Students Choose What to Learn: Freedom to Learn in the Science Classroom by Terrill L Nickerson

Guest Post: Terrill L. Nickerson

Terrill Nickerson is veteran high school science teacher with 26 years experience.  His first 15 years teaching science began in the Native American community, beginning on the Hopi Reservation in NE Arizona, and then on to teach at Santa Fe Indian School in Santa Fe, NM.  He is now teaching in various charter schools in New Mexico and Southern Colorado.  He holds bachelor degrees in Archaeology and Geology, a Masters of Science in Education, and is working on his Ph.D.  After several years as a professional archaeologist and paleontologist, and experiences writing curriculum for CDC, he pursued a career in science teaching.  Terrill says that because of the width and breath of his experiences, he is able to bring real-life experiences to the classroom, and use the practical science experiences he used in the field.  He brings project-based teaching to his students, involving them in designing data collection devices to be used in their own investigations.  His work in the Native American community led him to become a practitioner of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences.  He now teaches in a small rural, agricultural community, with a large migrant work population.  

Terrill L. Nickerson commented on a recent blog post, Instead of School’s Industrial Culture, Students Need the Freedom to Learn.

I contacted Terrill to ask permission to use his comments for a post on this blog, as well as a bio.  His bio is amazing, and his experiences shed light on how great teachers work.  This is a teacher who not only has degrees in science and education, but worked professionally in various fields of science.  His teaching experiences in Native American and migrant family communities supports the notion that good teaching is experiential and problem based.

Terrill explains that students in his classes thrived in an environment where they were given the freedom to learn and to choose what they wanted to learn.

As you read Terrell’s “letter” think of the ways your own experience as a teacher resonate with his.

I am sorry to come to your post so late. I am a high school science teacher with 26 years in the classroom. I am also a doctoral candidate (ABD) in Education working on my dissertation. Your humanistic approach sounds like an extension of John Dewey’s philosophical approach to education (this comment is not a judgement, just an observation).

Most of my teaching career has been involved with marginalized or underrepresented populations and cultures. I began teaching science prior to NCLB and Race to the Top. As such I started my career at a time that experienced a trend recognizing that the schools were failing to address the needs of the highest ability students. Teachers addressed large class sizes and mixed ability classes by teaching to the middle.

Teaching at a Native American School

Fortunately, I chose to begin my science teaching career by moving to a Native American reservation in central Arizona. Becoming immersed in another culture (literally, I was 90 miles from the nearest main stream population), I had to adapt an anthropological/humanistic approach to my teaching. It was imperative that I respect and honor the culture and inherent knowledge of my students, while still teaching main stream science. I am told that I was very successful in this capacity, so much so that I was recruited to teach at one of the best known and respected Native American schools in the U.S., the Santa Fe Indian School [SFIS], in Santa FE, NM. I spent the next 12 years teaching there.

All Students are Gifted

Figure 1. Santa Fe Indian School website
Figure 1. Santa Fe Indian School website

Now to my point about your article. Because of the venue I found myself immersed, I was asked to coordinate the SFIS Gifted and Talented program. At the time that I took over the program, the school was operating under a unique paradigm about the definition of Gifted and Talented. My predecessor, had just completed her Master’s on the meaning of giftedness in the Keres Pueblo cultures of New Mexico.

According to her research, the Keres language lacked any words pertaining to the word “gifted”. In the Keres language cultures, “all students are gifted”, it’s just a matter of finding their personal area of strength, competence, or interest. This meant that some children are gifted drummers, some are gifted singers, some are leaders, some are artists, etc. That is to say, everybody had a natural talent or giftedness. Therefore, the gifted program sought to recognize as many students as possible, recognize their talents and include them in the program.

Of coarse, this philosophy did not sit well with the state and federal authorities, who saw it as a way to milk Special Education funding (Gifted and Talented) into the school. The policy at that time was that no more than 5% to 10% of a population should fall into the category of giftedness. We succeeded in identifying and servicing about 30% of our students (7-12) as having some form of giftedness. Needless to say, this created a case load of about 120 students for myself and my colleague to service. We were subject to all the paperwork and requirements that accompanying any Special Education program.

Democratic Curriculum

The way that I found to address this was to create a special program, generically called the Gifted and Talented seminar. The class was team taught by my colleague and myself. Given the ranges of talents, abilities, and interests represented, my colleague and I decided to design the class on Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences philosophies (just coming into vogue then). Similar to your “Learn cloud Map”, my students democratically selected subjects they were interested in learning about, and then voted on which topic to pursue. My colleague and I then went out and gathered lessons, content and activities representing all of Gardner’s intelligences to form the curriculum. Everybody was given the opportunity to be an expert at some point in the unit. The “buy-in” was complete because they helped design the curriculum. It was very much like what you described in your article as “humanistic education”. Unfortunately, state and federal guidelines eventually forced SFIS to fall into line and alter their humanistic philosophy about Gifted programs.

I enjoyed your article and found a substantial amount for which I can relate. NCLB and Race to the Top has made my previous experience difficult to duplicate.

Terrill’s documents one way to give students the freedom to learn.  What are some ways that you have worked with students to “design the curriculum and in so doing the freedom to learn?

Is Inquiry The Magnum Principium of Teaching?

Seventh Article in the Series, The Artistry of Teaching

Is Inquiry the Magnum Principium of Teaching?  If it is, what is it and how does it help us understand teaching, especially if we want to explore artistry in teaching.

In our view inquiry is the sin qua non of experiential teaching and learning.  When teachers advocate inquiry, they are talking about a philosophy of teaching and learning that is rooted in social constructivism and humanism.  Inquiry evokes a sense of wonder, the subject of a book written by Rachel Carson, but published posthumously more than three decades ago.

A Sense of Wonder

humingbird.jpgBy the early 1950s, Rachel Carson was well-known and had a reputation as “poetic” writer based on the publication of Under the Sea Wind (her first book, 1941), Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955).  In his book, The Gentle Subversive (public library), M.H. Lytle explored the book that we all know about by Rachel Carson, Silent Spring.  In that book, Lytle explores how Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring ignited the rise of the environmental movement.  At the time, the pesticide and bio-chemistry industry was furious with Carson, and used an early version of “junk science” to impugn her research on the relationships between DDT and other insecticides on ecosystems, and on human health.  Frenzied criticisms came from the these industries, but because of environmental activists, the U.S. Congress passed the legislation banning DDT, and later created the Environmental Protection Agency.

Perhaps one of the most important legacies of Rachel Carson is her life devoted to asking questions and exploring the natural world, and from that writing about science, wonder and children.  Because of the financial success of her “sea” trilogy, Carson was able to leave the her full-time job at the Fish and Wildlife Service, and become a full-time writer.  She had spent two decades conducting environmental research as well as writing and editing wildlife publications.  Now, she was able to focus on writing about environmental problems resulting in the publication of Silent Spring.

But the publication that is most relevant here is her book The Sense of Wonder (public library).  Carson epitomized  the child-like quality that science teachers hope to evoke out of their students each day and each new year of teaching.  Carson spent most of her life exploring the sea, especially the coast of Maine.  Her life was one of inquiry–an exploring of the world, and a life dedicated to writing about her inquiries.  In 1957, after a family tragedy in which one of her nieces died, Rachel Carson adopted a five-year old boy, Roger Christie, and instilled in him, the sense of wonder she experienced as a scientist.  Her book, The Sense of Wonder (which was dedicated to him), is full of her experiences with Roger as they explored the beaches and woods of Maine, and made inquiry a day-in and day-out experience.  Carson was a teacher through her writings, and it seems to me that she would side with those teachers who are swimming upstream and in the words of Mr. Ed Johnson, against the “disintegrative mandates and effects from, such as, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, charter schools, Teach for America, and, yes, even corporate and philanthropic colonialists. (personal correspondence).

Emotions and Impressions

Carson wrote that “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.”  But Carson believed that all children a born with a sense of wonder.  She put it this way:

If a child is keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.

Screen Shot 2012-05-26 at 7.05.40 PMCarson goes on to talk about the world and suggests that what the teacher (parent, sibling, friend) can do to guide her, it to remember that it is “not half so important to know as to feel.  She said,

If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused—a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity admiration or love—then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.  Carson, Rachel (2011-04-19). The Sense of Wonder (Kindle Locations 97-98). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

Inquiry, in this light, is the magnum principium of teaching because it is instills an attitude and emotional sense of wonder and investigation that does not depend on techniques (although they are important) or specific methods (also important), but a deep sense of purpose as a professional educator.

Two of my most inspirational teachers did not use hand-on strategies, but they exuded emotional and inspirational attitudes.  They both believed in their students, and that every student in their class could learn and understand the content of their courses.  One was a professor of meteorology, and I can tell you that he never used a declarative sentence.  Every utterance was a question and a smile (Paul Westmeyer at Bridgewater State University, MA).

The other was Dr. Tom Lippincott, who was Professor of Chemistry at The Ohio State University.  He was one of the most humanistic teachers that I ever met.  He would warmly invite any student to his office after to class if they didn’t understand or couldn’t teach another what he talked about in class.  They each exuded a sense of wonder for their subject, and created an environment of inquiry in which we were searching for understanding in the sciences of meteorology and chemistry.

Practicing What We Preach

For more than three decades I worked with a community of science educators not only at Georgia State University, but at other universities in the U.S., and other countries, especially Russia, Australia and Spain.  It was quite clear that many of these science educators have strong beliefs that inquiry should be the cornerstone of science teaching.  And for many of them, inquiry was the magnum principium of teaching.

Yet, there was a gap between what was taught about teaching at the university and what actually happened in K-12 classrooms.  Were we ignorant of the complexities of teaching, or did we think that teaching theories such as social constructivism and inquiry-based teaching could overcome issues and realities of the classroom?

It wasn’t that these science educators didn’t have relationships with teachers and schools.  Many of these professors worked with their students in clinical experiences, and indeed, much of the research in science education over the past thirty years was qualitative and experiential.  Research was done in the context to real classrooms.

But, could these science teacher educators teach real kids in real schools?

Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Teachers (public library) is a new book that tells the stories of 23 science educators who left the confines of the university, and stepped into positions in K-12 classrooms to teach elementary, middle and high school students. (Disclosure: I wrote the closing chapter of the book, and so read each account and became very familiar with each experience.  The editors of the book, Dr. Michael Dias, Dr. Charles Eich, and Dr. Lauri Brantley-Dias were graduate students at Georgia State University while I was professor there).

The book is an autobiographical collection of papers written by science teacher educators who describe their experiences of going back into the classroom to not only share their successes, but to highlight the conflicts that they met in real classrooms.  For some of them it was very much like the first year of teaching that all of us have experienced at one time or another.

One of the most important ideas that I take away from their narratives is how the professional images of these science educators changed because they were willing to take risks, and work in a culture that was very different from the one given by academia.  By crossing cultures from academia to public school and informal science settings, these professors put themselves in the environment of teachers, who in many ways were more knowledgeable about the practice of teaching science and how students learn, than they were.

Challenges to Inquiry–Standards and Test-Based Reform

Trying out inquiry-based teaching, and social constructivist approaches was a central goal of most of these teacher educators.  One of the valuable contributions of research of this nature is the descriptive honesty of the writers who were not afraid to admit that teaching was difficult, or that they simply were not ready to meet the challenges of high school teaching in an urban setting.  Inquiry-based and constructivist teaching is not neat and tidy.  It requires professional knowledge and experience that are years in the making.

For those policy makers who think that all we have to do is raise the assessment bar, offer online courses, and hold teachers accountable to tests results that are unreliable and simply not a valid measure of teaching, why not try a month, or 1/2 year, or for OMG, one year of teaching in a classroom in any school in the nation.  There is pretty good evidence that their views about reform will change, and they might wake up and listen to educators and teachers who’ve been doing it for years.

The authoritarian standards and test-based reforms that dominate education policy are a challenge to science teachers who embrace an experiential and inquiry-based philosophy of teaching science.  In the writings of these science educators, inquiry, constructivist learning, and problem-based teaching were high on their list of priorities, and they wanted to test their philosophies in science classrooms.  Assessment policies for implementing standards-based reform may present barriers to inquiry-based science teaching.  This is a continuing issue that challenges the science education research and practice community.

The interplay of standards-based reform coupled with high-stakes testing has created a conundrum for science teacher educators that advocate inquiry and problem-based learning, and those that would submit that students’ lived experiences ought to be the starting place for science learning.  This interplay was addressed by a some authors in this book. Carolyn S. Wallace, Professor of Science Education, Indiana State University, in her chapter on policy and the planned curriculum, chronicles how policies and the standards-based accountability system created conflicts for inquiry-oriented teachers.  Dr. Don Duggan-Hass, Senior Researcher at the Paleontological Research Institute, Ithaca, NY, in his chapter, The Nail in the Coffin, tells us how returning to the classroom actually killed his belief in schooling (but not public education).

Carolyn Wallace on Inquiry and Biology Teaching

In a courageous and compelling chapter in this book, Carolyn Wallace takes us on a journey that in my opinion is a realistic portrait of science teaching in an American high school.  Going through the hiring process, and then being assigned to teach biology at the high school level, Wallace gives us insight about the conflict between the desired goal of teaching by inquiry within the context of authoritarian science curriculum and high-stakes testing.  Using a progressive teaching style that included a learning community orientation, questioning, active collaboration and task engagement, Wallace was ready to carry out reform-minded science teaching.  However, her account details a different picture:

As I attempted to implement innovation in my classroom and engage in discourse with other teachers about innovation, I often felt that I was “up against a brick wall.” Constraints of the mandated curriculum and testing regimes, along with social pressure to conform to the school culture, proved to be much more profound than I had ever imagined as a university academic.

The analysis of her day-to-day teaching experience was profound.  According to the critical realist social theory that she used to look at and explain the various structures affecting schooling, she indicated that the social forces most affecting her life as a biology teacher included the power of the state legislature and the state Department of Education to decide what she could do in the classroom.

Wallace outlines the dilemma that exists between the science education community’s enduring belief that science should be taught using inquiry and problem-based approaches and teachers are held accountable to a planned curriculum that doesn’t allow for flexibility and adaptation.  Although not an easy task, she was successful in wading through state standards and testing barriers, and was able to engage students in inquiry-based activities, which she describes in her paper, but always with an eye on the fact that the students would have to pass end-of-course exams.

A major implication of her experience for me is what she learned and shared about how the political climate, which is centered on high-stakes standardized testing, affects the day-to-day lives of science teachers.  As she suggests, more research is needed in this area, and there needs to be efforts to democratize the participation of teachers in the use of standards by enabling more flexibility and plurality.  Teachers need to be empowered to make the decisions that will lead to more open-ended and inquiry learning. Perhaps the “common” implementation of standards along with the accountability movement abates innovation and flexibility, causing administrators to be unwilling to be open to teachers adopting and modifying standards to reach out to the needs of their own students.  Carolyn Wallace explains that instructional goals that encourage inquiry are in direct conflict with the authoritarian curriculum, which by its very nature is rigid, technical, and decontextualized.

One More Thing

Artistry in teaching, as in any other creative enterprise, is not clear when we look at products (or test scores) because it is a non-linear process.  Real science teaching, especially if it is based on inquiry and constructivism is not the idealized version that the authors of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) had in mind when the NGSS was published earlier this year.  The facts of science “command” the central place in this view of science education, and that is an unfortunate set of circumstances.

In a new and provocative book entitled Ignorance: How It Drives Science (library copy), Stuart Firestein offers a powerful rebuke to a static (standards based) view of science.  In Ignorance, a course taught by Dr. Firestein at Columbia University, the focus, according to the website focuses particularly on what we don’t know.  Dr. Firestein imagines ignorance as a creative force in science, and indeed, ignorance is that space of the unknown that leads to provocative questions.  Science educators who advocate inquiry-based teaching are working on this edge if you will, between the known and the unknown.

Indeed, Firestein says this about ignorance, inquiry and questions:

Questions are more relevant than answers. Questions are bigger than answers. One good question can give rise to several layers of answers, can inspire decades-long searches for solutions, can generate whole new fields of inquiry, and can prompt changes in entrenched thinking. Answers, on the other hand, often end the process. Firestein, Stuart (2012-03-26). Ignorance: How It Drives Science (p. 11). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

By working within this framework, teachers bring to students a new framework for understanding science, but as importantly, themselves.  How better to help teenagers than to let them in on little secrets such as this one from Dr. Firestein’s book:

Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.  Firestein, Stuart (2012-03-26). Ignorance: How It Drives Science (p. 17). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

What do you think about inquiry-based science teaching.  Is it the magnum principium of 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?


What Everybody Ought to Know About Teaching

In this post I am going to share some thinking about teaching that I learned along my journey as a teacher from three people.  I future posts I’ll share thoughts about teaching from other people who I’ve met along the way. What everybody ought to know about teaching is a response to what Henry Giroux calls “critical pedagogy in dark times.”  Education is dominated by conservative and neoliberal paradigms which has reduced teaching to skills, economic growth, job training, and transmission of information.

What everybody ought to know about teaching is NOT about tips for teaching, but more about the nature of education in a democratic society.  As educators ought to be advocates for a critical pedagogy that, in the words of Giroux,

connect classroom knowledge to the experiences, histories, and resources that students bring to the classroom but also link such knowledge to the goal of furthering their capacities to be critical agents who are responsive to moral and political problems of their time and recognize the importance of organized collective struggles.  (Giroux, Henry A. (2011-06-23). On Critical Pedagogy  (Kindle Location 145). Continuum US. Kindle Edition.)

There are many people who influenced my teaching and professional work including Dr. Marlene Hapai, Dr. Joe Abruscato, Dr. Julie Wiesberg, Dr. Ted Colton, Dr. Frank Koontz, Mr. Francis Macy, Mr. Sergei Tolstikov, Dr. Marge Gardner.  Each of them taught me what everybody ought to know about teaching.  Mr. Bob Jaber, Mr. Ken Royal, and Dr. Carl Rogers are featured in this post.

I am going to start with Bob Jaber.

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.

Here is some of what I learned that everybody ought to know about teaching from Bob Jaber.

As well as scientist, Bob Jaber was 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, the British-Polish mathematician and scientist, 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.  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 or Flanders Interaction Analysis.  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.

Ken Royal

I first met Ken in the mid-1990s when he was teaching science at Whisconier Middle School, Brookfield, Connecticut. At the time I was conducting national seminars for the Bureau of Education and Research, and I met Ken at one of my seminars in Hartford. At Ken’s invitation, I visited his school and classroom, and actually presented a seminar at his school for science teachers in his district.

Here is some of what I learned that everybody ought to know about teaching from Ken Royal.

Two aspects of teaching jump out when I think about what I learned from this man.  First is his willingness to take risks, and try new stuff.  Second, Ken epitomized the experiential educator, who like Giroux believes that school should be a project intent on developing a meaningful life for all students.

His classroom was a model for the experiential science approach, and he was also a pioneer in the use of technology as a tool to enhance student learning in science. His students were involved in global conversations and research with students in at least three continents, and his students were posting results of their research using digital cameras and text at a time when the Web was in its infancy. His classroom was an environment where students were involved in active inquiry, and with the rapid development of technology in the 1990s, Ken was one of the leaders pioneering ways that this technology could be harnessed to help students get excited about science. He later became technology coördinator for the Brookfield School District, and then started writing as a freelancer about technology, and making presentations around the country. Scholastic saw one of his presentations, and hired him as senior editor in technology and teaching.  You can follow Ken on his website at Royal Reports.

One of his most popular blog posts is Flipped, Blended, Disrupted Nonsense!  It’s a must read.

Carl Rogers

Carl R. Rogers
Carl R. Rogers

While I was a graduate student at Ohio State University in the 1960s (yup, that’s right), my advisor, Dr. John Richardson, suggested that I read Carl Rogers’ book, On Becoming a Person.  You can read between the lines, but I think he had something in mind for me.  But later in my life, when I read what others have written about this book by Rogers–that it was revolutionary thinking–did I realize how significant Richardson’s recommendation was for me.

In 1969, the year that I finished my Ph.D. at Ohio State, Rogers published Freedom to Learn, the most important book published to date on humanistic education.  The book became the guide that I used as a professor of science education at Georgia State University, where I worked from 1969-2003.  It was a guide in the sense that it encouraged me to be experimental with my courses, and the programs that I developed, and working with others at GSU, had the gumption to swim upstream away from more traditional approaches to teaching and especially, teacher education.

Here is some of what I learned that everybody ought to know about teaching from Carl Rogers.

I learned so much from Rogers’ work, that I’ll only share some of the ideas that I think influenced the way that I designed courses, and programs at the University level, and in so doing encouraged K-12 teachers to consider Rogers’ ideas for their own classrooms.

One idea I want to share here is the notion of being willing to be experimental as a teacher, and to have the courage to try new ideas, and be willing to be open to the opinions and ideas of your students.  In Rogers’ book, Freedom to Learn, Chapter Two is entitled “A Sixth Grade Teacher Experiments.”  Rogers describes the despair and frustration that teacher Barbara J. Shield felt, so much so, that she tried a drastic experiment in her classroom by promoting an experiential type of learning in her classroom.  Rogers tells us that Shield decided to change the way she was teaching which she described as teacher centered to an approach based on student-centered  teaching–an unstructured or non-directive approach.  What’s important about this chapter is not the particular approach that Shield unleashed in her class, but the attitude and philosophy underpinning her wish to change what she was doing, and try out something that was new (to her), risky, and took courage, and support.

In the summer of 1973 I designed a graduate seminar at GSU for teachers that was based on Rogers’ ideas in Freedom to Learn, but especially, Chapter 2.   Teachers who took the course knew in advance that it was the intent of the course to encourage experimentation in their own classroom during the 1973-1974 school year.  About 30 teachers signed up for the course.  Our sessions were designed to explore a variety of pedagogics, and approaches to give the participants ideas to help them formulate their plans for the school year.  Some of the teachers actually took the experience of Barbara Shield’s and reorganized the curriculum of their course (usually in science) along the non-directive, student-centered approach.  Other participants delved into project based teaching, team teaching, collaborative and cooperative learning.  All the teachers agreed to collect “data” on their own and their students attitudes and concepts learned, but also to sample student work, as well as student journals.  In the summer of 1974, a second seminar was held at GSU (which met only for one week), where the teachers presented their work in a conference type of setting.

A second idea I want to share here that I learned that everybody ought to know about teaching comes from Rogers’ book On Becoming a Person.  The same chapter also appears in his book, Freedom to Learn.  The title of the chapter in each book is Personal Thoughts on Teaching and Learning (Rogers, Carl (2012-07-20). On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy . Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.  The very short chapter is a talk he gave at Harvard University, April 1952 where he was asked to put on a demonstration of “student-centered teaching.”  After taking some time painting, writing and photography in Mexico, he “sat down” and wrote a personal view of what his experiences had been with teaching and learning.  He said this about what he wrote:

I may have been naïve, but I did not consider the material inflammatory. After all the conference members were knowledgeable, self-critical teachers, whose main common bond was an interest in the discussion method in the classroom. I met with the conference, I presented my views as written out below, taking only a very few moments, and threw the meeting open for discussion. I was hoping for a response, but I did not expect the tumult which followed. Feelings ran high. It seemed I was threatening their jobs, I was obviously saying things I didn’t mean, etc., etc. And occasionally a quiet voice of appreciation arose from

Rogers, Carl (2012-07-20). On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy (Kindle Locations 4256-4260). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

What he said influenced me throughout my entire career as a science teacher educator, in my work as a seminar leader for the Bureau of Education and Research, and in my work with colleagues in other nations through the Global Thinking Project.  Here is just an excerpt of what Rogers said in 1952 in Boston at Harvard:

a. I may as well start with this one in view of the purposes of this conference. My experience has been that I cannot teach another person how to teach. To attempt it is for me, in the long run, futile.

b. It seems to me that anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential, and has little or no significant influence on behavior. That sounds so ridiculous I can’t help but question it at the same time that I present it.

c. I realize increasingly that I can only interested in learnings which significantly influence behavior. Quite possibly this is simply a personal idiosyncrasy.

d. I have come to feel that the only learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning.

e. Such self-discovered learning, truth that has been personally appropriated and assimilated in experience, cannot be directly communicated to another.

Rogers, Carl (2012-07-20). On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy (Kindle Locations 4283-4290). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

I took what Rogers said seriously, and to some extent acted on it while I was at GSU.  I did away with tests in my courses, because I agreed with Rogers that most of what we test is inconsequential, and as a result there was no reason for tests.  I couldn’t do away with grades, but I could create different systems in which grading was student-centered.  Here is what I did in nearly all my courses:

All class sessions were experiential encounters that were designed as informally as possible.  On the first day of class I arranged with the on campus food caterers to have coffee, juice, fruit and cookies delivered to my classroom just before class began.  Nearly all my students were full-time teachers, and after a full day of teaching, food and drink seemed to be the ticket.  In some courses, we took two weeks to work out the curriculum with the students.  In other courses, students were encouraged to try any of the activities that were done in class back in their elementary, middle or high school.  If special materials were required, such as ozone monitoring strips, or chemical powders, they were provided.

But in nearly all the courses, the only requirements that were expected were drawn from Rogers’ chapter on his way of facilitating a class as outlined in Freedom to Learn.  As Rogers points out, every instructor has her own style of facilitating the learning of her students.  And I also agreed that there is not one way of achieving this.  The requirements that I outline here, worked for me, and my students.   This is what I gave the students on the first day of class in the form of a handout.

Course requirements for students taking my courses at Georgia State University
Course requirements for students taking my courses at Georgia State University. Rogers, Carl (1961). On becoming a person. Columbus: Merrill Publishers 

What would you like to add about What Everybody Ought to Know About Teaching? Who influenced you, and what were the consequences in your professional work?

Hip-Hop Culture & Science Teaching: Progressive Education in Action

I’ve written several posts on this blog about Professor Christopher Emdin, Professor of Science Education, Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City.

Dr. Emdin has worked for years in New York City schools with urban youth to help teachers change the way they work with their students to bring real meaning to the learning of science.  The kind of teaching environment that Emdin suggests for urban schools is a communal one. Communal classrooms involve students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community and the collective betterment of the group. This type of teaching requires not only an understanding of the student’s culture, but the courage and willingness to create classrooms based on relationships, empathy, and understanding, and there is real evidence that to do this the best and most experienced teachers are needed.

Emdin provides insight for us as to go about being a teacher in urban classrooms. Because Emdin places great emphasis encouraging teachers to understand their urban students and he says this:

…it is necessary to understand how students know, feel, and experience the world by becoming familiar with where students come from and consciously immersing oneself in their culture. This immersion in student culture, even for teachers who may perceive themselves to be outsiders to hip-hop, simply requires taking the time to visit, observe, and study student culture.

Dr. Emdin suggests that classrooms should be viewed as a “space with its own reality.” In particular he urges us to focus on the “experiences of hip-hop participants as a conduit through which they can connect to science.” Using the concept “reality pedagogy” teaching in the urban classroom means creating a new dialogue where the student’s beliefs and behaviors are considered normal, and that the experiences within the hip-hop culture can actually be the way to learning science.

Dr. Emdin’s research and work with students is progressive education in action, and Emdin is doing the research to document his and his colleagues efforts.  According to John Dewey, learning environments that tend to be more informal than formal use elements of non-school learning that in the end bring the students closer to the [science] curriculum, perhaps making border crossings less hazardous. In this context, learning is tied to “use, to drama of doubt, need and discovery” (Fishman and McCarthy 1989).

Emdin has brought the culture of hip-hop into the classroom to create this kind of environment.   As Dewey, and now Emdin point out, in formal learning settings, scientific ideas & concepts are presented as if they were bricks, and we are tempted to try to pass out ideas, because like bricks, they are separable. Concepts are taught without a context, without connections, and without relevance to the students. Yes, there are some students who will learn science very well in formal environments. But many students, who will not benefit from such formality, thrive in informal learning environments. Working on topics of their own choice, collaborating in cooperative groups, or discussing the relevance of the content—each of these ideas will give to the informality of the classroom.

And this is the heart of Emdin’s work.  In this video, Dr. Emdin explains how he integrates hip-culture, the Obama Effect, and urban science education based on his theory of communal learning.

Recently Dr. Emdin published a ground-breaking book entitled Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation. The book provides essential tools for the urban science educator and researcher, according to the publisher. But it is much more than that.

Christopher Emdin say this about the philosophy that under-girds urban science education:

In urban classroom, the culture of the school is generally different from the culture of the students. In addition, a majority of students are either African American or Latino/a while their teachers are mostly White. Culturally, urban youth are mostly immersed in a generally communal and distinctly hip-hop based way of knowing and being. By this, I mean that the shared realities that come with being socioeconomically deprived areas brings urban youth together in ways that transcend race/ethnicity and embraces their collective connections to hip-hop. Concurrently, hip-hop is falsely interpreted as being counter to the objectives of school, or seen as “outside of” school culture.

In the current conversation about educational reform, and in particular, science education reform, the thinking reflected in Emdin’s book should be fundamental reading for science teachers and teacher educators, as well the corporate types that are aggressively pushing the corporate take over of schooling which relies on a very traditional model of teaching.

Hip Hop and Science Teaching–Reform from the inside Out

In a New York Times article , Dr. Emdin was interviewed about his new project, which will target grades 9-12, and will cover sciences ranging from biology to physics.  The program will use hip-hop to teach science in 10 New York City public schools.  In the NYT’s article, Emdin explains the nature of the innovation which will take place starting in January 2013:

 On a recent afternoon in his office at Teachers College, Dr. Emdin likened the skills required for success in science to those of a good rapper: curiosity, keen observation, an ability to use metaphor and draw connections. Moreover, he said, the medium itself provided a model that could be more effective than traditional science instruction, in which teachers stand in front of classes delivering information, then judge students by their ability to repeat it on tests.By contrast, in what is known as a hip-hop “cypher,” participants stand in a circle and take turns rapping, often supporting or playing off one another’s rhymes.

“A hip-hop cypher is the perfect pedagogical moment, where someone’s at the helm of a conversation, and then one person stops and another picks up,” Dr. Emdin said, his checked bow tie bobbing under his chin. “There’s equal turns at talking. When somebody has a great line, the whole audience makes a ‘whoo,’ which is positive reinforcement.”

The innovative approach to reform was initiated when Dr. Emdin met  a famous musician.  Here is how it happened:

Christopher Emdin is a Columbia University professor who likes to declaim Newton’s laws in rhyme.GZA is a member of the Wu-Tang Clan who left school in 10th grade. When the two men met this summer, at a radio show hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, they started talking about science and education — particularly, why science classrooms were failing to engage many African-American and Latino students, who together make up 70 percent of New York City’s student body.

GZA had recently completed work at MIT and Harvard to develop a solo album on the “cosmos.”  The two met later. They discovered a shared interest in merging their two worlds: GZA by bringing science into hip-hop; Dr. Emdin by bringing hip-hop into the science classroom.

The project will involve ten New York City high schools. According to the New York Times article,  starting in January, the 10 schools, with support from Dr. Emdin and his graduate students, will experiment with cyphers and rhymes to teach basic science concepts — one class per school, one day per week. The students will write rhymes in lieu of papers; the best rhymes, as judged by GZA, will appear on Rap Genius, beside the lyrics of popular hits. The program fits into a broader educational movement to use students’ outside interests to engage them in class work.

Dewey’s idea was to create an environment for social and pedagogical experimentation. The school was learner-centered, and the curriculum was organized as an interdisciplinary approach to education. Teachers designed activities based on a theory of growth stages, and the activities engaged students in self-development and mutual respect. Dewey advocated the idea that thinking was an active process involving experimentation and problem solving. He also espoused the idea that the school had a political role as an instrument for social change.

In our own view, Dr. Emdin has furthered Dewey’s ideas, and created a pedagogy that engages students in science using their own cultural knowledge and experience.  Now, that’s reform.

What are your views on Dr. Emdin’s work in science education with urban youth?