wilson Foundation seems to be taking that seriously. They recently announced the lucrative Leonore Annenberg Teaching Fellowship Program for "the best and the brightest" who choose to pursue teaching credentials in math and science at the graduate level at four "leading teacher education programs" (Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, University of Virginia, and University of Washington). They also announced a similar program involving four institutions in the state of Indiana. The recipients of the tuition plus $30,000 stipends for the one year certification programs must commit to teaching in disadvantaged high schools for three years. The Foundation has lofty goals:
1) Transform teacher education—not just for Fellows but for the universities that prepare them, other teacher candidates in the same programs, and the high-need schools where they are placed as teachers;

2) Get strong teachers into high-need schools. Indiana has chosen to focus on attracting math and science teachers, though other states may choose different subject areas;

3) Attract the very best candidates to teaching through a fellowship with a well-known name and high visibility, similar to a National Merit Scholarship; and

4) Cut teacher attrition and retain top teachers through intensive clinical preparation and ongoing in-school mentoring, provided by veteran teachers and supported by able principals.


It will be interesting to see what happens with respect to the first and last of these goals. The middle two goals suggest that the best way to get good teachers is to recruit more talented candidates. But talk of "transforming teacher education" and "intensive clinical preparation" have some congruence with the answer I offered above. Of course, one-year graduate level, clinical-intensive programs are not new. I helped design and now teach in a very successful program. The difference is that our students are offered no tuition and stipends of $3000 per semester. Money does make a difference.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

New GI Bill Gaining Support Despite White House and Pentagon Opposition

Cross-posted at Schools Matter

Here are a few facts offered in a Feb. 13 piece from The Hill on a bill offered by Sen. Jim Webb to re-write the GI Bill:
Webb’s bill, which has 32 co-sponsors, would cover the full cost of attending a state university for in-state residents and provide a stipend for living expenses. The benefit is capped at the cost of the most expensive public state college or university. The total cost to the federal treasury is projected at about $2.5 billion per year.

Currently, the most a veteran can receive is approximately $9,600 a year for four years. Those who served combat tours with the National Guard or Reserves are eligible for even less — typically just $440 per month, or $5,280 a year.

By contrast, the College Board reports that the average four-year public college costs more than $65,000, about $16,250 a year, for an in-state student. A private university costs on average about $133,000 for four years.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have relied heavily on the Reserve forces. Webb’s bill would ensure that reservists who served at least two years of active duty would receive the same benefit as the active-duty troops.

Currently, benefits used under the GI Bill count against federal student aid. And there is a 10-year limit on assistance for current educational benefits.

The original GI Bill provided full tuition, housing and living costs for some 8 million veterans.
So what is the source of the opposition to offering this important benefit to veterans, whose educational attainment would be vital, it seems, to our competition in the global economy, yes? According to the Pentagon, which directs the spending of $3 billion every week in Iraq, this new GI Bill proposal is too expensive. And from their perspective, Webb's bill threatens the readiness to conduct war without end (or maybe just a hundred years), which can only be carried out by underpaid, undereducated "volunteers" who do not have viable options beyond the military. (We all know that if we were drafting middle class kids to serve as IED targets in Iraq, this war would have been over a long time ago).

Here is a small piece of the transcript from a News Hour report from Feb. 12 that offers the Pentagon rationale and Webb's common sense response:
Retaining recruits
JOHN MERROW: But there's another issue: Keith Wilson is the director of education service at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Is there a concern that if you raised the benefits dramatically, substantially that men and women would leave the service, go to college?

KEITH WILSON, Department of Veterans Affairs: Potentially that could happen. Then we'd get into a situation of diminishing returns, and we end up potentially losing more people than we would be gaining into the military, which would create potentially a vicious cycle.

SEN. JAMES WEBB: They don't comprehend that if you put a benefit like this one on the table, you're going to broaden your recruitment base, so you're going to have more people attracted to coming in.

KEITH WILSON: We are looking at administering the program as effectively as we can, meeting the congressional intents of the program, and they seem to be working well right now. A lot of people are using the program, more than ever in history.

So to say that it would cover everybody's costs, absolutely not, but it seems to be meeting the needs of more people than ever.

JOHN MERROW: Senator Webb's bill is under consideration in the Congress, but has a long way to go if it's to become law.

The Congress did pass one piece of legislation recently which should please Chris Mettler, who lost his education benefits because he resigned from the Reserves. It allows him and other active-duty reservists and National Guard to receive their benefits even after they leave the service.
So far the Republican War Hero candidate, John McCain, is toeing the White House line in opposition to the bill, even though 51 senators have now joined Jim Webb as co-sponsors of the Bill.

Here's a more recent story from USA Today on where the bill stands this week.