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…

Science Education for All. I Mean it: Each and All

I’m reading Larry Cuban’s new book, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice, which has a chapter on the history of science education reform. (Note the subtitle, Change without Reform in American Education.) He quotes Jonathan Osborne, who points out that the goals of science education appear to be contradictory. Are we aiming to produce scientifically literate citizens or future scientists and engineers?

I thought about it for few minutes, and came down on the side of scientific literacy. Well,  but certainly we do need future scientists and engineers. Why can’t we have both?

If you read some of my blog posts, one of the issues I’ve been grappling with is college science teaching. Post-secondary instruction drives the whole show. Future K-12 science teachers quite naturally try to reproduce the curriculum they experience in college. Lectures, Q&A sessions, laboratory investigations, exams, quizzes, etc. A very strong body of evidence supports the notion that college science coursework is not much like what scientists actually do in their work. Science studies show real scientists engage in flights of imagination and visualization, personify inanimate entities such as electrons, and work out tough problems in dreams. College students become scientists when they join lab groups as apprentices, usually as graduate students, although undergraduate research is becoming more common.

Beth Warren and Ann Rosebery show how young children really do think like scientists, using their imagination for example, wondering out loud what it feels like for a plant to grow, comparing plant growth to the experience of outgrowing your shoes. Well meaning teachers, enculturated into school science by 16 years of “science education,” typically squelch such flights of fancy in order to prepare students for the difficult and dry science they will encounter in the future.

But the difficult and dry science of high school and college is not science! In fact, professors I know complain that students who come to them don’t know how to think, imagine, or solve novel problems. By and large, school science is not preparing anybody for knowing and doing real science. Youth who later become scientists have to unlearn habits of mind which are not productive of innovation and critical thinking.

I have in front of me the latest edition of the Harvard Education Letter. In the cover article, “Changing the Face of Math,” Laura Pappano provides a good argument for reform mathematics focused on engaging youth in complex, open-ended problem solving connected with their lives. “What if our national problems with math…are more about fuzzy-sounding stuff like relationships, emotion, and identity than, well, actual math?” Students disengage from rote memorization and rote memorization of procedures does not prepare them for doing mathematics in the future.

This brings me back to the dilemma raised by Jonathan Osborne, a leading voice in science education. What if we’re looking at it wrong? Is there some other way to think about science education that does not involve a competing and mutually exclusive goals for the population of US high school students?

I believe we need a paradigm shift. What does challenging, emotionally accessible, interesting science education look like? We pretty much know, actually. It doesn’t happen because we are hesitant to abandon an admittedly flawed system which has in the past produced some pretty good results. However, continuing to exclude students of color and girls from the STEM workforce is not acceptable. Furthermore, continuing to exclude students of color and girls from the power of STEM knowledge is not acceptable.

Why STEM Education?

I keep coming back to some fundamental questions:

What kind of world do we want to live in?

Are we taking the steps to create the world we want?

What is the role of STEM education in a world of 7 billion people (and growing).

In my opinion, without advance of technology and increase in scientific literacy amongst the general population, the future for the 7 billion will be unfortunate. There are some who predict the “end times” and welcome pestilence, famine and destruction as God’s will. Surely the God of mercy and love such people espouse does not wish such suffering upon his children.

The fascination with the end of the world is baffling to me. How many times has it been foretold? In 1995 I asked my high school students what they thought the world would be like in 20 years. “The world’s going to end in 2000,” someone replied. “How do you know?” I said. A chorus responded, “We saw it on Fox!” I said, “We’ll see.”

The STEM disciplines require evidence for claims, at least that is the ideal. People who are trained to draw conclusions based on observable information are less likely to be swayed by emotional, fear-based notions such as the call to arm elementary school teachers. Carrying a gun may make some people (not me) feel safe, but the data is clear that the more guns, the more deaths. When people are able to objectively judge the merits of claims, they are likely to make better decisions.

In America we have come to the cultural understanding that everyone is entitled to his/her opinion. Paradoxically, however, we must continue to consider that not all opinions are equally supported by evidence, and therefore not all opinions are equally valid. Increasing people’s ability to critically evaluate evidence is crucial for the future of the United States and the world.

In my opinion, the only way out of the troubles caused by industrialization, overpopulation, burning of fossil fuels, destruction of Earth’s life support system, etc. is to move forward with technology. We need to know more and do more with technology so that we can have a world we want to live in.