Old Wine in New Skins Part 2

Yesterday I didn’t get to the point of the post. Perhaps today.

NGSS and Common Core are grounded in particular assumptions about learning. These assumptions include:
* All people can learn; learning is a characteristic of humans;
* People learn by integrating new knowledge into existing knowledge;
* Asking and seeking to answer questions results in deep learning;
* Formulating arguments and evaluating evidence is more important than knowing facts;
* People learn best when they use all their senses: sight, hearing, touch, movement;
* The public space of the classroom should be used to make students’ thinking explicit rather than for evaluation of correct answers.

These ground rules are in direct and persistent conflict with longstanding practices of schooling. Cultural practices are invisible and largely unconscious. That is their purpose: We don’t have to think about what we’re doing and can concentrate on solving problems and getting our work done.

The longstanding practices of schooling include:
* Learning is a moral issue, that is, “good” people learn what they are supposed to learn;
* People learn by memorizing, and a good learner gives evidence of learning on tests;
* The goal of learning is to the facts the culture has decided are important.
* Everyone is entitled to their own opinion;
* Learning in school is accomplished through reading, writing, listening, and doing math;
* The teacher uses the public space of the classroom to evaluate how students are doing; the unintended consequence is fostering competition.

The point is, because schools are organized according to the practices of the culture, new ideas based on different assumptions are not understood. In other words, changing procedures in schooling does not change the underlying world-view of those participating in it.

Therefore the introduction of NGSS and Common Core, when viewed as procedures, as described by Brandon (in yesterday’s post) are unlikely to result in any change in students’ learning, and will probably make it more difficult for them to learn.

more next week…

So many children…

I’m going to be a little poetic here. By which I mean turning my attention to that which is not tangible.

I have the opportunity right now to work one-on-one with several children. It’s a chance to go back to basics: children want love, acceptance, security. They want to find out about the world, while being respected as valuable. Cliches. And so easy to lose sight of when you are engaging with big issues of school reform, achievement gaps and standardized testing.

I live across the street from an elementary school. Every school day starting about 7:30 the cars start jamming the road. Right next door to our building is a large, usually empty parking lot with signs posted everywhere: No School Parking. People park there anyway, hurry their children out of the car, shepherd them through the tangle of behemoth SUV’s driven by people who patiently or impatiently seek to thread their way through the obstacles of cars and human bodies. By the time the school bell rings at 7:50, things have quieted down, a few stragglers, and by 8:00 all is quiet again until the loudspeaker starts blaring announcements.

I remember announcements; it was an unremarkable feature of school life, just like standing in lines. Socializing children to being managed, to take their places as bodies in the machine where everything is monetized.

What would it take, I wonder, to educate (in the original meaning of the word, “to draw out”) the mass of children? They are, in fact, not the mass, but individuals looking for love. Any good teacher knows this, which is why there is so much resistance to standardization of education. The goal of education is to engage with children in the kinds of relationships that will draw out the beauty of the human soul.

what’s up with this?

How am I going to write about this topic which makes me so very angry? What is it we think we’re doing as educators? This is for real, it affects children’s lives. If teachers don’t do the best for kids, they are harmed, and if a ghetto child gets poor teaching 3 years in a row, well, you know. It’s practically set in stone.

My friend Konny asked me if I would be willing to diagnose reading difficulties of her bookkeeper’s daughter. This isn’t my field of expertise, although I learned some things about literacy in grad school. Plus I taught first grade. So I said I would see if there was anything I could do. I suggested the child bring two books with her, one that was easy for her to read, and one that was difficult.

The girl I will call Jamila arrived at my door, with her mother,  quiet and downcast. I had been expecting an 8 year old, but Jamila is 10. Konny remembered her as a lively, creative, happy child with a wonderful spark.

Well, it quickly became apparent that Jamila could decode but wasn’t comprehending. I did a short reciprocal teaching session and discussed with her mom that Jamila was perfectly smart, she just didn’t know that reading is thinking. The kinds of problems she was having, not reading longer words correctly, was due to her not knowing that the words were supposed to make sense in the sentence, or even that sentences are supposed to make sense. If you don’t know that, then any long word is as good as another. Somehow, her reading instruction in school had missed this point.

Konny saw Jamila shortly thereafter, and the child proudly told her, “I’m not stupid!”

Wow, how many other kids in Jamila’s public school think they’re stupid not because they are, but because their teachers don’t know what they’re doing? These are schools where kids are tested every week, do benchmark tests every 9 weeks. But nobody is teaching.

So that’s what I mean, I’m really really angry about this. We have known about reading as thinking for at least 25 years—this research was done in the 1980’s. What kind of education leads an intelligent 10 year old girl to think she is stupid?

STEM Writing Template

The Common Core Standards call for students to engage in literacy practices across the content areas. I am providing the STEM Writing Template as a model so that students can write to learn science.

The following is a workshop agenda.

STEM Writing Template (Adapted from Keys et. al, (1999:1067-1069) and also Hand, Prain and Wallace (2003:20-22)

The template provides a routine or procedure, a short-cut, if you will. By following the spirit as well as the letter of the template, you will have a classroom routine which supports students’ inquiry learning of STEM subjects.

We will conduct the Jet Straw design activity as if we were a class of K-12 students. As we turn to spaghetti bridge building, we will follow the Teacher Template.

Student Template

1. Beginning ideas – What are my questions?

2. Tests and Experiments – What did I do?

3. Observations – What did I see, hear, smell, feel? (Probably don’t ask students to taste.) How did I measure what I observed?

4. Claims – What can I claim as a result of my observations?

5. Evidence – How do I know? Why am I making these claims?

6. Conferences, Science or Math Talks, Reading and Instruction – How do my ideas compare with other ideas?

7. Reflection – How have my beginning ideas changed?

8. Redesign or Extension – How can I use my new ideas to improve my design (engineering) or investigate something new?

–Hand, Prain & Wallace (2003:21).

Teacher Notes

1. Beginning ideas: Students beginning ideas do not come from thin air, but from their prior experiences. In addition, students should have the opportunity to “mess around” with the materials in order to come up with questions and ideas. It is crucial to the process that the teacher does not tell students what questions they should have. In order to accomplish your learning goals, you choose the materials and task carefully. Direct instruction can occur in Step 6, after the students have had a chance to think about the implications of the activity. When scientists are beginning their investigations, they also use what they already know, and play around to get a feel for what kinds of questions might be interesting.

2. Tests and Experiments: Students will choose how to answer their questions. Because you have provided them with a task, and materials to use the tests students perform will be scaffolded. The teacher’s job is to consult with students to make sure they are designing studies that will answer their questions. You should also encourage students to collect quantitative data, and support them in this process by asking questions. It is crucial to the process that the teacher does not tell students what tests they should carry out. If there are flaws in testing procedures, discuss them in Step 6. The decision about how to design an experiment is part of the creative process of science.

3. Observations: Students will record data in a manner that makes sense to them. It is crucial to the process that the teacher does not tell students how to record data. If students’ data collection is problematic, discuss issues in Step 6. In Step 6 students will discuss the adequacy of designs with one another. On the other hand, this is an excellent point at which to introduce science or mathematics concepts.

4. Claims: This step is likely to be difficult for many students, especially if they are accustomed to being told what they are supposed to think. This step is actually difficult for scientists! Figuring out what data means is one of the major activities of science. The question of what data means is often not obvious. It is crucial to the process that the teacher does not tell students the correct answer at this point.

5. Evidence: This is the heart of what we want students to be able to do: Use data to support claims. It is crucial to the process that the teacher pushes students to think about what their data means and turn it into evidence. In fact, most of the conversation the teacher has with individuals and small groups should have the purpose of getting students to make sense of their findings.

6. Conferences, Science or Math Talks, Reading, and Instruction:

a. Conferences: Student groups will present their findings to the class. In order for presentations to be meaningful, students’ presentations should not all be the same, and every student should have an investment in getting the information which is provided by the different groups. In terms of engineering design challenges, this can mean distributing variables to be tested, with the class listening attentively, pointing out flaws in experimental design or data analysis.

b. Science or Math Talks: The teacher provides a prompt which asks students to make sense of the activities they have completed. The students talk with each other; the teacher steps in only when the conversation bogs down.

c. Reading: Students read textbooks or other reference material about the topic they have been investigating.

d. Instruction: The teacher explains any concepts which students are still unclear about or which have been missed in the student-centered process.

7. Reflection. Students revisit their journal entries and write about how their ideas have changed. It is crucial to the process that this opportunity for reflective inquiry be included.

Partial Research Base

This STEM Writing Template comes from several strands of research, although the work of Keys, Hand, Prain, Wallace et al. is its basis.

Hand, B., Prain, V., & Wallace, C. (2002). Influences of writing tasks on students’ answers to recall and higher-level test questions. Journal of Research in Science Education 32, 19-34.

Keys, C. W., Hand, B., Prain, V., & Collins, S. (1999). Using the science writing heuristic as a tool for learning from laboratory investigations in secondary science, Journal of Research In Science Teaching, 36, 1065-1084.

Keys C. W. (1997). Revitalizing instruction in scientific genres: Connecting knowledge production with writing to learn in science. Science Education, 83, 115-130.

Kolodner, J. L.; Camp, P. J.; Crismond, D.; Fasse, B.; Gray, J. H.; & Puntambekar, S.; et al. (2003). Problem-based learning meets case-based reasoning in the middle-school science classroom: Putting Learning by DesignTM into practice. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 12, 495-547. Retrieved May 25, 2010, from http://www.its-about-time.com/htmls/pbis/pbllbd.pdf

Warren, B., & Rosebery, A. (2011). Navigating interculturality: African American male students and the science classroom. Journal of African American Males in Education, 2(1). Accessed June 8, 2012 at http://journalofafricanamericanmales.com/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2011/03/Navigating-Interculturality.pdf.

Teacher Template

This template contains a series of suggested activities to involve students in meaningful learning activities. More precisely, we can defined it as socio-constructivist pedagogical scenario to promote laboratory understanding. Teacher’s are of course encouraged to adapt it to their local context.

1. Exploration of pre-instruction understanding through individual or group concept mapping.

2. Pre-laboratory activities, including informal writing, making observations, brainstorming, and posing questions.

3. Participation in laboratory activity.

4. Negotiation phase I – writing personal meanings for laboratory activity. (For example, writing journals.)

5. Negotiation phase II – sharing and comparing data interpretations in small groups. (For example, making group charts.)

6. Negotiation phase III – comparing science ideas to textbooks for other printed resources. (For example, writing group notes in response to focus questions.)

7. Negotiation phase IV – individual reflection and writing. (For example, creating a presentation such as a poster or report for a larger audience.)

8. Exploration of post-instruction understanding through concept mapping.

Hand, Prain and Wallace (2003:20)

Teaching Science through Conversation/What is Inquiry? What are productive ways to use students’ ideas for instruction?

In recent months I’ve thinking about Rosebery & Warren’s (2008) concept of science talks. In addition to modeling science talk for my own students by doing it with kids, I’ve been trying it out in an undergraduate physical science course I co-teach with a chemist. The students had been given the assignment to come up with an inquiry lesson plan, which was troubling many who were unsure as to what that meant. My colleague asked me to talk with the students about what inquiry teaching is. My mind raced as I thought about finding a way not to lecture. “How about if I gave you a lecture on how to teach through inquiry?” I asked the class, trying to buy time. “That would be an oxymoron,” someone said.

I don’t usually teach off the cuff. I knew I was committed to science talk, and decided to see what would happen, and hoped it wouldn’t be too boring. I remember worrying, “Oh my God, more talk. Will they stand for it?” I should have known students would be interested. I often tell future teachers that students are always eager to talk about their thinking when the listener is genuinely interested.

I really started thinking about this approach to teaching last summer, when one of my new MAT students asked, “Well how can students learn through discussion?” The kind of discussion we were considering at that time was not teacher-led, but based on expansive consideration of students’ ideas. Reading Rosebery and Warren’s book this fall cemented those ideas.

The principle that students actually know and are able to contribute something flies in the face of the standards-based nonsense that is prevalent in education. Since open-ended discussion is unpredictable, the teacher cannot guarantee that conversation will not stray from the standard posted on the board. Limiting instruction to one a day was never the intention of those who wrote broad, rich (although flawed) standards such as the National Science Education Standards. However, since tests focus on de-contextualized minutiae and facts, this original vision has been trampled in the mud.

An episode of instructional conversation. Which brings me back to inquiry. In physical science class I posed the question, Is hands-on the same as inquiry? Can something be inquiry without being hands on? My goal in posing these questions was for students to develop a public, shared understanding that inquiry is a way of looking at the world.

Many students offered opinions, and Michael (a pseudonym) brought me to a halt by saying, Yes, it’s like what we did the first day of class (when students wrote and shared science learning autobiographies). When I started the conversation I didn’t know where it might go, but I had an instinct, based on experience, that this might be a valuable contribution. I myself didn’t fully understand what he meant, and asked whether everyone had understood Michael’s idea. I asked him to elaborate a little, and it became clear that what he was talking about was important. Others picked up on Michael’s conversational thread, and the discussion became a way for the class to look back over the semester and start making sense of what had been to some degree, disconnected episodes of hands-on activities.

After about 20 minutes I felt it was right to introduce the idea I was aiming for. “So I’ll give you my opinion of what inquiry is—it’s a very broad definition.” Anna jumped up and got ready to write my definition on the board. “I think inquiry is the position that the facts of science are the result of previously asked questions.” I actually wanted to say “stance,” but thought it might be too much jargon, one of those split-second decisions teaching requires. In spite of the somewhat awkward phrasing, we talked about what that might mean.

During the course of the instructional conversation ( See Tharp & Gallimore’s  1988 book) someone brought up our previous discussion, from earlier in the semester, about why the idea of Pluto no longer being classified as a planet had been so very upsetting to many in the class.

“What is the question to which ‘Pluto is a planet’ would be the answer? What do you think Clyde Tombaugh was asking when he proposed Pluto as a planet?… I wonder whether, if the idea that Pluto is a planet had been presented to you when you were young as the answer to a question, whether you would now be so upset?” There was a generalized murmur of “No.”

I ended saying, “There are many ways to teaching using inquiry. I can’t tell you a formula. But does that help?” The course of yeses sounded genuine.

There is a lot more to think about here: why this decision or that was made based on what instinct and experience, how this was a “just in time” kind of instruction, since the students were eager to have enough information to complete an assignment they considered at least somewhat interesting and “fun.” There are also things I could have said better or differently in responding to students’ conversational moves. I raise the issue of teaching through conversation however because I am convinced it is crucial to helping students understand science.


Rosebery, A.S. & Ballenger, C. (2008). Creating a foundation through student conversation. In A. Rosebery and B. Warren (Eds.). Teaching science to English language learners, pp. 1 – 12. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Tharp, R.G & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life: teaching, learning and schooling in social context. London: Cambridge University Press.

Standards-Based Education is a Scam

There is no research basis for so-called standards-based education. There is not one shred of evidence that demonstrates the effectiveness of many of the practices which I see in schools as I visit student teachers, not one study of the benefits of students knowing which standard they are “on.” Yet every teacher I talk with is being harassed to 1) post the standard they are covering (up) that day; 2) have the students write the standard on the papers they turn in; and 3) refer explicitly to the standard every 10 minutes. This latter practice insures that, when an administrator enters the room and quizzes students on what standard they are “studying,” the student is able to respond. If the student fails this quiz, the teacher is “written up.”

This is a colossal waste of instructional time.

I have had a student teacher explain to me how her school required the science lesson to include 10 minutes for the students to copy the standard verbatim into their notebooks. An additional 30 minutes was allotted so the students could “put the standard into their own words.” Since the decontextualized academic vocabulary of standards is meaningless to 12 year olds, a half hour was required for a vocabulary lesson. This is 40 minutes that could have been spent actually learning something. Since the class period was 50 minutes long, and since the last 5 minutes were required for “review of the standard,” actual instruction was 15 minutes or less. (Class did not start immediately and there were inevitable discipline problems during this excruciatingly boring “lesson.”) Is it any wonder that students in the U.S. are at the bottom of the industrialized world?

Ah, but hasn’t the standards and accountability focus raised test scores? Only on watered-down tests which are prepped for at the expense of learning. Districts in my area end all instruction in March, and have two or three weeks of “Boot Camp” during which students spend the entire school day practicing multiple choice tests which are amazingly, but not exactly, similar to the actual achievement test, which is administered in mid-April. Schools can point to improved scores and lessening of the achievement gap. It’s all a sham.

There’s a big test cheating scandal in Atlanta Public Schools. The truth is, many states in the US are in the midst of a cheating scandal. They’re cheating students out of education.

In the 1990’s, progressive education, teacher governance of schools and other reforms actually began showing promising results. You might recall that test scores on NAEP (a national test which measures students’ ability to reason) rose in that decade. However, as standards and accountability gained political momentum, progressive reforms were swept aside. NAEP scores sank back to 1980’s levels, where they remain. I predict that if we continue with curriculum composed of testing rather than teaching, NAEP scores will actually begin to fall, as have SAT scores.

How could this happen? I have always avoided conspiracy theories, but there’s pretty good evidence that the right-wing goal is to destroy public education. On the road to that end, the intermediate aim appears to be to prevent the sort of critical thinking which might challenge conservative dominance of the textbook industry, the media and the political process.