If Poverty & Financial Hardship Affect Cognitive Function, Then is the Opportunity School District a Good Idea?

If Poverty & Financial Hardship Affect Cognitive Function, Then is the Opportunity School District a Good Idea?

The Opportunity School District is a plan by the Governor’s Office in Georgia to take over “chronically failing” schools across the state.  To be voted on in the November 8 election, if passed, schools will be selected by an OSD Superintendent (Czar), from a list of schools that fall at the bottom of a rank ordered list of schools across the state based on state-mandated multiple choice achievement tests along with other factors such as progress to round out a complete score called CCRPI.

A school’s CCRPI is an over all score and values are used to rank order schools from high to bottom.  Schools producing CCRPI scores below “60” are on a list called “chronically failing” are eligible to be pulled out of their local district and pushed to the state Opportunity School District with administrative office presumably near the governor’s office.

It might be better for the OSD to rent a hangar at the Charlie Brown Airport, in Fulton County.  As I mentioned in an earlier post having a private pilot’s license might just be the ticket  to get folks to visit OSD schools spread across 59,425 square miles.

Oddly the Georgia Department of Education is not privy to the OSD, meaning that there will be two independent state-wide administrative bodies competing for the same pool of resources.

Seems to me like a bunch of bull promoted as a vanity project to make Governor Deal look righteous.

Many (perhaps all) of the schools eligible for OSD have very high percentages of students living in poverty and/or economic hardship.  To remedy this fact, the Governor is going conduct mass firings of principals and up to half the teachers and support staff.  So half the teachers that have worked and may have lived close to the school community will be given the boot.

The evidence based on experiences in New Orleans is that the teachers who replace the fired educators will be non-certified teachers from the temp agencies, Teach For America and the New Teacher Project.

Free or reduced lunch is not a perfect measure of the poverty level of students attending a specific school, but it the best measure we have that we can use to predict how well kids will do in school, especially on state mandated achievement tests.

Many of the students whose school will taken by the OSD are living in poverty and face some form of economic hardship.

A longitudinal study (1985 – 2010) of 3,400 young adults was carried out to investigate the relationship between poverty and economic hardship, and cognitive function. The study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, in advance of Volume 52, Issue 1 (January 2017).  In this report, “Sustained Economic Hardship and Cognitive Function: The Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study, by Adina Zeki Al Hazzouri, et.al. the authors collected income data over the period of the study, and in 2010, tested the participants using three cognitive aging exams.

Four groups of participants emerged:

  1. Never in poverty
  2. Less than 1/3 of time
  3. From 1/3 to nearly 100% of the time
  4. Always in poverty

The results showed a strong and graded association between greater exposure to economic hardship and worse cognitive function.  The researchers concluded that poverty and economic hardship may be important contributors of cognitive aging.

The lead investigator, Dr. Zeki Al Hazzouri, said that maintaining cognitive abilities is a key part of health.  He made it clear that poverty and economic hardship most likely contribute to premature aging.

Not only that, there is clear evidence that poverty has a direct association with performance on academic scores and other school measurable (Graph 1 & Graph 2).

Using data from the Georgia Department of Education, Graph 1 plots CCRPI and percent poverty.  For these data there a strong relationship between CCRPI scores and student poverty.  Lower test scores are associated with higher poverty rates.  The same relationship is true when we plot achievement scores and poverty percent (Graph 2) (CCRPI and Achievement Scores and Percent of Poverty, Georgia Department of Education).

Graph 1: CCRPI Score and Percent Poverty


Graph 2: Achievement Points and Percent Poverty



Are charter schools the answer to the problem of chronically failing schools?  Is it a valid idea to replace public schools with charter schools and expect the outside force of a charter school to do better than regular public schools.

The OSD is a misplaced idea simply to give a few politicians a feel good experience at the cost of thousands of Georgia parents and their children.

We have already dismissed the idea that charter schools are miracles falling out of the sky.  In the last post I showed how P.L. Thomas put this to rest with his analysis of the charter school sham.

Secondly, and perhaps even more important is the fact that charter schools foster a re-segration of schools.  In Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms: Lessons for ESSA. Ed. By William J. Mathis and Tina M. Trujillo. Charlotte: Information Age, 2016, Gary Orfield, in his chapter entitled “A New Civil Rights Agenda for American Education, 279 – 313 provides critical information for policy makers about charter schools, race and civil rights.

Orfield makes it clear that so-called “choice” in education (ergo, charter schools) leads to a stratification of educational opportunity, and in my view, the Opportunity School District is a perfect example of stratification.

Charter schools do far worse than regular public schools.  In earlier posts, I’ve cited the research of Michael Marder, at the University of Texas.  He has examined the relationship between poverty concentration and percentage of students meeting SAT criterion scores across all Texas Hugh Schools. Take a look at the chart below.  We see here that Marden’s graph is similar to the Georgia graphs.  The higher the level of poverty, the lower the test scores.

But look.

Charter schools, irrespective of poverty level, are at the bottom of the graph.  They form a straight line, showing how ineffective they are compared to regular public schools.



The schools that will be part of the OSD will most likely be in metropolitan areas of the state (Atlanta, Athens, Columbus, Savannah, Augusta).  Most of the students attending these schools will either be living in poverty, or facing some form of economic hardship.  Simply changing a school from a public school to a charter does nothing to improve the economic status of the parents and their children in this schools.

Gary Orfield says that a new civil rights agenda is needed to remedy this and many other problems.  We need to understand that identifying each school as chronically failing without considering the context of the school raises serious civil rights issues. Orfield offers this is something to think about:

Educational stratification and inequalities today are basically defined by school-district boundary lines, much more than by problems with on district (or school, my addition), so civil rights remedies must have a metropolitan dimension.  This is vital not just for the central cities but to provide stability and block resegregation by race and class in growing sectors of suburbia. Boundary lines and the housing segregation which makes them so significant must be central foci. If opportunity is allocated on the basis of space within a metropolitan area, crossing boundary lines and regional cooperation arrangements in schools and housing become urgent priorities. (Orfield, G.  “A New Civil Rights Agenda for American Education,” Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms: Lessons for ESSA. Ed. William J. Mathis and Tina M. Trujillo. Charlotte: Information Age, 2016. 293).

As Ed Johnson and others have spoken and written, the issues of students in any school need to be embraced within a systems model of education.  There is an interconnectivity among schools in a district or region, and separating one from the other because of performance of achievement tests is bogus.  But more than that, it leads to a non-solution.

In order to make sure that students have a chance to be fully functioning and healthy human beings, they need to be living in an environment where they see hope and love, and that the community pulls together to help each other.  A community based agenda is needed for schools to improve for our students, not one of isolating the school from the community to be run by outsiders.

Deal’s OSD is not only a bad deal, its without merit and is violating the civil rights of the students involved.







Infinity & Beyond: Unbounded Learning and Human Potential


geese Figure 1. Unbound Learning

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

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

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

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

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

Limits to Learning

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

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

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

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

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

Unbounded Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


5 Qualities of Systems Thinking and Communal Classrooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Systems Thinking and Communal Classroom

It won’t surprise you, but a systems thinking classroom is what Dr. Chris Emdin calls a communal classroom.  Dr. Emdin, a leading researcher of urban teaching and learning, and Professor of science education at Teachers College uses the concept of “communal classroom.”  Dr. Emdin explains that communal classrooms involve students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community, and the collective betterment of the group.

In their study, Exploring the context of urban science classrooms, published in Cultural Studies in Science Education, they contrast two ways to organize a classroom, the corporate way and the communal way.   To Emdin, the corporate classroom involves students and teachers working with subject matter and functioning in ways that follow a factory or production mode of social interaction. The primary goal in corporate class mode is maintaining order and achieving specific results (such as the results generated by standardized tests). The corporate model is based on competition and extreme conservative values.

The communal classroom involves students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on inter-personal relationships, community and the collective betterment of the group.  The communal model is based on cooperation and progressive values.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Student Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Team Learning

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

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

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

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

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

Please follow this link for more details on team learning.

Assessment for Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultures of Learning

In the last post, I made reference to the concept of “culture of learning,” in my discussion of the drop-out problem in America’s high schools. (note: America is not the only nation that has a poor track record of graduating students from secondary schools—its exists in many parts of the world.) Culture of learning has to do with the way and degree that teachers and students interact (or not interact) in a learning environment (in a classroom, a field trip to a rock outcrop, a visit to a science museum).

In many schools, the culture of learning that exists does not promote learning among a very large portion of the U.S. secondary school population. More than a third of students drop out. There are many reasons for this, and I do not want to support the idea that the only reason is the culture of school—students come to school with different family experiences, and attitudes toward learning, and these can impact anything that the school might do to mitigate against these students experiences. However….

It’s the however, that I want to write about here.

Schools can influence the kind of school that students enter in a variety of ways. One way is by changing the culture of learning that students will experience when they pass through the metal detectors. Once in the school, schools officials can influence the way students think about learning, themselves and their peers.

How can this be done? One way is size. Small is better in learning situations. We’ve known this for a long time. Students do better in smaller schools. More students can be leaders in small schools; students have a greater chance of knowing each other, and the faculty. They can become more involved in the content of their courses, because teachers can implement methods that favor inquiry, small group learning, and research. Graduation rates are higher in these kinds of situations.

Not all schools can become suddenly small. However, schools can create smaller communities of learning within larger schools. Schools can be divided up into smaller “units.” Classrooms can implement cooperative group learning, thereby influencing the landscape of learning. In either of these cases, we need to look to the influence of a Russian psychologist.

In my book, The Art of Teaching Science there is a discussion of the influence of the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky on the culture of learning, in particular his impact on the use of language in learning. According to Vygotsky, all higher level learning took place on the “social plane.” For students to learn science in this way, teachers need to provide ample opportunities for students to talk science, read science, and write science.

Students who are in school cultures that emphasize “talking, reading and writing science” have a greater chance of changing many of their pre-conceived ideas about science, and developing science concepts than in schools that emphasize rote learning (lecture, note taking, and test taking—the common terrain of science classrooms).

One of the biggest problems encountered in trying to develop classroom practice that articulates talking, reading and writing, is the education of science teachers. It’s simply not enought to know science content. Teachers need to be experts of pedagogical content knowledge.

Changing the culture of learning in high schools can lead to more successful students (and teachers), and increase the graduation rate. Can it really be done? Are there any really good examples?

Learning to Learn

I’ve been recently reading about early American history, especially the revolutionary period, and have especially appreciated authors including Joseph J. Ellis (The Founding Brothers, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, and His Excellency George Washington), and David McCullough (John Adams and 1776). One of the things that struck me was how dependent the founding brothers (fathers) were on books to learn new things. I know this is not a new idea, but in light of our challenge in schools in general, and science education specifically, one wonders how to instill the love of learning in our students. Science education prides itself on developing approaches to learning that incorporate student inquiry as the centerpiece. Yet, inquiry is not the dominant method of teaching used our middle and high schools. So, how can we help student with the notion of “learning to learn?” John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, as two examples, read to learn how to do things (build a house, become an attorney), and learn about new philosphies that were being published in England and on the Continent. They were laying the ground work for a new nation, and they had to forge ahead, without the aid of a “playbook” or “guide,” but with their strong beliefs in their abilities, and their courage that they were doing the right thing. How can we grasp this attitude, and create environments for students in which they pursue with passion something (anything) that is vitality important to them, and their community?