How Could We?

How Could We?

Like many of you I’ve spent the day after mourning for our country and the people who have been abused and threatened by the man who was elected over one of the bravest women that we could have had for our President.

How could we?

How could we elect the bully?

How could we enable  the press to rarely call him out and hold him accountable for stiffing the American people about his taxes, fraud, sexual assault charges, racist beliefs and actions, and his outrageous attitude toward women, and his endless lies?

How could we allow the far right into the White House through possible cabinet appointees?  It will be a rogues gallery of has-been politicians and corporate raiders.

How could we turn our backs on children and families?

How could we elect a person who thinks climate change is a hoax and will seek to remove the environmental protections that have been put in place since “Silent Spring?”

How could we enable the privatizers of public education to have a voice at 1700 Pennsylvania Avenue?

How could we not overcome the racism and bigotry that drove his campaign and turned his rallies into assemblies without hoods?

How could we open the door to the White House to a man who has assaulted countless scores of women, insulted and threatened people who have religious beliefs different from many of us, insulted Mexicans who seek a better life, and riled up the worst in Americans by threatening to build a wall along the Mexican/American border?

How could we?




Seventy-Five Years and Beyond: It Was All About Cooperation

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Right now I am at Fen Farm in the UK for a two week expedition with my wife searching for antiquities for our antiques business.  It’s been  an exciting and exhilarating experience over the past 15 years.

Tomorrow is the start my seventy-fifth year revolving around the sun on this 4.5 billion year old earth.

As strange as it may sound, I’ve wondered whether we and our fellow travelers on planet earth realize how cooperation has played a greater role in natural selection than competition.

Is this surprising?

Nearly everything I’ve done in my life has resulted from cooperative ventures with other people.  Very little was the result of competition  with other people.  Yes, I was engaged in all kinds of sports, playing and as well as coaching.  But the structure of these activities including teaching was a part of something bigger than me.  It was being part of a group or team or a class within a school where mentoring, tutoring and welfare of our brothers and sisters was the mark that made us alive and whole.

I’ull explore the intrinsic and natural laws rooted in cooperation that will be applied to the current mire caused by the neo-reformers who are driving education and learning into a monstrous game of winners and losers who are predetermined by the reformsters by gaming the competitive Olympics-type testing on multible-choice tests each spring.

I will write several article showing how the present model of teaching to the test is unnatural and unsustainable.

Today I’ll spend the day on an English community’s showgrounds shopping for antiques with thousands of others from around the world.  What could better than that?

To those of you who read this blog, I want give you a special thank you and kind regards.


5 Qualities of Systems Thinking and Communal Classrooms

Systems thinking teaching and learning can happen in any classroom, but it has a better chance of being successful when the school’s principles and policies are rooted in systems thinking.  However, as you will find out, the qualities that characterize systems thinking classrooms can be applied to any classroom.

Systems thinking schools and classrooms seek interconnectivity. They are based on partnerships. Partnerships with parents, collaboration among peers, including teachers and students. There is also a very powerful attempt to seek curriculum interconnectivity based on the lived experiences of students and teachers. For curriculum to be relevant, it needs to be locally designed and implemented by professional teachers and administrators who believe in the principles that follow.

Figure 1.  The classroom nested within a school which is nested within a community and the world at large.  Source: Senge, Peter M.; Cambron-Mccabe, Nelda; Lucas, Timothy; Smith, Bryan; Dutton, Janis. Schools That Learn (Updated and Revised): A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education (Kindle Location 522). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Extracted Jan. 29, 2014
Figure 1. The classroom nested within a school which is nested within a community and the world at large. Source: Senge, Peter M.; Cambron-Mccabe, Nelda; Lucas, Timothy; Smith, Bryan; Dutton, Janis. Schools That Learn (Updated and Revised): A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education (Kindle Location 522). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Extracted Jan. 29, 2014

One of the leading scholars in the field of systems thinking schools is Peter A. Barnard. He has written a ground-breaking book, The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (public library).  Relevant here are his comments about some of the values upon which systems thinking schools are based.  He writes:

Systems thinking is not the same as systems per se, but that systems thinking is liberating, creative, and elegant and that it removes the angst from the way people work. Systems thinking also harbors a profound and positive view of people, their creative ability, and their intrinsic nature and all of this makes it a joy to work with. It is a different way of looking at management and a better way of valuing and enabling people, and especially those who live out their lives in our schools.  Barnard, Peter A. (2013-09-19). The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (Leading Systemic School Improvement) (Kindle Locations 151-152). R&L Education. Kindle Edition.

Systems thinking schools (and classrooms) connect the boundaries that we have worked very hard to set up, especially in the West.  We divide or put everything into different boxes–science here, math there, social science over there, art and music way over there.  Even within the content areas such as science, we divide the world into the familiar subjects of earth science, life science, and physical science.  All of these separations, according Margaret J. Wheatley, are strange and unnatural separations.  In systems thinking schools, there is an overwhelming effort to see the world “anew” and when teachers witness teaching and learning that is based on connections, teaming, learning together, they often say, “this is so natural, its common sense.”  But to organize schools and classrooms as systems thinking environments means that we have to thinking differently and come to grips with  why learning is so dependent on connections, networks, interdependencies, social interactions, collaboration, and team work.

In this post I name five qualities of teaching and learning in a systems thinking classroom.  I’ve decided to focus on the “system thinking classroom,” perhaps one that is housed in a systems thinking school.

A systems thinking classroom can not be made by simply copying another teacher’s classroom.  Each classroom system is unique composed of 20 – 40 students  and one or more teachers.  In a systems thinking approach, the teacher is a leader, much like the principal is a leader of the school.  Yet, all classrooms in a particular school are part of that system, and tend to run in similar ways–in systems thinking speak: the system causes its own behavior.  This means that we have to set aside our old beliefs and realize that we do not have a teacher quality problem.  We have a systems problem. We have to look at the school as a whole process that includes parents, community and the knowledge society beyond.  (See Barnard, Peter A. (2013-09-19). The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (Leading Systemic School Improvement) (Kindle Locations 334-335). R&L Education. Kindle Edition).

A systems thinking classroom is a rich environment in which every student believes that they can be a learner and mentor with other students in their classroom.   The psychological organization of the classroom would lead to enhanced interpersonal relationships and students would learn to excel by participating in learning teams throughout the semester or year.  The learning of science, for instance, would be seen as not only a responsibility of the each student, but there would be an interdependent learning environment enhanced by mentoring, tutoring, and team work.  The class as a whole would take responsibility for learning, whether the course is science, mathematics, world history, anthropology, art appreciation, health and physical education,  integrated arts, English as a Second language, and so forth.

The Systems Thinking and Communal Classroom

It won’t surprise you, but a systems thinking classroom is what Dr. Chris Emdin calls a communal classroom.  Dr. Emdin, a leading researcher of urban teaching and learning, and Professor of science education at Teachers College uses the concept of “communal classroom.”  Dr. Emdin explains that 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.

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 teachers 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 cooperation and progressive values.

In this post I am going to explore these five characters of systems thinking/communal classrooms:

  • Learning
  • Tutoring
  • Student Voice
  • Team Learning
  • Assessment for Learning


Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 7.49.38 PMWhen you walk into a systems thinking classroom, you can smell learning.  It permeates the air, and the teacher has created a learning environment in which learning is a natural result of interactions and interdependencies among the students and teacher and the world outside the classroom.  Such a classroom is communal.

The teacher is not the only one in the communal classroom that is responsible for student learning.  Not at all.

This quote from Peter Barnard’s book (public library) gets at what we would envision in a systems thinking classroom, especially if someone asked the teacher who is going to make sure my child learns.   Perhaps this might be one way to answer the question.

When a child enters a school, responsibility for learning is a shared process, and there are many learning relationships that need to be enabled. System management and design must reflect this.  Barnard, Peter A. (2013-09-19). The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (Leading Systemic School Improvement) (Kindle Locations 2151-2153). R&L Education. Kindle Edition.

Years ago in one of my graduate classes, a high school mathematics teacher believed and put into practice Barnard’s notion of learning as a shared process.  He talked about his calculus class.  Someone asked him what was his approach to teaching calculus.  He said that he believed students would begin to learn calculus when they were ready.  I visited his class and realized that his informal style of classroom organization enabled students to move to and from calculus problems, and that students would seek each other out for tutoring and support.  There was also a sense in the classroom that everyone was in some way, involved in other student’s learning of mathematics. And this was in the 1970s.

There is another aspect of learning that is implicit in communal and systems thinking classrooms, and that is for teachers to make a conscious effort to shift priorities away from giving answers to helping students find new questions.  This idea is a fundamental concept of Grant Lichtman’s philosophy of teaching, and is described in his fascinating book about teaching and learning, The Falconer (public library).

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

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

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


In Peter Barnard’s (public library) investigation of systems thinking schools, one of the major conceptions for changing the landscape of schools was what he called Vertical Tutoring (VT).  VT is tutoring across different age groups–older students helping younger students.  But schools in the U.S. are organized horizontally, including home-rooms.  However, Barnard suggests organizing home-rooms vertically could have profound effects on learning.  He writes:

Home groups— what US education calls homerooms— become a mixture of students from different grades or years, and this small change, when understood at a systems level, sparks a whole sequence of amazing events throughout the school. It can kick-start a process of school redesign from the inside out. Such changes, however, have to be understood, managed, and values-driven.  Barnard, Peter A. (2013-09-19). The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (Leading Systemic School Improvement) (Kindle Locations 73-75). R&L Education. Kindle Edition.

supportIf your teaching high school biology in the U.S., however, most of your students are the same age, and same grade.  Is it possible to apply the concept of VT in a classroom where most of the students are the same age.  I believe we can.

For many years I conducted seminars on cooperative learning for middle and high school science teachers.  Although I developed three more seminars which were presented nationally through the Bureau of Education and Research (BER), my goal in each seminar was to involve teachers, sometimes in groups ranging from 50 – 150, in a collaborative learning experience which could be a pedagogical tool to involve students in tutoring.  In most cases, we advocated learning teams of four students, and this was done to give teachers concrete experiences in team learning and team problem solving.  But we also explored the value of splitting the four member team into tutorial partnerships.  In these partnerships, one partner could teach each other, listen to another attempting to solve a word or mathematics problem, quiz each other on the content that they were studying, select a question from their text, and ask one person to answer and the other to tutor by encouraging and providing clues to answer the questions.

There are many ways to carry out tutoring as a cooperative strategy to help students enjoy and learn at the same time.  Here is a link to a collection of cooperative learning methods suitable for student tutoring.

Tutoring is a fundamental aspect of systems thinking classrooms.  Although students will have to learn new interpersonal skills, in the end the classroom will be more interactive, and students will begin to see the value of teaching each other.

Student Voice

The systems thinking classroom uncovers a significant reason that will influence not only learning, but the attitudes and dispositions of people in the class.  That factor is student voice–the opportunity of students to present their ideas, and have their ideas and opinions heard.

One of the leading researchers in the field of science education is Professor Ken Tobin, Presidential Professor of Urban Education, City University of New York.  In a recent research study that was published as a chapter in Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Teachers, Dr. Tobin explored the idea of having student teachers recruit two high school students they were teaching to give feedback on their teaching and suggestions on how to “better teach kids like me.”  All prospective teachers in this urban education program used this system of seeking student voice.

Unfortunately, the usual method that we might use to seek student voice is at the end of a unit, or the end of the course when we “might” ask for their opinions and attitudes toward the subject, course, and the instructor.  This is not as transparent a system as actually asking students to meet with you, and discuss how to improve teaching.

Let me return to Tobin’s research.  He was interested in going back to the urban classroom as a teacher to explore the structures of schooling that are typically ignored by the top down reform efforts dominating American education.  Instead his goal was to find out how curriculum is enacted, what we could learn when the voices of students and teachers are heard.  Here was a professor who was willing to learn from others who typically would not have been considered sources of knowledge about teaching and learning–high school students and teachers.

I wrote the following about his research in a closing article in Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Teachers: Practicing What We Teach (public library) .

And in Tobin’s case, it was a teenager from an urban school, whose population was 90% African-American, and many of them living in poverty, that provided a way forward.  Tobin is quite open about his initial failure as an “urban, low-track science teacher,” and as a result recruited a high school student (as he had asked his teacher education students) for ideas on how to “better teach kids like me.”  Respect (acceptance & trust), genuineness (realness), and empathic understanding appeared to be crucial aspects of the cogen activity that emerged from Tobin’s struggle to work with urban youth.  Tobin puts it this way:

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

One intriguing notion to take away from Ken’s research was his willingness to give voice—listen–if you will, to students. Are we willing to listen to our teacher education students?  Could our courses at the university level integrate the principles of “cogen” such that students voice is lent to determining the nature of syllabi, agenda topics, and types of investigations?  Should our teacher education courses be co-taught with experienced science teachers?  As Tobin explains, “cogen is an activity that explicitly values the right to speak and be heard.  It is also implicitly based on democratic values, and on the ideas of Carl Roger’s theory of interpersonal relationships (public library).  Being heard is a progressive or humanistic quality that can create an informal classroom environment enabling students who struggle in the formal straightjacket of the traditional class, a meaningful chance of success.  (Dias, M., Eich. C., Brantlley-Dias, L. Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Teachers, Springer, 2013, pp. 291 – 292)

Teachers in systems thinking classrooms would involve students in giving the kind of feedback that will result in the improvement of the quality of life in the classroom, and open the possibility of implementing student ideas when they mean the most–now.

Team Learning

Cooperative-communal classrooms are aligned with fundamental ideas that have been formulated from nature.  Cooperation, empathy, mutual aid, and the interdisciplinary nature of the biosphere are fundamental concepts that are implicit in cooperative-communal classrooms. Each has its origin in nature.

Cooperation is an essential attribute of survival, not only among humans, but other animal species as well.

pusch_gtp_staged_pict2pictInstead of using the attribute of cooperation as a fundamental aspect of student learning, most classrooms use a competitive model to fulfill the goal of personal achievement, at all costs.  To make sure that one can measure achievement, élite groups have mandated single set of goals naming them common standards.  To date, we have developed common standards in mathematics, English/language arts, and science.  Concurrently achievement tests that are matched to the standards are being developed by two groups of test constructionists.  The tests, when they are ready for use, will be administered using computer technology.

Students do not learn in isolation, and their learning is not enhanced by competing with other students for higher grades, stars, happy faces, or even money.  In my view, learning is improved in environments where students are working together to build and share ideas through action on problems that are relevant to the student’s life experiences and cultural heritage.  As formulated by John Dewey, learning should be rooted in pragmatism resulting in school learning that is experiential and humanistic.  Cooperation should be a focus of the work of teachers in helping students “learn” to work with each other to tackle socially relevant problems.  Empathy and realism foster interpersonal relationships among students and teachers.

Thinking in wholes, and learning to use cooperation, one of the survival traits that evolved through natural selection, should characterize schooling for human beings living on the planet Earth.

Please follow this link for more details on team learning.

Assessment for Learning

Peter Barnard devotes the last chapter of his book to the subject of “assessment for learning.”  In most of our schools, assessment too often is reported as a grade, a test score, or a ranking, none of which give students or their parents information to interpret what these mean in terms of student learning.

Bernard highlights this kind of assessment, and especially in the context of the current linear model of schools.  He says:

In the linear model, it is left for the parents to somehow do the summative job, but with almost no relevant data available to them. This is not easy given the jargon, the grades, and restricted language that schools increasingly use to presumably keep parents at bay! They receive limited information at the time it cannot be used!  Barnard, Peter A. (2013-09-19). The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (Leading Systemic School Improvement) (Kindle Locations 2732-2734). R&L Education. Kindle Edition.

Bernard says that in our penchant to test, the classroom becomes “test-dominant,” and what is lost is the intrinsic nature of real learning.  Teachers and students (and rightly so, parents) are stressed and burdened by testing, so much so that parents around the country are protesting, and indeed opting their children out of high-stakes testing.  Some superintendents, school boards, and teacher unions are calling for a moratorium on high-stakes testing, but little has been done.

Yet, classroom teachers have known (it seems forever) that end-of-year tests do not lead to conversation that students and parents need to help them improve their learning.  Teachers know that they need to use both summative (end of unit or end of year) assessments, and formative assessments. Formative assessments are the everyday methods that teachers use to help their students improve their learning and understanding.

Assessment for learning is formative assessment. Formative assessments are everyday methods that teachers use to help students improve their learning and understanding of science, and to inform and improve their teaching.  Formative assessment methods have been studied by many researchers, and one study, funded by the National Science Foundation found that teachers who use formative methods take the steps to find the gap between a student’s current work and the desired aim, and then together figure out how the gap can be bridged.  Formative assessment is multidimensional, and unlike high-stakes testing, is integrated into the curriculum.  The assessments are authentic–that is to say, teachers use a variety of real activities to assess student progress–laboratory activities, writing essays, participating in a debate, classroom questions, and indeed simply observing and interacting with students.

Formative assessments, unlike high-stakes testing, are embedded into instruction.  These assessments are part of the “regular” science curriculum.  Formative assessments are flexible, and take into account the diverse nature of helping students learn science.

One of the leading researchers in the world on assessment is Professor Paul Black, King’s College, London.  In a presentation by Dylan Wiliam, Black says this about formative assessment:

Assessment for learning is any assessment for which the first priority in its design and practice is to serve the purpose of promoting pupils’ learning.

Such assessment becomes ‘formative assessment’ when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet learning needs.

Teaching that acknowledges the value of systems thinking and communal classrooms suggests a transformation from the industrial model to one that is holistic, and one that is based on interdependence and cooperation.  In my view, teachers that embrace these values practice an art, or what I call “artistry of teaching.”

What would add to this discussion?  Are there other qualities of systems thinking classrooms that you add?  What are they?

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?


Grant Lichtman on Simple Metrics

If you haven’t read any of Grant Lichtman’s blog posts, you might want to check out his recent post in which he describes a metric that he suggests is more meaningful in the lives of our children than how well any of them did on a test this week.

Sent from my iPad