Second Article on The Artistry of Teaching
In this article we are going to apply the ecological work of Arne Naess to show that classrooms are places where we can find something wonderful and amazing happening among teachers and students. In doing research for this blog post I came across an article on Education Week by Cord Ivanyi, a Latin teacher at the BASIS Chandler School in Chandler, Ariz. He wrote a beautiful article on The Deeper Purpose of Learning: Satisfaction. In a world of education dominated by the metrics of test scores, rankings, and comparisons, Ivanyi makes it clear from his years of teaching experience that we ought to consider other possibilities that happen in classrooms. He writes:
There is more to education, however, and many of us recognize it, perhaps even lose sleep over it. When we sit down to nail down a perfect lesson plan, we sense it, that twisting thing, the fabric of connections—we to our subjects, our subjects to our students, our students to us. There is much more back there. I have spent a long time thinking about that tapestry, and many times, I have felt I was just on the verge of some sort of revelation, only to lose it again in a wrinkle or a fold.
Cord Ivanyi’s idea about a fabric of connections moves us to consider the whole of teaching and not trying to break teaching and learning down into components, especially components that can measured. Policy makers have promoted a reductionist philosophy of teaching and learning to such an extreme that the only worthy goal of education is make sure that American student’s test scores are better than others, and that these scores rise each year to match the moving bar of “academic excellence.” And just today, we read this headline: NY Standardized Test Scores Plunge Under New Standards. Blimey.
Reducing Teaching to Measurable Components
For example, to test teacher performance most state departments of education have adopted reductionist models such as the Danielson Framework for Teaching, which reduces teaching to 22 components and 76 smaller elements organized into four domains of teaching (Planning and Preparation, the Environment, Delivery of Services, and Professional Responsibilities. This is a classic example of reductionism. And for reductionism researchers, the use of this kind of framework of teaching makes sense.
So, for a reductionist, the behavior of teachers in their classrooms is measured using a Danielson kind of framework by sending observers into the classroom to use the Danielson evaluation instrument to judge each of the 22 components on a scale of four levels: unsatisfactory, basic, proficient and distinguished.
The Danielson Framework is not a new idea. For decades, educational researchers have developed and implemented tens of “instruments” to observe and quantify teacher behavior. Most of these instruments were analytic–teacher behavior was divided into categories or clusters of performance, as is done in the Danielson Framework.
And of course the most extreme reductionist measure is the quantification of learning by means of achievement test scores. Using the same logic used in evaluating teacher performance, student performance is measured using standardized tests which are based on content components and smaller elements that organized into domains of content in fields such as science, mathematics, social studies, and English/language arts.
In science, as an example, the Next Generation Science Standards breaks the content of science that students should learn into four big Disciplinary Core Ideas, (1) physical science (2) life science (3) earth and space sciences and (4) engineering, technology and applications of science. Each of these areas is further broken down into discrete performance expectations.
To assess student performance, standardized tests composed of discrete, separate, and non-contextual questions are written and administered in the spring of the school year. Student scores on these tests are assumed to measure what students have learned, indeed, what students know. Then, using fuzzy mathematics, states that want to stay in the good graces of the U.S. Department of Education must use these test scores, and the consequential changes in test scores as part of the metric to evaluate and compensate teachers.
In the reductionist world of education, teacher and student performance is broken into easily measured atomic-size particles of performance. Figure 1 is a Wordle identifying some of the concepts that drive contemporary education, which I have pointed out is fundamentally reductionism in action.
But here is the danger in this view of education. It makes an assumption that the “skills” of teaching that the Danielson Group has identified is somehow related to student learning. There is little evidence that such connections can be made, and if they can, they tend to be trivial (ask more higher order questions, wait three seconds before calling on a student, e.g.). Danielson claims that her system is based on constructivist theory grounded in research. But constructivism is grounded in ways of knowing in which the learner constructs meaning, and that education in this context should be negotiated among and between students and teachers. Somewhere along the line, Danielson never came across the work of Dewey, Bruner, von Glassersfeld, Tobin, or Driver. The Danielson evaluation and content standards (Common Core State Standards and NGSS) are reductionist conceptions based on behavioral theory, not constructivism.
There you have it.
The whole is more than the sum of its parts
Reducing teaching to 22 components of teacher performance and student learning to an endless list of standards has its limits. There is another way to look at the world. The world can be looked at as a whole, as a system.
A non-reductionist view, according Arne Naess and Edward Deming means that some things can have properties that are not explainable from the sum of their parts such as culture, brain networks, and ecosystems. These systems are based on many interacting components.
I am going to argue that using systems theory is necessary to avoid the simple method of reducing knowing to elemental particles at the cost of meaningful experiences for teachers and students engaged in the education system.
Teaching and learning is a system that more closely resembles complex systems, such as ecosystems, and as such, education should be viewed very differently than is now espoused by the standards and test-based accountability model prevalent in U.S. schools. The continued application of reductionism to education is increasingly clear in the language of education policy makers.
Edward Deming and Arne Naess offer convincing evidence that thinking in wholes should be embraced especially when the discipline is complex such as ecosystems, cybernetics, systems theory, and education.
Aspects of Green Classrooms: Wonder and Place
Teaching and learning is a complex system, and if we think of it as such, we will come to realize that classrooms should be places that are full of connections for teachers and students to explore nature and the wide-wide world.
Classrooms should be environments that foster a sense of place and wonder for participants. In the ecological view espoused by Arne Naess, the development of a sense of place is strengthened through a “tightening of the interrelation between the self and the environment.”
The classroom become a green. It is an environment that embodies a sense of wonder and helps students develop a sense of place in connection with art and science, mathematics and engineering, literature and history, and so forth.
One way to envision a green classroom is shown in the Wordle in Figure 2. You will notice that the words show a philosophy built on relationships and connections. Many of the ideas help us think about wholes, rather than components and parts. The students are explorers, unique, playful, and diverse.
Researcher and professor of science education at Teachers College, Columbia University, Dr. Christopher Emdin would describe this kind of classroom as communal and would distinguish it from the corporate classroom (as described in the section on reductionism) that is so pervasive in American classrooms. In the communal classroom, students are given voice. In the corporate classroom, competition is king, and there is little voice from teachers and students.
Emdin explains the corporate classroom involves students and teacher working with subject matter and functioning in ways that follow a factory or production mode of social interaction. The primary goal in corporate class mode is maintaining order and achieving specific results (such as the results generated by standardized tests). The corporate model is based on competition and extreme conservative values.
The communal classroom involves students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on inter-personal relationships, community and the collective betterment of the group. The communal model is based on coöperation and progressive values.
Research that explores how collaboration is fundamental to learning has been the focus of many scholars in the field of science teacher education. Researcher Ken Tobin has found that collaborative self-study can mitigate the top-down reform efforts that as he suggests, “ignore structures associated with curricula enactment and seem impervious to the voices of teachers and students.” Tobin’s discussion of co-teaching (cogenerative dialogue or cogen) is a model that is relevant when we think of mingling theory and practice, but more importantly of professors’ willingness to learn from others who typically would not have been considered sources of knowledge about teaching–high school students and teachers (See Chapter 15 in Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Teachers).
In the green classroom, as interpreted from research by Tobin, Emdin, Dias and others, giving voice to all is implicitly based on democratic values, and the on the ideas of Carl Roger’s theory of interpersonal relationships . Being heard is a progressive or humanistic quality that can create an informal classroom environment enabling students who struggle in the formal straightjacket of the traditional class, a meaningful chance of success.
Do Green Classrooms Lead to Artistic Teaching?
This is the question that started this discussion, and it brings us back to Cord Ivanyi’s idea that teaching is “fabric of connections” and there is a tapestry to teaching. In a green classroom, interpersonal relationships, inquiry and a sense of wonder are valued.
There is no prescription for a green classroom, and there is no prescription for the ways that one would teach, and students would learn. But there is the recognition that the process is messy. The process is difficult. One has to be courageous to create a communal classroom in the context of a world dominated by the corporatization of schooling.
What emerges in communal classrooms are teachers who take risks. Teachers who listen to their students. Teachers who are confident of themselves and are willing to explore unique aspects of art, science, mathematics, history, and literature in trying to engage their students in whole picture.
This is artistic teaching.