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.

a complicated argument

It’s going to take many posts to make the argument about why teacher education is “failing.” See my post from yesterday

The first thing I want to say is that I respect one of the impulses that drives people to support Trump, that is, the feeling that corporations are completely in control of government. This is at least partially true. There are also people who will do anything to stop abortion, and are willing to support an unhinged, mentally ill, sociopathic, narcissistic fascist who probably has been responsible for any number of women getting abortions, and for all I know has paid for them. To those people I say, if you think abortion is wrong, don’t have one. Leave the rest of us alone.

I also say, “Be careful.” Democratically elected, unhinged, mentally ill, sociopathic, narcissistic fascists have, in the not so distant past, brought down on the world the fires of  tyranny, genocide and other unspeakable horrors of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Probably the last obviously mentally ill president was Richard Nixon. His paranoia led to Watergate. Perhaps even worse, he actively prolonged the end of the Vietnam War so that he could have political advantage. Thousands of people died so he could be president. His sociopathic, narcissistic behavior led to  his ‘’enemies list,” damaging the lives of people who opposed him.

There are also the persistent and reliable reports that DJT studied Hitler’s rise to power as a model for his campaign, and has done so for many years.

The point is—It is possible to support Trump if you are ignorant of history; otherwise the red flags and warning whistles are overwhelming and truly frightening. And why are people ignorant of history?

Teacher education.

The New York Times says that the US teacher pool is filled with the not very bright. They compare us unfavorably with Finland, which allows only applicants from the top quarter of university students to apply to become teachers. Something the Times doesn’t talk about: Teachers in Finland are well enough paid, have good working conditions and  have the respect of society. But the Times doesn’t talk about that, because bastion of corporate America that it is, it doesn’t support adequate funding for education.

If Americans want good teachers, they have to pay for them.

First Donald Trump, Now This

My good friend Charles texted me that he had read about how Finland has much better teacher education, and the NY Times had an editorial stating that low quality teacher education in the US is the cause of well, I don’t know, monumentally STUPID people? (That’s not exactly what the Times said. That’s what I say.)

Image result for "teacher education"

You can read it here.

When I read Charles’ text, I laughed bitterly, anger surging through my body. So the New York Times wants to improve teacher education. Well, well, never mind all the years of editorials urging competition and charter schools as the cure for low achievement, and all the years pressing for schools to be run like businesses. Schools are getting steadily worse since the 1990’s because corporate America has discovered the profits to be made from education. See the critique of the Times education positions here.

Americans are just batshit crazy. We have a perfectly good country and are throwing it all away. Okay, so the education debacle predates the DJT debacle and probably is part of the cause. I just don’t know where to begin.

reflection on today’s science and math pedagogy class

For the last 6 weeks I’ve been teaching a 6-hour face to face class on Saturdays to a group of pre-service teachers in an MAT program and in-service teachers getting advanced degrees. This has been brutal for everyone concerned, to say the least. I’ve had to pare down my expectations because after about 4 hours nobody can absorb much, no matter how many times I asked them to get out of their seats and try something different.

I decided to focus on Stigler & Hiebert’s The Teaching Gap, which is old news, but not to the students, so that they would be open to questioning their cultural assumptions about what it means to teach science and mathematics. My plan was this would allow them to be open to reform ideas, such as those embodied in the Tools 4 Teaching Science out of the University of Washington.

I think this pretty much worked. In our last class today I asked the students to make concept maps. I gave each person a page of stickers with 60 nouns culled from a variety of class readings:

  • The biology people read The Beak of the Finch, which most hated because it is tedious in spots. The math people read either Jacqueline Leonard’s book on multicultural mathematics education or the Joy of X. The purpose was to increase content knowledge, which I think was modestly successful.
  • Magdalene Lampert, “When the Problem is not the Question and the Solution is not the answer.” We used the theoretical framework of this article to think about what it means to do mathematics (and science).
  • Hand et al., Negotiating Science. We used this to provide a framework for inquiry activities in science.
  • 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions.

That was actually quite a lot of reading for 6 weeks. We only got through Chapter 7 of The Teaching Gap, since that is the point after which the authors mostly  just repeat themselves.

I gave each student a giant Post-It and asked him or her to do a concept map using Novak and Gowin’s 1984 procedure and using their scoring scheme. http://www.flaguide.org/cat/conmap/conmapfig5.php

Several students struggled mightily with this format. More about struggling later.

Thinking about the maps in public

I wanted the maps to be public records of thinking, but  didn’t want to put anyone on the spot. Therefore each map was displayed on the wall and was only identified with a number. We did a gallery walk during lunch; I asked students to record on index cards what they thought was interesting or new about each map, and what was similar to what they put.

I collected those cards, and a first glance through them shows they didn’t write much. However I still think it was an important focus to help them look at other people’s maps, since they were all quite different.

We then went around to each map and talked about what the students saw in it. The easiest entry point for the students was surface features, how it was organized. Several remarked on people having chosen different starting points for the map.

About halfway through, I started pointing out things that I saw, going back to the earlier maps and comparing. Students stopped contributing much, once they realized I was going to tell them “the right answer.” Of course it wasn’t, but I was trying to get certain ways of thinking on the table. I think they also were at a loss as to what to say. The holistic approach, looking at where the maps went, what concepts had lots of links and what seemed isolated, was new to them. In making a quick instructional decision, I considered briefly that going with a cognitive apprenticeship model, in which I shared my thinking with them, was probably going to be most productive.

This was such a rich discussion, I want to get down as much as I remember and it might be an overly long and boring blog post. But I do want to capture what happened while it is still fresh in my mind.

I was aware that a person got very upset when I pointed out how a particular map showed that this set of ideas was not integrated with the rest of the map. (Someone appearing to get upset or embarrassed actually happened more than once.) I infer that the persons who seemed upset were the authors of the map in question. I was very careful to say, “This person did…” In truth, I knew who authored only 3 of the 13 maps. Because we were pretty much anonymous, so they were not singled out in public. It is interesting to me that several students seemed to feel that their maps were private performances that should not be critiqued in public. I’m an artist accustomed to having my drawings and paintings critiqued by art professors. Critiques are always scary, but they are also very powerful because they give the entire group the benefit of the instructor’s thinking.

I think of Fred Erickson repeating several times in my own grad school classes, “School is the only place where people must publicly display incompetence.” In spite of my repeating often to my own students that the right answer is how you’re thinking, not the content of what you say, the social practices surrounding school being about the right answers is still the dominant cultural model. In spite of my never saying that one of the maps was wrong, some students still interpreted my remarks as showing them up as incompetent.

I ended class saying the maps made me feel really good, that it was formative assessment for me, I can see what people got out of the class, and I’m pleased. I was. Of course the students wanted to know how I was going to grade them. I said, I’m going to write each of you a letter about your map, and I want you to write me back. (Even though class meetings are over, there is still an assignment out there to do a unit plan. Class is officially over in May.)

specific items that interested me

One of the maps had a strand that included “disciplinary language,” that was cross-linked to “writing,” which was also cross-linked to disciplinary practices. There was another independent strand that included  “discussion,” that was linked to “teacher,” and not linked to disciplinary language or practice. I didn’t say anything public about this observation; I thought it might seem too critical. I will write to the author about it. I also note that our pre-service teachers have the most difficulty with the section of EdTPA having to do with academic language. That this shows up in at least one map is confirmation to me of the power of concept mapping.

One of the students who was having a really hard time, had chosen “knowledge” for her topic and “teacher” and “student” for the next level. As I walked around, she asked me for help. She couldn’t figure out to where put any of the other  labels, and she couldn’t think of what to write as links.  I asked her to clarify, what did she define the link between teacher and knowledge to be, and what was the link between student and knowledge. She replied, The teacher has knowledge, and the student has some knowledge. Without saying anything, I thought, This is the traditional  transmission model of teaching, slightly updated to include students’ prior knowledge. I replied to her that she might try different concepts instead of student and teacher, maybe that was the problem. She was able to successfully complete the map.

to be continued…

Co-Teaching Physical Science for Teachers

Last night Rosalie facilitated a lecture-discussion on heat, developing students’ ideas about energy transfer and how to do problems. I noticed a couple of times students gave the "right" answer, but when Rosalie probed further, the students didn’t really understand what they were talking about. It would have been easy to accept the correct answer as proof of understanding and then move on. The extent of students’ not knowing was profound, and it took some time to uncover its true dimensions.

I’m reminded of diSessa’s construct of p-prims, which he describes (to the best of my recollection) as conclusions about phenomena which are not linked to other ideas, but remain as islands. When Rosalie asked students to make connections or to create a chain of causal reasoning, they were able to do so only with great difficulty and a great deal of prompting in the form of questions. She engaged individual students in extended questioning in order to scaffold putting together a cohesive whole.

I noticed that not all students were following the conversation and did not seem to understand that their colleagues’ were being questioned publicly in this way in order to get ideas onto the table for everyone to consider. Earlier in the evening students repeatedly focused on the right answer, and when someone came up with an answer that was judged to be correct, it was quickly passed around. At the time Rosalie announced that we were not really interested in the correct answer, which the students seemed to shrug off. I think that they don’t have any other perspective on science calculations, and the idea of viewing problems as a shorthand for science concepts is an entirely new idea for them.

At the end of Rosalie’s discussion of heat, I felt that we should call students’ attention to what we had been doing by investigating their ideas in depth. I had two purposes in doing this. One was to let students know that the structure of our lesson was deliberate, and that we had a particular pedagogical goal in mind. I also wanted to clue in those students who had not been paying attention that perhaps this was important. I reiterated that we were not interested in formulas, but that they should focus on understanding the problem; understanding makes the strategies for solving it obvious. Rosalie reiterated that she too is not interested in students memorizing formulas. I also explained that there had been several times during the lecture when students had appeared to give the correct answer, but Dr. Richards kept probing, and it was revealed that the students did not really understand. I tied this to the issue of deciding what to accept as evidence of learning, and asked whether they had run into this phenomenon in their field placements.

I will say that we started the evening with a wide ranging discussion of the role of energy in the body, and the way chemical energy of food is transferred through digestion and metabolism. I was expecting students would not relate the process of combustion from the lab of calories obtained by burning Cheetos with the breaking of chemical bonds within food substances. I discovered this some years ago in teaching high schoolers, when I would ask them why they need oxygen, and the students were unable to go beyond because you can’t breathe and you’ll die. What a shame it is that we don’t explore the big picture and assume that students have made connections such as the role of oxygen in both combustion and cellular respiration.

The conversation about heat contained within food revealed that students remember very little of any high school biology.

The previous night in one of my graduate classes we started exploring the idea of their perceived lack of connection between learning and completing assignments. Before Rosalie came in, I decided to see what the undergrads had to say about this topic. They basically said they had to choose: either do the assignment and get the points, or study and try to understand. I wondered whether the purpose of doing assignments is to facilitate learning.

We did not get very "far" in our discussion of heat, although we perhaps got deep. I came away from last night’s class with another piece of evidence I interpret as showing the need to explore ideas in depth, and the conviction that most science instruction merely papers over students’ confusion.