How Can We Challenge the Standardization of Science and Other Aspects of Education?

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I received an email from Professor Emeritus Charles “Kip” Ault, Lewis & Clark University.   We’ve never met, but we have a connection through each others’ writing.  In 1992, I wrote and published a science education book, Minds on Science (Library Copy) and he used the text in one or more of his graduate classes at Lewis & Clark.  In 2010, I found his and Jeff Dodick’s article published in the research journal, Science Education, entitled Tracking the Footprints Puzzle: The problematic persistence of science-as-process in teaching the nature and culture of science.   Each of us at this time carries the title “emeritus” from our respective universities.

But “older” science educators don’t die, they just keep on a-writing.  And so it is with Dr. Ault and myself.

In Dr. Ault’s case, he has just published a book entitled Challenging Science Standards: A Skeptical Critique of the Quest for Unity, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015 (Library Copy).

This is a bellweather book.

The reason I say this that this book represents one of the only critique of the nation’s acceptance of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).   For example, the book might not be a good read for lot of folks at Achieve, Inc. headquarters.  I’m not sure, but it might not be only anyone’s book list at its Washington headquarters.

For me the book is a “hopeful” bellweather, in that I have faith that science educators will start to ask questions about the NGSS, and begin to critique the eagerness to carry out the NGSS.

Recently I wrote about how teaching and learning is standardized my e-book.  In that book I said that:

The conservative world-view is at the root of educational reform, not only in the United States, but in most countries around the world. This world-view has set in motion the reform of education based on a common set of standards, high-stakes tests, and accountability metrics that demoralize not only students and their families, but the educators who families regard as significant others in the lives of their children. This eBook is an exploration of how these reforms of education, which are rooted in authoritarianism, are damaging public education with its canopy of a Common Core, high-stakes, and market based tactics which are nothing but hooey.  Hassard, Jack (2014-12-16). The Mischief of Standardized Teaching and Learning: How Authoritarianism is Damaging Public Education with its Canopy of a Common Core, High-Stakes Tests and Market-Based Hooey (Kindle Locations 18-22). . Kindle Edition.

Kip Ault’s book is written to offer not only a historical context for how standardization has come about, but to enable science educators the basis for a critique of the standards movement.

One of the subheadings in the first chapter of the book is The Holy Grail of Power.  Like many of the writers that I have acknowledged on this blog, Ault sees standardization as an end to a quest for unity and this is the Holy Grail of Power over (science) education.  Four groups are identified by Ault as constituting this holy grail:

  1. State Bureaucrats
  2. Disciplinary Scientists
  3. Corporate Entities
  4. Science Educators

As you read this list, can you conjure up how each group’s power is used to “unify” teaching, and strive for the standardization of teaching and learning.

For the state bureaucrats, Ault says that

the bureaucrat’s ideal curriculum standardizes the nature of science (or the processes of science), independent of context. Legibility trumps diversity; state interests displace personal ones. Test scores signify learning, and policy unfolds based upon interpretations of these scores. Charles Ault, Challenging Science Standards: A Skeptical Critique of the Quest for Unity, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

In Ault’s view, the various disciplines of science (paleontology, physics, molecular biology, etc.) represent a disunity in that the sciences do not represent a singular “field” of study.  Why is this important in a critique of the science standards?  In Ault’s view, the NGSS perceives the science discipline to be alike, and so a single set of processes and methods are imbedded in the standards.  This is unfortunate because the various sciences are messy.  It’s not a set of steps or processes that characterize science inquiry.  We have oversimplified the nature of science as clearly explained by Dr. Ault.

Corporate entities have poured millions of dollars into the standardization of standards, and many of these entities are realizing huge profits, especially through testing, and curriculum and textbook publishing.  But I appreciate Ault’s idea that the NGSS standards has influenced researchers and curriculum developers.  He puts it this way:

Institutions seeking funding for projects to advance science education have no choice but to cast their proposals in terms of the NGSS. For-profit and nonprofit providers of professional development, school district trainers, and consulting firms wait in the wings eager to help. Charles Ault, Challenging Science Standards: A Skeptical Critique of the Quest for Unity, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015

Science educators are also one of the entities that strive for unity among the sciences, and the standards.  He has an interesting take on this and he writes:

Science educators, in the creation of curricula and the training of teachers (elementary through secondary), feel called upon as guardians of the quest for unity among the sciences. Their professional identity—an identity setting them apart from other professors of education, for example—depends upon this cultural norm. Ideas about the nature of science and the culture of science now pertain more to the community of science educators than to that of scientists. These ideas equate in many minds with critical thinking, inquiry skill, and the development of intelligence. Charles Ault, Challenging Science Standards: A Skeptical Critique of the Quest for Unity, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015

Challenging the science standards movement will be well served by Charles “Kip” Ault’s new book.  I’ll return to his book in future posts.  For now, what questions do you have challenging the NGSS and the Common Core?

The Scary Language of Crisis and the Seductive Language of Choice and Accountability by Alfredo Gaete and Stephanie Jones

Latest Story by Alfredo Gaete of the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile and Stephanie Jones of the University of Georgia.

The Georgia General Assembly is one vote away from approving Governor Nathan Deal’s plan to take over the state’s “chronically failing” public schools by privatizing them with charter schools.  It’s a plan that demolishes the public sphere of education, which should be protected like our national parks from the grip of corporate privateers.

Professors Gaete and Jones detail the effects of privatization on education in Chile, and warn that the Chile experiment of corporatization was not successful in improving education there.  We should argue with extreme veracity against the Governor’s Opportunity School District which would essentially privatize struggling schools.

The authors have written a brilliant article.  Please share and distribute.


IMAGINE a country that was once committed to quality public education, but began to treat that public good like a market economy with the introduction of charter schools and voucher systems.

Imagine that after a few years, most students in this country attended private schools and there was public funding for most of such schools, which must compete for that funding by improving their results. Imagine the state fostered this competition by publishing school rankings, so parents were informed of the results obtained by each institution.

Imagine, finally, that school owners were allowed to charge extra fees to parents, thereby rendering education a quite profitable business.

But let’s stop imagining, because this country already exists.

After a series of policies implemented from the 1980s onward, Chilean governments have managed to develop one of the most deregulated, market-oriented educational schemes in the world.

Inspired by the ideas of such neoliberal economists as Hayek and Friedman, the “Chilean experiment” was meant to prove that education can achieve its highest quality when its administration is handed over mainly to the private sector and, therefore, to the forces of the market.

How did they do this?

Basically by creating charter schools with a voucher system and a number of mechanisms for ensuring both the competition among them and the profitability of their business. In this scenario, the state has a subsidiary but still important role, namely, to introduce national standards and assess schools by virtue of them (in such a way that national rankings can be produced).

This accountability job, along with the provision of funding, is almost everything that was left to the Chilean state regarding education, in the hope that competition, marketing, and the like would lead the country to develop the best possible educational system.

So what happened? Here are some facts after about three decades of the “Chilean experiment” that, chillingly, has also been called the “Chilean Miracle” like the more recent U.S. “New Orleans Miracle.”

  • First, there is no clear evidence that students have significantly improved their performance on standardized tests, the preferred measurement used to assess schools within this scenario of the free market.
  • Second, there is now consensus among researchers that both the educational and the socioeconomic gaps have been increased. Chile is now a far more unequal society than it was before the privatization of education – and there is a clear correlation between family income and student achievement according to standardized testing and similar measures.
  • Third, studies have shown that schools serving the more underprivileged students have greater difficulties not only for responding competitively but also for innovating and improving school attractiveness in a way to acquire students and therefore funding.
  • Fourth, many schools are now investing more in marketing strategies than in actually improving their services.
  • Fifth, the accountability culture required by the market has yielded a teach-to-the-test schema that is progressively neglecting the variety and richness of more integral educational practices.
  • Sixth, some researchers believe that all this has negatively affected teachers’ professional autonomy, which in turn has triggered feelings of demoralization, anxiety, and in the end poor teaching practices inside schools and an unattractive profession from the outside.
  • Seventh, a general sense of frustration and dissatisfaction has arisen not only among school communities but actually in the great majority of the population. Indeed, the ‘Penguins Revolution’ – a secondary students’ revolt driven by complaints about the quality and equity of Chilean education – led to the most massive social protest movement in the country during the last 20 years.
    So even though there still are advocates of the private model of education, especially among those who have profited from it, an immense majority of the Chilean society is now urging the government for radical, deep reforms in the educational system of the country.

Very recently, in fact, an announcement was made that public university would be free for students, paid for by a 24 percent tax on corporations.

The ‘Chilean Miracle’ – like the ‘New Orleans Miracle’ – it seems, is not a miracle of student growth, achievement, equity, and high quality education for all. Rather, it is a miracle that a once protected public good was finally exploited as a competitive private market where profit-seeking corporations could receive a greater and greater share of public tax dollars.

It is also a miracle that such profit-seeking private companies and corporations, including publishing giants that produce educational materials and tests, have managed to keep the target of accountability on teachers and schools and not on their own backs.

Their treasure trove of funding – state and federal tax monies – continues to flow even as their materials, technological innovations, products, services, and tests fail to provide positive results.

So we don’t have to guess what the result will be of the current “U.S. experiment” with competition-infused education reform that includes school choice, charter schools, charter systems, voucher systems, state-funded education savings accounts for families, tax credits for “donations” to private schools, state takeover school districts, merit pay, value-added models for teacher evaluation, Common Core national standards, PARCC and Smarter Balanced national tests, edTPA national teacher education evaluations, and federal “rewards” such as Race to the Top for states that come aboard.

Indeed, Chilean education reform from the 1980s to the present provides the writing on the wall, so to speak, for the United States and we should take heed. Chile is now engaged in what will be a long struggle to dig its way out of the educational disaster created by failed experimentation and falsely produced miracles.

The United States still has time to reverse course, to turn away from the scary language of crisis and the seductive language of choice and accountability used in educational reform, and turn toward a fully funded and protected public education for our nation.

Permission to re-publish this article was granted by Stephanie Jones with many thanks.

The Mischief of Standardized Teaching & Learning

The conservative world-view is at the root of educational reform, not only in the United States, but in most countries around the world.  This world-view has set in motion the reform of education based on a common set of standards, high-stakes tests, and accountability metrics that demoralize not only students and their families, but the educators who families regard as significant others in the lives of their children.

The Mischief of Standardized Teaching & Learning is a new eBook that is available on Amazon Kindle.  For readers on my blog, the book can be downloaded free from December 21 – 24, 2014.

Figure 1. The Mischief of Standardized Teaching and Learning.  Free download from December 21 - 24, 2014
Figure 1. The Mischief of Standardized Teaching and Learning. Free download from December 21 – 24, 2014

This eBook explores how these educational reforms, which are rooted in authoritarianism, have damaged public education with its canopy of a Common Core, high-stakes tests, and market based tactics which are nothing but hooey.

These reforms have largely been funded by non-educators, and very rich people, who think that because they made a success in the business community, then their ideas should be accepted by public education.

The Gates Foundation has invested more than $3 billion into standards development & test-based reform.  Did you know that since 1999, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (technically founded in 2000) has made over 4,000 grants in its US Program, one of the major categories of funding for the Gates Foundation?  The 4,000 grants were distributed among 16 categories such as College-Ready Education, Community Grants, Postsecondary Success, Global Policy & Advocacy, etc.  About 2,000 of these grants were made to carry out the Common Core State Standards, the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers, and support technology that would increase the surveillance of students, parents and teachers to create sets of “big data” that can be mined by private companies to seek out customers and clients for their products.

Corporate Spray

Lets think of corporate standardized education reform as a kind of “spray” whose mist and slag has covered public education killing creativity, innovation, and spontaneity. This corporate designed “standardized” spray is analogous to DDT spray which was used as an agricultural insecticide, to control malaria and typhus among civilians and troops,  and as contact poison against several arthropods.  The academic formulation of the corporate spray mechanisms is planned violence with very little intellectual , moral, and emotional basis.

For example, from 1940 – 1972, 1.3 billion pounds of DDT were released into U.S. communities indiscriminately.  In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring (Library Copy) explained how the release of DDT into the environment caused havoc and great harm to the affected ecosystems, as well as human health.  Even though the bio-chemical industry tried to subvert Carson’s work, she was eventually vindicated of the criticisms being leveled by this industry, and the US Congress went on to pass legislation banning DDT.   Later the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established.  Carson had started the environmental movement, and many leading ecologists and environmentalists from around the world looked to her work as an inspiration.

Rachel Carson, in the word’s of Mark Hamilton, one of Carson’s biographers,  was a “gentle subversive.”

There is a vanguard of gentile (and not-so-gentile) subversives who are leading the way to uncover and expose the damage that is being done to educational ecosystems, as well as  student  health (social, emotional, intellectual) by the standardized, test-centered and market-oriented reform that is spreading like a virus with global implications.  This vanguard is composed of educators who offer different accounts of what teaching and learning is about.  They are leading an effort to challenge the current reform movement.

And  just over the past two years, we’ve witnessed the movement to get states to vote against the use the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), to support parents who choose to opt their children out of high stakes test and support back lash against the U. S. Department of Education (ED) from using an unsubstantiated Value Added Model (VAM).

Please follow this link to read about some of the people identified as part of this vanguard.  There are many more, and most of them are teaching in classrooms across the United States.

So, what is this vanguard voicing opposition to?  They all are questioning the lack of wisdom, the signs of ignorance, and ineptness of an educational reform movement that is rooted in a very narrow purpose of schooling: teaching to the test.  Many of the ideas integrated into The Mischief of Standardized Teaching & Learning are fruits from the voices of the vanguard of teachers and researchers that I identified earlier.

Global Educational Reform Model (GERM)

The Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) promotes and spreads the “strategies and interests” of global agencies, billionaire donors, and private consultants as if it was a live virus (Sahlberg 2013).  According to Sahlberg, three primary sources led to the spread of the GERM virus including:

  1. The need for proficiency in literacy and numeracy,
  2. A guarantee that all students will learn the same set of standards in math and language arts and reading, and value placed on competition, and
  3. Accountability by holding schools to a set of standards, and benchmarks using aligned assessments and tests.

The Guardian newspaper published a series of articles about the 2013 PISA international test results.   Sahlberg points out that creating league tables that showcase or shame countries based on their student’s performance on standardized tests is simply not a proper use of international test results, in this case PISA.   As I’ve reported many times on The Art of Teaching Science blog, international test results fall prey to newspaper headlines that predict the collapse of economies, or the inability of its students to compete in the ‘global market.’  The ‘sky is falling’ mantra was alive and well when the 2013 results were announced.

Imagine reading the headlines in Helsinki after its students fell from second place to 12th in just three years.  Sahlberg reports that in Sweden, the test result for its students was considered a national disaster.  In the United States, the Secretary of Education (Arne Duncan) said the U.S. the results are “straightforward and stark: It is a picture of educational stagnation.”

But Sahlberg suggests that the PISA results are proof that the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) is working and spreading itself around.  According to Sahlberg, GERM is a virus that has infected many nations in their march to “reform” education.  In his view, GERM is characterized by

  • standardization (Common Core),
  • core subjects (math, reading, science),
  • teaching to the test,
  • corporate management style, and
  • test-based accountability.

When Duncan commented  (Guardian News, 2013) on the 2013 PISA results, he said it was clear that this “must serve as a wake-up call against educational complacency and low expectations.”  And to correct American education’s shortcomings, “we must invest in early learning, redesign high schools, raise standards and support great teachers.”

Good examples of GERM schools can be found in the US, England, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden and Chile.  Here is how they fared in the PISA tests (Table 1).

PISA Results for Nations that have adopted the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM)
Table 1. PISA Results for Nations that have adopted the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM)

These nations have adopted a model of education based on competition, standardization, and test-based accountability.  In Sahlberg’s view,

GERM has acted like a virus that “infects” education systems as it travels around the world.

A New Vanguard for Educational Reform

But Sahlberg, if he were ever asked by Duncan how to improve American schools, would not suggest the “reforms” that Duncan has funded for the past five years.  Instead Sahlberg would suggest that the standards-corporate styled reforms (GERM) are based on premises that are rejected by educators and policy makers in nations that seem to be successful.

Another voice, if Duncan were asked to listen, is that of Mercedes Schneider, a high school English teacher who holds a Ph.D. in Applied Statistics and Research Methods.  She is relentless in her writing about corporate reform, especially the way the Common Core State Standards came into being, and how they have corrupted American education.  In her recent book, (A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education) I wrote this as part of a review on Amazon of her book:

In this book we have at our fingertips answers to important questions about how such a limited number of individual’s faces crop-up in various media outlets as the experts on public schools. If you want to find how to get wealthy and have a really big office, read about Joel Klein in chapter 1. Find out how Teach for America is transforming teacher education into a temp business by reading the Wendy Kopp story in chapter 3. You’ll find important episodes about characters including Eva Moskovitz, Michelle Rhee, Erik Hanushek, Arne Duncan, David Coleman, Chester Finn, and others. You’ll also find out about organizations that fund each other in the name of reform, but in the end seek to dismantle public education. Welcome to TFA, the New Teacher Project, the National Council on Teacher Quality (not), the Aspen Institute, the Gates Foundation, and cousins Walton and Broad.  And the best is yet to come as she saves the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the nation’s bill mill for the last chapter.  The content of the book is thoroughly researched and authenticated. If you read her blog, you’ll certainly enjoy this book.

Beyond GERM

The conservative view of schooling must be challenged and the battleground for this is on the front lines in American schools and districts.  There is a pressing need to reverse the overreach of a few organizations and very wealthy people whose foundations have reigned havoc on American schools.  Here are some suggestions that Sahlberg makes, and many teachers and researchers would agree with:

1. Schools should have autonomy over its curricula and how students are assessed.  Teachers should work collaboratively to design and develop curriculum, and make decisions about the nature of instruction in their own classrooms.  This is contrary to the reforms that have dominated American education for decades, especially starting with the publication, Nation at Risk, followed by the No Child Left Behind Act during the Bush Administration, and The Race to the Top during the Obama administration.  Sahlberg says:

PISA shows how success is often associated with balanced professional autonomy with a collaborative culture in schools. Evidence also shows how high performing education systems engage teachers to set their own teaching and learning targets, to craft productive learning environments, and to design multiple forms student assessments to best support student learning and school improvement.

2. Schools need to focus on equity by giving priority to early childhood (one point for Duncan), comprehensive health and special education in schools, a balanced curriculum that sees the arts, music and sports as equals to math, reading and science.

3. School choice does not improve academic performance in a nation’s schools.  In fact, the overemphasis on school choice and competition between schools leads to greater segregation of schools.

4.  Successful schools are public schools and are controlled locally, not by a state or federal government. If we want to improve education in the US, we need to move away from the competitive, corporate-based model that is based on standardization and test accountability.

As Dr. Nel Noddings says in her book, Education and Democracy in the 21st Century,

Education in the 21st century must put away some 20th-century thinking. All over the world today, many educators and policymakers believe that cooperation must displace competition as a primary form of relating. Competition is not to be abandoned— some competition is healthy and necessary— but it should no longer be the defining characteristic of relationships in an era of growing globalization. If we agree with this judgment, then we must consider how to prepare students for a cooperative world, not solely for one of competition.  (Noddings, Nel (2013-01-25).

American public schools are not failing.  The premise that they are failing is based on one factor–test scores.  We need to move beyond this concept of schooling and embrace collaboration, dialogue, interdependence, and creativity (Noddings, 2013).

The Mischief of Standardized Teaching and Learning

Mischief investigates the nature of the corporate reform by challenging its approach and results. We also investigate how progressive educators are marching to their own drummer charting new paths and walking away from The Mischief of Standardized Teaching and Learning.

The book’s 12 chapters are organized into three parts as follows:

  • Part I. The Cloud of Authoritarianism
  • Part II. The Ideals of Progressivism
  • Part III. Education: Public and Local

For a limited time (December 21 – 24, 2014, you are welcome to download my book for free from Amazon Kindle at this link.

The Conundrum of Adolescence, and the Middle School Science Curriculum

Sixth Article in the Series on The Artistry of Teaching

Does neoliberal education reform consider the nature of adolescence and the advances in our understanding of how humans learn?  Is it necessary for every American human adolescent to learn the same content, in the same order, and at the same time?  Why should every student be held accountable to policies and plans that don’t consider their needs and their interests?

These are some of the questions that many educators ask themselves every day as they open their doors to their students who come from homes where there might be not enough food on the table, their father is un-employed, their mother is fearful that she might be deported, or their neighborhood school was closed during the summer and now they are in a different school.

Five articles were recently published on The Artistry of Teaching.  Teachers know, but apparently policy makers don’t know, that teaching is not tidy. It involves a willingness to try multiple approaches, to collaborate with professional colleagues, and students to work through the realities of teaching and learning.  It requires a deep understanding of the nature of human learning, the needs and aspirations of children and youth, and a recognition that these students are living a life that is real and not-imagined, and school should be  experiential,  providing activities and projects that are meaningful, risky, and collaborative.

Teachers who do this practice a form of artistry.  Furthermore, artistry in teaching is practiced by educators who know how to mingle theory with practice. Teaching isn’t only the application of strategies or techniques, it’s an art form that involves high level thinking, on-the-spot decision-making, and creativity. As we have suggested on this blog, the magnum principium of teaching is inquiry, which is a democratic and humane approach to teaching and learning.

For more than thirty years I worked with teachers and students who wanted to teach at the middle school and high school levels in science, mathematics and other fields, but principally science.

One of the programs that we designed was TEEMS (Teacher Education Experiences in Mathematics and Science).  It is a four semester program for people who have a degree in engineering, mathematics, or science leading to initial teacher certification in Georgia.  Students also graduate from TEEMS with a Master’s Degree in Education.  The program mingled theory with practice, and was based on Vygotsky’s theory of social constructivism in which science and mathematics teacher education students were involved in a clinical and reflective program of deep understanding of educational theory and experiential learning in clinical experiences.The TEEMS program started in 1992 and is still the teacher education program to prepare all secondary teachers (English, mathematics, science, and social studies) at Georgia State University.

This is a “slideshare” program based on one of the multimedia presentations designed for the TEEMS interns and that I want to share here.  I’ve included it in this sixth article on the Artistry of Teaching to show that teacher education students need not only backgrounds in science or mathematics, or history, or literature, but they need to embrace the content of the learning sciences.  The Learning Sciences (public library), which is an interdisciplinary field, involving among others cognitive science, educational psychology, anthropology and linguistics, is the kind of knowledge that teachers use to do the art of teaching.

Adolescence and Middle School Curriculum

This particular slide show, which I titled Adolescence and Middle School Science, is a critique of the middle school science curriculum in the context of the nature of adolescence.  There is a lot of content here, and when I used this in my course, the TEEMS interns had already spent a semester in clinical practice.  During the presentation, interns were organized into small cooperative teams, and throughout the slideshare, we would stop and explore the implications of and our knowledge of, the “content of adolescence” and application to science curriculum.

In this slideshare, we looked at the middle school science curriculum in the context of adolescent students.   In grades six through eight, no matter where you travel in the USA, kids are going to take a course each year in earth science, life science, or physical science.  I spent several years (in the 20th Century) teaching earth science at the ninth grade level in Lexington, MA.  The curriculum used then is not very different from the earth science curriculum of the 21st Century.

Is there a problem here?  I think there is.

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 2.50.33 PMCurriculum tends to start with the content of science math, English/language arts or social studies, and not content of the lived experiences of students in class.  This is not a new dilemma.  It’s been around for a century.  But there have been educators, starting with people like John Dewey or Maria Montessori who believed that learning should not only be experiential, but that it should engage students in real problems and issues in their own lives.  Content should be in the service of students, not the other way round.

So, in the presentation, we face this conundrum, and suggest some ways that curriculum should be:

  • Structured more in terms of student interests
  • Social concerns
  • Human agenda
  • Human ecology

Science should be for people, and in that light, we suggest these directions:

  • Select those concepts and principles in science relevant to students’ daily life and adaptive needs
  • Do not based curriculum on preparing more scientists
  • Science must be put into the service for people and society
  • Connect students with today’s world
  • Develop life skills that improve the quality of living


Enjoy the presentation.  Teaching certainly isn’t tidy or easy.  But it is an art form practiced by lots of educators.

What are your ideas about the relationships among students, their needs and aspirations, and the curriculum? Are we moving in the right direction? What do you think?

Do Green Classrooms Lead to Artistic Teaching?

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.

Figure 1. Elements Characteristic of Reductionist Education
Figure 1. Elements Characteristic of Reductionist Education

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).


Figure 2. A Wordle of the Green Classroom based on The Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess

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.