Is the NCTQ Report on Teacher Prep Junk Science?

In this post I am going to look at the question Is the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) Report on Teacher Prep Junk Science?  In my last post, I suggested that the NCTQ report on teacher preparation is an example of junk science.   Matthew Weinstein, professor of education at Kent State University commented on that post, and supported my claim linking NCTQ and junk science.  He also pointed me to Science Mart: Privatizing American Science by Philip Mirowski, professor Economics and Policy Studies, University of Notre Dame, and the PBS NCTQ report interview with education correspondent John Merrow.  I will show that the NCTQ Report on Teacher Prep is junk science, and support my claim with research and examples from the literature.

What is Junk Science? There are various meanings of the term junk science.  In the realms that I explore here, science and teacher preparation, we need to recognize, as Michael Apple points out, that private think tanks seek to advance their ideological agendas often based on shoddy research and biased marketed news reports.  It is in this context that the term junk science has become part of our culture.  Susan Jacoby (2008) suggests that junk science is generally synonymous with pseudoscience in that there is an attempt to explain the physical or the social universe, including education, which can neither be proved or disproved.  Another definition of junk science is any scientific data (physical and biological sciences, and well as the social sciences, including education) research or analysis considered to be spurious or fraudulent (Wikipedia, 2013).  Junk science can also be a term to describe a poorly performed study that makes sweeping, and incorrect conclusions, despite the study’s weakness in methods for collecting and analyzing data.

You will find out that the NCTQ report on teacher preparation fits each of these definitions.

Examples of Junk Science.

For some perspective, the following are examples in the history of “junk science.”  It is in these contexts, and understandings that I will show that the NCTQ Report on Teacher Prep is a fraudulent and spurious study of teacher preparation in American institutions of higher education.

Social Darwinism. Susan Jacoby (2008) helps us understand junk science by pointing us to the work of Yale political science professor William Graham Sumner.  Sumner wrote articles for mass-market circulation about social Darwinism. Professor  Sumner, according to Jacoby, twisted Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection by proposing that those that got to the top got there through fair competition using the concept of survival of the fittest, an incorrect interpretation of Darwin.

As Jacoby explains, these Sumner and his followers “enshrined competition and validated the worthiness of whoever and whatever came out on top.   In his writings, Sumner “declared emphatically that business titans of the Gilded Age were ‘a product of natural selection…just like great statesmen, or scientific men, or military men.” (Jacoby, S., 2008). In Europe and the U.S. social Darwinism was the ideology that linked biological concepts of Darwinism or of evolutionary theory to sociology and politics, often with the assumption that conflict between groups in society leads to social progress as superior groups outcompete inferior ones.

Those who did make it were validated by means of Sumner’s false interpretation of Darwin’s theory.  Social Darwinism is alive and well today in education. The movement to privatize public schooling and use market economics and competition is seen by many prominent educators to set up the potential for the destruction of public education. Sumner’s ideas had enormous influence and Jacoby puts it this way:

Academics like Sumner would have done enough damage had their theories been confined to classrooms in which élite young men were indoctrinated in the worship of untrammeled capitalism, but they were able to extend their influence on a previously unimaginable scale by writing for national magazines like Collier’s, aimed at a vast middle-class audience. Then as now, the public was overwhelmed by information and misinformation filtered through new technologies. Many Americans possessed just enough education to be fascinated by late nineteenth-century advances in both science and technology, but they had too little education to distinguish between real scientists and those who peddled social theories in the guise of science.  Jacoby, S., 2008, The Age of American Unreason, Kindle Locations 1220-1225. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, extracted June 28, 2013. (Emphasis mine)

According to Jacoby, social Darwinism became the first mass-marketed wave of pseudoscience, or what we call today junk science. How did junk science become a mainstream enterprise in American society?  Over the past fifty years, American corporations and their related industries (pesticides, tobacco, oil) have created a new approach to push back against scientific and educational research findings that are contrary to their political and business interests.

Ahead are discussions of how junk science was used by business and industry to reject, create doubt, and deny research findings that were contrary to their interests.

Silent Spring. In a blog post I wrote five years ago, I referenced an article in the local paper that a U.S. Senator had evoked the phrase “junk science” when explaining why Rachel Carson’s work should not be considered for an award in the U.S. Senate. He was speaking specifically about her work entitled Silent Spring, which used scientific findings to raise questions about the widespread use of pesticides.

This U.S. Senator referred to the science in Carson’s work as “junk science.” And this senator has a background in medicine.  In the history of science, Rachel Carson is perhaps one of the first scientists to have her work derided by an industry that realized that her scholarship would affect their bottom line, and to fight these findings, they choose to label Carson as a quack, an over zealous government worker, and whose ideas were not accepted by mainstream science.

We all now know that Rachel Carson, the author of the 1962 book, Silent Spring wrote the book (with fierce opposition from the pesticide industry) to tell the public the fact (according to Carson) that pesticides were destroying wildlife and endangering the environment. At the time, the pesticide industry drummed up contrary opinion, and tried to claim that Carson’s science was flawed, and there was really no scientific evidence supporting her claims. President Kennedy appointed a committee of experts to look into Carson’s claims, and when all was said and done, the committee agreed with all of her science and her conclusions.

But to this day, the junk science advocates claim that Carson’s suggestion that pesticides should be banned resulted in the deaths of millions from malaria.  What they don’t tell you is Carson had made it clear she was not advocating the banning or complete withdrawal of helpful pesticides, but was instead encouraging responsible and carefully managed use with an awareness of the chemicals’ impact on the entire ecosystem. In fact, she concludes her section on DDT in Silent Spring not by urging a total ban, but with practical advice such as “Spray as little as you possibly can” and not “Spray to the limit of your capacity.”

Big Tobacco. The term “sound science” was first used by the tobacco industry to try to discredit research that had shown that secondhand smoke endangered nonsmokers. They did this by using public relations to claim that the research upon which the claim was made (secondhand smoke endangers nonsmokers) was “junk science,” and that any decisions that health officials should make should be based on “sound science.” Now lets turn our attention to smoking and cancer, and see how the terms junk science and sound science were used to discredit the results of research investigations into the relationship between smoking, second-hand smoke, and cancer.

Let’s start with this question: The U.S. Tobacco Institute was founded by which of these organizations?

  1. The University of North Carolina
  2. The U.S. Department of Health
  3. Tobacco Growers Union
  4. The Tobacco Industry

The answer is number 4, the Tobacco Industry, which as Philip Mirowski explains, became the industry “think tank” that mounted campaigns denying the growing body of scientific knowledge that smoking was linked to cancer.  To fight against science, the U.S. Tobacco Institute realized that debating science was a more efficient way to defend the tobacco industry.

Their strategy, according to Mirowski, was to find “legitimate” scientific spokespersons to orate the industry side, create doubt in scientific findings related to smoking and health, and thereby create “controversy” where it really shouldn’t exist. The work of these organizations, whether a think tank, a subdivision of a corporation, or a web site portal, is essentially to cast doubt on existing knowledge that does not fit with their political, economic, or educational philosophy.  Junkies are deniers of scientific evidence, even when there is an overwhelming preponderance of evidence against their views. Elisa Ong, MD, and Stanton Glantz, PhD, reported this in their article Constructing “Sound Science” and “Good Epidemiology”: Tobacco, Lawyers, and Public Relations Firms in the American Journal of Public Health:

The tobacco industry has attacked “junk science” to discredit the evidence that secondhand smoke—among other environmental toxins—causes disease. Philip Morris used public relations firms and lawyers to develop a “sound science” program in the United States and Europe that involved recruiting other industries and issues to obscure the tobacco industry’s role. The European “sound science” plans included a version of “good epidemiological practices” that would make it impossible to conclude that secondhand smoke—and thus other environmental toxins—caused diseases.

Junk science morphed into what is known as sound science.  Right-wing talking heads, and politicians love to end their orations about why they do not agree with current scientific findings by invoking the phase, “Look there are questions about these findings.  Some real scientists don’t agree with these findings.  We need sound science on this issue.  The science is simply not settled here.”  You’ll find out that this is exactly the kind of thinking that some education think tanks use when they deny the research, such as in teacher preparation. 

Global Warming. Politicians love to use the term “junk science.” It is primarily used to cast doubt on and deride scientific findings, even if the findings have been published in peer-reviewed journals, and are supported by the scientific community.

Junk science has been evoked to counter global warming theories, and especially the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which has provided us with a comprehensive picture of the state of global warming. Even though the panel has reviewed thousands of studies, there are politicians and some in the media, who claim these conclusions are based on “junk science” and that until some “sound science” comes down the road, we should put a halt on any recommendations related to the data.

Think Tanks and Junk Science

During last thirty years of the 20th Century, the emergence of think tanks was a consequence of business and industry pushing back against research findings.  Think tanks have become the way that neoliberal groups have created controversy, and pushed the body of science out into the public and the media, and let ideas compete in the market.

Philip Mirowski in his book Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science, explains that at first the practice started small, but again under the model of the neoliberal thought collective, whole rafts of think tanks, “institutes,” and labs were founded to carry out various components of the program.  He writes:

By the 1970s these structures, in conjunction with a few smaller centers founded within universities, began to form a parallel scientific universe, a whole mirror world of white papers and dubious fact sheets and counterfeit journal publications explicitly constructed to mimic academic scientific output while keeping the original funding and motivations obscure. While most observers have some awareness of think tanks devoted to social policy, almost no one has noticed that neoliberals have also developed a phalanx of think tanks to produce the kinds of natural science that they felt were warranted by their pecuniary and epistemic interests. This is the apotheosis of the belief in the marketplace of ideas.  Philip Mirowski. Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science (Kindle Locations 4212-4216). Kindle Edition.

The organizations identified in Figure 1 are just six think tanks that practice dubious science, but because of their deep pockets, they are able to influence the public to their point of view by collaborating with the media to get their ideas out there, but to insist that their views are the “alternative view” that should be warranted in the “market place of ideas.”  These organizations are purveyors of junk science, but because of their status, they are influencing policy in the realms of science and education.

Organization Advocacy Field Established Function Junk Science
Association for Sound Science Center Environmental Protection Agency 1993 by Philip Morris  and APCO Question EPA report on second-hand smoke; question research on global warming Create “credible sources” so reporters could question validity of scientific studies; question notion of peer-reviewed journals, sold news articles to do this.  Sound science replaced junk science.
Heatland Institute Free markets 1984 Question science of human caused climate change Climate change skeptics
Tobacco Institute Tobacco 1958 – 1998 Dissolved by U.S. Government Settlement Agreement Good news about tobacco, attack scientific studies by casting doubt on them Writing white papers rebutting research critical of tobacco smoking
Discovery Institute Intelligent design 1990 by Hudson Institute a conservative think tank Wedge strategy, intelligent design in schools Intelligent design as science
National Council for Teacher Quality Teacher preparation 2000 Overhaul teacher preparation in the U.S. Denial of research on teacher education, rank teacher preparation institutions
Thomas Fordham Institute K-12 schooling 2007 Offer conservative views on education Evaluations of science standards, including the Next Generation Science Standards

Figure 1. Neoliberal Think Tanks 

Junk Teacher Preparation Research

The major purveyors casting doubt on teacher preparation analogous to tobacco’s U.S. Tobacco Institute  are The Thomas Fordham Institute and the National Council of Teacher Quality.  These two organizations, more than any other in the U.S. have waged a war against traditional teacher preparation by writing reports which use very weak to questionable research designs, convincing the media that teacher preparation is worthless, and then claiming that teacher preparation programs should be replaced with programs that put unlicensed and inexperienced teachers in classrooms, especially in the nation’s poorer neighborhoods.

These two organization work together casting doubt not only on teacher preparation, but K-12 education.  They use the mantra that American education is failing, and the major reason for this their belief that teacher preparation is flawed.  Their positions are more political rhetoric and lack any substantive research to back up their claims.  Their aversion to the rich body of educational research is not surprising, and by doing so enables them to perpetuate a “junk science” view of teacher education. Their views on teacher preparation are just as sinister as the U.S. Tobacco Institute’s refutation of any link between smoking and cancer.  To the Fordham Institute and the NCTQ, professors of education have used academic freedom as a cover to make teacher preparation formative (enabling students to generate their own ideas about teaching and learning) rather than training prospective teachers.  To them teacher preparation is all about “training.”

Because these organizations have an abhorrence for educational research, they cherry pick studies they find in the literature to support their warped views of teaching, and then through their amicable relationship with the media, pull the wool over journalist’s eyes, who simply resort to common sense, and in the end, agree with the Fordham Institute and the NCTQ.  The U.S. Tobacco Institute used similar tactics.  In the end, tobacco’s attempt to cast doubt on and try to convince the public that the science linking smoking and cancer was “not settled”, was decided in the court.

For teacher preparation, these two organizations are casting great doubt on the work of American universities and institutions preparing teachers.  There is a link between high quality teacher preparation and the effectiveness of teachers in the classroom.  There is also a link between high quality teacher preparation and attitudes that graduates of these programs have about their preparation and their ability to teach.  Fordham and the NCTQ know that their main “product” in their reports and press releases is “doubt.” They have created a controversy about the quality of teaching in American schools, as well as the quality of teacher preparation.  Their reports are essentially critical of academic learning in American schools, and the way teachers are prepared.  Their reports are circulated among similar think tanks, but because of their liaisons with the media, their papers are quoted and often accepted as the truth about education.

The NCTQ has a coy relationship with US News and World Report (which publishes questionable college rankings) by co-publishing the ratings of 1,200 undergraduate and graduate teacher preparation programs. These organization function very much like the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), which was founded in 1993 to educate the public about the dangers of “junk science. ”  TASSC was created by Phillip Morris, and as Mirowski points out, the close ties of the sound science movement to the tobacco industry led to transmitting tobacco controversies to other controversies (such as the quality of K-12 education, and the quality of U.S. teacher preparation.)  Mirowski explains that TASSC was one of the earlier of “whole rafts of think tanks, “institutes,” and labs founded to carry out political and self-interest projects.  Mirowski writes:

By the 1970s these structures, in conjunction with a few smaller centers founded within universities, began to form a parallel scientific universe, a whole mirror world of white papers and dubious fact sheets and counterfeit journal publications explicitly constructed to mimic academic scientific output while keeping the original funding and motivations obscure. While most observers have some awareness of think tanks devoted to social policy, almost no one has noticed that neoliberals have also developed a phalanx of think tanks to produce the kinds of natural science that they felt were warranted by their pecuniary and epistemic interests. This is the apotheosis of the belief in the marketplace of ideas.

There are more organizations in education that are no different from those identified by Mirowski, but in this post, the prominent organizations are Fordham and the NCTQ. A term that is important to introduce here is the idea of “alternative science.”  Alternative science comes into play when science is brought into the courtroom, or discussed in the press or on TV.  Using equal time or fairness in reporting, the alternative view is given equal time with the scientific view.

In teacher preparation, a similar term arose in the past thirty years, “alternative certification or alternative teacher preparation.”   One of the goals of the NCTQ is to replace traditional teacher education program with alternative programs such as Teach For America (TFA).  As I’ve reported on this blog, TFA does not prepare teachers who are more effective than teachers coming out of traditional university programs.  Not only is the study of traditional teacher prep inept, but there is no discussion in the NCTQ report on alternative programs, nor any rating of TFA.

Is the NCTQ Report on Teacher Prep Junk Science?

The NCTQ report on teacher prep is not a valid study of teacher preparation.  In a study of junk science in the media, Michael Carolan (2011) survey all articles written between 1995 – 2005 that contained the words junk science in the title.  In his research, he identified 11 definitions of junk science.  According to Carolan, his study helps illuminate the difference between science and non science, which is refers to “boundary work.”  Figure 2 is an analysis of the NCTQ report on teacher prep.  I’ve listed Carolan’s 11 definitions, and then using a simple binary system, evaluated the NCTQ report on the criteria, and made comments about each definition, especially explaining why the NCTQ report is junk science.

Junk Science Definitions Junk Science? Score Comments
Bad policy based upon Yes 1 Assumes American education is declining; Believes the marketplace is the engine for change
Experts with agendas Yes 1 Assume that one of causes of America’s decline is teacher preparation institutions. NCTQ wants teacher education to be a training ground not an environment of learning
False data No 0 Data reported are ratings, which are dubious.  We could rate this “yes”
No data or unsubstantiated claims Yes 1 Data unclear; claim teacher education is “chaotic” with no data;
Failure to cite references Yes 1 No review of the literature; cherry picked three references;
Using non-certified experts Yes 1 There is no evidence that experts in the field of teacher education participated
Poor methodology Yes 1 Data was limited to college bulletins and syllabi.  Very few syllabi received to make decisions.
Too much uncertainty to arrive at conclusions drawn Yes 1 Universities did not cooperate thus creating great uncertainty in any information gathered by NCTQ
Revealing only that data which supports findings Yes 1 The data is in the form of ratings
Non-peer reviewed claims Yes 1 Not subjected to review by experts in the field of teacher education
Totals 10 yes; 1 no 10 The NCTQ report on Teacher Prep scored 10 on a scale of 0 -11.  The report is clearly junk science

Figure 2.  An Analysis of the NCTQ Report on Teacher Prep using established definitions of junk science. The NCTQ scored 10 out of 11 indicating that it a highly rated junk science study.  Definitions from Carolan, M.S., When Does Science Become Junk?

The NCTQ is a neoliberal organization whose goal is to dismantle teacher preparation as it is practiced in American universities today.  Using a consumer and market place approach, the NCTQ organization doesn’t fulfil the words in its title, “teacher quality.”  If you read the conclusion (just 2 pages) of the NCTQ report you will see that their conclusions have nothing to do with the junk science study they reported.

What is your take on the NCTQ report on Teacher Prep?  


NCTQ Report on Teacher Prep: the Devil is in the Detail

NCTQ Report on Teacher Prep: the Devil is in the Detail.

I decided to read the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) Report on Teacher Prep to try to learn what the NCTQ had to say about teacher prep in the U.S.

Last week, the National Council on Teacher Quality released its report on Teacher Prep.  Since its release, there has been an explosion of articles and blog posts written about the NCTQ report.  If you Google “NCTQ report teacher prep” you’ll get about 51,500 results.  I didn’t look at all the results, but I did survey the first two pages and I found these results:

  • 16 articles were critical of the report
  • 2 articles were supportive
  • 1 article was neutral
  • 2 articles were links to the NCTQ report

Of the first 21 articles, 76% were critical of the NCTQ report.  Authors of these articles, which included bloggers, Dean’s of Colleges of Education, professors, and professional associations, questioned the method used.  In fact, Linda Darling-Hammond reported that because of concerns with the methodology most schools of education refused to take part in the study.  Some writers suggested that the NCTQ study was coercive, and did not ask colleges to take part or become partners in the study, but instead resorted to legal means, and the Freedom of Information Act to get their data.  But others spoke out against the partisan nature of the NCTQ which is funded by conservative groups, and according to these writers, the NCTQ is only pursuing an agenda of putting traditional teacher prep out of business, and replace it with alternative certification programs such as Teach for America.

Disclaimer: I am professor emeritus of science education, Georgia State University (GSU). I was a professor of science teacher education at GSU from 1969 – 2002, coordinator of science education and co-developer of alternative, undergraduate, and graduate teacher prep programs. I also was visiting professor in teacher education programs at the University of Vermont and the University Hawaii, Hilo. I taught science teacher education seminars for more than 20,000 teachers in the Bureau of Education & Research.
It’s a consumer report of a large number of teacher preparation programs which NCTQ claim prospective clients can use to choose a teacher prep program to attend.  However, as Linda Darling-Hammond says, the report is nonsense.

It’s a 112 page report that include colorful graphs, charts, tables and descriptive statistics. The authors? I’m not sure, but there are lots of names, hundreds of corporate and foundation sponsors, but in the end no distinct or verifiable authors. There is also no evidence that the “study”  was reviewed by respected scholars in the field of education research.

There is no review of the literature on teacher preparation in the NCTQ report.  There are some references that you have to search for in the “Notes” section at the end of the report.  These “studies” were either done by the NCTQ, or are studies they cherry picked from the literature to support their political views.

Investigating the Enemy

When you read the NCTQ report it seems as if teacher prep institutions are the enemy. For more than thirty years I’ve read and studied educational research articles published in refereed journals such as the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Science Education, as well many Handbooks of research in science education, teacher education and the learning science. In these instances, I’ve never read a study in which researchers demanded cooperation from the research participants. The NCTQ policy is very clear. If you don’t give us what we want well use legal means to get it. They also “reached out” to a few students to supply materials that were requested from the administration.

The so-called NCTQ researchers not only resort to coercive strategies to get data (syllabi, curriculum, etc.), but you get the feeling that they snoop around universities, trying to find what texts are used by bookstore shopping.

Measuring Everything Under the Sun

But here is the thing. If you look at Figure 1 (Figure 40 in the NCTQ Report), the data sources for the 17 criteria used to evaluate teacher prep institutions is spread out and far-ranging.  For each criteria there are sources within and outside the higher education institutions, but you have no idea what value is attached to each, and its kind of murky when you begin looking at each source of data.  Take course syllabi.  In many instances, NCTQ sifters had trouble getting syllabi.  Some universities refused to send them, so the NCTQ resorted to their lawyers to impose legal justification to try to get the sources of data.  Eventually they resorted to the Freedom of Information Act.

What we see here is a contentious relationship between the NCTQ and the nation’s teacher preparation institutions.  What kind of results will emerge with the aggressive nature of this “study.”


Figure 1.  This is Figure 40 from the NCTQ report on teacher prep.  I've annotated the report to point out some of its limitations.  Extracted on 6/21/2013 from
Figure 1. This is Figure 40 from the NCTQ report on teacher prep. I’ve annotated the report to point out some of its limitations. Extracted on 6/21/2013 from

NCTQ has put together a mass of data, trying to measure everything under the sun.  Yet, the kind of data that they are collecting really doesn’t tell us much about teacher preparation per se.

Figure 1 is a figure in the NCTQ report which is an analysis of the criteria used by NCTQ to assess teacher prep programs.  All of the data come from paper or online documents.  None involved interviews or discussions with people at the teacher prep institutions.  As hard as this is believe, it is the pattern that the NCTQ has followed since it was formed by the Thomas Fordham Institute.

In Figure 1, look at the left hand column of IHE’s (data sources from the institutions).  Listed are six sources of data:

  1. Syllabi
  2. Required textbooks
  3. IHE catalogs
  4. Student teaching handbooks
  5. Student teaching evaluation forms
  6. Capstone project guidelines (including teacher performance assessments)

Trained analysts then check 17 standards by using a scoring system after “a very methodical and systematic process of coding and sorting.  Analysts have been trained to follow a very detailed and systematic standard-specific protocol to make a “yes” or “no” decision about whether each of the standard’s indicators is satisfied.”

But there is so much data for each standard its not believable that any kind of reliable or valid system emerges from this “corporate spray.”  The idea is to throw as much at the wall as possible and look for what sticks.  In this case, not much.

Trophies and Stars

NCTQ Gold Trophy for
NCTQ Gold Trophy for Strong Design

Nevertheless, NCTQ charges ahead and rates institutions by standard.  If an institution meets the standard (according to NCTQ), they are awarded four stars.  Nearly meet the standard= three stars; partly meet the standard and you get two stars; meet a teeny tiny part, one star.  No stars if the institution doesn’t meet NCTQ’s standard.

The “gold trophy” is awarded on some criteria to those institutions with a “strong design.”  And they get five stars!

Because there are so many sources of data, and because many institutions simply did not want to cooperate with NCTQ, there are serious questions about the results.

For example to check how institutions selected students for their programs, there is no way of knowing the relative importance of the data collected.  This is true for nearly all of the standards used by NCTQ.

Evaluating Student Teaching: You’ve Got to be Kidding

Mind you, there are 17 standards used to “rate” teacher preparation institutions.  Each standard is scored according a list of data sources.  To give you an idea, here is how NCTQ scores the Student Teaching Standard (#14 of 17)
Evaluation of elementary, secondary and special education teacher preparation programs on Standard 14: Student Teaching uses the following sources of data:
  1. Institutions of higher education (IHEs) handbooks pertaining to the teacher preparation program and/or student teaching placements specifically
  2. Observation instruments used by university supervisors in student teaching placements
  3. Contracts and/or communications between IHEs and school districts about student teaching placements
  4. Nomination or application forms of prospective cooperating teachers that are completed by school district personnel
  5. Syllabi for student teaching-related seminars or courses
Did our esteemed colleagues at NCTQ interview program heads and professors who actually work out the details of student teaching, internships, and school-based activities?  Did they interview students in teacher education programs and ask them their opinion of various aspects of their teacher preparation?  Did the NCTQ visit and interview cooperating teachers who mentor teacher preparation students?   No.  No.  No.

Junk Thought, Junk Science

Susan Jacoby, in her book The Age of American Unreason, helps us understand the quite pervasive phenomenon in which anti-rationalism and contempt for countervailing facts and expert opinions manifest itself as the truth.  Jacoby point out that junk thought can come from the right as well as the left.  Accusing each other of irrationality thrives.  But, she suggests that junk thinkers see “evidence as a tiresome stumbling block to deeper, instinctive ways of knowing.” (Jacoby, Susan (2008-02-12). The Age of American Unreason (Kindle Location 3798). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition).

The NCTQ report on teacher preparation is junk science.  The method that they employed in their study avoided data from the very sources that could help uncover the nature of teacher preparation.  These sources are faculty, administrators, students, and cooperating school districts and educators.  Without interviewing and observing teacher preparation programs directly, and without establishing a cooperative relationship with the these institutions, the NCTQ condemns itself to false claims, outright opinions that have little bearing on the nature of teacher preparation.

The conclusions NCTQ makes has nothing to do with the data they collected. Their conclusion is a political statement

The NCTQ is averse to evidence and scientific reasoning. Instead of reviewing the literature on teacher education programs, the nature of these programs, and what makes for effective teacher prep, the NCTQ starts with the premise that teacher preparation in the U.S. is a failure. They cherry pick studies in the literature (only a very few) that support their distorted picture of teacher prep, then use unscientific and nontransparent methods that are impossible to replicate. Honestly, I can’t figure out how they arrived at their rankings.

That is, until I read the two-page conclusion near the end of the report.

According to NCTQ, teacher prep institutions do not “arm” novice teachers with practical tools to succeed in the classroom. Mind you, the NCTQ study did not collect any data about “tools” that were or were not in the teacher prep curriculum, nor did the survey students in any program, or conduct site visits to see teacher educators at work.

Another conclusion NCTQ makes is that teacher prep programs make candidates show their feelings and attitudes about race, class, language and culture through in-class dialogue and journal writing. They never visited classrooms to observe these dialogues, nor did they read any student journals.  Again, no where in the report is there any data related to this politically charged conclusion.

None of the remarkable conclusions are related to the “data” NCTQ collected.

One more thing

Walsh and her colleagues really seem to have a disdain for teacher education. They believe that it is the job of teacher educators to train candidates for teaching much like the Teach For America (TFA) program does in its 5 week teacher prep program. NCTQ reels when teacher educators suggest that their mission is to prepare candidates, and not train them.

The NCTQ is a wonderful example of not only junk thought, but is the epitome of junk science.

What is your opinion on the NCTQ report on teacher prep?

NCTQ’s Assault on Teacher Education

In May 2012 and April 2013 I wrote articles on this blog about the National Council on Teacher Quality, and its haunting assault on teacher education.  In the May 2012 article, I reviewed the NCTQ’s study of assessment and how it is used in teacher preparation courses.  My assessment of the NCTQ report was to give them a grade of F.  In April 2013, I evaluated research “published” by Kate Walsh, head of NCTQ entitled 21st-Century Teacher Education.  The article was a preview of the NCTQ report on Teacher Prep, which claims to evaluate or rate nearly all institutions that offer teacher prep programs, except organizations such as Teach for America.  The NCTQ report is nonsense, and you can find out why by reading Linda Darling-Hammond’s article on National Education Policy Center blog.

This is a reprint of that April article.  The article was also published today by EmpowerEd Georgia.

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 3.39.13 PM

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) is leading the assault on teacher education in the U.S.

According to the President of this organization “Ed schools don’t give teachers the tools they need.”

NCTQ’s president, Kate Walsh, has led the assault  claiming that teacher education has no real authority because it lacks specialized knowledge. She writes about teacher education, yet she lacks professional training in educational research and has no experience as a K-12 teacher or a university professor. Her writing is not peer-reviewed, nor subjected to kind of review and analysis that the writing is by educational researchers,  or others scholars in the fields of art, music, history, political science, computer science, mathematics. Scholarly peer review Most journals use scholarly peer review to judge professional work, such as in medicine or political science, and done by experts in the field of the scholar’s work.  Think tank “research” is typically not peer-reviewed, and it doesn’t matter whether the organization is on the left or the right of the political spectrum.  When reading reports that are non-peer reviewed, we should be cautious about the facts, principles, theories and conclusions drawn in these reports.

Leading the Assault on Teacher Education

Leading the assault on teacher education is NCTQ.

The NCTQ was created by the ultra conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in 1999.  According to Anthony Cody, we gain insight into the NCTQ’s origin from this quote from Diane Ravitch which Cody included in his article, “NCTQ Prepares its Hit on Schools of Education.”  According to Ravitch, here is what the Fordham Foundation thought about teacher education:

We thought (schools of education) were too touchy-feely, too concerned about self-esteem and social justice and not concerned enough with basic skills and academics. In 1997, we had commissioned a Public Agenda study called “Different Drummers“; this study chided professors of education because they didn’t care much about discipline and safety and were more concerned with how children learn and not what they learned. TBF established NCTQ as a new entity to promote alternative certification and to break the power of the hated ed schools.

Screen Shot 2012-04-05 at 9.10.20 AMThis is not the first time that I’ve written about the NCTQ.  About a year ago I wrote a review of a NCTQ study on what teacher education programs teach about K-12 assessment.  In my review, I concluded that the researchers of the NCTQ study are stuck in a 19th-century model of teaching, and simply want to hold accountable, teacher education institutions to the principles and practices that teacher education rocketed through years ago.

In this blog post, I am going to focus on an article that NCTQ’s president, Kate Walsh published online at Educationnext entitled 21st-Century Teacher Education. The article includes one illustration of  a red “teacher tools” box with a very large lock with teachers standing near.  The teachers are unable to unlock the “tools of teaching” inside the box.

According to Walsh, Ed schools don’t give teachers the tools inside the box.  For a 21st-Century article about teacher education, don’t you think its odd to use a 17th – 18th century invention as a metaphor?

The article is full of opinion, and lacks any research basis for her views of teacher education.  Furthermore, the tone of the article unabashedly negative, and she seems to enjoy using violent and militaristic metaphors.

Yet at the same time, the article is important because it identifies the nature of the assault on teacher education.

The author of the article doesn’t hold back on her opinions of Ed schools. Here’s one comment that will knock you over. She quotes and agrees with a former employee of the National Institutes of Health, Reid Lyon, who would like to take the following action against Ed schools:

If there was any piece of legislation that I could pass it would be to blow up colleges of education.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, which is very close to several schools of education in Boston, this remark is simply outrageous.  (Full disclosure: I was born in Boston, and attended graduate school at Boston University)

Cherry Picking

Her assault on teacher education, beyond the bombing metaphor, begins with a cherry picking exercise in which she chooses a few sentences from a major research study carried out in 2006 by the most prestigious education research organization in the world, the American Education Research Association (AERA).  The major research project was Studying Teacher Education: The Report of the AERA Panel on Research and Teacher Education, edited by Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Kenneth M. Zeichner.  Walsh claims that the research was written by 15 prominent deans and education professors, when in fact there were 25 authors and panel members, only one of whom was dean.  The authors are prominent researchers and practicing teacher educators.

Walsh assumes that thinking about right and wrong (directions, issues, methods, content) is the way researchers in this volume of research think.  They don’t.  But she does.  And this is a major dilemma in analyzing anything that Walsh and her think tank has to say.

She claims that the AERA report outs teacher education by publishing a report that will give “balanced, thorough, and unapologetically honest descriptions of the state of research on particular topics in teacher education.” But, as I said, all she has done is pull a sentence out of a report of more than 800 pages.  Here is the complete paragraph containing this sentence:

This volume represents a systematic effort to apply a common set of evaluative criteria to a range of important topics in teacher education. It is our intention to provide balanced, thorough, and unapologetically honest descriptions of the state of research on particular topics in teacher education as a field of study. For many of the topics we considered, this meant that we needed to find and acknowledge the considerable inconsistencies and contradictions that characterize the field. Our reviews were designed not only to note this state of the field but also to explain why this is so and to evaluate both the strengths and the weaknesses of different questions and approaches as we simultaneously identified promising lines of inquiry.  (Zeichner, Kenneth M. (2009-08-03). Studying Teacher Education: The Report of the AERA Panel on Research and Teacher Education (Kindle Locations 230-235). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.)

Walsh has her own view of how teachers should be educated, and seems somewhat bothered by the depth of the research reported in the AERA study.  For the researcher, they’re interested in uncovering the nature of teacher education through inquiry, and then to use findings to document and encourage promising lines for further inquiry.  Walsh, beyond bombing schools of ed, has her own set of ideas that she thinks should be the substance of teacher education.

She claims that the volume demonstrates lack of credible research in teacher education. I don’t think she read the book.

For starters there are 12  chapters, and each chapter has between 100 – 200 citations, most of which are research studies published in peer-reviewed journals.  There is credible research in teacher education.  It might not be what Ms. Walsh wants to read.  For this book, all chapters “were vetted by scholars who brought independent expertise to the work and who had no stake in the panel or its report.”   Another words, it was peer-reviewed.  Walsh is not used to this kind of writing or research.  If she was, then her article as written on EducationNext wouldn’t have been published in any credible journal.

In the book, there are nine research syntheses that are used to highlight the current state of field in teacher education.  The “Executive Summary” which draws from three general chapters and the nine research reviews, might be valuable section of the book for “researchers” at NCTQ.

Teachers Should Be Trained

Walsh is upset with the fact that teacher educators don’t see teacher education as training.  (Disclaimer: I am teacher educator, and practiced teacher education at Georgia State University, Florida State, the University of Vermont, and the University of Hawaii for about 35 years, and I didn’t train anyone during that period, not even a dog).  She also objects to the concept or word “learning”, and can’t understand why teacher educators distinguish it from knowing real facts.  This is quite understandable, because she lacks the knowledge about how humans learn, and somewhere along the line missed out on a new field of inquiry known as the “learning sciences.”  Most teacher educators that I know and read embody the leaning sciences in their approach to designing teacher education curriculum, and teacher education courses.  The learning sciences is an interdisciplinary field that endeavors to further our understanding of human learning.  It is at the forefront of what teacher educators do, and unfortunately, Walsh doesn’t seem able or willing to entertain that thought.

Reading further into Walsh’s article, we find her take on methods courses in teacher education.  To Walsh, a methods course ought to send or give to the student what methods should be used to teach subject matter. Students should come into a methods course and be trained.  When Walsh found out that some of the top researchers in the field suggest that teaching is way to complex to be simply “taught” in courses based on a bag of tricks.

Walsh advances the achievement and authoritarian mentality of American education, and seeks to impose this view on teacher education.  Her conception of teacher education is simple when she talks about methods courses, and she seems bent-out-of-shape when she reads the research that the authors of the AERA research study report to us.

Teachers Should Not Be Trained

In an amazing chapter on the Research on Methods Courses and Field Experiences by Renee T. Clift and Patricia Brady, Walsh picks two sentences from their research, but reverses them in her article, and then doesn’t tell us the full context of the research.

Here is what is in the Walsh article about methods:

A methods course is seldom defined as a class that transmits information about methods of instruction and ends with a final exam. [They] are seen as complex sites in which instructors work simultaneously with prospective teachers on beliefs, teaching practices and creation of identities—their students’ and their own.”

If you go to the research chapter, here you will see how Walsh rearranged the authors thinking, and failed to give us the context:  Here is the full context and the two sentences highlighted:  (Note how she reversed the ideas.)

Across the four content areas, methods courses are seen as complex sites in which instructors work simultaneously with prospective teachers on beliefs, teaching practices, and creation of identities—their students’ and their own.A methods course is seldom defined as a class that transmits information about methods of instruction and ends with a final exam. Content-area researchers, often the course instructors, looked at multifaceted activities such as role adoption, personal relationships, and rationales for appropriating certain tools. Field experiences were increasingly connected to and embedded within methods courses and seen as extending coverage of concepts introduced in the methods courses. The field experiences provide prospective teachers opportunities to practice ideas or gain experience with concepts through small-group observations, tutoring, community experiences, and service learning in addition to observations and more traditional student teaching.
(Zeichner, Kenneth M. (2009-08-03). Studying Teacher Education: The Report of the AERA Panel on Research and Teacher Education (Kindle Locations 9825-9831). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.)

The first science methods course that I taught was a collaborative effort with my colleague Ashley Morgan, who became my mentor at Georgia State University.  After finishing my Ph.D. in science education and geology at Ohio State University in 1969, I started my career in Atlanta, and the course I taught with Ashley was centered in the classrooms of an urban elementary school in Atlanta.  Any conception that I had that a methods course was a training exercise vanished after working with Ashley Morgan at GSU.  Students in our course had continual experiences with children and youth and practicing teachers who worked with them on planning, teaching and evaluation.  For the next thirty-five years I was involved in developing and directing alternative forms of science teacher education based on theories of humanistic psychology, constructivism, and experiential learning.  Walsh would certainly not endorse the work we did at GSU. And in fact in the NCTQ Report on Teacher Prep, undergraduate teacher preparation was rated at the one start level, while at the graduate level, it was rated with 2 and 1/2 stars.  How they came to this is truly amazing since teacher preparation programs exists in several departments, and at the graduate level, teacher prep programs are offered as “fifth year programs,” such as the TEEMS program, or as graduate work for practicing teachers.

Ms. Walsh doesn’t realize it but professional teacher education research, just like professional medical education research, has moved from a focus on general or generic teaching behavior, to thinking and learning about the context of teaching.  In the chapter Walsh refers to in the AERA report (Research Methods Courses and Field Experiences), the researchers examined methods of research in the teaching of English, mathematics, science and social studies.  Their review informs us that teacher preparation, just like medical education, begins with the beliefs teacher candidates have about students, teaching and learning and helps students explore teaching (or medical practice) to the “instructional, interpersonal, social, and historical factors that come into play one begins teaching practice.” (Zeichner, Kenneth M. (2009-08-03). Studying Teacher Education: The Report of the AERA Panel on Research and Teacher Education (Kindle Locations 9839-9840). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.

21st-Century Teacher Education is the title of Walsh’s article, unfortunately, her view of teacher education set not in the 21st-Century, but more like the 19th-Century.  Teacher education is not the naïve view of Walsh’s.

Finding Teacher Education in the Marketplace

According to the NCTQ, students who aspire to teach should consider themselves consumers of teacher education, and using the marketplace model, they would be drawn to “high quality” schools.  The NCTQ wants to impose an “objective” measure of program quality.  Indeed they have the NCTQ Teacher Prep Review coming out in June, and it purports to rate teacher education programs across the country.  This new “consumer report for teacher education” will use admission standards, course requirements, content covered, how well students are prepared for the Common Core State Standards, the nature of student teaching, instruction in classroom management and lesson planning, and teacher candidates are judged ready for the classroom (Walsh, 2013.)  The NCTQ will also single out institutions that follow or track their graduates effectiveness on the achievement of K-12 student.

If this report is anything like the “study” they did of what teacher preparation programs teach about K-12 assessment, then it will not be based on critical research on teacher education such as the work of Linda Darling-Hammond in her book, Powerful Teacher Education: Lessons from Exemplary Programs.  This book was published in 2006, the same year that the AERA study was published.  I wonder why Walsh didn’t reference the Darling-Hammond book?

In Powerful Teacher Education, the authors name teacher education programs that have a long track record of preparing teachers who teach a range of students, and do it successfully.  In seven programs that they focus on, they all have the following in common:

an approach that prepares teachers to practice in ways that we describe as both learning-centered (that is, supportive of focused, in-depth learning that results in powerful thinking and proficient performance for students) and learner-centered (responsive to individual students’ experiences, interests, talents, needs, and cultural backgrounds). These programs go well beyond preparing teachers to manage a calm classroom and make their way through a standard curriculum by teaching to the middle of the class. They help teachers learn to reach students who experience a range of challenges and teach them for deep understanding. They also help teachers learn not only how to cope with the students they encounter but how to expand children’s aspirations as well as accomplishments, thereby enhancing educational opportunity and social justice.  (Linda Darling-Hammond. Powerful Teacher Education: Lessons from Exemplary Programs (pp. 7-8). Kindle Edition.)

Teacher education programs have embodied learning sciences research I cited earlier in this post, and so the field of teacher preparation is very different from that envisioned by the NCTQ.  Darling-Hammond, recognizing that teachers are not born to teach, and pointing out how complex and difficult teaching is, suggests that teacher education institutions must prepare teachers for “responsive practice.”  Finding out what really goes on inside teacher education programs was what her research was about.

The study that will be forthcoming from the NCTQ will not show anything about the real programs that they rate.  If they use the same methods that used in their earlier study, the new one will be written without visits to the universities, interviews with faculty or students.  And, indeed, NCTQ made NO Visits to teacher prep institutions.

One More Thing

Ethical and honest research in education more times than not brings to the surface conflicts and issues, that people like Walsh like to grasp and use as a weakness in the life of educational research.  Walsh is stuck in the very old model that the purpose of teacher education is train teachers to teach the facts of science, or math, and that Ed schools should be training factories turning out teachers who follow the orders from above to teach nothing but the facts.

The NCTQ‘s assault on teacher education is a well-financed effort whose goal is control teacher preparation, and take it out of the hands of professional educators, and turn it over to statisticians and politicians who want to ignore the rich field of educational research, and the work being done at many universities with school districts in their localities.  The research book published by the AERA that Walsh uses to degrade teacher education actually promotes a vibrant and powerful profession of teacher education.  Instead of blowing up Ed schools, we should be supporting efforts to explore multiple models of preparing teachers for our schools.

What are your conceptions of teacher education in the 21st-Century?  If you’ve read the Walsh article, what do you think of her views of teacher education?




Warning: If You Believe the Fordham Foundation on Their View of Science or NCTQ’s View on Teacher Education, You Should Check Your Eyesight. Really.

Warning: If You Believe the Fordham Foundation on Their View of Science or NCTQ’s View on Teacher Education, You Should Check Your Eyesight.  Really.

On this blog, I have reviewed earlier reports put out by these two oxymoronic organizations, the Thomas Fordham Institute: Advancing Education Excellence (Fordham), and The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).  You need to know that these are ultra conservative organizations, and that the National Council on Teacher Quality was formed by the Thomas Fordham Institute.

In this blog post I want to argue that the reports issued by these organizations on the science standards and on teacher preparation are nothing short of conservative propaganda put out by organizations with ties to each other.

Fordham Foundation Report on Next Generation Science Standards.

Here we go again.  The Fordham Foundation’s gang of seven has released it “Final Evaluation of the Next Generation Science Standards.”  The same group evaluated the NGSS when they were first published in June 2012.  The gang of seven does not seem to have 20/20 vision when it comes to research.  Instead they have an unchanging fealty to a conservative agenda and a canonical view of science education which restricts and confines them to an old school view of science teaching. Science education has rocketed past the views in two earlier reports issued by Fordham about science education standards, as well as the NGSS.  You can read my earlier reviews of Fordham’s lack of knowledge about science education here and here.

For Fordham to have the audacity to continue its effort to promote an honest discussion of science education is a sham.  According to this final report, the gang of seven used the same criteria is used to evaluate the science standards in the states.  They grades the states using A – F rankings, and according to their criteria, most states earned a D or F.

You need to understand that they, like many of the other conservative think tanks, believe that American science education “needs a radical upgrade.”  The gang of seven has consistently kept to this mantra, and in this final report of the NGSS, they find that we are in the same state, and that the NGSS gets a grade of C+.

First of all, you need to realize that Fordham has their own set of science content standards (General expectations for learning).  Follow this link and then scroll down through the document to page 55, and you will find their standards listed on pages 55 – 61.  When I first reviewed Fordham’s evaluation of the state science standards and the NGSS, I was shocked when I read the criteria that they used to analyze science education.

I found that the Fordham standards are low level, mediocre at best, and do not include affective or psycho-motor goals. I analyzed each Fordham statement using the Bloom categories in the Cognitive, Affective and Psycho-motor Domain.

Ninety percent of all the Fordham science criteria fall into the lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy in the cognitive domain. Indeed, 52% of the statements are at the lowest level (Knowledge) which includes primarily the recall of data or information. Twenty-eight percent of the Fordham science statements were written at the Comprehension level, and only 10% at the Application level. What this means is that the authors wrote their own science standards at a very low-level. In fact of the 100 statements only 10% were at the higher levels. No statements were identified at the synthesis level, which in science is awful. Only one science standard was found at the highest level of evaluation. Cognitively, the Fordham standards are not much to write home about. And it is amazing, given the low-level of the Fordham standards that any state would score lower than their own standards.

Then they used the same criteria to check the final version of the NGSS.

In my analysis I gave the Fordham science standards a grade of D. For them to use these criteria to judge the NGSS is absurd.

Yet, they keep saying that science education is inferior, and after a while, people begin to believe them.  For me, the gang of seven is not qualified to evaluate science education.  Yes, they have credentials in science and engineering, but they are woefully inadequate in their understanding of science curriculum development, or the current research on science teaching.

Many of the creative ideas that emerged in science teaching in the past thirty years represent interdisciplinary thinking, the learning sciences, deep understanding of how students learn science, and yes, constructivism.  The Fordham group appears to have had their eyes closed during this period.  Don’t believe their report.

NCTQ Report on Teacher Prep

The National Council on Teacher Quality report on Teacher Prep is more of an assault on teacher education and not an honest and ethical evaluation of teacher education programs.  Like the Fordham Foundation, they are research challenged, and cherry pick statements out of context from educational research.  Their research methods are not only challenged, but avoid the most important aspect of research in any field, and that is peer review.  The only peers that review their reports are in-house employees.

In this report on teacher preparation, the NCTQ is an “exhaustive and unprecedented” overall rating of 608 institutions.  Don’t be fooled by the extensive use of graphs and tables.   The methodology used to generate these is essentially flawed.   Its standards are lumped into four buckets (their term): Selection, Content Preparation, Professional Skills and Outcomes.

But here’s a big problem.  Instead of working with its subjects of study, the universities that have teacher education programs, the NCTQ relied only on a paper trail discovered online or in catalogues.  It did not visit these campuses to find out about teacher education on the ground.  In fact, many of the schools simply did not want to cooperate with the NCTQ.  As a result NCTQ had to used the open records law to get much of their information.  And as the report indicates, most institutions did not supply the “necessary syllabi” to do an adequate job assessing the institutions.  They also had trouble getting the institutions to give information on student teaching and student teaching policies.

The entire NCTQ report is based on “document requests.”  They even resorted to legal action to get forms from colleges and universities.  Can you imagine social science researchers taking legal action against students because they wouldn’t answer any of their interview questions?

The NCTQ has taken the liberty of evaluating the nation’s teacher preparation institutions without making site visitations, interviewing professors, students, and administrators.

Yet, the NCTQ claims to have done an independent review of teacher education in America.  Nonsense.  The report overwhelms in terms of charts and diagrams.  The problem is that the research method is limited in terms of making valid and honest evaluations of teacher education.

 What do you think about these two conservative think tank reports?  Do you accept the grade of C for the NGSS, and think that most of teacher education in America is anemic?


Teach Like Vladimir Vernadsky: Education as a Holistic & Dynamic System

I started going to the Soviet Union when it was the USSR in 1981, and for the next 20 years collaborated  with teachers and researchers, particularly Julie Weisberg, Phil Gang and Jennie Springer in the US, Sergey Tolstikov, Galina Manke, and Anatoly Zaklebny in Russia in a mutually designed and developed program, the Global Thinking Project (GTP).  The GTP is about how citizen diplomacy among American and Russian educators and psychologists emerged into a youth and teacher activism project.  During nearly 20 years of work, educators, primarily from Georgia, forged a hands-across the globe program with colleagues and students in Russia, and then partnered with teachers in other countries including Australia, Czech Republic, Singapore, and Spain.

The citizen diplomacy activity that emerged between American and Russian students, and between students in other countries as mentioned above, integrates Vladimir Vernadsky’s (1926) conception of the Biosphere and environmental education, the humanistic psychology and philosophy of Rogers (1961), John Dewey’s conception of experiential learning (1938), and Track II Diplomacy (Montville and Davidson 1981).

In this post I want to write about Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945), a Russian scientist, whose ideas really never made it into the west until the time of Mikhail Gorbachev.  The Biosphere, a book written by Vernadsky in 1926 was not published in English until 1998.  It’s available on Kindle here.  Vernadsky’s 150th birthday was celebrated in March 2013.

What does Vernadsky have to do with teaching?  That’s the question I’d like to explore in this post.  I am going to argue that the fundamental concepts underpinning Vernadsky’s view of the biosphere give the rationale for a holistic and dynamic conception of teaching and learning.

Dr. Anatoly Zakleny, Professor of Ecology and Science Education, Russian Academy of Education
Dr. Anatoly Zakleny, Professor of Ecology and Science Education, Russian Academy of Education

Anatoly Zaklebny, professor of ecological studies at the Russian Academy of Education introduced  us to Vernadsky’s work.  Anatoly is an ecological educator, author of ecological and environmental education teaching materials for Russian schools, and ecological teacher educator.  Anatoly understood and applied Vernadsky’s conception of the biosphere, and used the concept of Biosphere to design teaching materials for Russian ecological education.

Zaklebny was the chief scientist on the GTP, and participated in all aspects of the project.  We embraced Vernadsky’s holistic view of the Biosphere, which resists the mechanistic reductionist nature of Western science.  Vernadsky’s ideas were late in arriving in the west, and it was only in the 70s and 80s, that his ideas gained prominence in Western science.

Vernadsky’s Ideas

Lynn Margulis, biologist at the University of Massachusetts, and co-creator of the GAIA Hypothesis, in the introduction to the English translation of Vernadsky’s (1926) book The Biosphere, explained that Vernadsky was a great teacher.  According to Margulis, who discovered that interdependence and cooperation were the underlying themes in endosymbiosis theory (one organism engulfed another, yet both survived and eventually evolved over millions of years into eukaryotic cells), Vernadsky teaches that life has transformed the planet over eons.  She put it this way in her introduction to The Biosphere:

What Charles Darwin did for all life through time, Vernadsky did for all life through space.  Just as we are all connected in time through evolution to common ancestors, so we are all—through the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and these days even the ionosphere–connected in space.  We are tied through Vernadskian space to Darwinian time. (Forward, L. Margulis in V.I. Vernadsky, 1998, The Biosphere. New York: Copernicus.)

Russian Google Doodle for Vladimir Vernadsky's 150th year anniversary, 2013.
Russian Google Doodle for Vladimir Vernadsky’s 150th year anniversary, 2013.  Doodle posted by googlescribbles


Vernadsky explained that life, including human life, using energy from visible light from the Sun, has transformed the planet Earth for billions of years. To Vernadsky life makes geology. To him, life is not merely a geological force, it is the geological force. At the Earth’s surface, just about all geological features are “bio-influenced.” Although Vernadsky did not coin the word “biosphere,” his understanding and views are what are accepted today.
Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky
Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky

Vernadsky’s contributions and scientific contributions, especially the idea of “biosphere” are metaphors for thinking in wholes, and the connections that exist within any system that we study. This is especially true for the curriculum.

To Vernadsky, the biosphere is a biogeochemical evolving system. And according to Jacques Grinvald, the ideas was not welcomed by mainstream science. Vernadsky’s idea is the biosphere should be conceived from a geochemical point of view, and the Earth as a “dynamic energy-matter organization, like a thermodynamic engine” (Grinvald, p. 26). Conceptually here is the biogeochemical Earth is powered by sun.

Here we see the initial stage of the “earth system” concept, and again, Vernadsky is ahead of the game. To many earth science teachers, this is beginning of the earth system education approach, an approach that is holistic science education (see Nir Orion’s article on holistic science). Holistic science education is still NOT mainstream. Most curriculum standards are still written splitting science into compartments that are based on traditional college science departments. But that’s another story. But in this discussion, the main point is that Vernadsky was trying to integrate the disparate fields of biology, chemical and geology in his synthesis of the biosphere, while at the same time these fields were going their separate ways.

For teachers, Vernadsky’s ideas provide empirical support for interdisciplinary teaching and curriculum development.

The current standards based system of education is just the opposite of the kind of thinking that Vernadsky’s mind set out to discover.  Our current curriculum (math, reading, science, you name it) splits everything into little components and thinks that students at different ages and stages should accumulate these bits of information, and of course be tested to see if they have retained the bits.  Not in Vernadsky’s scheme.
Vernadsky was always combining fields of science.  Biology, chemistry, geology became biogeochemistry. He also founded fields including geochemistry and radiogeology.  Vernadsky’s thinking is literacy in synthesis, building wholes, construction, integrating, structure, and  cooperation.

Application of Vernadsky’s Ideas to Teaching

If we accept the Vernadskian view, teaching ought to be holistic and dynamic.  The curriculum for our students ought to be constructed into wholes, not parts, and we need to use a dynamic view of knowledge, and one that brings the students in touch with the world around them.
If you consider the following ideas of Vernadsky, then one can begin to conceptualize curriculum and teaching as fundamentally a holistic process.  Take a look at these ideas (see Vernadsky’s book, The Biosphere for more details):
  • Life occurs on a spherical planet.
  • Life makes geology—that is life is not merely a geological force, it is the geological force, and to him nearly all geological features at the Earth’s surface are influenced by life.
  • The influence of living matter on the Earth becomes more extensive with time. Increasingly more parts of the Earth are incorporated into the biosphere.
As teachers, I believe that Vernadsky’s work is essential, particularly to those teachers who work hard to help students become involved in learning from an interdisciplinary standpoint. Of course, in my view, Vernadsky’s views are deeper than the traditional approach to interdisciplinary education. Vernadsky believed scientists (especially Earth scientists) should explore the relationship between the development of life on Earth and the formation of the biosphere. To him living phenomena are at the center of geological formations. Vernadsky encouraged scientists to consider a holistic mechanism that unifies biology and geology.
It seems to be that his ideas should encourage us to think differently about our work with students.  I don’t believe  that thinking holistically, or in wholes are clichés, but instead they are based on empirical studies not only in science, but other fields as well.

One More Thing

Fritjof Capra, in his book The Science of Leonardo, argues that the true founder of Western science was Leonardo (1452-1519), not Galileo (1564-1642). However, it was the science of Galileo that influenced later scientists (Newton, 1643-1727) who stood on Galileo’s shoulders. Capra wonders what would have happened if these 16th – 18th century scientists had discovered Leonardo’s manuscripts, which were “gathering dust in ancient European libraries. You see, Capra shows that Leonardo’s view was a synthesis of art and science, and indeed science was alive, and indeed science was “whole.” Leonardo was ahead of his time in understanding life: he conceived life in terms of metabolic processes and their patterns or organization. Capra suggests that Leonardo, instead of being simply an analytic thinker, was actually a systemic thinker preceding the lineage established by scientists and philosophers including Wolfgang von Goethe, Georges Cuvier, Charles Darwin, and Vladimir Vernadsky.

What do you think are the applications of Vladimir Vernadsky’s ideas for teaching and learning?