Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Research Papers vs Blogs: Defending "Antiquated" Teaching from 21st Century Education Reform

Here is the guest post I mentioned earlier today, from Cedar Riener, a college professor of psychology who normally blogs at Cedar's Digest:

Cathy Davidson is making the rounds again in the education blogosphere. A few years ago, she gave up on grading, structuring her classes around peer review. Each assignment was graded by peers (pass/fail) and the final grade was determined by the number of assignments completed. Now she is promoting her new book Now You See It, which, as I see it, is an effort to apply Dan Simons' and Christopher Chabris' Invisible Gorilla to... well, everything. But the edu-blogsphere is all a-twitter through Virginia Heffernan's post on the NYT about how Davidson shows that education needs a 21st Century upgrade, because 65% of our students are going to have jobs that don't exist yet:
"One of the nation’s great digital minds, she has written an immensely enjoyable omni-manifesto that’s officially about the brain science of attention. But the book also challenges nearly every assumption about American education."

With the limited scope of a blog post, Heffernan starts blindfolding and lining up these poor assumptions on the wall. The first is... the antiquated 19th century research paper. Which, is always a reliable old scarecrow to shoot to shreds as you are speculating on the wonders of the 21st century jobs and skills.

Once the stage is set, Davidson points out that students are prolific publishers, only they blog. When they are forced to write a solitary, industrial age research paper, their hearts aren't in it, and they are awful:

“Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.”

Some aren't buying what Heffernan is selling.

Kathleen Porter-Magee from the reformy Fordham Institute, points out that if we can't predict the future, we might as well prepare students for rigorous, evidence-based reasoning:
"Regardless of what is the hip new medium, we do our students a grave disservice by pretending that pithy diatribes or observational blog posts are on the same level as more thoughtful, well-developed arguments, grounded in evidence derived from texts, with clear theses that come from something other than their personal feelings."

Robert Pondiscio adds a delightfully snarky reply, beginning by pointing out that "65% of future jobs" is a silly Potemkin number and continuing on about the ridiculousness of the 21st Century skills movement that Davidson seems to be a part of. He highlights the inconvenient fact that no one assigns research papers any more, and reiterates his point that rich factual knowledge is necessary for reasoning of any sort:
"We talk about rigor and academic achievement while dismissing the legitimate products of scholarship as inauthentic and anachronistic."

As a college professor who assigns and supervises both real research papers (I make students write them in industrial age chairs with broken typewriters, naturally) as well as short responses that might as well be blog entries.

First, the distinction between research papers and blogs is largely meaningless. Do we mean brief? Then say "short form writing." Do we mean talky, informal? Then say, "informal writing." Do we mean collaborative? Then say "collaborative." I often feel that people use "blog" as a shorthand for "everything that is good about the internet" while opponents use it as a shorthand for "everything that is bad about the internet." The vague distinction as Heffernan uses it, and as adopted by Porter-Magee and Pondiscio does not help. Research papers, in my field at least, are most often incredibly collaborative, and sometimes brief. Blogs can be solitary affairs, as well as informed by a rich scholarly knowledge of the field, even if that field happens to be side-scrolling video games made in the 1980s for left-handed suburban thirteen-year-olds.

With that caveat, let me just lay out why I think both "research papers" (by which I mean: long-form, formal, describing a consensus of scholarly literature, organized around the author's own thesis) and "blogs" (short, informal, current, multimedia, collaborative) are important for a complete education, at any level. I will give examples from college, but I have no doubt many K-12 teachers could describe their experiences with using both.

Any conception of the goals of education must include both breadth and depth. Students should learn a bit of everything, even those subjects they are not naturally drawn to. Students should also have the freedom to follow their interests, and experience mastery through sustained practice and background knowledge. What does this have to do with blogs and research papers? I think it might help if I gave a few examples from my own teaching.

A "Blog" Assignment

Short-form, collaborative writing is suitable for a quick dip into many different subjects. In my General Psychology class, I assign three very short papers (1-2 pages), as well as more frequent short responses to the class material. The first short paper is a summary and response to a TED talk video. This might as well be a blog post (perhaps Davidson thinks that peer-review and collaboration are the key ingredients, but I'll get to that later). I give students a fair amount of choice about which video they write on, and the TED talks are, as everyone knows, fun, interesting, and only fifteen minutes long.

Why is this assignment awesome? Students are given choice, but also must choose, demonstrating some interest in one of the videos. They learn interesting psychology content, their curiosity is aroused, and they get the practice of putting some of their thoughts on paper. They get some practice at the struggle of writers everywhere (bloggers and scholars alike) to put themselves in the minds of their reader, and organize their thoughts to be understood by someone else.

Why does this assignment suck? Students do not do well on these assignments. Why not? The first reason is that they don't know enough: their vocabularies are often limited and they have limited scientific knowledge, and even more limited psychology knowledge. As accessible as the TED talks are, they suppose some broad liberal-artsy knowledge, and some of my students don't have enough (yet). The second reason is that they have not had much practice writing (really in any format) yet, and they are understandably bad at it. There are several structural changes in K-12 that discourage practice writing. High stakes standardized testing pushes teachers to teach "testing skills" and large class sizes increase the already high time commitment necessary to give feedback to all students.

So, to recap: to be better writers, students need knowledge and practice. That knowledge has to start somewhere, and writing is a good way to learn something. I try to encourage students to accumulate a bit of knowledge as they gain practice writing. I try to make the knowledge gathering interesting and the writing practice as painless as possible, but painful enough to make it clear that they need more practice. That means low grades on writing assignments, more drafts, that means meeting them where they are, and helping them to the next stop. If that means helping them realize that they need topic sentences for each of their paragraphs, then I help them with that. If that means their sentences are too long, overly wordy and the passive voice is adopted too often in their well-meaning efforts to sound formal and scientific then I point that out to them.
If they need help writing brief and direct sentences, I patiently urge them to make their sentences active.

I suppose I could make this assignment peer-reviewed, on a collaborative blog, but I resist for the same reason my father refuses to display his high school students' English papers on the walls in his classroom. Real feedback on their writing means someone telling them some hard truths:
You are a conscientious student, and you have tried your best, but you don't know how to do this yet. I know you are not satisfied with your evaluation, but let's look to the future, you can turn this back in, and here are the next steps you need to take to improve. I feel confident that you can do this, but you will need to work hard.

If you can imagine an eighteen-year-old college freshman saying that to another 18-year-old, you have a livelier imagination than I do. This simply will not happen on a collaborative blog. Further, although they may collaborate to reach a deeper truth, as James Surowiecki points out in his Wisdom of Crowds, and others have pointed out more recently, crowds are only wise when there is a diversity of knowledge and of perspectives. Despite some racial, ethnic and class diversity, most everyone in my classes are eighteen to twenty years old, and know very little about psychology. They are only going to be but of so much help to one other.

A Research Paper

After students have had General Psychology, Research Methods in Psychology (which I do not currently teach) as well as my Sensation and Perception, I find a select few still interested enough to take a class called Sensation and Perception Research and Theoretical Systems, or S&P RATS. Psychology majors at Randolph-Macon are required to take two of these "RATS" classes, in which they conduct a research project and write it up. The research paper is a formal, APA-style research paper, with the requisite sections of a scientific journal article: introduction, method, results, discussion. How 19th century of us!

Why is this assignment awesome? By now students (juniors and seniors) have some knowledge, and some practice writing. They know some psychology, they have been taught some statistical tests, and they even have some limited background in sensation and perception. They get to apply that knowledge, design a scientific experiment, and see it through over the course of the semester. They will learn first hand what science really is through actually doing it. They will learn how scientists communicate, by struggling to express their methods so that someone might reproduce them, and their results so that they can be interpreted. Through writing a report on an experiment they conducted, on a topic of their choosing (okay, with a few nudges) students experience the second side of our university system, not the transfer of knowledge through teaching and learning, but the creation of new knowledge through scholarly research. They must explore what other people have written on this topic (and realize how much research has been done already). They may not exactly create any new knowledge themselves, but they see what sorts of long, painful efforts are necessary to add another grain of sand to our castle of knowledge. Perhaps in the future scientists may communicate through blog posts (some do in the present, see Rosie Redfield on arsenic life). But the assignment's value is the same: this is how scientists communicate, these are the critical elements of an experiment, this is how we separate the experimental methods and the data from the interpretation.

Why does this assignment suck? Most of these students will not become scientists, but through this assignment they learn first-hand what science really is: repeated, soul-sucking failure punctuated by brief moments of relief. They will learn how scientists communicate, in rigid, impersonal format, like an OCD's desktop, everything in its place. NO! You cannot say why you wanted that to happen in the results section! Nein! The participants section does not include your experimental groups! I think this is valuable, and I know they will eventually find useful the habits of mind demanded by my field. But some (not all) don't find it all that interesting or valuable in the moment. Further, even though they do have more knowledge than they did as entering students, they still do not have enough knowledge to fully understand a scientific journal article. In short, some students struggle.

What does any of this have to do with K-12 reform?

First, these are exactly the conversations that K-12 teachers should be able to have about their assignments and courses, and are actively discouraged from having by the current reform scheme. Unfortunately, the "thoughtful, well-developed arguments, grounded in evidence derived from texts, with clear theses" that Porter-Magee and Pondiscio value fall by the wayside when everyone has to teach basic math and reading skills to be accountable to standardized tests. The ability to do a research paper in high school depends on knowledge and interest gained throughout a students schooling. When curriculum is driven by test-based accountability, it undermines teachers efforts to develop practical wisdom.

Second, it affects what students can do once they get to college. Faculty at my institution have noticed a decrease in students' proficiency in writing since the advent of the Standards of Learning in Virginia. These high stakes tests push teachers away from writing, and towards test prep, and we college teachers notice. The worst part about it is that while accountability falls hardest on teachers in urban high-poverty settings, intended to decrease the achievement gap, what I see in college is a widening of the gap. Those who went to private schools or who had teachers who were able to bypass the SOLs are more equipped to write at the college level than those who didn't, and the testing and accountability craze is widening this gap.

Finally, education is a long game. This is true for a teacher like myself, having an internal dialogue as above, trying to gradually improve my craft, fitting it better for my students, but it is also true for the students. Some of the things I do in general psychology for enjoyment in the moment (like candy) but other things are for payoff down the road, like brushing and flossing. The same is true for research papers. The capability to write with depth and rigor in a field must be cultivated over years and years, by content-rich curriculum to give students background knowledge, and by practice in writing that is nearly impossible to assess cheaply with bubble tests, or by underpaid graduate students.

Accountability through high-stakes, standardized, multiple choice tests narrows administrators and teachers attention on those aspects of student learning that can be easily measured in a single year. Emphasis on practicing writing or developing a broad base of knowledge may not be reflected at the end of the year, just as my efforts in General Psychology may not bear fruit until four years later. Education is incremental, but it is not always measurably so.

Gentle reader, are you still here? Thanks for bearing with me for a blog post the length of a research paper (if not the focus). I have two take-home messages:

First, college professors like myself should realize that their teaching is being changed for the worse by standardized testing. The brains in our classrooms are shaped by the SOLs just as much as they are shaped by Google, and we have to clean up the mess. Many more students come in unprepared for writing at a college level, but also unprepared to focus and apply their own interests to a topic. Naturally, I believe the best place to realize their interests and gain that preparation is a small liberal arts college, where people like me have a passion for teaching as well as the time and support to focus on a lower number of students, and follow them for 3-4 years.

Second, I would remind those educational "conservatives" like those at the Fordham Institute who championed Core Knowledge when E.D. Hirsch was derided for his traditionalism, and now rise to the defense of the research paper that I appreciate that your right hand is fighting hard to preserve valuable aspects of the "industrial model" of education: broad factual knowledge and rigorous arguments based on legitimate, scholarly authorities. Unfortunately, you don't realize that the true enemy of these cherished elements of education is ... your left hand, which is pursuing awful test-based accountability. The research paper was in hiding and on life support long before Cathy Davidson came along, and it was not driven mortally wounded from K-12 education by blog cheerleaders like Heffernan and Davidson, but by the very Reformy Idols that you celebrate.

Accountability for what?

I will soon put up a guest post in response to Virginia Heffernan's recent New York Times op-ed about "archaic" learning tools and products such as research papers. Thinking about this, as well as about Robert Pondiscio and Kathleen Porter-Magee's smart responses, I woke up this morning with the question: Accountability for what? in my head.

Part of what I was trying to demonstrate in my guest post on the Core Knowledge blog, which was inspired by this post by Robert Pondiscio, is that the accountability structures (which frankly, Pondiscio says are needed--UPDATE: See Robert's clarification below--and which Porter-Magee's colleagues at Fordham advocate vigorously for) are driving what is taught and how it is taught. If accountability structures are based on high-stakes math and reading tests, then that's what's going to be taught. This is actually quite a traditional concept in education, that you look at the assessment (what you want students to know and to be able to do) and you work backwards from it. So if reading and math skills are what we want educators and schools to be accountable for on a yearly basis, that's what they're going to teach. Research papers? Not so much. Complex, whole-class novels? Not so much. Science experiments, civics debates, the arts, and foreign languages? Not so much. Supporting experienced, knowledgeable teachers (evil LIFO!) with institutional memory and knowledge of their content and content-related essential skills who are more likely to be skeptical of and to resist edu-fads such as 21st century silliness? Not. So. Much.

Some might counter: Well, that's why we need better and more tests. Okay, that's a start, in a way. That's what we have in Virginia: science and social studies standardized tests, as well as art SOLs. But let's see what the students are actually learning about science and social studies; let's see what they graduate high school with. As Chris Dovi shows us here (and as my guest blogger will show) it ain't pretty. The way to educate ourselves out of this high-stakes testing hole is not by giving more questionable high-stakes tests.

Some might counter, well, that's what the Common Core is for. Okay, that, too, is a start. But who's to say the content of the Common Core is rich and meaningful or that it makes for developmentally appropriate instruction and content? Andrew Porter disagrees on the first count and at least many elementary school teachers I've heard from disagree on the second count. (And we're not even freaking piloting the CC first!!!)

Unfortunately, the cart has been put before the horse and is getting further and further away, gaining momentum as it rolls down the hill. And guess what? It's empty. And all of those who cheered it along need to own that.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Viable ed policy? Yes. But let's design it for people, not outcomes.

During the recent SOS March & National Call to Action event in DC, Mike Klonsky presented the idea of an SOS think/do tank. This is a fantastic idea--we need to present both policy critiques and alternatives, in addition to taking political action.

This was also very timely in light of a discussion that has had the blogosphere aflutter for the past few weeks. I am not qualified to comment too extensively on it with my limited background in political theory (I could barely follow it, save Kevin Drum’s contribution and I only have but so much patience for theoretical bullshitting even if it's really smart bullshitting), but it seems that it’s essentially an argument about theory versus action, and policy versus politics. Some seem to be saying, as much as they might wish otherwise, that given our current political system, there’s no real political solution for achieving progressive goals. Others counter that this amounts to an abdication of truly progressive ideals. If you're interested in reading more about this, posts (with great links!) by Erik Kain and his thoughtful and well-read co-bloggers at The League Ordinary Gentlemen are a great place to start, in part because they're politically unaffiliated.

I had been heretofore staunchly anti-neo-liberal, as I dismissed it as conservatism in progressive packaging, but I've come to realize that: a) it's not that simple, b) their stance on education reform is ideological, not a power grab--they are true believers c) there's generally more common ground than I had realized, for example on matters such as gay rights and tax policy. That being said, I am still not in the camp of let’s do neoliberalism even though it sucks because it’s the best thing around.

In this context, wonky Education Week blogger and DFER board member Sarah Mead endorses the same technocratic, neo-liberal solution for education reform that Matt Yglesias offers those searching for the next best progressive hope, charging with a similar version of edu-nihilism that Yglesias often does anyone who might disagree with her. She says:
"This all sounds to me a lot like contemporary education policy debates: Education reformers put forward a series of-yes, let's be honest-largely technocratic and market-minded strategies to try to make our public education system work better to serve the needs of students, and to increase the supply of higher-performing schools and teachers. Critics counter that these policies can't possibly fix the problems they're purported to solve-mediocre overall performance and glaring student achievement gaps-because they don't address the underlying causes of economic inequality, poverty, inadequate health care, broken families, etc. (It's worth noting that 'neoliberal' is frequently a term of derision directed at the education reform movement by its foes.) No one, to my knowledge honestly disputes that those issues are real problems that do impact the outcomes of educational systems. The problem is that critics of education reform also don't put forward any compelling and remotely viable proposals to solve the problems they argue must be solved before we can improve school performance [even if we embarked on a massive campaign of economic redistribution--assuming that's possible and designed in a way that doesn't create other problems--does anyone think that fix mental health issues or ensure that all kids have 'good' parents?]. Nor do they offer any alternative strategy for, in the absence of such sweeping and improbable solutions, getting the best we can out of our public schools given current realities. Essentially, they're offering an argument for throwing up our hands and saying 'tough cookies, kids,' to the tens of millions of low-income American schoolchildren who have only an 8% chance of ever earning a college diploma."

Later she offered a similar, if more jarringly catty, critique that was specifically aimed at the SOS March & National Call to Action where she accuses its participants of demanding a "pony."

Besides assuring Ms. Mead that we have no interest in taking her pony, to these sentiments, I'd say that yes, there are certainly a few lefties who say that we can’t fix education until we fix poverty. When people retort, well then go work to remedy poverty and get out of education, they have a point. Poverty exists, learning disabilities exist, English Language Learners exist, trauma exists, and aliteracy and illiteracy exists; yet, we must still work to best educate our nation's children. Once we are all honest about our exaggerations (and really, we should either abandon them or get out of the conversation), then we can sit down and talk about the in-school and systemic solutions.

At the same time, education policies and practices don't exist in a vacuum--economic, housing, and social policies all affect educational outcomes and affect how education policy works. Though many of the neo-reformers have come around to admitting that poverty affects how students do in school, some do continue, indeed, to say poverty doesn't affect student performance. Furthermore, plenty of us who are sympathetic to the SOS movement acknowledge the role education can play in alleviating poverty, but we want reformers to recognize the deep and profound effects of the income gap on the achievement gaps. Teachers and education alone can not end poverty.

There is a place for technocratic and policy-oriented actors and solutions, but just because the neo-liberal ed policies are "viable," i.e., they can be implemented, doesn't mean they work to improve the quality of education in our schools. In fact, many of those policies, including high-stakes testing, higher pay for higher test scores, and an unrelenting focus on practices of public education systems' human resources departments haven't worked. Among other flawed initiatives, the accountability structures they push undermine the basic tenets of quality education: solid pedagogy and rich and meaningful curriculum. You can't expect a three- or even two-star meal if you're using a McDonald's model.

Furthermore, no matter how nicely and wonkishly you say it, saying, there’s my solution and there’s non-viable ones is just another way of saying, my way or the highway. Just because people like Mead are convinced of the efficacy of the policies that they endorse, doesn't mean that there aren't, in fact, other "remotely viable" policy alternatives. True, most teachers want to have a conversation about best practices and pedagogy (how to teach) and about curriculum (what to teach). Beyond that, to say that people like me or like any of the Accomplished California Teachers or like Diane Ravitch or like John Thompson or like Nancy Flanagan or like Jose Vilson or like Linda Darling Hammond or like Mike Rose or like Sabrina Stevens Shupe or like any number of education experts and practitioners have proposed no viable solutions and are:
throwing up our hands and saying 'tough cookies, kids,' to the tens of millions of low-income American schoolchildren who have only an 8% chance of ever earning a college diploma" 
is insulting and it's lazy. If you pay any attention at all, you know that most of us are asking for policy that encourages good practice or at least doesn’t harm it. And there are policy-oriented organizations out there that most of us endorse. To name a few there's the Economic Policy Institute, NEPC (National Education Policy Center), The Albert Shanker Institute, and The Century Foundation. (UPDATE: I can't believe I forgot   School Finance 101!)

But as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in series of posts ("Our Technocratic Overlords") about gentrification in DC, there are actual human beings behind all of those charts and numbers with actual thoughts, feelings, and knowledge of their own. Coates says here
"The bugbear of reformers has long been an inability to see humanity in the actual humans they would have reformed." 
In the next post on the topic he reminds us that, 
"Policy without politics is an abstraction. This is a feature of democracy, not a bug." 
Finally, here he talks about how his experiences as a journalist have shaped him as a writer to consider the human beings behind the numbers:
"Looking back on this, the thing that strikes is the importance of journalism. I think it's really easy to become the sort of writer who reads reports from Brookings and analyzes charts and graphs, without ever having to talk to the people captured in the numbers. People are scary in a way that think tanks are not."
TNC put words to exactly what I find so problematic with a strictly technocratic approach: The technocrats and policy analysts such as Mead and Ygelsias refuse to consider what the policies they endorse actually do in schools and how they affect the practices of educators and the experiences of the students. The poor practices those policies cause is what motivated many of the practitioners and parents (the very people Mead denigrates and mocks) to get involved in the SOS March. The technocrats have become too hung up on being technically right, on being right according to some set of data or another; if only they were a a bit more hung up on being human.

Neo-liberals like Mead accuse their critics of "magical" thinking. So I say, agreed, we need to bring more policy critiques and alternatives to the forefront. But if they think that paying teachers extra for higher student test scores, getting rid of due process rights for teachers, flooding the system with charter schools, offering vouchers, and believing blindly in the free market is going to somehow lift "tens of millions of low-income American school children" into college and out of poverty, then I'd say they've got a magical wand problem of their own to consider. Lastly, no policy solution can work without consideration of the perspectives of those on the ground, of the very people those policies affect. Otherwise we are left with wonks insisting that their graphs and charts and clipboards represent a deeper truth than the actual experience of thousands of teachers, administrators, parents and students. 

Friday, August 5, 2011

Want to read my full remarks to CNN regarding the SOS March?

Today, my perspective (as well as those of Sabrina Stevens Shupe and Amy Valens) on the SOS March & National Call to Action was featured in a article by Sam Chaltain. I'm famous! (hahaha)

I was honored when he told me about the project and asked if I would answer some questions. Of course, he couldn't possibly include my responses in their entirety, especially since as you've probably noticed, brevity isn't exactly one of my talents.

Sam did a fantastic job of editing and consolidating my remarks, but in case anyone's interested in any elaboration, I wanted to share here my remarks in their entirety:

1.  What were the main reasons that brought you to DC?

As a former (and hopefully future) public school teacher and current public school parent, I am disillusioned with most of the education policies that are part of NCLB and RTTT. These policies encourage and incentivize poor practice and they narrow curricula. These policies have failed to improve the quality of education, to meaningfully reform systems in need of reform. Dysfunction and inconsistent practice in schools and systems targeted by these policies has been replaced by dysfunctional and ideological rigidity and consistency of poor practice (or what I like to call a McDonald’s-alization of public education)—that’s not progress, it’s just another version of bad.

I grew up in DC proper with activist parents who were both civil rights lawyers. We regularly went to marches, parades, and protests and talked about politics and social justice issues. My mother spent her law career involved in civil rights as it relates to public education. My parents both attended public schools and universities. My sister and I attended the DC Public Schools.  Both of my parents have intellectual leanings. I guess you could say I was born into a religion of civic activism and public education.

As such, I also deeply value our American public democratic institutions and don’t see evidence right now that President Obama and Arne Duncan share that. I believe that right now we have a real crisis, perhaps the largest issue of this era, of democracy. A healthy, vibrant American democracy cannot exist alongside the plutocracy that is rapidly developing in our country. In order to maintain our democracy, we have an obligation to participate in it. A patriotic citizen is a critical, informed, and active citizen who holds their political leaders accountable and pushes them to be responsive to the people they represent and lead. I was marching because I care about our country and I care about our public institutions, especially about public schools. (In case you didn’t guess, I was a Social Studies teacher.)

2.  Did the march fulfill your expectations?

I thought it was a powerful, inspiring event. I was glad to hear of the SOS protests and events in state capitols, but I would have liked to have seen more people at the main event in DC, especially from nearby states. I live relatively close to DC and close to my state capitol. That means I have an obligation as a citizen to take advantage of my proximity to political power and to decision makers. Why were there not more public education stakeholders there from DC, Maryland, and Virginia? This goes back to the concept that a strong American democracy requires an informed, active, and critical citizenry (I’d also add educated!).

3. What needs to happen next?

I think we all need to look at the SOS March & National Call to Action’s “Guiding Principles” and then think about how we can work to maintain and promote those principles given the educational systems and political realities that exist in our individual states and local communities. Some of us may even find we need to re-consider or add to some of those principles. We’re all affected by NCLB, but beyond that we need to act locally and partner with our local decision makers, educators, and community members.  Quality public education isn’t an ideological concept; it’s an American and democratic concept.

While continuing the political activism, we also really need to focus on policy critiques and on advocating for concrete and viable policy alternatives--I can't stress enough the importance of this.

4. Based on your experiences, what does the ideal learning environment look like—and require?

Honestly, I try to avoid thinking in terms of “ideal” worlds, as there’s a thin line between ideal and fantasy, but I’ll take a stab at talking about what I think are the important aspects of a healthy but realistic learning environment. 

I think we have to start with what we value in education, what we think the goals of education should be.  What does it mean to be an educated American? I define an educated American as: having a broad and meaningful base of content knowledge, including currently neglected subjects of social studies, science, the arts, and foreign language; having competency in basic skills, complemented eventually by the beginnings of mastery in some chosen subjects; and as having a curiosity and a love of learning.

How do we design our learning environments to reflect those goals? First, encourage rich and broad curricula. Second, encourage dedicated practice. Third, give teachers enough freedom and independence to cultivate curiosity and love of learning in their own classrooms. Fourth, optimize or improve teaching and learning conditions for teachers and students.

Such an environment should be knowledge-based, pedagogically sound and appropriate, as well as evidence-based. This means having a varied, content-rich curriculum, using the best but also the most appropriate teaching practices, and at least considering the social-emotional development of children as well as their intellectual development. The environment should be orderly and ethical, but completely free of rigidity.

A fruitful learning environment also depends on strong and caring, but professional and appropriate, relationships between educators and students. A good teacher-student relationship can fit many molds, but there should be a connection and the student should be able to trust and respect their teachers and vice-versa. Furthermore, knowledge of students' educational background, aspirations, and family situation (without, of course, overstepping boundaries or violating students' privacy) can really help to inform teaching. In turn, educators should be well-educated, supported, and trusted by their colleagues and their supervisors. While I did mention “evidence-based” before, I also think that both teachers and students need some room to experiment, to make mistakes, to fail, even. It is from mistakes and failure as well as from successes that we learn and grow. 

I think some education leaders have done a real disservice to the improvement of teaching and learning by trying to quantify it to the extent they have. At the same time, I don’t agree that teaching is entirely an art. Rather, it’s a craft that one gets better at with practice, consideration of evidence, further learning, and experience. A healthy learning environment is led by such practitioners.

Finally, while standardized tests can give us useful information, a fertile leaning environment is one that does not equate quality teaching and student achievement with standardized test scores. When people do that, they set the bar way too low for too many of our students. In focusing on standardized-test expressed “achievement” our decision and policy makers have forgotten the significance of curiosity and have forgotten the human drive to explore, build, create, and interrogate. Certainly, most knowledge is not innate and must be taught, but curiosity, creativity, and inquiry are all part of the human spirit. Such qualities are key to learning and teaching. Unfortunately, our current education policies and education reform strategies do little to promote acquisition of meaningful knowledge or to nurture those qualities and arguably do much to hamper them.

5. Why did you leave teaching?

I wouldn't say I left teaching, but I did take a break from K-12 public school teaching for two reasons: 

1) I was wasting far too much of my and my students' time trying to please the testing and data collection gods rather than providing the education I describe above. 

2) I had young children and eventually felt I wasn't being the teacher or parent I wanted or needed to be.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Read my guest post at The Core Knowledge Blog

I am very excited to announce my guest blogging debut at The Core Knowledge Blog. My post is about how, in my experience, NCLB-induced pressure as well as misconceptions about how children develop literacy skills cause educators to teach reading skills and teach to reading tests while leaving content-rich curricula by the wayside.

There are many great writers and thinkers featured there and I'm a bit nervous about not holding up very well alongside them . . . Here's a link to the post.