The Art of Mingling Practice and Theory in Teaching

This article is the Fourth in a series on The Artistry of Teaching.  

In 1896, the laboratory school of the University of Chicago opened its doors under the directorship of John Dewey (Fishman and McCarthy 1998).  Dewey’s idea was to create an environment for social and pedagogical experimentation.  Theory and practice should mingle, and the laboratory school as Dewey conceived it would be a place for teachers to design, carry out, reflect on, and test learner-centered curriculum and practice.

What is the relationship between practice and theory, and how does this relationship relate to artistry in teaching?

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying

In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.

If you can’t explain it to six-year-old, then you don’t understand it yourself

enstein_on_bikeIn my career as a science teacher educator, I valued both practice and theory.  But in my day-to-day work with people who wanted to be teachers, it was important to give a balance between practice and theory.  Indeed, in the first secondary science teacher preparation program that I had a part in designing, we engaged students in this program who held degrees in biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and engineering with students in elementary, middle and high school during their one-year program.  As Einstein also said, “if you can’t explain it to six year old, then you don’t understand it yourself.”

So, early in the student’s first quarter at Georgia State University, they found themselves co-teaching in an elementary school working with students ranging in age from 6 – 11.  We believed that if students in teacher preparation programs were going to appreciate and value educational theory, then they had to start from the practical, day-to-day experiences of elementary age students and their teachers.  In the “Science Education Phase” program, teacher education students followed the first term with an internship in a middle school teaching students ages 12 – 14, and then in the third “Phase” they did a full internship in a high school in metro-Atlanta.  The Phase Program, which was implemented from 1970 – 1983 prepared science and engineering majors to be secondary science teachers (grades 7 -12).

Because of the range of experiences with K-12 students that these teacher education students had, it was possible to mingle practice and theory, and help them construct personal and social knowledge about teaching and learning.

In Powerful Teacher Education: Lessons from Exemplary Programs, researcher Linda Darling-Hammond focused on identifying good (powerful) teacher education programs.  According to Darling-Hammond, they are rare.  In their research, seven programs were selected for intensive study (she makes the comment that there were many other candidates).  Case studies were written for Alverno College in Milwaukee; Bank Street College in New York City; Trinity University in San Antonio; the University of California at Berkeley; the University of Southern Maine near Portland; the University of Virginia in Charlottesville; and Wheelock College in Boston.  All of these programs “mingled practice and theory,” were characterized as learning-centered and learner-centered, as well as being clinically based.

Indeed, one of the characteristics of these teacher education programs was that the curriculum linked theory and practice, and one was not more important than the other.  In successful programs, which typically take more than a year of graduate work, there is a to and fro, back and forth between courses and field work.  The programs were also based on the idea that students build knowledge about teaching, and construct meaning from experience (observation, co-teaching, teaching), reflection, advanced study of pedagogy.

In the science education teacher preparation experiences at Georgia State University, students were immersed in a program that valued practical, field-based experiences and experiential learning in university courses.  Our theory of teacher preparation was to mingle practice and theory.  And, we believed that we should move in the direction of practice to theory, not the other way around.  We accomplished this in the TEEMS Program (Teacher Education Environments in Mathematics & Science) which was inaugurated in 1994 and is the teacher education program for secondary teachers at GSU.

In the past, students took education courses, and then “practiced” what they learned during student teaching.

Little to No Mingling in Teach for America

This antiquated approach, however, is exactly how the Teach for America program trains candidates for teaching.  Most of the TFA graduates then are placed in schools in urban or rural areas, in schools that could benefit much more with experienced and wise teachers.  There is not enough time for TFA to advocate a powerful program that mingles practice with theory.  They are exposed in 5 weeks to education methods and then parachuted into schools unprepared for the realities they will face.

It is one of the great tragedies of contemporary teacher education, that the Teach for America program prepares so many teachers, most of whom do not have a commitment to the teaching profession, but instead use these experiences as stepping-stones to something else, and on the backs of many citizens in poor neighborhoods.

Teacher education programs that provide intensive preparation over time actually challenge students intellectually while helping them learn hands-on approaches that help K-12 students learn (Darling-Hammond).

Back to School

One criticism of teacher education programs is that they are staffed with Ph.Ds that know only about theory, and little about practice.

Disclaimer:  I was one of those teacher educators for over thirty years, and I must say that my colleagues were very experienced in the practical realities of the K-12 environment.  I guess we had bad press.  But that should change.  Read on.

IMG_0173In a research project which was just published by Michael Dias, Charles Eick, and Laurie Brantley-Dias, entitled Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Educators: Practicing What We Teach, sixteen science educators went back to school and wrote important and astonishing autobiographical papers about their experience.  They all stepped away from their role as a science teacher educator and entered the world of K-12 teaching. They immersed themselves into the real lives of students and teaching, and in this process, experienced the complexity of teaching, and in some cases the difficulty in being successful in the classroom.  The project was the brainchild of Mike Dias, Charles Eick and Lauri Brantley-Dias.

One teacher education researcher revealed, “I lacked the essential knowledge that contributed to my immediate failure as urban, low-track science teacher.”  Another colleague found that because students were not used to doing hands-on activities, they became too excited leading to the breakdown of classroom management.  Another teacher educator realized that not taking into account students’ diverse backgrounds could lead to problems of mundaneness and disconnectedness.  And, another colleague points out that his biggest challenge was to take the content that he knew and teach it in a constructivist, hands-on way that very young students could understand (Hassard, J. (2014). Closing. In M.Dias, C.Eich, L. Brantley-Dias (Eds.), Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Educators: Practicing What We Teach (pp. 287 – 302). Dordrecht: Springer.)

So often teacher education is viewed as an ivory tower experience, with those preparing teachers having little knowledge or experience in real classroom actions and life.  No so with these science teacher educators.

There are 16 examples of teacher educators mingling practice and theory.  I don’t have the space for all of them, but I would like to highlight a couple of them here to support the importance of mingling practice with theory.  The following two accounts are based on (Hassard, J. (2014). Closing. In M.Dias, C.Eich, L. Brantley-Dias (Eds.), Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Educators: Practicing What We Teach (pp. 287 – 302). Dordrecht: Springer.)

Charles Eick: Realistic Teacher Education

IMG_0163Charles Eick gives us his insights into realistic teacher education, a model of teacher education based on the work of Korthagen and Kessels (1999), that draws upon constructivist and inquiry-oriented science education in which teacher education moves from practice to theory, instead of the norm for teacher education in which prospective teachers learn theory and strategies first, followed by practice during internships and student teaching.  In reality, theory and practice are entwined, and Charles provides ample evidence of this.

Charles Eick asked Michael Dias, from Kennesaw State University, to work with him as the lead collaborator in documenting his experience in the classroom.  The Eick/Dias collaboration provides a model for other science educators planning to return to school to “practice what they teach.”

Working together reflectively, Eick and Dias were able to describe for us how they modified the curriculum to meet the needs of their students by including more practical activities, activities that characterized Charles Eick’s middle school teaching when I visited him more than a decade ago, and Michael Dias’ high school biology classroom.  Together they decided that activities and projects including problem solving, engineering, societal issues, and seeking creative solutions by means of technology and creative arts were just the ticket to engage the students.

One of the important aspects of this chapter by Eick, and the others is the goal of democratizing teacher education by encouraging the “mingling of minds” (Robertson 2008).  By going back to the classroom, these teacher education professors show a willingness to change one’s views on teaching, and perhaps move away from ”ivory tower” disconnectedness to the real fulfillment of teaching which arises from daily interactions with youth.

As Eick points out, this is an important aspect of realistic teacher education. Eick explains how perceptions change when one commits to a realistic teacher education approach:

We learn to accept that the classroom teacher is the expert in practice and we are the experts in theory on how to improve the practice of others to maximize student learning. They live in the ‘real world’ and we live in the ‘ivory tower’. However, when one has become both the professor and the teacher through recent classroom teaching experience, this arrangement changes. These traditional lines begin to blur. Teachers in the classroom begin to see you as having expertise in both areas. You have earned the respect as someone who ‘walks the talk.’ And this fact not only enhances your professional credentials, but also allows entrée into further school-based research, collaborative work in teaching and learning, professional development, and many other possibilities for innovative arrangements that benefit both school and university programs.

Ken Tobin: Students as Partners

Students have a source of wisdom that many teachers value in their own practice.  Research by Ken Tobin shows how collaborative self-study can mitigate the top-down reform efforts that as he suggests, “ignore structures associated with curricula enactment and seem impervious to the voices of teachers and students.” Tobin’s discussion of co-teaching (cogenerative dialogue or cogen) is a model that is relevant when we think of mingling theory and practice, but more importantly of professors’ willingness to learn from others who typically would not have been considered sources of knowledge about teaching–high school students and teachers.  And in Tobin’s case, it was a teenager from an urban school, whose population was 90% African-American, and many of them living in poverty, that provided a way forward.  Tobin is quite open about his initial failure as an “urban, low-track science teacher,” and as a result recruited a high school student (as he had asked his teacher education students) for ideas on how to “better teach kids like me.”  Respect (acceptance & trust), genuineness (realness), and empathic understanding appeared to be crucial aspects of the cogen activity that emerged from Tobin’s struggle to work with urban youth.  Tobin puts it this way:

 Although it took us some time to label the activity cogen we created rules to foster dialogue in which participants established and maintained focus, ensured that turns at talk and time for talk were equalized, and that all participants were respectful to all others. The end goal was to strive for consensus on what to do to improve the quality of learning environments. In so doing all participants would endeavor to understand and respect one another’s perspectives, their rights to be different, and acknowledge others as resources for their own learning.

One intriguing notion to take away from Ken’s research was his willingness to give voice—listen–if you will, to students. Are we willing to listen to our teacher education students?  Could our courses at the university level integrate the principles of “cogen” such that students voice is lent to determining the nature of syllabi, agenda topics, and types of investigations?  Should our teacher education courses be co-taught with experienced science teachers?  As Tobin explains, “cogen is an activity that explicitly values the right to speak and be heard.  It is also implicitly based on democratic values, and on the ideas of Roger’s theory of interpersonal relationships.  Being heard is a progressive or humanistic quality that can create an informal classroom environment enabling students who struggle in the formal straightjacket of the traditional class, a meaningful chance of success.

Return to Dewey

I started this article referring to John Dewey and his wish to create environments for social and pedagogical examination.  A contemporary science educator who speaks the language of Dewey is Dr. Christopher EmdinEmdin is an urban science educator and researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University.  His research on teaching science in urban schools focuses on Reality Pedagogy.

Here is a video of Dr. Emdin in which he takes us inside of schools to show how the practical realities of students’ lives can be a part of school science.  Here practice and theory meet in real classrooms.

Like Dewey, Emdin’s pedagogy extends beyond any existent approach to educating urban (hip-hop) youth.  Emdin’s approach is a biographical exploration of how he mingled theory and practice in urban science classrooms (Emdin, 2010).  One of his ideas that resonates with Eick’s and Tobin’s accounts is this:

Becoming a reality pedagogue not only requires an understanding of the hip-hop students’ ways of knowing, but also attentiveness to the researcher/teacher’s fundamental beliefs.  This involves awareness that one’s background may cause the person to view the world in a way that distorts, dismisses or under-emphasizes the positive aspects of another person’s way of knowing.  This awareness of one’s self is integral to the teacher/researcher’s situating of self as reality pedagogue or urban science educator because an awareness of one’s deficiencies is the first step towards addressing them.  The teacher whose students are a part of the hip-hop generations must prepare for teaching not by focusing on the students, but focusing on self.  The teacher must understand what makes her think, where the desire to be a teacher come from, and what the role of science is in this entire process”(Emdin, 2010).

Teaching is not tidy.  It involves a willingness to try multiple approaches, to collaborate with professional colleagues, and students to work through the realities of teaching and learning.  Mingling practice and theory is a powerful approach to prepare any professional, including teachers.



The Wisdom of Practice

Latest Article on the Artistry of Teaching

Around 1990, I started working on a research project which was published as a book entitled Minds on Science (library copy). I was interested in exploring teaching from a humanistic and progressive point of view. One aspect of this project was to include “wisdom-of-practice” interviews with teachers that I had met from various parts of the country. I interviewed more than 20 teachers, grades 5 – 12.  An example of this kind of knowledge is expressed by Bill Blythe, an 8th grade physical science teacher, when he answers the question, “Is science teaching an art, a science, or both?

This seems like an easy question but I believe that it changes constantly. Good science teaching is based in the methods and best practices that have been developed over the years. Also, as I have progressed, I believe that I have become a more artful teacher in that it is not always the best move to follow a script. You have to follow your instincts to where your students take you. You have to be well-versed in the best practices but at the same time have the confidence in yourself to allow changes of direction and then use the art of teaching to bring you back to the science that you are teaching. The science is first and the art takes you to where you need to be; they must work together dependent on the circumstances (Hassard, and Dias, 2009, p. 21)

What I discovered was that teachers were vocal about pushing themselves to take risks in their classrooms, and that they believed that their multiple years of teaching contributed to their willingness to practice teaching as an art, and that the wisdom they gained, especially from colleagues, was a part of their professional development.

As you will find out, as you read ahead, teaching wisdom–insight, common sense, astuteness, experience, gumption, sageness, sophistication–is not fully appreciated nor understood, but is crucial if we believe that it is teachers who will lead us out of the present mire. Clearly, we will not be lead out of the present movement by corporatist reformers.

Howard Zinn  speaks eloquently about where wisdom is NOT, and points out how all social change takes place. He writes:

One of the things that I got out of reading history was to begin to be disabused of this notion that that’s what democracy is all about. The more history I read, the more it seemed very clear to me that whatever progress has been made in this country on various issues, whatever things have been done for people, whatever human rights have been gained, have not been gained through the calm deliberations of Congress or the wisdom of presidents or the ingenious decisions of the Supreme Court. Whatever progress has been made in this country has come because of the actions of ordinary people, of citizens, of social movements. Zinn, Howard; Arnove, Anthony (2012-11-06). Howard Zinn Speaks: Collected Speeches 1963 to 2009 (public library) (p. 59). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Zinn argues that education does not convey wisdom.  In his view, there are values that transcend centuries that are missing in school.  These transcendental values center on “human life, of concern for human beings, which are not limited to one historical period.”  In the present age, there are many things about which we should be concerned.  These include surveillance of citizens, insecurity created by capitalism run amuck, diminishing voting rights, and the corporatization of American eduction.

To push back against the corporate infusion of public education will need wisdom, risk, and courage.  These human attributes are not platitudes, but are everyday actions of teachers and administrators who not only reject the movement to privatize, “charterize”, and “voucherize” public education, but know that this movement is politically and economically chartered.  The movement to privatize education is not based on evidence.  It is based on the “cozy” relationships among corporations, especially charter management companies, and e-publishing ventures, and corporate family philanthropists including Gates, Walton, and Broad.

In the last article in this series, I discussed the corporate the communal approaches to teaching.  In research over many years, Professor Christopher Emdin, Teachers College, Columbia University, has explored teaching and learning in urban classrooms, primarily in New York City, based on communal classrooms.  In Emdin’s research, teachers who are willing to reflect on their own connection with students tend to embrace an approach to teaching in which students are given voice, and indeed take part in constructing what is learned, and how it is learned.  This approach is not only courageous and risky, but involves insight, understanding, experience, in short, wisdom.

Questions Unknown

Grant Lichtman, in his book, The Falconer: What We Wish We Had Learned in School (public library), provides powerful insight into the nature of teaching, especially the attributes of courage and wisdom.  His book provides a rich story of teaching based on his “conversations, trials, and testing in the classroom ranging over a period of more than twenty years.”  It is from reports by educators such as Grant Lichtman that we find out how courage and wisdom emerge from professional work.

Like Howard Zinn, Grant Lichtman doesn’t think that we are teaching our students what they really need to know.  He asks if there is a space or step in the learning process that we have not considered that transcends our fetish for the teaching of competency and knowledge.  He wonders if this hidden dimension might give students the tools of creation, invention, and wisdom.

One of the aspects of Grant’s book that I appreciate is that the central theme of his book is the importance of asking questions.  We have established a system of education based on what we know and what we expect students to know at every grade level.  The standards-based curriculum dulls the mind by it’s over reliance on a set of expectations or performances that every child should know.  In this approach, students are not encouraged to ask questions.  But, they are expected to choose the correct answer.

Where is the wisdom in this approach to education?  There is no where in standards-based curriculum where students are encouraged to take risks, or show courage.  They essentially are told to learn what others think is important without consideration of their community and personal needs and aspirations.

Teachers who have worked in schools for at least a decade have built up and constructed an understanding of teaching from their collaboration with colleagues (other teachers and administrators), and among their students, and their parents.  Wisdom emerges from these experiences.

In Lichtman’s view, education will only change if we overtly switch our priorities from giving answers to a process of finding new questions.  This notion sounds obvious, but we have gone off the cliff because of the dual forces of standards-based curriculum and high-stakes assessments.  Lichtman writes:

Questions are waypoints on the path of wisdom. Each question leads to one or more new questions or answers. Sometimes answers are dead ends; they don’t lead anywhere. Questions are never dead ends. Every question has the inherent potential to lead to a new level of discovery, understanding, or creation, levels that can range from the trivial to the sublime.  Lichtman, Grant (2010-05-25). The Falconer (Kindle Locations 967-971). iUniverse. Kindle Edition.

Grant’s thinking reminds me of a song that John Denver wrote called Calypso (YouTube), which was about the research vessel of oceanographic researcher Jacques-Yves Cousteau.  Denver’s lyrics of Calypso give another way to envision science teaching.  Here is the first stanza, followed by a YouTube performance of Calypso by John Denver.

To sail on a dream on a crystal clear ocean,
to ride on the crest of a wild raging storm
To work in the service of life and living,
in search of the answers of questions unknown
To be part of the movement and part of the growing,
part of beginning to understand, 

The Ecology of Wisdom

In this article, an underlying assumption is that continuous open inquiry is the path towards wisdom.  There are many examples we could explore to help us understand this process.  Perhaps, one of the most significant examples is the work of Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who coined the term “deep ecology.”  In a marvelous book (The Ecology of Wisdom, public library) that brings together many of Naess’ thinking, editors Alan Drengson and Bill Devall, suggest that Naess embodies the spirit of philosophy as a “loving pursuit of wisdom.”

How can we bring a “loving pursuit of wisdom” to public education?  There are many examples of how we can do this (please see Grant Lichtman’s book, The Falconer), but for this essay, I am going to focus on Arne Naess as depicted in Drengson and Devall’s book.

How can an ecology of wisdom become a part of American school culture?

One of the principles of learning that can be applied to teaching is the notion of deep inquiry, which to Arne Naess, reflects the real day-to-day work of scientists.  Unfortunately, when experts are commissioned to make recommendations for (science, or math, or history or literature) curriculum, they end up creating a book of knowledge arranged into topics and lists of performances.  In the case of science education, the latest rendition is the Next Generation Science Standards.  Although these recommendations include statements about values, methods, and approaches, the overwhelming result is that all students should learn the same science, in the same order, and on the same time schedule.

This does not create citizens who question, inquire, wonder about, or go out of their way to search for new understandings.  The curriculum in most of education is learning about stuff (or in many instances, learning what will be on the test), rather than capitalizing on “our spontaneous experience, which “in the world is far richer than we can ever say (Drengson and Devall).  They write:

Our spontaneous experience is so rich and deep that we can never give a complete account of it in any language, be it mathematics, science, music, or art.  Devall, Bill; Naess, Arne; Drengson, Alan (2009-05-01). The Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess (p. 20). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Naess believed that dogmatism was anathema to an ecology of wisdom.  He, like Lisa Delpit, advocate social movements and education supported by diverse people with multiple worldviews.  Schools that are diverse have an innate richness when all experiences are valued.  Because of corporate reform, schools have become increasingly segregated, thereby eliminating conditions for diverse worldviews.

Naess also was convinced that people (read public education students) with no special training are able to think deeply about the meaning of ideas such as freedom and truth.  One of my colleagues at Georgia State University, Dr. Bob Almeda, emeritus professor of philosophy, decided to find out if this was really the case.  During a one year period (in the 1980s), he taught a philosophy course for 5th graders at a local elementary school in DeKalb County, GA.  In the course, he engaged the students in discussions of a variety of moral questions, a different one each week.  He found that students were able to discuss birth, death, truth, freedom, and relate them to personal and social circumstances.  The students were at ease when they talked about such philosophical issues, and pursued their discussions with a sense of inquiry and knowing.  Too bad this kind of wisdom was missing when the Carnegie Foundation brought together scientists to decide the next set of science standards.

What students learn, to help them develop the ability to create, innovate and pursue wisdom, does not have to be laid out in bits and pieces, like it is in the Common Core State Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards.   Students are able to purse complex questions, and indeed, ask questions that are important, which will help them be active and participatory citizens in the democratic society.

To develop wisdom, Naess would suggest that education should involve students in social change, and engage them in real projects in which students uncover truths and knowledge.  This is just the opposite of the way school is organized today.  But it can be done.  It has been done.

For more than 20 years (1981 – 2002)  teachers, administrators and academics in the U.S., Russia (in the beginning, it was the Soviet Union), Spain, Czech Republic, Australia and other countries collaborated with each other to discover ways of working together that would benefit their students (Hassard, 1997).  This project was an environmental one based on citizen diplomacy and youth activism.  It made use of the Internet to bring disparate groups together. Through face-to-face exchanges of teachers and students and the Internet, hundreds of individuals worked together to create the project, which became known as the Global Thinking Project (public library).  As Dr. Jennie Springer, Principal and Associate Superintendent for Instruction in DeKalb County, GA said about this kind of work:

We must be scholars and activists. It is simply not enough to be scientists–that is to measure and calculate, but rather we must be willing to dedicate ourselves to causes–to be activists who are willing to commit to environmental and humanitarian issues.

But it was much more than a global project.  As Naess has said, people who want to live wisely realize that most environmental problems are not simply technical, but are also personal and local; they have community and global dimensions.  By bringing students and educators together from diverse families, the GTP was able to engage students in big questions: How can we work together to solve environmental problems?  How can we work together to end violence, improve social justice, to consider other possible solutions to problems?  In this kind of work, Naess would suggest that students would begin to act as if “anything can happen.”  The choices they make do matter, and their future is open.  He would call this being a “possibilist.” In the Global Thinking Project, the wisdom of students and educators led to student and teacher activism (for more information follow this link to the GTP Archive).

The ecology of wisdom, in Naess’ view, derives from the notion of deep ecology or deep questioning.  Crucial here is understanding that the quality of life depends on the quality of relationships.  If we design schooling based on the relationships of students with their local communities then we have the possibility of establishing school climates that foster deep understanding and wisdom.  A deep ecological perspective applied to education would reject the recent movements that seek to privatize education, and dictate what knowledge all students should learn (and be tested).  A deep ecological perspective would respect the worth of all people, and would prevent the predator behavior of wealthy people and their family foundations, and organizations (such as ALEC–please see ALEC Exposed) from encroaching public education.  Public education should be respected in the same way that we respect public grounds and spaces like national parks and forests.  The students and teachers who spend a lot of time in the spaces of public schools should be given the same protections that we have established for our public spaces.

Many people cherish those moments and memories of visiting a national or state park, and experiencing the peacefulness as well as the richness and diversity in these environments.  For many, wisdom is sought in these spaces.

So it should be in schools.  Students should find schools as environments that offer the same kind of richness and joy that they experience visiting a park, climbing a tree, or being with their friends in a coffee-house.

Eight More Things

Before we end this post.  The wisdom of practice is inextricably linked to the writings and doings of Arne Naess.  The common themes that Arne Naess and George Sessions described in 1984 are essential aspects of the wisdom of practice that so many teachers and administrators aspire. The list that follows is provocative. Could these themes be applies to education (Retrieved on 12 August 2013 from  

1. All living beings have intrinsic value.

2. The richness and diversity of life has intrinsic value.

3. Except to satisfy vital needs, humans do not have the right to reduce this diversity and richness.

4. It would be better for humans if there were fewer of them, and much better for other living creatures.

5. Today the extent and nature of human interference in the various ecosystems is not sustainable, and the lack of sustainability is rising.

6. Decisive improvement requires considerable changes: social, economic, technological, and ideological.

7. An ideological change would essentially entail seeking a better quality of life rather than a raised standard of living.

8. Those who accept the aforementioned points are responsible for trying to contribute directly or indirectly to the

necessary changes.  Devall, Bill; Naess, Arne; Drengson, Alan (2009-05-01). The Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess (p. 28). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

What do you think?  How would these principles, if implemented, affect the quality of education for students that you know?



Do Green Classrooms Lead to Artistic Teaching?

Second Article on The Artistry of Teaching

In this article we are going to apply the ecological work of Arne Naess to show that classrooms are places where we can find something wonderful and amazing happening among teachers and students.  In doing research for this blog post I came across an article on Education Week by Cord Ivanyi, a Latin teacher at the BASIS Chandler School in Chandler, Ariz.  He wrote a beautiful article on The Deeper Purpose of Learning: Satisfaction.  In a world of education dominated by the metrics of test scores, rankings, and comparisons, Ivanyi makes it clear from his years of teaching experience that we ought to consider other possibilities that happen in classrooms.  He writes:

There is more to education, however, and many of us recognize it, perhaps even lose sleep over it. When we sit down to nail down a perfect lesson plan, we sense it, that twisting thing, the fabric of connections—we to our subjects, our subjects to our students, our students to us. There is much more back there. I have spent a long time thinking about that tapestry, and many times, I have felt I was just on the verge of some sort of revelation, only to lose it again in a wrinkle or a fold.

Cord Ivanyi’s idea about a fabric of connections moves us to consider the whole of teaching and not trying to break teaching and learning down into components, especially components that can measured.  Policy makers have promoted a reductionist philosophy of teaching and learning to such an extreme that the only worthy goal of education is make sure that American student’s test scores are better than others, and that these scores rise each year to match the moving bar of “academic excellence.”  And just today, we read this headline: NY Standardized Test Scores Plunge Under New Standards.  Blimey.

Reducing Teaching to Measurable Components

For example, to test teacher performance most state departments of education have adopted reductionist models such as the Danielson Framework for Teaching, which reduces teaching to 22 components and 76 smaller elements organized into four domains of teaching (Planning and Preparation, the Environment, Delivery of Services, and Professional Responsibilities.  This is a classic example of reductionism.  And for reductionism researchers, the use of this kind of framework of teaching makes sense.

So, for a reductionist, the behavior of teachers in their classrooms is measured using a Danielson kind of framework by sending observers into the classroom to use the Danielson evaluation instrument to judge each of the 22 components on a scale of four levels: unsatisfactory, basic, proficient and distinguished.

The Danielson Framework is not a new idea. For decades, educational researchers have developed and implemented tens of “instruments” to observe and quantify teacher behavior.  Most of these instruments were analytic–teacher behavior was divided into categories or clusters of performance, as is done in the Danielson Framework.

And of course the most extreme reductionist measure is the quantification of learning by means of achievement test scores. Using the same logic used in evaluating teacher performance, student performance is measured using standardized tests which are based on content components and smaller elements that organized into domains of content in fields such as science, mathematics, social studies, and English/language arts.

In science, as an example, the Next Generation Science Standards breaks the content of science that students should learn into four big Disciplinary Core Ideas, (1) physical science (2) life science (3) earth and space sciences and (4) engineering, technology and applications of science.   Each of these areas is further broken down into discrete performance expectations.

To assess student performance, standardized tests composed of discrete, separate, and non-contextual questions are written and administered in the spring of the school year.  Student scores on these tests are assumed to measure what students have learned, indeed, what students know.  Then, using fuzzy mathematics, states that want to stay in the good graces of the U.S. Department of Education must use these test scores, and the consequential changes in test scores as part of the metric to evaluate and compensate teachers.

In the reductionist world of education, teacher and student performance is broken into easily measured atomic-size particles of performance.  Figure 1 is a Wordle identifying some of the concepts that drive contemporary education, which I have pointed out is fundamentally reductionism in action.

Figure 1. Elements Characteristic of Reductionist Education
Figure 1. Elements Characteristic of Reductionist Education

But here is the danger in this view of education.  It makes an assumption that the “skills” of teaching that the Danielson Group has identified is somehow related to student learning.  There is little evidence that such connections can be made, and if they can, they tend to be trivial (ask more higher order questions, wait three seconds before calling on a student, e.g.).   Danielson claims that her system is based on constructivist theory grounded in research.  But constructivism is grounded in ways of knowing in which the learner constructs meaning, and that education in this context should be negotiated among and between students and teachers.  Somewhere along the line, Danielson never came across the work of Dewey, Bruner, von Glassersfeld, Tobin, or Driver.  The Danielson evaluation and content standards (Common Core State Standards and NGSS) are reductionist conceptions based on behavioral theory, not constructivism.

There you have it.

The whole is more than the sum of its parts

Reducing teaching to 22 components of teacher performance and student learning to an endless list of standards has its limits.    There is another way to look at the world.  The world can be looked at as a whole, as a system.

A non-reductionist view, according Arne Naess and Edward Deming means that some things can have properties that are not explainable from the sum of their parts such as culture, brain networks, and ecosystems. These systems are based on many interacting components.

I am going to argue that using systems theory is necessary to avoid the simple method of reducing knowing to elemental particles at the cost of meaningful experiences for teachers and students engaged in the education system.

Teaching and learning is a system that more closely resembles complex systems, such as ecosystems, and as such, education should be viewed very differently than is now espoused by the standards and test-based accountability model prevalent in U.S. schools.  The continued application of reductionism to education is increasingly clear in the language of education policy makers.

Edward Deming and Arne Naess offer convincing evidence that thinking in wholes should be embraced especially when the discipline is complex such as ecosystems, cybernetics, systems theory, and education.

Aspects of Green Classrooms: Wonder and Place

Teaching and learning is a complex system, and if we think of it as such, we will come to realize that classrooms should be places that are full of connections for teachers and students to explore nature and the wide-wide world.

Classrooms should be environments that foster a sense of place and wonder for participants.  In the ecological view espoused by Arne Naess, the development of a sense of place is strengthened through a “tightening of the interrelation between the self and the environment.”

The classroom become a green.  It is an environment that embodies a sense of wonder and helps students develop a sense of place in connection with art and science, mathematics and engineering, literature and history, and so forth.

One way to envision a green classroom is shown in the Wordle in Figure 2.  You will notice that the words show a philosophy built on relationships and connections.   Many of the ideas help us think about wholes, rather than components and parts.  The students are explorers, unique, playful, and diverse.

Researcher and professor of science education at Teachers College, Columbia University, Dr. Christopher Emdin would describe this kind of classroom as communal and would distinguish it from the corporate classroom (as described in the section on reductionism) that is so pervasive in American classrooms.  In the communal classroom, students are given voice.  In the corporate classroom, competition is king, and there is little voice from teachers and students.

Emdin explains the corporate classroom involves students and teacher working with subject matter and functioning in ways that follow a factory or production mode of social interaction. The primary goal in corporate class mode is maintaining order and achieving specific results (such as the results generated by standardized tests). The corporate model is based on competition and extreme conservative values.

The communal classroom involves students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on inter-personal relationships, community and the collective betterment of the group.  The communal model is based on coöperation and progressive values.

Research that explores how collaboration is fundamental to learning has been the focus of many scholars in the field of science teacher education.  Researcher Ken Tobin has found that collaborative self-study can mitigate the top-down reform efforts that as he suggests, “ignore structures associated with curricula enactment and seem impervious to the voices of teachers and students.”  Tobin’s discussion of co-teaching (cogenerative dialogue or cogen) is a model that is relevant when we think of mingling theory and practice, but more importantly of professors’ willingness to learn from others who typically would not have been considered sources of knowledge about teaching–high school students and teachers (See Chapter 15 in Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Teachers).


Figure 2. A Wordle of the Green Classroom based on The Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess

In the green classroom, as interpreted from research by Tobin, Emdin, Dias and others, giving voice to all is implicitly based on democratic values, and the on the ideas of Carl Roger’s theory of interpersonal relationships .  Being heard is a progressive or humanistic quality that can create an informal classroom environment enabling students who struggle in the formal straightjacket of the traditional class, a meaningful chance of success.

Do Green Classrooms Lead to Artistic Teaching?

This is the question that started this discussion, and it brings us back to Cord Ivanyi’s idea that teaching is “fabric of connections” and there is a tapestry to teaching.   In a green classroom, interpersonal relationships, inquiry and a sense of wonder are valued.

There is no prescription for a green classroom, and there is no prescription for the ways that one would teach, and students would learn.  But there is the recognition that the process is messy.  The process is difficult.  One has to be courageous to create a communal classroom in the context of a world dominated by the corporatization of schooling.

What emerges in communal classrooms are teachers who take risks.  Teachers who listen to their students.  Teachers who are confident of themselves and are willing to explore unique aspects of art, science, mathematics, history, and literature in trying to engage their students in whole picture.

This is artistic teaching.


Is Teaching an Abacus or a Rose?

First article in a series on The Artistry of Teaching


Teaching is more immediate than reflective, and the artistry of teaching, much like creativity, comes to the prepared mind, sometimes serendipitously, more often as an invention or ingenious solution to an immediate problem.

Many of you will agree that teachers are closer to being orchestra conductors than technicians. Yet, in 2013, we are in the midst of a sweeping assault on teaching and the teaching profession by people who focus on test scores, efficiency, cost benefit analysis, achievement, and common standards.The argument, in The Artistry of Teaching, is that in spite of the corporatization of schooling, it will be teachers and other educators who will lead the way to restore schooling to its democratic ideals.

This is the first of a series of articles for an eBook entitled The Artistry of Teaching  that will be published over the next few weeks.

?The Abacus or the Rose?

There are some people who believe we teach science not because it nurtures the child’s imagination, but because it might help her get a job.  Reform in science education for the past two decades is based on the idea that American students receive an inferior education in mathematics and science, and as a result will not be able to compete for jobs in the global marketplace.  In this scenario, the purpose for teaching math and science is to get a job.  Furthermore standards-based reform coupled with high-stakes testing has morphed into a model of teaching in which “whadja get” is all that counts.  Achievement scores and changes in math and science is the barometer reformers use to decide whether they should take a happy pill, or not.

In this scenario, which also includes reading scores, the arts and humanities curriculum are pushed to the side, meaning that the only content worth studying is content that will make America economically more competitive–mathematics, science and reading.     Melissa Walker, Executive Director of JazzHouseKids, and Peter Smagorinsky, Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at the University of Georgia take issue with this new conception of schools, and suggest that arts programs (such as music) can serve as medium in which students develop a strong attachment to school, and develop positive relationships with peers and educators.  They also report that arts programs have powerful effects on student learning, as in this statement:

According to “The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies National Endowment for the Arts,” students with deep arts engagement are four times more likely to participate in extracurricular activities, including school government, yearbook, school newspaper, service clubs, and community volunteering. Prolonged engagement in the arts shows that student participants enjoy greater academic achievement and are better prepared for college. Dedication to artistic activities also contributes to better outcomes in their entry in the initial job market, and better alignment with professional careers.

In this view, school is more than a place to drill and test students on the content of mathematics, science, and reading, but a commons where student’s lived experiences are central to the nature the school’s curriculum.  It is easy to forget that schools are actually communities, and are places in which children and adolescents can thrive and be persons in their own right.  The arts and humanities should mingle with mathematics and science in the same was that John Dewey conceived it more than a hundred years ago.  School should be a humanistic environment designed with the interests of the child at the forefront.

Instead of viewing school as each community’s social, emotional, and intellectual commons, we’ve turned school into a political punching bag, as well as source of wealth for corporations and businesses who insist on charter schools, vouchers, and the privatization of the school management.  We have to reject this idea, and begin to advocate for teachers, who’ve known before they became teachers that schools are democratic and humanistic places where parents hope for the best for their children and youth.

Humanistic Virtues

In this article, and in the blog articles to follow as part of a series on the Artistry of Teaching, a different scenario will be  argued.   And it is that schools are the most important commons in a democracy, and that the school is a center for the development of the creative, artistic, humanistic, and intellectual capacities of humans.  School is a community resource that above all else should be an part of the life of children and adults in their neighborhoods.  In this conception, teachers and administrators will use their professional knowledge in a way that educates our youth.

So, in this post I am going to argue that teaching is an artistic endeavor.  As such, the central idea about teaching is this:

Teaching, like art or science, is an expression of a personal vision of reality, and the great breakthroughs come when the teacher invents a new vision, uniting previously unconnected details. In short, teaching is a work of imagination.

Another way to look at this is the argument that “those who can, do; those that can’t teach.” But Eric Booth, in his paper, The History of Teaching Artistry, suggests this might not be true.  He writes:

Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach—according to George Bernard Shaw, who also wrote that he never learned anything from a teacher, he taught himself everything; so maybe GBS had a little ax to grind. He got it quite wrong—the truth is that those who can do two things well, at the same time, in almost any setting, are teaching artists.

Teaching is neither art or science, it is its own discipline.  There is however, artistry in teaching and that is what we will explore.  The Abacus and the Rose sheds some light on this.

Science and Human Values

When I was a professor at Georgia State University, I taught a seminar for several years for graduate education students (all of them were teachers in the Atlanta area) entitled “Science and Human Values.”  I had designed the course for doctoral students, but to my surprise, each time I offered the course, it was filled with teachers who were in graduate school working on masters or educational specialist degrees.  The make up of the classes was diverse and included teachers K – 12 from most of the metro-Atlanta school districts.  The purpose of the seminar was to explore the human values that are crucial to science and art, and how understanding relationships between science and art can tell us about teaching.

17358I used two books to organize the course, each written by Jacob Bronowski.  The books were The Ascent of Man: A Personal View (including his 13-part BBC video documentary series) and Science and Human Values, three essays that Bronowski had given as lectures at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1953.  When the three lectures were published together as a book, Bronowski added a last section.  That section was a play he had written entitled  The Abacus and Rose.

The Abacus and the Rose was a radio drama written by Bronowski and broadcast by the BBC  in 1962.  It was then published by The Nation, and then Bronowski added it as the last part of his book, Science and Human Values.  Bronowski wrote the play to express his ideas on how common ground could be employed between science and philosophy, which had been explored by C.P. Snow in his 1959 lecture, The Two Cultures.

We used Bronowski’s work to explore the human values that underscore art and science and to relate this inquiry to the nature of teaching.  The course curriculum was based on Bronowski’s artistic creation as presented his 13 part video series, The Ascent of Man-A Personal View.  As Richard Dawkins points out in his forward to Bronowski’s book:

Who more than Bronowski weaves a deep knowledge of history, art, cultural anthropology, literature and philosophy into one seamless cloth with his science?

Although Bronowski didn’t intend it as the foundation for his book, his poetic view of science was a metaphor for our understanding of teaching as discussed by teachers in this seminar.  An understanding of science required connections to history, culture, literature and art, and clearly, as teachers we understood that this is exactly what teaching is about.  There is the desire in us to make connections, to inquire, to seek answers to our questions, and as teachers we can bring this attitude and philosophy to our courses and classes.

So, what does the Abacus and the Rose have to do with teaching?

Bronowski wrote the Abacus and the Rose as an extended note in which he discussed the theme that science is as integral a part of culture as the arts are.  Bronowski wrote this more than 50 years ago, and in my view, things have changed.  I would agree that science is an part of culture, but it is not more important in the life of students in school than the arts.  As we will see, The Abacus and Rose give us insights about the nature of science and the nature of art.  These insights, in my view, can open us to powerful conceptions as we relate these ideas to teaching.

The Abacus and the Rose is a dialog among three characters, and as Bronowski points out, there is a classical model for such a dialog, and that is the Dialogue on the Great World Systems which Galileo published in 1632.  Galileo created a dialog between two philosophers and a layman concerning the belief that the earth was the center of the universe, compared to to the idea that put the sun as the center.  It was more than that, as Bronowski explains.  It was a story about a deep issue that divided the culture, as our culture is divided today, especially about schooling.

Bronowski’s dialog takes place at a restaurant in Lucerne, Switzerland during the time that the three characters are attending an East-West conference on “some” cultural topic.  The three of them are in Switzerland on Her Majesty’s Government dime.

  • Sir Edward: Sir Edward St. Albish, who represents the Establishment, is urbane and maddeningly tolerant, fifty-five plus, Deputy Secretary to the Ministry of Education. Sir Edward’s character is based on C.P. Snow.
  • Harping: Dr. Amos Harping, represents the literary furies, feels helpless in a changing time.  He’s a reader (professor type) in English at a British university.  His character is based on Prof. Frank Leavis, a literary critic at Cambridge University.
  • Potts: Prof. Lionel Potts, represents science.  He’s a little smug–his success came young (think Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the DNA)–and is slow to realize that there really are other points of view other than that of the molecular biologist, about 42.

In their dialog, Harping and Potts argue with each other about the nature of art and science, with Sir Edward acting as critic and arbitrator.  Potts, the scientist, introduces the idea that there is an intellectual depth to the study of nature, as much as there is the same intellectual depth that literature  presents.  Harping couldn’t disagree more.  Potts goes further and suggests that nature provides profound experiences, and that those who delve deeply into nature become one with nature, experiencing a sense of awe.  This is what makes nature beautiful to the scientist, according to Bronowski.

Harping challenges Potts to give examples that show that science at the level of human activity is not very different from the arts.  Harping wants to be convinced that science is humanistic, believing that it is not.  Potts suggests that to make his point he will compare Rutherford (the scientist) and Rembrandt (the artist).  Potts explains that Rutherford and Rembrandt made something, and what they each made was personal and the result of interpretation and judgement.  At first, Harping has trouble seeing this.  Here is a brief part of their dialog:

Potts: Let me finish, Harping.  I was talking about fact and imagination, in physics and in painting.  You will agree that Rembrandt was a painter wedded to the facts.  In one sense, his paintings are an exact description of what he saw.  Rembrandt’s paintings are not photographs, certainly; but they are representations, and they were intended by Rembrandt (and accepted by those who commissioned them) to represent reality.  In this sense, Rembrandt’s paintings are every inch as factual as Rutherford’s description of his experiments.

Sir Edward: Go on.

Potts: But of course, Rutherford’s reputation was not made by his description of the experiments.  It was made, like Rembrandt’s by his interpretation: his interpretation of what lay hidden below the surface reality and which the experiment or the painting revealed.  One experiment, one painting, pointed to the next, until they wove together a network of interpretations which made a single image.

Sir Edward: An image of what?

Potts: In Rembrandt’s self-portraits, an image of himself.  In Rutherford’s atomic experiments, the extraordinary and unbelievable image of the atom as a minute solar system.

Facts and imagination, in Bronowski’s view, are fundamental to science and art.  For Bronowski, the artist and scientist are connected culturally and by human imagination.  Bronowski believed that art and science can teach us a great deal about human values.  Although his book, Science and Human Values was intended to help ferret out the values that compel the practice of science, he also said that he would have liked to have included discussions of those values that are not necessarily generated by science, including the values of tenderness, of kindliness, of human intimacy and love.

Bronowski’s thinking has profound ramifications for teaching.  Although I am not suggesting that teaching is a science, I think most of us believe that teaching is a performing art.  But teaching is deeper than simply saying that it is a performing art.  Teaching touches the deeper aspects of human existence, and teachers foster hope by helping students uncover aspects of themselves that lay hidden.

Teaching: Science or Art, Abacus or Rose?

I recently wrote an article on What Everybody Ought to Know About Teaching?  To answer the question, I wrote brief narratives of three educators that I know.  Bob Jaber was was one of the teachers featured in this post.

Coincidentally, one of the students that took the course on Science and Human Values that I taught at GSU (c. 1973) was Bob Jaber.

Bob Jaber was a high school chemistry teacher who taught in the Fulton County schools (Georgia) in the 1970s and 1980s.  I first met him when he took one of my courses in the science education graduate program at Georgia State University.    While at GSU he studied advanced graduate chemistry and science education.

Bob Jaber is not only a scientist, he is also an artist.  His work used mixed media to create textured art forms.  One of the art forms that he perfected was using colorful carpet samples to design floors, walls, and create poster size wall hangings.

Like Jacob Bronowski, Bob integrated science and human values in his high school chemistry classes. Like Bronowski, Bob Jaber believed that science can be part of our world, and can create the values that humanize our experience.  I learned from Bob Jaber that values and attitudes should be as important as the content that we are teaching.  But more than anything, Bob Jaber was a teacher who embraced the values of tenderness, of kindliness, of human intimacy and love.

Everyone should know this about teaching, yet, in the present day, we are breaking teaching down into dozens of components, and in doing so forget that there is something much more important about teaching.  Teaching is something much more than the way it might look on the Danielson Framework for Teaching which many districts are using to judge teacher performance.  Teaching is about the whole thing on so many levels.  It’s not about skills (although they are important to know), it not about lists of content spelled out in the standards, and it’s not about the tests that are given to students.  It is harmony and holism in teaching, and to teachers like Bob Jaber, teaching is a journey of  profound and enduring connections with students.

Perhaps teaching is an abacus and a rose.   What do you think?


The Artistry of Teaching

The artistry of teaching is a commitment to the idea that there is more to teaching than the application of principles of teaching that have emerged out of research and practice.

Eliot Eisner remarked that the artistry of teaching occurs in the interstices (space, opening, interface) between frameworks and actions (theory and practice).

The artistry of teaching is personal and specific to situations and classrooms, and is not necessarily the result of the application of theories.

Teaching is more immediate than reflective, and the artistry of teaching, much like creativity, comes to the prepared, sometimes serendipitously, more often as an invention or ingenious solution to an immediate problem.

Image by Theo
Image by Theo

But what is the artistry of teaching?  Is there an artistry of teaching?  Many of you will agree that teachers are closer to being orchestra conductors than a technicians.  Yet, in 2013, we are in the midst of a sweeping assault on teaching and the teaching profession by people who focus on test scores, efficiency, cost benefit analysis, achievement, and common standards.

Over the next two months, I am going to explore the artistry of teaching from both personal experiences, and collaboration I have had with hundreds of teachers and researchers, as well as the literature related to teaching.

The artistry of teaching is the underlying theme of two books, Minds on Science and The Art of Teaching Science, as well as this blog which has focused on progressive teaching, science education policy, educational reform, and the philosophy of teaching.  Much of the content of the blog posts will come from these books and this blog.

The plan is to publish a series of separate posts linked by the topic, The Artistry of Teaching.  There will be about ten posts, which will be published once each week, and then assembled as an eBook available on this blog for free.  I’ve outlined the theme for each post, and the Wordle shown in Figure 1 was made from the key ideas in my initial thinking.


Figure 1. Wordle of ideas that will be explored in the blog series, Artistry in Teaching.
Figure 1. Wordle of ideas that will be explored in the blog series, Artistry of Teaching.

On a personal note, for more than 30 years I have written about science teaching from a progressive philosophy.  In 1992 HarperCollins published the first edition of Minds on Science,  a book about teaching science. I had initially intended the book to be subtitled “The art of teaching science,” but that never happened because of a missed communication with the publisher.

In 2001,  I submitted a book manuscript based on Minds on Science to the eduction editor at Oxford University Press.  The book manuscript was titled The Art of Teaching Science, and under the editorial leadership of Maura Roessner at Oxford, the book was published in 2005.  When The Art of Teaching Science was published, I started the Art of Teaching Science Blog.

In 2008, Dr. Michael Dias, Professor of Biology at Kennesaw State University (Georgia) joined me in writing the second edition of The Art of Science Teaching. We  published the second edition of the Art of Teaching with Routledge Publishers.

The series of blog posts on the artistry of teaching will begin during the last week of July, and will run into September.  Look for a free eBook based on the series of blog posts sometime in early October.

In the meantime, I hope you will be on the look out for blog post #1 on the artistry of teaching.