what is teaching anyway? (complicated argument 2)

Yesterday I ranted about politics, the reason being that education is crucial to our continued existence as a semi-democracy. The specter of a fascist, conspiracy-theory driven regime in Washington is so beyond horrifying to me. I noticed today that a group of teachers of the year have broken their own rules about remaining neutral in elections and written a letter denouncing Trump, appearing in the Washington Post. I’m not the only one.

So, the point is, what are we as educators going to do about the apparent inability of citizens to think critically, weigh evidence and apply the lessons of history to the present? This is a matter of urgency, and we don’t have much time to fix it.

I laid responsibility at the feet of teacher education, which is not completely fair. I was reacting to the NYT article about teacher recruitment, which frankly made me angry. What I didn’t say  was that it’s a whole-society problem, and that teacher education is simply a reflection of the culture.

I recently talked to some middle school science students about learning. They had been doing a sequence of learning activities designed to “teach” them about the electromagnetic spectrum. We first explored what happens to light when it travels through a cup of water (with a pencil in it), and what happens to light when it passes through a convex lens.

We physically (by going outside and actually doing it) modeled the tried-and-true marching soldiers demonstration (click here) to think about what happens when light waves pass through a new medium at an angle. We then did an angle of incidence/angle of reflection lab with mirrors, and the students then read about light in their textbook and answered the “section review” questions. They created posters of the electromagnetic spectrum, and finally took a test. They did pretty well.

I had very good reasons for designing the unit the way I did. There was an extended period of exploration of the phenomena in question, so that students would have a deeper understanding of what the textbook abstractions were talking about. We physically modeled the marching soldiers because movement activates the brain and enhances learning. I regretted that I did not have multimedia available in this classroom so that we could explore other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, nor did I as a substitute have a stockroom full of equipment to tap into. Diffraction gratings would have been useful.

The interesting part was the conversation we had about learning when preparing for the test. I made the statement that the students were supposed to learn from the activities we had been doing. Someone said, “You have to teach us!” I immediately replied, “I can’t get inside your head and put knowledge in. You have to think. Learning is your responsibility.”

I reviewed the sequence of activities, and we discussed what had been the point of each. I tried to be explicit. “I’m not going to tell you what to think. You need to make sure you understand the point of each lesson. The learning happens inside your head.”

I’ve written before about students not understanding that the point of learning activities is to learn– in a blog post, “learning through discussion, what does it mean?”My conclusion is that the cultural model of learning, in which teachers tell students what to think, is the perspective through which learners understand classroom activities. They passively wait for the teacher to tell them what will be on the test.

Such a set of assumptions undermines democracy. Our students do not see themselves as anything but passive consumers of information, and not active agents whose job is to think about and determine the truthfulness of what they see and hear.

Spring Valley High School and group-work

Okay, the events at Spring Valley High School are going to hijack the blog a little. I am so saddened by the way that discipline was hablack kidsndled in this case. That is, the case of a teacher managing his or her classroom so poorly that a policeman entered and arrested the student.

The adolescents in the photo are respectfully and interestedly taking part in a science lesson. The lesson was designed to engage students, connect to their lives, and allow them to learn from each other. This happened to have been a high-poverty, rural school, and the students in question were in a low track class.

Getting back to Spring Valley, I’m not really complaining about the violent way the student was thrown to the floor and injured, nor the way in which she defended her personal space by striking out at the person, who happened to be a policeman, who was attempting to drag her out of the seat. I’ve seen this called “punching” on television. That is ludicrous. This event is horrendous. But it begs the question. I’ve been in two schools in the South where policemen came into classrooms and removed African-American youth from the class in full view of all, and without consulting the teacher. This display of authoritarian power is unacceptable.

Don Lemon commented on the air that he doesn’t know the whole story and therefore can’t judge. Fair enough, but why is no one asking, What is going on with our schools that policemen are required to enforce order? This is crazy! And it’s totally unnecessary.

Misbehavior in school increasingly is becoming a criminal offense, resulting in a criminal record for the young person in question. I object to the practice of discipline being enforced by law officers.

As for the connection to group-work, when skillful teachers design engaging and challenging tasks for students, tasks which have some connection to their lives, and which they care about, the need for police intervention is 0. In the case of the girl being arrested for not obeying, there are many unanswered questions. The first is why did the responsible adult, the teacher, not have a relationship with the young person, which would have made calling a policeman unthinkable? It is the teacher’s job to connect with the student. That is the first and most important duty of a teacher.

why group-work is essential for learning



These children are engaged in what developmental psychologist Barbara Rogoff calls “intent participation.” Each group is learning to perform an engineering task with no teacher. The girls at upper left are constructing a book support out of newspapers and masking tape. The other two groups are constructing parachutes out of coffee filters. None of them has been taught how to complete the product. They are learning what they are already doing.

The notion that a teacher, someone with knowledge, must tell learners what they should be thinking is the single most crippling unintended result of Modern European-American style education. Most Americans leave school feeling stupid, because they are unable to figure out what teachers are telling them to think. No wonder American students continue to perform so poorly on measures of problem-solving and critical thinking. If we want children to think for themselves they must have opportunities and encouragement to do so.

I am not, of course, talking about the elite children, those who are able to guess what the teacher is thinking and reproduce it. My experience is that most such children, who get good grades and score high on standardized tests, have a very difficult time performing unstructured tasks that have more than one solution. They wait to be told what to do.

Anyway, if we want self-reliant learners, who can figure things out for themselves, children must work in groups with peers with the guidance of an adult.

More tomorrow about learning in groups…

learning through discussion. what does it mean?

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a week or so. I had occasion recently to visit a student teacher in a 7th grade life science class. The topic for the day was sexual and asexual reproduction. The lesson started out with a Brain Pop video. The plan was for a “class discussion” and then the students would take the Brain Pop quiz.

On the previous day, the students had each been given a handout on a plant or animal that reproduces asexually. I’m not quite sure what was done with the information, although I suspect groups made presentations to the class. At various points in the lesson the teacher asked them to refer back to “their” organism from yesterday.

The participation structure for the discussion followed the recitation script (IRE). The teacher asked questions about what was in the video and asked students to connect that information to the organisms they had researched. She affirmed whether or not the responses were accurate. Actually, not one student was able provide much in the way of a response, in fact, I’m pretty sure that any student who was called on, said, something like, “Um, I, I can’t remember the name of my animal.” The student were directed to look in their “interactive notebooks,” and after several seconds of silence, would say, “Oh yeah, yeast,” or “I can’t pronounce it.”

The students were genuinely trying. It appeared to me that they were not making the connections that were the intention of the lesson plans. The “discussion” involved quite a bit of silence. At this point I decided to step in. The rationale was that students seemed not to have incorporated the research on asexually-reproducing organisms into their watching of the Brain Pop video.

I hope the student teachers I “supervise” are used to me stepping in and modeling when I think it will do some good. I interrupted and asked the students, well a week later I can’t quite remember what I said. But the purpose was for students to provide their personal experiences with observing asexual reproduction. The discussion was lively and covered much ground. As I said to Betsy (pseudonym), the student teacher, afterwards, everyone is interested in sex and reproduction. It isn’t difficult to get a discussion going. Several of the ideas matched concepts from the Brain Pop video, although they were not referred to explicitly.

After 10 minutes, Betsy resumed her lesson plan and the students took the Brain Pop quiz. An overwhelming majority of the students got most of the answers wrong, in spite of the fact that they were designed to assess the very concepts students had volunteered during the class discussion.

Now I’m still thinking about this event. Clearly the students understood the concepts in the discussion and clearly they did not connect them with the formal instruction of the Brain Pop video. I remarked to Betsy that it appeared the students did not understand that the discussion was actually learning.

This has pretty profound implications. I will be writing more about this.