Poverty, Learning and Nathan Deal’s Georgia Opportunity School District Assumes…

Poverty, Learning and Nathan Deal’s Georgia Opportunity School District Assumes…

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s Georgia Opportunity School District (OSD) assumes that replacing public schools with charter schools will improve the test performance of students in “chronically failing” schools.  Georgia governor Deal’s OSD is a copy of the New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD).

However, research presented by Professor Julian Vasquez Heilig, indicates that NAEP scores in math and reading in the New Orleans RSD schools were lower than the New Orleans public schools scores were before Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Yet, in spite of these results, the Governor of Georgia has been out campaigning to convince Georgia voters to approve the OSD, which is the first ballot measure on the Georgia ballot.

The Governor is convinced that the school alone can not only improve the test scores of “chronically failing” students, but that by doing so, poverty and crime will be reduced. And he campaigning using this unsupported claim.

This is simply not the way things work in the real world.

The question that politicians such as Deal ignore is what role does poverty play in the life and school experience of students?  Deal brings in the topic of poverty by claiming that improved test scores will somehow affect the poverty level of children in a school community.  He has it completely backwards.

Addressing Poverty, the title of a research chapter by David Berliner, Arizona State University in Federal Market-Based Reforms, (Mathis, W. J., & Trujillo, T. M. 2016) tells a very different story about the role of poverty in the life and educational experiences of our youth.

In fact, one of the outcomes of Dr. Berliner’s research was that “small reductions in family poverty lead to increases in positive school behaviors and better academic performance.

Poverty Research

Here are the other major outcomes of Dr. Berliner’s research.

  • Poverty in the US is greater and of longer duration than in any other rich nations.
  • Poverty, particularly among urban minorities, is associated with academic performance that is well below international means on a number of international assessments.
  • Poverty restricts the expression of genetic talent at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. Dr. Berliner suggests that among the lowest social classes environmental factors, particularly family and neighborhood influences, not genetics, is strongly associated with academic performance.  He explains that among middle class students it is genetic factors, not family and neighborhood factors, that most influences academic performance.
  • Compared to middle class children, severe medical problems affect impoverished youth.  As Dr. Berliner notes, this affects academic performance and life experiences (Berliner, David. “Addressing Poverty.” Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms: Lessons for ESSA. Charlotte: Information Age, 2016. 437-86. Print, Library Copy).

To improve the life and experiences of students in so-called chronically failing schools  the Governor needs to get out of the way, and authorize the Georgia Department of Education to create and fund community-based programs that improve the safety, health, welfare and financial health of families in these school zones.

The schools that Deal wants to target are not isolated entities but are part of a larger system of schools, community services, organizations, businesses, transportation, parks, recreation centers, and more  The school is part of a system and the best way to make improvements is to examine and strengthen the relationships and links within in the web of the system.

From Stand Alone Schools to Community Schools

The DOE needs to waive many restrictions on these schools, and work with school and local community leaders, very much like the Cincinnati plan.  In the Cincinnati plan finances were directed at communities as a whole, than simply using the notion that the school- alone can rescue struggling schools.

I believe the Georgia OSD is flawed and will not carry out the goal of improving test scores or any other aspect of student life. I don’t think Gov. Deal is flawed but he is acting without regard to the wide range of research that we have unearthed in the last decade or so.

Why the Governor has not consulted the Colleges of Education at any of the Universities in the state is a mystery and failure to utilize the research of world renown educators at Georgia State University and the University of Georgia, just to name two our higher education schools.


Why, in Georgia, hasn’t the DOE’s superintendent, Richard Woods, taken the courageous step by opposing Nathan Deal’s ill thought out and unsupported plan.  Is this because it could cost the Superintendent his job in the next election? If he did, however, he would standing  in good company with the previous Georgia School Superintendent, Dr. John Barge, who opposed a similar plan, and angered members of his own political party, but he continued to serve the citizens of Georgia with courage and conviction.

In the next few days we need as many of you to go the voting centers to cast your NO vote on Amendment one.








Infinity & Beyond: Unbounded Learning and Human Potential


geese Figure 1. Unbound Learning

Learning is limited by the test-based and standards-based accountability system that holds the reins on the curriculum of American schools.

One of the consequences of this system of accountability is the limitations it has imposed on the real curriculum that emerges in the classroom.  Learning is limited, and restricted to a set of performance goals that are crafted using technical language and not in plain language.  The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are full of technical words that student’s will be held responsible for learning.  In the end, the standards are “decontextualized” into discrete pieces that can be easily tested through multiple-choice high-stakes tests.

The Common Core State Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards set up artificial barriers that hold teachers to discipline-based content that may or not be related to the interests or experiences of their students.  By and large teachers are nonparticipants in the design and writing of standards.  But more importantly, teachers were not part of the decision to use standards to drive school science, mathematics, or English language arts, first.  That was done by élite groups of content specialists.

My view is that the standards movement is not in the best interests of students and their teachers.  But it is in the best interests of the organizations and people behind the standards movement. Who are these organizations, and how close are they to what really happens day-to-day in the classroom. Many critics of the standards movement point to the idea that it is corporate led by a very élite group of wealthy people that really don’t want to have an open discussion on the merits of common standards. Authoritative demands were issued by the US Department of Education in its Race to the Top Fund insisting that if states did not adopt the Common Core State Standards as part of their proposal for funding, then it could have negative impacts on the assessment of the proposal. Last minute deals were made in a number of states to accept this demand.

For example, here in Georgia, the state agreed to adopt the CCSS as part of its contract with the US Department of Education’s Race to the Top Fund.  Four years later, the Georgia Senate (SB 167) has set up a process that will likely lead to the abandonment of the CCSS, and has shut out any possibility for the adoption of the NGSS.  I have not been an advocate of the standards movement, but the actions of the Georgia Senate are politically motivated, and throw the curriculum of Georgia schools into stress, some say chaos.

Limits to Learning

The standards have been shown in research to limit teacher’s ability to design learning activities that meet the needs of their own students (Wallace, 2011).  Standards are authoritarian commands adopted by states and school districts outlining the content teachers are required to teach and students to learn.

In Carolyn Wallace’s study of the science standards in Georgia, she found that the current generation of accountability standards pose barriers to meaningful teaching and learning.  She says this:

The tightly specified nature of successful learning performances precludes classroom teachers from modifying the standards to fit the needs of their students.

The standards are removed from the thinking and reasoning processes needed to achieve them.

In every instance that standards are used, corresponding achievement tests are designed and use to measure student growth.  However, since there are significant numbers of content standards performances, it is impossible to sample all the performances on these tests.  Thus, any high-stakes test that is used to measure learning is limited in scope.  Indeed, there is no assurance that items selected correspond to the curriculum implemented by the teacher.

Unbounded Learning

Figure 2. Unbounded Learning. NASA
Figure 2. Unbounded Learning. NASA

Schools ought to be places that remove limits to learning, and instead find ways to help students push beyond their limits, and enlarge their human potential.  Although teaching to the outer limits of human potential is not easy, the philosophy of opening up to this possibility are powerful.

One way to do this is to democratize the curriculum.  School curriculum is the content-knowledge that is generated and legitimated by groups, usually by an élite social group (scientists, mathematicians).  For example, since the 1960s, the science curriculum has been designed by groups of scientists and educators at the national level to name content that is communicated as organizations or clusters of content knowledge.

To democratize the nature of school curriculum will need a shift in power.  As others have written, curriculum (standards) is decided by those in power–whether it is social, economic, or political.  In the standards era, the driving force for curriculum is college and career readiness, and the ability of the nation to compete in a global marketplace.  Using these two constructs, sets of performances (standards) have been devised as the “official knowledge” of the states.  In recent years, this knowledge in the form of the CCSS and NGSS has been published by one group, Achieve, Inc.

In partnership with the US Department of Education, the measurement of this official knowledge is done through two national testing consortia, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)  and SMARTER Balanced .  Each assessment is aligned to the CCSS, and each is designed to measure college and career readiness based on the CCSS official knowledge.

Teachers and schools have not been a part of any of this.  A very small group has created the “technology” and wield the power to limit curriculum and learning decisions in the classroom.  In one of a Alex Jacoby, explores suggests that in a democratic society curriculum of schools should not be legitimated by specific and special interest groups. (Jacoby, Alex (2005, November 22), Reenvisioning Education and Democracy. March 9, 2014, from http://www.macalester.edu/educationreform/publicintellectualessay/AlexJ.pdf

To many of us, the curriculum is far from being democratic.  As I’ve stated above, political and economic contexts are driving the curriculum based on the CCSS and NGSS.  Buried in the current push back against the CCSS and NGSS is the idea that curriculum is being more and more undemocratic.  Disclaimer: I don’t think this is the reason some are pushing back against CCSS and NGSS.  For some, the CCSS is a fascist or communist attempt to take over education led by federal forces. For others, there is no place in the science curriculum for evolution or climate science.  For others, any mention of federal or national immediately evokes rejection.

students_discussBut these groups are missing a more important aspect of the current dialog about the national or state-led standards movement, and that is the enabling of a few well-financed groups to influence the nature of American curriculum.

Jacoby explores the power sources that have shaped the current reform of education in America.  Basing some of his comments on the research of Michael Apple, he identifies two main forces.  He says (Jacoby, 2005):

The first force is composed mostly of the New Right pushing for an education that is rooted in classical Western culture and widely ignores multiculturalism and alternative views points. The other dominant force in undemocratizing of curriculum is the ever-present influence of Corporate America and its particular breed of capitalism with concerns only extending to the availability of new workers.

These two forces have directed the movement turning schools away from having a democratic curriculum.  In more and more instances, teachers are instructed implement curriculum they had no part in creating.  But more significantly is that we are teaching the skills and official corporate knowledge.  Jacoby puts it this way:

Problems with curriculum moving in this direction should immediately be obvious – these are not values we want our children learning! Students should not be learning about competitiveness, but rather should be focusing on skills that allow them to build consensus and to include as many of their classmates as possible. In attempting to foster democracy and develop skills for deep democracy in the class room, it is integral that students are able to interact with other members of society. As another example, curriculum is increasingly focusing on what corporations view to be high-value knowledge – discrete knowledge. In the system, workers won’t need skills like active listening or critical thinking, but rather will be to be able regurgitate information and facts.

Unbounded learning does mean a curriculum free-for-all, anarchy, or a muddle.  It means that instead of the authoritarian system of the CCSS and NGSS, curriculum becomes a collaborative, systems, and cooperative process that in the end helps student learn how to learn, and learn how to be participants in a democracy.  The artificial limits that are imposed on schools by an authoritarian standards-based curriculum, will be replaced with a more democratic and liberal approach to learning.

To what extent do think it is possible to move beyond standards-based curriculum and embrace more open and unbounded learning possibilities?


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?

Why Cooperative-Communal Classrooms Trump Competitive-Corporate Classrooms?

There are a lot of people in the U.S. who think that the only way you can decide whether students learn is with a test.  In fact, Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida, has decided to get involved in education in Texas.  Being a guru on testing, he backs the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) system, which calls for end-of-year exams in most high school courses.

Bush said this about testing:

If Texas taxpayers are going to invest in the classroom facilities and personnel to provide students with a physics or history class, it follows that they have the right to know how much students learned about physics or history.

He goes on to say that “the anti-accountability activists discuss ideas for improving schools, but ironically — without testing — lack a credible system of evaluation to judge whether they succeeded or failed.”  Bush thinks that the only way that teachers know if their students are learning is give them a test.  The research on assessment does not support this idea, but in today’s culture of schooling, that doesn’t count (no pun intended).

To their credit, Texas has not adopted the Common Core State Standards, but teachers are still held to an “assessed curriculum, grades 3 – 12.  The tests are based on categories of standards in each content area, and the tests are mostly multiple-choice questions.  For example the end-of-year test in chemistry has 52 multiple-choice questions. Each course ends with a year-end competition largely made up of simple and complex multiple choice questions.  This hardly comes close to “measuring” science inquiry or problem solving, important goals for all students.

So that brings us to the point of this blog post.  Let’s start with an analogy.

Competition is to Cooperation as: 

A) Biology : Contention
B) Business : Sport
C) Conservative : Progressive
D) Empathy : Community

Did you choose “C,” conservative : progressive?   Two models of teaching dominate teaching.  One is fixed in competition.  Conservatives like this model.  The other is grounded in coöperation.  Progressives like this one.

I am going to argue that the values that are implicit in coöperation and progressivism trump the values that ground competition and extreme conservatism.  In school, social interaction, interpersonal relationships,  and collaboration should be the foundation for teaching and learning.

Lets take a look.

Competition and Extreme Conservatism—->The Corporate Model

Having the competitive edge, being able to compete with peers around the world, and reducing the lagging achievement of U.S. students, especially in math and science are front and center for the current cohort of school reformers.  Competition and extreme conservatism lead to a corporate model of teaching.

Their reasoning is sustained by conservative values.  In their mind, how American student do on national assessments such as NAEP and international assessments including TIMSS and PISA answers the question, How are American students doing?  According to the corporate reformers, tests are the only way to answer the question.

As we have said on this blog, these reformers how American students compete in the global economy is the most important result of schooling.  To monitor student learning, these reformers have convinced the American public that the only way to be sure that the cows are getting fatter is to keep measuring them.    Learning in school has been reduced to teaching to the test, and the narrowing of the curriculum.

Figure 1. Corporate Classrooms

At the international level U.S. students are compared to nations that are very different in culture and size, yet reformers use the rankings in their assessment of science and mathematics education.  Its kind of envy syndrome in that in American culture being number one is the important mantra, especially in sport’s competitions, and now in international achievement test competitions.  If you look further into the concept of envy, it might help us understand the unreasonable emphasis on competition.  One definition is that envy is the propensity to view the well-being of others with distress.  Or envy is pain at the good fortune of others.  In the context of international tests, we probably have a superiority complex, and so when we see other countries’ students scoring higher than U.S. students, what’s a conservative to do?

At the school level, it’s even worse.  Schools, teachers and students are held accountable to some bureaucratic committee’s end-of-year high-stakes tests, like the ones mentioned above when I talked about Texas.   The nature of instruction, the way teachers interpret curriculum, and conservative values create a model of schooling that is narrow and stressful.  Since the No Child Behind Act, a system was put in place that makes it possible for bureaucrats to set up a climate in which schools, students and teachers can fail.

As seen in Figure 1, a variety of words and phrases describe the corporate classroom.  Some of the idea include rivalry, bout, go-for-the-gold, race (to the top?), warfare, fight, tournament. In what way do these ideas affect our classrooms?

Common standards, high-stakes tests, and measuring teacher performance on the basis of high-stakes tests establishes an educational system that is the antithesis of education in a democratic society.  This creates an authoritarian system of education with power concentrated at the top of various hierarchies, such as the U.S. Department of Education, and the various state department’s of education.

If you look the data that the Georgia Department of Education reports on its website on the Criterion Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT), you will find state, system and school summaries.  These summaries are Excel spreadsheets of  test scores, and the percentage of students that did not meet, that met, and that exceeded the “standard.”  You can find data for each grade level, for each school system, and every school in the state by grade level and content area.  You can have a lot of fun with these spread sheets.  You can rank order the school districts in the state based on CRCT scores.  You can also scrutinize each school system, and find the “best” and the “worst” performing schools.

The standards have a powerful impact on the day-to-day actions of teachers and students.  They are based on the CRCT.  Dr. Carolyn Wallace  speaks to these issues in a study,  Authoritarian Science Curriculum Standards as Barriers to Teaching and Learning: An Interpretation of Personal Experience published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching.   Wallace found that the authoritarian system of education in Georgia impeded teaching and learning. An important point that Wallace highlights is that teachers (and students) are recipients of the standards, and were not part of the process in creating the standards. By and large teachers are not participants in the design and writing of standards. But more importantly, teachers were not part of the decision to use standards to drive school science, first. That was done by élite groups of scientists and educators.

Wallace cites research studies that document the harmful effects of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on teachers and students, and especially students-at-risk. Wallace shows that NCLB has diminished teachers abilities to work professionally to interpret curriculum as it relates to the needs of their students. Wallace suggests that there is a consensus that the content and product nature of the standards (or curriculum) limits teachers’ pedagogy in that teaching becomes “less diverse, less contextualized, and less creative.” Teachers must teach the same material because it is discrete, and will be on the test.

The corporate model reformers are working very hard, and with a lot of money to privatize education, and remove the word “public” from public education.  There has been an outright assault on schools, administrators and teachers by the conservative reformers, and they have done a very good job of turning our schools into yearly achievement test competitions.

In George Lakoff’s book, The Little Blue Book, there is a chapter on public education, and how crucial education is for democracy.  Lakoff, however, points out that education is moving in a direction in which money is determining the nature of “public” education, and that  danger lurks.  He writes:

Given this understanding of education, it is natural to view even public education as a business. Schools whose students get good test scores are profitable. Teachers of those good students bring in profit and, like executives who earn bonuses, deserve merit pay. Schools whose students regularly get bad test scores are unprofitable and considered failing schools. Like divisions of companies that lose money, they can be closed down, and just as managers whose divisions regularly lose money stand to get fired, so do teachers whose students don’t get high-test scores.

The belief that students can only be motivated to learn through competition is a dangerous path to follow.  As Ed Johnson pointed out in a guest post on this blog, competition is the life-blood of the way much of schooling is arranged.  The use of grades, prizes, money, stars, happy-faces, and the like are all examples of the use of competition to “reward” the winners.  Here is what Ed Johnson had to say about how competition in learning such a destructive force in learning and teaching.  He writes here about an experience he had as a judge for a Social Science Fair in Georgia.  He says:

That day, the Social Science Fair Contest opened my eyes and forced my ears on so that I might experience learning competition among youngsters in a new, revealing way. I suspect it was the unmistakable expressions of dejection on the faces of the contest losers that made me see and hear differently. Even the second and third place winners strained to put on a happy face, which showed me they, too, saw themselves as losers. Moreover, I plainly saw that the “First Place Winner” had attained recognition at the expense of all the other contestants, a God-awful lesson for a child to learn about learning and, perhaps more importantly, to learn to see other human beings as obstacles to personal success.

We need to step back and look at the unintended consequences of using competition within and between classrooms, teachers, and schools.  Do we want to think of education as a process in which some are winners, and the others are losers?  I don’t think so.

Let’s take a look at an alternative.

Cooperation and Progressive Values—->The Communal Model

We often assume that Charles Darwin, the co-discoverer of the concept of natural selection, would name competition as the most important trait for survival for human being.  George Lakoff and Elizabeth Wehling discuss Darwin’s ideas about coöperation and write that,  “Darwin explicitly described empathy and coöperation, and not competition, as natural traits of humans and animals and as central to the survival of animal species.”

In fact, Darwin argued that empathy is crucial to species survival.  He said this about empathy:

As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races  (quoted in Lakoff, 2012).

Figure 2. Cooperation
Figure 2. Communal Classrooms

Cooperative and empathic values should characterize classroom teaching and learning.  We think of classrooms as social learning groups of students and teachers who can work cooperatively to solve problems.  We argue that competition for grades and approvals are not needed to motivate student learning.  In fact, using external motivators like grades and approvals does not motivate students to do anything more than ask, “Is it on the test?”

On the other hand, if students learn that cooperative activities, such as teaching each other, working on small projects together, and discussing and debating relevant content-related issues are relevant, then their attitude toward school, and their understanding of science will be enhanced.

Dr. Christopher Emdin, Professor of Science Education at Teachers College, uses the concept of  the “communal classroom” which involves students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community, and the collective betterment of the group.

In an earlier research study, Dr. Emdin collaborated with two of his high school students, Jessica Collins, an 11th grade high school student who lives in the Bronx, NY and has been a student-researcher in science for two years, and hopes someday to be a doctor);  and Lasleen Bennett,an 11th grade high school student who lives in the Bronx, NY.  Lasleen has been a student-researcher for two years. Her favorite subject is mathematics, and she wants to be a doctor, teacher or psychologist.

In their study, Exploring the context of urban science classrooms, published in Cultural Studies in Science Education, they contrast two ways to organize a classroom, the corporate way and the communal way.   To Emdin, 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.

Co-researchers Jessica Collins and Lasleen Bennett comment here on corporate and communal classrooms and give us their insights into life for a studenta in high school classrooms.

Jessica Collins

If things are more communal, you don’t have to worry about who is talking first or who is putting themselves out on the line. We all just talk, figure things out and learn because the classroom is more like part of life. People can get upset or in a bad mood but still figure out how to learn a concept. The communal is pretty much connected to the students’ environment.  You start to see that science is all around you. All of a sudden, everything you see, eat, taste, or hear has something to do with what you are learning in school when it all gets connected.

Under normal circumstances, the teacher gives you information then you have to give the information back. It feels like you are never really learning anything or thinking about it. It’s like we are machines that need to keep doing the same thing over and over again. There are no feelings and no emotions. I feel like if you don’t take care of a machine, it will eventually break down. The process works the same way for students. If you’re treated like a machine, some people will definitely just quit. For some other people, we learn to be more independent. It’s like we are treated like machines but because we go through that, we become strong enough to fix ourselves when we break down.  That is how we learn to survive.

Lasleen Bennett

The major idea that I am getting from what you’ve just said is about the communal and how it’s separate from the corporate. It’s the idea that what we do everyday does make sense and does count and can help the classes. I agree with that point completely. I also see how some people just don’t bother with school being related to the whole idea of being treated like machines. That is why I like being involved in coteaching. It gives me a chance to show that I can understand chemistry or biology enough to pass a test but also lets me teach my friends in a more appropriate manner.

In communal classrooms students’ ideas are accepted, and students are treated with the respect that they deserve, simply as being human beings.  Classrooms that are build around progressive values are more democratic, and more inclusive.  Students feel as if they are participants, not simply recipients of facts and information.  One of the high-school research students, Jessica Collins, speaks to this.  She writes:

The teacher has to be with students and learn their likes and dislikes and then bring what he learns to school to better the lesson. It means that you have to be involved in their lives. The corporate way is different and it really is the way that most of the classes that we are not interested in get run. The students don’t like corporate classes, and that will mean they won’t like the subject. At the end of the school year, the teachers start wondering why the students fail their Regents exams. It’s obvious that the reason is because the class was set up in a way that the students did not want to learn. Teachers should teach in a way that is best for students.  Otherwise, what is the purpose of teaching? The way to teach is about getting your point across in whatever way it takes for the student to understand. For me it’s like, teachers have to see the light whenever they stumble upon the key to their students’ comprehension.

Communal or cooperative classrooms should trump the corporate style of classroom organization that is based on competition and extreme conservative values.  In cooperative classrooms the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Indeed, because of the collaborative nature of cooperative-communal classrooms, there is a greater opportunity for students not only to learn science (or any other subject), but to teach science, and to embody science as a fundamental part of our student’s lived experiences.

In future posts I will describe the communal and cooperative model that I used in more than 30 years of teaching.

What are your ideas on ways to organize school?  Do think cooperative classrooms should trump competitively organized classroom?  Why do you think so?


Emdin, C., Bennett, L., & Collins, J. (2007). Exploring the contexts of urban science classrooms. Part 2: The emergence of rituals in the learning of science Cultural Studies of Science Education, 2 (2), 351-392 DOI: 10.1007/s11422-007-9057-x

Guest Post by Ingvar Stål: Humanistic Science Inquiry-Oriented Teaching in Finland

Note: This is the second post by Dr. Ingvar Stål, Senior lecturer in physics, chemistry, and science at the Botby Junior High School. In his first post, which you can read here, Dr. Stål gave us an overview of the Finnish educational system, which provides a basic education to all Finnish citizens ages 7 to 16, as well as a higher education.  In the first post, Dr. Stål helped us understand the overall structure of the Finnish educational system, beginning with basic education, grades 1 – 6, followed by lower secondary, grades 7 – 10, and upper secondary, 11 and 12.

Dr. Stål teaches at Botby School, Helsinki, Finland.  He conducts teacher training courses in science at Turku ( 92,6 miles or 149,02 km from Helsinki), School Resources.  He is also doing research in Science Education for his second doctorate at Interdisciplinary Science Education, Technologies and Learning (ISETL), School of Education, University of Glasgow, UK ( 1098,8 miles or 1768,3 km from Helsinki) under supervision of Professor Vic Lally.

In this post, Dr. Stål writes about the methods that science teachers use in Finnish classrooms by comparing the behavioristic teaching of school physics, which is teacher-centered (TCM) to the humanistic science inquiry oriented (HSIO) method, which student-centered (SCM).  This post is based on a research paper by Dr. Stål which you can read in full here.

By Dr. Ingvar Stål

In class, regardless of the country there is always a central figure – the teacher. The teacher knows how to work with students, in order to involve them in teaching process. The teacher is responsible for the organization of curriculum content for the students.  Therefore, the teacher must have appropriate education for this activity.

Finnish Science Teachers and Teaching

Dr. Ingvar Stål, science teacher and researcher, Botby School, Helsinki, Finland. Copyright © Botbyscience.com | Ingvar Stål 2008-2009

In the Finnish comprehensive school, teachers still have a respectable position in society. The education of physics teachers takes about 5 years and is carried out by local universities, and as additional training to obligatory specialization.

After this training teachers receive a Mastes Degree in a subject and a Teaching Certificate. For example, a teacher may have a Masters Degree in Physics and Certificate of Teaching in Physics at Lower Secondary and Upper Secondary Schools. In order to receive this certificate candidates must have at least 60 credits in Pedagogy Studies and Practice.

In recent years in the Finnish comprehensive schools there has been a shortage of Physics teachers. In the Finland-Swedish comprehensive school year 2008 only 57,1 % physics teachers had a Teaching Certificate [1]. There are several reasons for the physics teacher shortage: lack of candidates, preference to work as a physics teacher at upper secondary school due to problems with discipline and low level of curriculum content, low salary compared to the amount of work and responsibilities.

The common responsibilities of science teachers are as follows : teaching, preparation of lab work and demonstrations, ordering of material and instruments, design of assessment tests for students, maintain contact with students’ parents.

The teaching process in school physics is a teacher-centered activity. It means that the teacher is the presenter of physics content and students are the recipients.  In the Finnish comprehensive schools, the teaching of school physics and others school sciences is a variation of the three stage model of teaching: Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE [2]), and is described as the Teacher-Centered Model TCM [3, 4].
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