NBC’s Climate Debate: Enabling the Deniers

On NBC’s Feb. 16 edition of Meet the Press a “debate” was broadcast between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, Marsha Blackburn, a Republican Rep. from Tennessee and David Gregory, the media enabler.

Figure 1.  By using split screen imagery the media presents the illusion that climate change is a debatable issue between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Rep.
Figure 1. By using split screen imagery the media presents the illusion that climate change is a debatable issue between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Rep.

On the one hand, its unfortunate that Bill Nye agreed to go on the program and acknowledge by his presence that global warming is a debatable issue.  Marsha Blackburn, who has no credentials in science (at least Nye is an engineer and science educator), teamed up with David Gregory to voice the side of denialism.  This irrational thinking is part of the tactic of “persistent distortion” of climate change.

The media supports this distortion by using their “split-screen” imaging to pretend that there are two equal and competing views on what ever issue they put up for debate.

The research on the “media wars” is quite compelling, and sheds light on why we continue to witness debates such as the Nye-Blackburn debate on climate change, and Nye-Ham debate on origins.

A few years ago, I reviewed Stephen Schneider’s research on climate change politics and climate change science as it is portrayed in the media.  His book, Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save the Earth’s Climate (public library), documents the history of how climate change has been distorted, and how to understand the media’s approach to enabling science denial.

Figure 2.  In the beginning there was the famous Keeling Curve showing the increase of CO2 in the Atmosphere.  Source: Science as a Contact Sport
Figure 2. In the beginning there was the famous Keeling Curve showing the increase of CO2 in the Atmosphere. Source: Science as a Contact Sport

Dr. Schneider was professor of biology at Stanford University, and internationally recognized for research, policy analysis and outreach in climate change.  In particular he focused on integrated assessment of the ecological and economic impacts of human-induced climate change.  He was senior participant in the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.

As Dr. Schneider points out in his book, we have been warned that human technology could disturb the functioning of nature.  He reviews for us the Swedish chemist Arrhenius in 1896 who theorized that CO2 and H2O trapped the sun’s heat in the atmosphere, connecting CO2 the burning of fossil fuels.

And of course he cites Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, which showed the interconnectedness of nature and how human technology was ravaging nature.  As he points out, the Rachel Carson story is one example of how it is possible to take action to prevent the further threat caused by insecticide technologies.  But the most compelling work that Schneider points to is the atmospheric measurement of CO2 levels at Mauna Loa by David Keeling (Figure 2).  The resulting graph became known as the “Keeling curve” showing the steady increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, from 315 parts per million (ppm) in 1958 to 392 ppm in 2011.  There are many other scientists who delved into climate change during this time, including James Hansen, S. Ichtiaque Rasool, and Schneider.  You can read one of the best histories of the environmental movement to not only bring awareness to the climate change associated with increased CO2 levels in Schneider’s book.

Figure 2. Global annual mean temperatures since 1900.
Figure 3. Global annual mean temperatures since 1900.

Given this early work, and the research done by independent researchers around the world, and the most  research compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, why do we continue to debate the question, Is Global Warming Real?  Or is the Earth warming up, and is this warming attributable to human engineering and technology?

Well, its obvious that the media thinks that the “debate on global warming goes on.” And in these debates, not only does the media enable the continued denial of the evidence for global warming, but the method used is called “balance journalism.”  The tactic that was identified by Schneider is the tactic of persistent distortion.  He puts it this way:

One of the key reasons for distortion in the media reports on climate change is the perceived need for “balance” in journalism.  In reporting political, legal, or other advocacy-dominated stories, it is appropriate for journalists to report both sides of an issue.  Got the Democratic view?  Better get the Republican.

In science, the situation is radically different.  There are rarely just two polar-opposite sides, but rather a spectrum of potential outcomes, which are often accompanied by a history of scientific assessment of the relative credibility of each possibility.

In the NBC debate, there is not another side of global warming.  There is only denial.  But in the debates that do occur, the denier uses the scientific notion of skepticism, that people in the field of science generally welcome.   But in our view, such as, in the Nye – Blackburn debate, there was only one skeptic.  The other was a denier.

Schneider helps us distinguish between skeptics and deniers.

When I give a public talk on aspects of climate change, I always take the time to explain the difference between climate deniers and skeptics.  All good scientists are skeptics—we should challenge everything.  I was a big-time climate skeptic, changing from cooling to warming and nuclear winter to nuclear fall when that is where the preponderance of available evidence led.  As more solid evidence of anthropogenic global warming accumulates, the numbers of such legitimate climate skeptics are declining.  Climate deniers, however, are not true skeptics, but simply ignore the preponderance of evidence presented.  Skeptics should question everything but not deny where the preponderance of evidence leads.  The latter is, at best, bad science, or, at worst, dishonesty.

Crap Detection

We need to heed Neil Postman’s classic essay “Bullshit and the Art of Crap Detection“which was presented at the National Convention of the Teachers of English in 1969.

Here is how Postman explained the title of his speech:

With a title like this, I think I ought to dispense with the rhetorical amenities and come straight to the point. For those of you who do not know, it may be worth saying that the phrase, “crap-detecting,” originated with Ernest Hemingway who when asked if there were one quality needed, above all others, to be a good writer, replied, “Yes, a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.”

Is climate change real? Is the greenhouse effect based on fundamental science? To what extent are “debates” on TV news outlets using split screen technology peer review or rhetoric? Do large companies abuse the concept of peer review by using rhetoric to cast doubt on scientific findings?  We need to practice the Art of Crap Detection in these situations.

These are questions that should underscore student’s pursuit of an understanding of climate change, and the skepticism that has inverted the public’s view of global warming, the greenhouse effect, and the burning of carbon. For many years, large corporations, starting with the tobacco industry, have led the public and politicians down a path that leads to denial (of the science) that has been established by scientists through the publication and peer review process. Casting “doubt” on the “science,” has been a tactic used to put a wedge between real scientific information and the rhetoric of the deniers.

There is almost no accountability for the “skeptics.” They don’t publish in peer-reviewed journals, and they spend most of their time on media outlets giving their point of view, but with almost little data based on scientific evidence.

We need to call these deniers out, and tell them that we understand their tactic of persistent distortion.  You are not going to change their minds.  But at least you can call it when you see it.

What is your view?  Do you think the media enables the deniers of climate change and global warming?

Governor Deal’s Weather Task Force is More of a Mob Than a Problem Solving Team

To improve the state of Georgia’s response to severe weather, Governor Nathan Deal appointed a 28 member task force.  A few years ago, when Atlanta educators were accused of changing answers on student tests sheets, the Governor (Sonny Perdue) appointed a panel of three to investigate and prepare a report.  Why do we need 28 people, many of whom simply do not have the time to investigate the state’s natural disaster alert system.

Governor Deal has appointed 28 people to meet and has charged them with coming up with plans to improve the state’s ability to respond to severe weather.  They must report back to the Governor within 60 days of their first meeting.

The task force is made up senior level people from various organizations in the state, public and private.  Figure 1 is a break-down of the Task Force into various categories:

Georgia Severe Weather Task Force

1

Chamber of Commerce

6

Corporations

1

Georgia Emergency Management Authority (GEMA)

1

Governor’s Office

4

Legislators

1

MARTA

1

Natural Resources Dept.

3

Police, Fire & Safety

3

School Superintendents

2

Transportation

5

Weather TV Announcers and National Weather Service

Figure 1. Georgia Severe Weather Task Force, Feb. 3, 2014

The Task Force is more a mob, and not a group that can solve problems and make recommendations.  But more than this is the fact that many of the members of this Task Force contributed to the Atlanta Weather Fiasco on January 28 – 29, 2014. If you look over the list of categories, the fundamental reason the state did NOT respond to the severe weather forecasts that we clearly made public on all four Atlanta TV stations, as well as the National Weather Service, in Peachtree City, Georgia.

Investigate the Georgia Emergency Management Agency/Homeland Security (GEMA)

The organization that should be investigated is GEMA.  GEMA has one mission, as stated on the GEMA website, and that is:

GEMA’s mission is to provide a comprehensive and aggressive all?hazards approach to homeland security initiatives, mitigation, preparedness, response, recovery and special events in order to protect life and property and prevent and/or reduce negative impacts of terrorism and natural disasters in Georgia.

The vision of GEMA is

Create a culture of preparedness by fostering partnerships between local, state and federal government, local business and industry, volunteer and faith-based organizations, and the citizens of Georgia.

And, according the Agency’s website, the Core Business is Mitigation, Preparedness, Response and Recovery.

GEMA failed in it mission, and one has to question its culture and core business ability.  Georgia’s ability to respond to natural disasters is dependent on GEMA’s competence to make decisions and take action based on information available to them from meteorologists, and other earth scientists.  It requires a mode of thinking that is ecological.  People who work at GEMA have to be schooled in systems thinking, and have the courage to make bold decisions based on available data.

The AJC uncovered and published emails sent to and from the Director of GEMA.  The emails do not support in any way boldness in decisions making, nor do they show that GEMA’s director has learned from earlier weather events in Atlanta.

If the Governor wants to improve the state’s ability to respond to natural disasters, it needs to go directly to the source of the problem, and that has to GEMA.

The Task Force should be disbanded before it meets, and instead, the Governor should appoint a smaller group of people who do not have the vested interests similar to the make up of the Severe Weather Task Force.  This committee should be charged with investigating the culture and operations of GEMA, and report back to the Governor on time.

Who would you recommend as members of a smaller committee to investigate GEMA?

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

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.

Tutoring

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?

If You Think Student Output as Measured by Achievement Tests Is a Way to Evaluate Teachers, You’d Be Plug Wrong!

If You Think Student Output as Measured by Achievement Tests Is a Way to Evaluate Teachers, You’d Be Plug Wrong!

What will it take to convince school boards, departments of education and administrators that using student achievement scores, one of the outputs that we constantly measure in American schools, is not a scientific nor ethical way to evaluate teachers.  To do so is to ignore the research on this issue, and to perpetuate the myth that using a student test score is a valid way to determine the effectiveness of teachers.

To carry out this plan, which will be implemented in the Cobb County Schools (where I live) and the rest of Georgia’s schools by 2015,  reinforces the machine age conception of our schools.  The machine age gave rise to factories, which became the model used to build and organize schools.  The outputs of a factory such a shoe, a dress, a pot or pan, are analogous to the outputs of schools such as grade point average, drop out rate, or student achievement.  In this machine age example, many people believe that the outputs are explained by a cause-effect relationship.  In our world of education there is the belief that student achievement as an output is caused (or added to) by the teacher.  This is a false belief.  And by the way, if a factory produced “bad” shoes, you can’t pin in on the factory workers, either.

If teachers don’t effect in substantial ways student achievement scores, what does?  To answer this will require us to be willing to think in a different way.  Albert Einstein is quoted by Russell Ackoff about thinking in different ways:

You can’t solve the problems created by the current pattern of thought using the current pattern of thought.

The current pattern of thought, based on causal thinking, derives from the acceptance of a cause as enough for its effect.  In the case of student achievement, this pattern of thought means that the teacher effect can be taken to explain rises or falls in student achievement.  Nothing else needs to be taken into account.  As Russell Ackoff has said, “Machine-Age thinking was, to a large extent, environment-free; it tried to develop understanding of natural phenomena without using the concept of environment.”

But here is the thing.

We’ve left the machine age.  Or perhaps it might be safer to say we are in the midst of a transformation from the machine/factory age of thinking to an other way of viewing the world.   This transformation is to an ecological, interdisciplinary or systems view of the world with writers from many fields describing this new way of thinking, including Rachel Carson (ecology), W. Edwards Deming (economics and business), Russell L. Ackoff (management), and Peter Barnard (systems thinking schools),

We need to think about school as a whole.  It’s a school system, and a more powerful way to look at schooling is to think of it as a system.  A system (according to many researchers in this field) is a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts.  Indeed, every part of a system has properties that it loses when separated from the system, and every system has some properties–its essential ones–that none of its parts do.

In order to improve school, we have to stand back and look at the school system.  As we look at school as a system, researchers such as W. Edwards Deming suggest that 94% of the variation we see in the school system is due to the nature of the system, not the people who work or make the system work.  For many of us, this doesn’t make any sense.  But if we are willing to move away from the linear factory model, and move to a vertical or system view, then we are led to ask what are some causes of the variation.  What causes variation in student achievement, in drop-out rates, and the achievement gap?

The Importance of Understanding Variation

There are two types of variation in a system, common-cause (accounting for 94%) and special cause.  Common-cause variation is the noise in a system.  It’s there in the background.  Its part of the natural pattern of the system.  Special cause is a clear signal, an unnatural patter, an assignable cause.  Variation falling within statistical limits means that any variation we see (test scores, graduation rates, achievement gaps) is the result of the natural behavior of the system, and as such, we can not point to one reason that caused higher scores, lower graduation rates, or decreases in the achievement gaps.  We need to accept the fact that student achievement scores are subject to the behavior of the system, and if you do the math, teachers have almost no control over this.  So why do we continue to put the blame on teachers for kids learning or not learning.

In research on the Trial Urban District Assessment which was reported here based on Ed Johnson’s analysis of TUDA for the years 2002 – 2013, there was very little variation in test scores over this period for 21 urban districts.  In fact, except for four instances at the 4th grade reading system, all the variation in test scores at the 4th and 8th grade in math and reading was due to common causes.

Figure 1. TUDA, Reading, 4th Grade Control Chart Showing Long Term Achievement Scores Across 21 Urban Districts
Figure 1. TUDA, Reading, 4th Grade Control Chart Showing Long Term Achievement Scores Across 21 Urban Districts. Source Ed Johnson, NAEP TUDA 2002 – 2011 Study

When we try to isolate the effect of teachers on any of the outputs of the school, we are sure to fail.  When we try to break the system apart, it loses its essential properties.  In this case the output as measured by student test scores is the product of the system, which is due to interactions and interdependencies that the teacher is only one small part.  How is student achievement affected by inadequate resources, living in poverty, not having a home, parents who struggle to earn a living, the size of the school and district, the location of the school, students coming to school each day hungry or inadequately fed, school policies, and so on?  

 

Which Model Describes the Real World?

For example, Mike Stoecklein wrote a guest post on the W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog, and according to researchers in the field of systems thinking, performance of the person can not be separated from the system, and is unknown.   The relationship between the individual (a teacher in this case) and the system (school system) is important to understand, if we are to try to test teachers based on some measure of student’s performance.  Stoecklein presents three models developed by a colleague of Dr. Deming–Heero Hacquebord.  They are shown in Figure 1.

In World I the individual is independent of the system, and performance is independent, and in this model, pay for performance, ranking and rating makes sense.  But is it the real world? Of course not.  In World II, the person is immersed in the system, and totally dependent on the system.  All outcomes are attributable only to the system.  Does this world exist? No.  World III is a model in which the individual interacts with the system, performance of the individual can not be separated from the system, and is unknown.  Performance pay or ranking makes no sense.  Performance is only improved by focusing on the union of the system and the person.  Stoecklein believes this is the real world.

Figure 1.  Three World Views showing the Interaction between the System and the Individual by Hacquebord, in Mike Stoecklein's blog post.
Figure 1. Three World Views showing the Interaction between the System and the Individual by Hacquebord, in Mike Stoecklein’s blog post.  (Stoecklein, Mike. “We Need to Understand Variation to Manage Effectively.” Deming Blog. W. Edwards Deming Institute, 07 Feb. 2013. Web. 26 Jan. 2014)

If the world of school was depicted as shown in World I, then using VAM scores might be valid.  But World I is not real.  Teachers are not separate from the school system any more than are students.  So why does the state insist that teacher performance can be measured by student performance.  It doesn’t make any sense.  World II might be closer to the truth.  But surely teachers have some sense of independence, and are not totally dependent on the system.

So we come to World III where teacher performance is the result of an interaction between the individual and the system.  Yet, even in this model, it is not possible to dissect how the system affects performance, any more than how student achievement can be used as the reason to judge teacher performance.  There are too many other variables and interactions that affect performance if teachers and students.  If we want to improve teacher performance, then we must focus on the union between the system and person.  In this model we have to make the assumption that one’s ability as a teacher is not only related to his or her pedagogical abilities, but ones interaction with the system.  We could ask, What’s the contribution of the individual to the system?  What’s the contribution of the system in which the teacher works?  These are not easy questions to answer.  To continue to believe student achievement score gains are directly related to personal teacher performance is a falsehood.  It’s a misrepresentation of the complexity of teaching and learning.

Yet, in Georgia (and other Race to the Top winning states), large sums of money are being spent on hiring consultants to tell school districts how to manage its people.  Heero Hacquebord made an important point about this on a comment he made on the Mike Stoecklein’s blog post:

Our systems are cancerous diseases that consultants do not seem to have the courage to address, because that terminates their client contracts!!!  “Performance appraisal:, “pay for performance”, “bonuses”, “productivity measurements” for nurses and physicians, are sold by consultants at great costs to the health care systems. We talk about respect for people, but then we destroy them by the systems we use. We do not motivate people, we only activate them, which means they do what leadership want them to do because of the consequences if they did not? We end up with fear and intimidation, and people have to go along to put bread on the table (note, substitute the word nurses and physicians with administrators and teachers).  (Stoecklein, Mike. “We Need to Understand Variation to Manage Effectively.” Deming Blog. W. Edwards Deming Institute, 07 Feb. 2013. Web. 26 Jan. 2014)

To Stoecklein,  Hacquebord, and others, because system leaders do not understand variation, they continue to lack the knowledge to manage humanely; instead they prod along tampering with the system.  Because of this lack of understanding of systems theory, they think that most of the problems of schools can put on the shoulders of teachers, and they continue to think that simple causal relationships define the teacher-student relationship.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

What is the effect of using student test scores to evaluate teachers?  Its demoralizing not only to teachers, but imagine the kid who says to herself, “today I am going to take a test that will decide if my teacher is hired or fired!”  What’s the effect of this in the school culture?  How would you approach the curriculum if you knew that student scores will affect your performance and job stability?  Wouldn’t you teach to the test?  Using pre-test vs post-test scores, Value Added Measures, and high-stakes tests are unsubstantiated methods that have very low reliability on the one hand, and are simply invalid on the other.  How can school board members vote to carry out such as plan in their own school district?  What are they thinking if they do this?

Last year, a group of Georgia university professors, who are experts in the field of educational evaluation, posted a letter to Governor Deal, State School Superintendent Barge, as well as key politicians in the Georgia Legislature, and superintendents of school districts participating in Georgia’s Race to the Top.   The researchers provided detailed evidence that the teacher evaluation system that the Georgia Department of Education has created is not based on supporting research.  They raised the following concerns, and recommended that using student achievement scores to evaluate teachers should be postponed.  Their concerns included the following:

  1. Value Added Models are not proven;
  2. GA is not prepared to implement this evaluation model;
  3. This model is not the most useful way to spend education funds;
  4. Students will be adversely affected by this Value Added Model.

We need not only suspend the use of teacher evaluation systems based on student achievement gains, we need to think differently about schools.  We need to heed Einstein’s warning that we can’t solve the problems created by the current pattern of thought using the current pattern of thought.

My dear colleagues, school board members, school leaders, if you think student output as measured by achievement tests is a way to evaluate teacher effectiveness, please consider that you might be wrong.

 

Instead of School’s Industrial Culture, Students Need the Freedom to Learn

For the past 13 years, American schools have endured a rebirth of an “industrial culture” that is the product of “mechanistic age thinking,” described in-depth by Russell L. Ackoff (public library) in his writings, speeches, interviews and courses.  This rebirth has been waved over us by reformers whose self-interests, wealth, and corporate networks have resulted in a movement to privatize, and standardize education in the context of the American democracy.

I am going to argue here that instead of this industrial culture, teachers and students need to the freedom to teach and learn.  Nothing less is acceptable.

For most of my adult life, I have been involved in humanistic psychology and education, and have promoted holistic and experiential learning, especially in science, and science education. My development in this attempt has been influenced by many people, including theorists, scientists, close colleagues and fiends, fellow teacher educators, and especially practitioners in classrooms around the U.S., Russia and Spain.

Freedom to Learn

The freedom to learn is not only a philosophy of life, but it is a theoretical idea that can be applied to professional teaching K-college.  When a child is born, her parents do what they can to offer an environment for exploration, discovery, and play.  In this context, parents are creating an environment where the child has the freedom to learn.  This idea should be at the heart of teaching at any level–from pre-school education to advanced graduate work.

Figure 1. The synonyms of the word freedom appearing from a search on thesaurus.com. Wordle, © 2013 Jonathan Feinberg
Figure 1. The synonyms of the word freedom appearing from a search on thesaurus.com. Wordle, © 2013 Jonathan Feinberg

Acting on the philosophy of freedom to learn does not lead to a classroom of disorder, chaos, abandon or laissez-faire.  Freedom to learn has many interpretations and applications.  The word cloud that is shown in Figure 1 is word cloud of a search the word “freedom” on thesaurus.com.

Many of these words characterize classrooms where teachers are working cooperatively with students to create an environment in which students are participants in some or all aspects of the course, program or grade level.  Which of these words would you select to describe your approach to teaching?  What words would you add to this cloud map?

For example, in an introductory college geology course, I worked with students individually to name the content, concepts and laboratory activities they would pursue in a one-semester geology course.  If two or more students choose similar topics, they would team up and work out a plan of investigation.  In all cases, students would be involved in teaching the rest of the class what they were studying and what they were learning.

In courses in humanistic education/psychology, several sessions were held among the instructor and students to cooperatively create the syllabus, activities, and assignments for the course.  In other courses, (actually all of my courses) no tests were given.  Students, instead either wrote a contract outlining their aims and how they would meet them.  In other cases, students would keep an elaborate portfolio of their work, which would be evaluated by a team of instructors, followed by an interview with the student and instructors.

For my professional work as a teacher, freedom to learn meant cooperation among students and instructors.  We learned together.  In most courses, students could read what ever they wanted to read, and were simply asked to comment on what they got out of the reading.  Team learning was at the heart of learning in these courses.  It didn’t matter if it was an introductory science course, a course in pedagogy, curriculum, or research.  All them were organized as team learning experiences.

I carried this model with me to the Bureau of Education and Research (BER), and from 1990 – 2003, I conducted hundreds of seminars for middle and high school science teachers (normally 50 – 150 teachers in a seminar).  At each seminar, teachers worked in teams, and explored the content of the seminar (science teaching strategies, cooperative learning, Internet-based teaching) experientially.  There was little to no lecturing, instead students engaged in professional dialogue and discussions brought about through a series of collaborative activities and investigations.

While I was a graduate student at The 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 (public library).  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 (public library), 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.

Carl Rogers, in his book, Freedom to Learn, shifted the focus from to teaching to learning. In fact in this groundbreaking book, he confessed that anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential, and has little or no significant influence on behavior. He wrote that “this sounds so ridiculous I can’t help but question it at the same time that I present it.”

Anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential…Rogers, Carl, 1969, Freedom to Learn

Rogers shift in thinking was a critical transformation in his own views about teaching and learning.  To him the purpose of teaching is to facilitate the learning of students.  His view, which is quoted below, is a personal one, yet at the same time it is powerful in exposing the virtues of learning. Here is what he said:

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

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

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

The Rogerian principle, “Self-discovered learning cannot be directly communicated to another” is in direct conflict with the reform agenda that has grasped nearly every school in America.  When you really listen to these so-called reformers, especially the words of Bill Gates, they believe that students either absorb content “given out by the teacher,” or their brains are simply receptacles which are filled up (or not) by teachers.  And of course, they put the nail in coffin by narrowly defining  and measuring how much the cup is filled by giving a multiple choice test which may or may not be related to the content and curriculum the students experienced.

All Together

There are some ideas that I’d like to explore here that I hope will amplify my belief that all students, at any level, should be given the freedom to learn.  I’ll start with the writing of Fritjof Capra, a theoretical physicist who has written ground breaking books including The Tao of Physics (public library), The Turning Point (public library) , The Web of Life (public library), and The Hidden Connections (public library).

My reason for starting here is that Capra’s views are holistic and systemic which is fundamental if we are to truly reform education.  Capra’s ideas, which he developed over a period of decades using a form of research which relies on dialogs and discussions with people and small groups of colleagues.  His ideas are important and what follows is a brief discussion of some of his ideas and how they might be applied to learning.

In 1975, Capra wrote the groundbreaking book entitled The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism (public library).  In Capra’s view, the natural world is one of “infinite varieties and complexities; a multidimensional world which has no straight lines or completely regular shapes, where things do not happen in sequences, but all together.”  Capra viewed the Eastern philosophy as a new paradigm, one that was holistic and integrated, and not a dissociated collection of parts.

It is this essential idea that forms for me the starting place to discuss learning.  Learning is holistic and integrated, and for learning to happen, students must have the freedom to learn.  For this to happen, cooperation needs to assert itself as an important aspect of establishing a teaching and learning environment.  An idea that follows here is that teachers could work with students to help them choose what, when and how students learn.  As radical as it might sound, I’ll explore this idea with theoretical, experiential, and personal data.

When we design school for learning (instead of teaching), principles drawn from our understanding of nature will go a long way in giving us clues and directions.  In this regards, Capra made this statement in his book The Hidden Connections (public library):

The design principles of our future social institutions must be consistent with the principles of organization that nature has evolved to sustain the web of life.  A unified conceptual framework for the understanding of material and social structures will be essential for this task.  Capra, F. 2002. The Hidden Connections: Integrating the Biological, Cognitive, and Social Dimensions of Life into a Science of Sustainability.

As teachers we should consider applying Capra’s framework to the structures of learning and teaching that we experience as professional teachers, whether it be pre-school, or graduate school.  Learning is a web–an interconnection of ideas, people, events, experiences, attitudes, opinions….

Capra suggests an intriguing idea in his latest book.  What would have happened if Leonardo’s ideas were the basis for 19th and 20th century science?

Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 7.49.56 PMCapra, in The Science of Leonardo  (public library), argues that the true founder of Western science was Leonardo (1452-1519), not Galileo (1564-1642). However, it was the science of Galileo that influenced later scientists (Newton, 1643-1727) who stood on Galileo’s shoulders.

Capra wonders what would have happened if these 16th – 18th century scientists had discovered Leonardo’s manuscripts, which were “gathering dust in ancient European libraries. You see, Capra shows that Leonardo’s view was a synthesis of art and science, and indeed science was alive, and indeed science was “whole.” Leonardo was ahead of his time in understanding life: he conceived life in terms of metabolic processes and their patterns or organization.

Capra suggests that Leonardo, instead of being simply an analytic thinker, was actually a systemic thinker preceding the lineage established by scientists and philosophers including Wolfgang von Goethe, Georges Cuvier, Charles Darwin, and Vladimir Vernadsky.  Would it be fair to suggest that Capra’s uncovering of Leonardo’s holistic view of science a rationale to critique the Next Generation of Science Standards which have divided science into its traditional offerings, and further broken each science into bite sized student performance?  Just a thought.

Needless to say, thinking in wholes has an immediate application to learning.  Instead of the industrial model of breaking content into behavioral sentences (behavioral objectives!), student performances, or to be on the side of the industrial reformists, core standards in math, science, and language arts, we need to reject these ideas, and argue for a transformation that focuses on learning, learning how to learn, giving students the freedom to learn.

Freedom to Think in Wholes

Fritjof Capra’s research has led to a greater understanding of systemic and complex systems, including learning and schooling.  His contentions are a social system (such as a classroom or a school) is a self-generation network of communications.  According to Capra, we can’t direct a social system, only disturb it.  Our creativity and adaptability arises at critical points of instability of the system.  Leadership (a teacher in a classroom, or the principal of a school) is really the facilitation of a learning culture in which questioning and innovation are encouraged.

Thinking in wholes, networking, webs, interconnections, or systems opens a different kind of world for us, especially in the teaching and learning profession.  In his new book, The Systems Thinking School (public library) Peter A. Barnard states that systems thinking seeks interconnectivity.  His book is a powerful thesis on how systems thinking can be applied to schooling.  Although his book is for the transformation of schools, it can also be applied to the transformation of the classroom.

In this next quote from Barnard, he talks about the school as a system.  Read the quote, substituting schools with classrooms, and step back and take a look at our own places of work.  If we think of the classroom as a system, and face many of the assumptions that have restricted us, what possibilities do you see?

Schools have to somehow see and come to terms with the idea that not all is as it seems and that many assumptions about learning and school systems management no longer work but remain endemic to our thinking. To confront the system that a school operates for the basket case it is, with all its illusory fixes and reforms, means exposing assumptions and looking again at the underpinning management knowledge base. In effect, schools have to unlearn the false rationale of separatist, component, tool-box thinking if they are to prevent old ideas and assumptions from hitching a ride with them on the road to school improvement.  Barnard, Peter A. (2013-09-19). The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (Leading Systemic School Improvement) (Kindle Locations 368-372). R&L Education. Kindle Edition.

 What is your view of learning?  To what extent do think it is possible to give students the freedom to learn?