Do Some Charter and Title I Schools Use a Pedagogy of Indoctrination


"Creative Commons Allensworth Classroom by Joseph Vasquez  CC By 2.0
“Creative Commons Allensworth Classroom” by Joseph Vasquez is Licensed under  CC By 2.0

I might be off my rocker on this post, but I want to get it out there, and ask you if there might be some truth in my claim.  My claim is that the No Child Left Behind Act set in motion a culture of schooling which seeks conformity and an authority to which participants must subscribe, meaning teachers, students and their parents.  Followed by the Race to the Top, we have created in American schools an environment that many have shown to be harmful to the psychological well-being of not only students, but teachers as well.

There is evidence that many charter and Title I schools use an authoritarian and behavioral change system of learning to make one change in student behavior and that is higher test scores. Because of federal and state regulations implicit in NCLB and RT3, a top-down system of accountability has played a role in making authoritarianism the principle of charter schools, and many public Title I schools.

The Strict Family and the Strict Classroom

In previous discussions on this blog I’ve applied the research of George Lakoff.  Dr. Lakoff uses the conceptual metaphor of Nation as Family and applies it to politics, literature, philosophy and mathematics.  Using this idea, ones (political) beliefs tend to be structured by how we think of family, and our early experiences in our own family which contribute to our beliefs. Thinking of a nation as a family is a familiar notion, as in phrases such as Mother Russia, Fatherland, sending sons and daughters off to war, the founders, Big Brother (see Joe Brewer, Rockbridge Institute, discussion here). In Brewer’s thinking, the conceptual metaphor of nation as family organizes our brains in this way: homeland is home, citizens are siblings, the government (or head) is parent, and so forth.

Lakoff would say that a conservative family would be based on authority, and would be represented by the “Strict Father Family”. In the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by Rockbridge, the conservative family can be characterized as follows (from Brewer, Conservative Morality):

  • The Strict Father Family is the traditional family with a father and mother
  • The father is the head of the house
  • The mother is supportive and upholds the authority of the father
  • A hierarchy exists and is never to be questioned
  • Children are weak and lack self-control
  • Parents know what is best
  • Children learn right and wrong when punished by doing wrong
  • When children become self-disciplined, respect authority, and learn right from wrong they are strong enough to succeed in the world.

In my earlier blog post, I wrote about Rocketship Education, a relatively new charter management system with schools in California and Wisconsin.  It appears to me that the Rocketship education model of education is authoritarian and relies on indoctrination for its success. It’s a model of education that fits the description of Lakoff’s conservative family.

Authoritarian Education

In that earlier post, I outlined four principles that characterize a Rocketship School based on the research of Gordon Lafer.  Here are the principles and comments I’ve made about each one. As you read these points, connect these principles to the principles in Lakoff’s theory:

  1. Replacement of teachers with computers for online learning–Digital learning is a way to make the school more economical, and using the schools “Learning Lab” large numbers of students can be accommodated with less staff.
  2. Reliance on a young and inexperienced teachers largely recruited from Teach for America–according to Lafer’s report, Rocketship has a contract with Teach for America to offer a pipeline of new recruits. Rocketship teachers are paid based on how their students score on math and reading tests. The model embraces a young staff and one that has a high-turnover rate. As you will see ahead, Rocketship schools are staffed with teachers who have between 0-5 years experience, where successful comparable public schools have staffs with 10 – 30 years of experience. Teaching staffs that are more experienced are by far more successful with students and their learning. The replacement or turnover rate for the Rocketship schools averages 29% each year.
  3. A narrow curriculum of math and reading–Rocketship Education describes its approach to curriculum as blended learning. Blending digital learning with face to face. However, its curriculum only includes math and reading literacy. You will not find a full curriculum at these schools.
  4. A relentless focus on preparing students for standardized tests—Rocketship teaches to the test–students are involved as full-time test takers at school and home. Students take the test Measuring Academic Progress (MAP) three times per year. This is the same test that teachers in Seattle boycotted. But instruction is totally centered around tests that are aligned to the state standards (the Common Core Standards next year).

The nature of the pedagogy outlined in these four points is a certain example of Lakoff’s conservative “Strict Father Family,” where the entire system is organized underneath an authority figure.  This could be the owner of the charter school management system, the principal of the school, or even the top-down rules and regulations upon which the school’s accountability depends.

But this tenor of authoritarianism is not limited to charter schools.


What has happened is that accountability has been reduced fundamentally to one cause, measurement or variable, and that is student test scores.  In Georgia, for instance, the state rolled out a new accountability system in which each school in the state is graded (A – F) by adding up the points earned in four categories.  However, each of the categories is dependent on one reason: student test scores.

The state, in Georgia and most other states, is the authority figure that controls the behavior of administrators, teachers and students. The state indoctrinates school staff to follow very strict guidelines to increase student test scores.  These guidelines are defined by standards (either state or Common Core State Standards), and what is known as College & Career Ready Performance, using expressed as an index or simply a number that can be used to compare schools, districts and states.

In Atlanta, all you had to do yesterday to verify this is to read the Atlanta Journal/Constitution newspaper which listed the top and bottom performing schools in school districts around the state.  Winners and losers?

So, the only purpose of teaching in schools that are served by an authoritarian regime is to teach to the test, and to spend as much time possible making students practice for the tests with worksheets, and obsessively stupid homework assignments.  The goal is to score high on the state mandated high-stakes tests, and to get as a high a grade for the school based fundamentally on student test scores.

The Rocketship Schools have taken the conservative model to the extreme.  By reducing the curriculum to essentially two subjects, math and reading, teachers are trained to teach math and reading only in so far as the kids score high on the tests.  In fact, in the Rocketship schools, teacher’s pay is dependent on student scores.  I am not saying that there is a salary scale based on specific scores, but given comments made on a PBS interview with the principal and two teachers at the school, there are targets to be met.

In this kind of school, teachers do not need to be educated, but they need to be indoctrinated and trained to follow the leader. Teach for America’s 5 week training is all that is wanted in schools that cut teaching to test preparation.  Not only does Teach for America supply Rocketship teachers, but TFA and the New Teacher Project have multi-million dollar agreements with several Race to the Top winning states (follow this link to see it work in Georgia).

Child Labor Violations

What is the role of the student in these extreme classroom situations.  The school day begins in the school courtyard or similar space in a kind of ceremony or rally to energize the students, and to instill in them “group think” and the requirement that they must conform to the authority of the school, and especially their teachers.

To some researchers and practicing educators, American obsession with statewide testing has led to an inhumane environment.  Stephanie Jones, a research professor at the University of Georgia has written that the current system of high-stakes testing might be exploiting child labor laws by creating a system in which students spend up to seven hours in school doing things that might be unethical.  As she sees it, children are the producing workers in the school system whose production of test scores will be used to reward the people above them—-their teachers and administrators, and indeed the superintendent of the school system.  Go ask Beverly Hall about this.

As Dr. Jones points out, Child Labor laws were enacted to prevent children from working under conditions of stress and long hours.  Sending them to school was one way to prevent business owners from using children during the day.  Now, schools seem to have taken over.

Psychological Abuse

Joyce Murdock Feilke is a 30 year veteran school counselor in the Austin, Texas independent school district (AISD).  On October 15, 2013 she filed a “Report of Psychological Abuse in an AISD Elementary School,” and sent it to Senator Jane Nelson of Texas, and the Committee for Health & Human Services.  The superintendent of AISD was Dr. Meria Carstarphen, who was hired to begin the superintendency of the Atlanta Public Schools in July, 2014.  According to reports that I have seen, there is evidence that Dr. Carstarpen covered up the abuse, and then after a month simply denied Joyce’s report.

Joyce Murdock Feilke wrote in her report about the psychological abuse of students at an Austin elementary school.  She begins by saying:

During the past 30 years as a school counselor, I have observed a steady decline in the elementary school environment.  This decline has resulted from complex reasons, but primarily from the obsession with statewide testing and corrosive school politics.  Children in most elementary schools of Texas are being forced to function in an environment of chronic stress.  Chronic stress is known to change brain chemistry in children and can lead to mental illness.  Many of these young children with genetic predisposition to autism and other neurological, sensory, and developmental delays are experiencing chronic traumatic stress and will suffer even greater psychological harm.  The demands for high-test performance ratings are causing these children to be exploited and experimented on as if they were caged mice in a science lab.  They are being psychologically abused on a grand scale that will impact the mental health of future generations (emphasis is mine).

The New 3 R’s System of Behavior Control

Feilke has exposed a system of teaching that uses punitive methods of behavior modification (now called Applied Behavior Analysis {ABA}) in Title I schools in Austin, Texas.  According to this veteran educator, a new system of 3 R’s (The Right Resources, The Right People, and the Right Systems) using behavioral engineering was initiated by a former structural engineer who became principal in the AISD.  The 3R’s model is applied in elementary schools with large populations of minority students.  Ms. Feilke provides insight into the 3R’s model.  She says:

The New 3 R’s System of behavioral engineering that AISD is celebrating and perpetuating uses the same methods of punitive classic conditioning that are known to enslave children for child labor and sex trafficking, and for obedience training for dogs and zoo animals.  It is the same dysfunctional system that kept the black culture of the South submissive to oppression for the hundred years after the Civil War.  It is the same dysfunctional system that led to the Nazi Regime in Germany prior to WWII.  The New 3 R’s System has the same sophisticated dysfunctional dynamics and abuse of power that can be observed in every poisonous pedagogy that has ever woven its way through history.  It can be observed in families, cults, and countries.  It is efficient, and it does result in high performance, but at the expense of great psychological damage to its victims.

The 3R’s was effective in raising Title I student test scores, so much so, that the district expanded it into other schools.

But the 3R’s systems, according to Feilke, is punitive.  It creates chronic stress in students, resulting in

desensitization, anxiety, loss of imagination, loss of spontaneity, loss of humor, regression, irritability, self injury, inability to concentrate, and dissociation.  However, the most destructive effects of this psychological abuse will not manifest until the children reach their teenage years, or early adulthood.  At that time, their conditioned emotional repression from victimization of institutional bullying and positive/negative ambivalent role modeling can lead to mental illness and criminality.

Punitive System of Teaching

Using qualitative research, Feilke documents specific examples of the effects of this punitive system on students.  As she points out, the teacher/caregiver dominate the class environment using punitive classical conditioning to “shape” behavior.  She makes the point here, when she expresses what happens to kids in this kind of classroom:

This poisonous pedagogy has been demonstrated throughout history to produce efficiency in human systems and gain desired performance, but at the same time repressing vitality, creativity, and emotions in children.

Imagine your child coming to school and you ask, what did you do today?  Well, at lunch, because I didn’t finish my work, I was told to stand up in front of everyone while the principal said I was bad for not finishing my homework.  I felt awful.  Some of the kids snickered at me, but Shane put her hand on my back, and said “don’t worry.”

Here is how Ms. Feilke describes the effect of this kind of behavior control on children:

Many of the younger children cry when forced to sit in isolation by themselves in front of everyone in the cafeteria.  Some of their peers show signs of sympathy, while others make sarcastic comments or looks, and others fear the same could happen to them.  Most of the children see the injustice, and feel helpless and sad for the victims.  This method of humiliating children causes strong emotions of shame, anger, and resentment for both the victim and the bystanders.  By using this method, teachers are modeling negative behavior of “bullying”, while presenting it to the child as “good discipline”.

There is more to this story, and I’ll follow-up later this week.

For now, I wish to thank Joyce Murdock Feilke for being such a courageous educator to take the risks to expose the dehumanizing pedagogy that was used in elementary schools in Austin.  After her superintendent, Dr. Meria Carstarphen, (who is the new Superintendent designee for the Atlanta Public Schools ) denied her report, Joyce resigned her position in the Austin USD in protest.  She said this in her letter of resignation:

I have attempted to speak up and advocate for children in AISD who are most impacted by this invalidating environment and dysfunctional administration. It is my goal to continue speaking up. I am submitting my resignation as counselor in order to pursue this advocacy without retaliation from an administration that does not recognize or respect the needs of children, or the rights of professionals who work to support and help them.

Joyce’s documentation of the injustices that prevailed in these schools was also published on Julian Vasquez Heilig’s blog (Cloaking Inequities) and Diane Ravitch’s blog.  If you go to Cloaking Inequities you will find 99 comments in response to Joyce’s letter to Senator Nelson and the HHS Committee.

Do Some Charter School Models Use a Pedagogy of indoctrination?  What are your ideas?

Using Computers and Related Technologies in an Age of Standards

The Dish2According to Allan Collins, Professor Emeritus of the Learning Sciences, Northwestern University, in this “age of technology,” the very technology which consumes so many of us, has had little effect on mainstream education. As he pointed out in his book, Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology (library copy), which he wrote with Richard Halverson, schools spend a lot of money on technology, but this technology is on the periphery of learning, and has not really been used to help students learn. Indeed, we’ve spent so much on technology, that I remember a stunning visual experience visiting a science and technology center in a North Georgia school district.  I saw piles and piles of “old” computers stuffed into a closet taking up space, replaced with “newer” computers.  

The technologies that have emerged in society over the past 30 years (1984 – 2014) happen to emerge when the standards-based and high-stakes testing accountability model was put in place in the nation’s schools.  In 1984, when Apple released the Macintosh computer, it was essentially a stand alone machine that too many of us, did amazing things.

My colleagues and I have a long history using technology in teaching, especially computer and Internet-based technologies.  When we started connecting our classrooms to the Internet (c. 1990), and thus to each other, the technologies we used were primitive.  We had to rely on telephone lines, very slow modems, and not lightning fast computers.  We had lots of problems with the technology, but the major problems were not with technology.  The problem was how to use these technologies in schools, not only here in Georgia, but in other countries such as Russia, Spain, Australia, the Czech Republic and others.

But there is a side to technology that must be understood in the context of schools.  There are many who advocate technology as a way to not only make teaching more efficient, and cost-effective, but as a way to manage the implementation of a standards-based, high-stakes authoritarian accountability system.  Take for example tablet computing, in which every kid carries an iPad, Kindle Fire, Nook,  Chromebook, or Android tablet.  These are powerful tools that students can use to do a variety of things in school or at home.

The claim is that using tablets in classrooms will enhance learning and promote student-centered learning, exploration and research.  There is, however, little empirical evidence to support this.  Yet, for  some students, a tablet or a smart phone are ubiquitous.  So, for many educators, it only a question of when schools with provide tablets for each student.

Christopher D. Lehmann, founder and principal of Science Leadership Academy, was quoted in an Education Week article saying this:

Thousands of educators out there are trying to leverage these tools to let kids build, do, and create.   If the only thing we allow them to be is an evolution of ‘drill and kill,’ then the failure of our imagination would be great.

Strict adherence to the Common Standards without any flexibility for teachers to change, cut, or add standards will result in less imaginative ways to used technology, indeed to import new pedagogies that are more student-centered.

Simply putting tablets or any technology in the hands of students will not necessarily improve learning, or be an easy goal to carry out.

The problem is the authoritarian standards and test-based accountability system that keeps us entrenched in a pedagogy which can be simply explained as teaching for the test.

But there is more to it than pedagogy.  There is the reality that corporations have seen the potential for huge financial gains at the cost of students, their parents, and teachers.

Digital Oceans

The authoritarian accountability model that is implicit in a standards and traditional pedagogical approach is the perfect environment for “big data” and what Pearson refers to as Digital Data, Analytics and Adaptive Learning.  Mercedes Schneider posted on her blog today a Pearson report entitled Impacts of the Digital Ocean on Education.  As one of her readers commented that the report was chilling and dystopian.

When I first looked at the report, I thought I was reading a fictional story of what education might be in a futuristic world.  I imagined that each student in these futuristic schools would be connected to computer data systems by means of their use of all sorts of technology including computers, tablets, watches, and other devices.

In the scenario of learning sketched in digital ocean paper, students every move, and interaction can be monitored and data collected and stored on remote computers.

To the authors of the paper, the term “digital ocean” is the “vast amount of data that is available from interactions with digital tools.”  This vast amount of data can be used to create learner profiles which can be used to make predictions about learner performance based on statistical models.   According to the authors, these advanced models can be used to tell us about our student’s levels of skill.

This is very much like the thinking that is used to rationalize the use of the VAM (Value added model) statistical model used to decide a teacher’s level of skill.  As I’ve reported on this blog, VAM is not supported as a valid and reliable method to measure teacher effectiveness.  Are we opening the door to the same kind of thinking about students?

The authors of the digital ocean paper would say that they do have a way to do this.  For example, here is what they say about monitoring others:

This emerging digital ocean,2 when combined with appropriate analysis and standards for use, opens the door to new types of naturalistic observation and inference that could help us to understand and improve ourselves. When extended to education, we expect such changes to advance our learning and our stewardship of the learning of others. (DiCerbo. K. E. & Behrens, J. T. (2014) Impacts of the Digital Ocean, London: Pearson, Creative Commons Attribution)

In the late 1980s, a group of teachers and professors in Georgia organized reciprocal trips to the former states of the Soviet Union, and through those collaborative experiences, designed one of the first computer-based Networks of learning between the US and the USSR.  We used computers that were connected to a very primitive telecommunications network to bring students and teachers together to collaborate and work on common environmental problems.  We saw the telecommunications network as a way to foster cooperation and collaborate learning, and together created a program using these technologies known as the Global Thinking Project.  We saw computers and the Internet as a way to humanize education.  Other groups saw the same potential, they independently developed powerful communication networks that were bottom up experiences, not mandated top down edicts.  Some examples include iEarn,  Global Lab, Flatclassroom Projects, and ePals.  Each of these projects uses technology to humanize education by bringing people together to solve mutual problems, talk to each other, share information about their culture, and co-plan activities and experiences.

Education as depicted in the digital ocean paper, paints a different picture.  Clearly, there is little evidence of people to people interactions.  It’s more like people to computer interactions.  The student appears to be there to generate data which is used to program student behavior on future tasks and activities.  In this light, here is what the authors say:

Looking into the future digital ocean, we can imagine schools and individual learners harnessing ubiquitous and naturally generated data to support decisions about learning. In this emerging space, learners use a digital intelligent math tutor that records each step in a learner’s response to a question, the scoring of each task, hints requested, and resources used by the learner. Learning is personalised based on learners’ knowledge states and trajectories, and the creators of the systems improve them over time as data helps them to understand the processes of learning  (DiCerbo. K. E. & Behrens, J. T. (2014) Impacts of the Digital Ocean, London: Pearson, Creative Commons Attribution).

What picture of the classroom emerges for you when you think about how the authors depict student behavior.  Is it a classroom bursting with groups of students working together on creative projects?  Is it a classroom in which students work at their own pace as they sit at a computer and use commercial software, gaming, and activities to prepare for the next computer-based assessment?

While smartphones are the most common computing device available to individuals in some locations, in many portions of the educational community learners interact primarily through general computing devices such as laptop and desktop computers. In this context, sensors are embedded into software, which is typically the data collection and management interface for the user. When working with online software through a web browser, much of the operational management may occur remotely on computers that are centrally managed for software updating as well as data collection and analysis. In other words, the local computer shares information about an activity with a remote computer that gathers information from many local computers. This magnifies the scale of data collection, frees owners of local computers from having to update and re-install software, and may lower operation costs.  (DiCerbo. K. E. & Behrens, J. T. (2014) Impacts of the Digital Ocean, London: Pearson, Creative Commons Attribution).

Delivery of Instruction

Certainly one of the attributes of traditional pedagogy is the idea that teachers, texts, videos, computers and such are used to deliver instruction.  Instruction is delivered to the student through activities that are used to check and test student learning.  Student learning is determined primarily by paper and pencil tests.  Of course, most teachers know that this is not the only way to check or assess student learning.  But for the present argument, it is suffice.

There is a general learning cycle that describes the process of learning as depicted by the digital ocean authors.  It is shown in Figure 1.  With the use of computers and digital monitoring devices, it is possible to use “big” data bases to profile every student.

Figure 1. Digital Ocean Activity Cycle. DiCerbo. K. E. & Behrens, J. T. (2014) Impacts of the Digital Ocean, London: Pearson. Creative Commons Attribution
Figure 1. Digital Ocean Activity Cycle. DiCerbo. K. E. & Behrens, J. T. (2014) Impacts of the Digital Ocean, London: Pearson. Creative Commons Attribution

There is much to look at in the Digital Ocean paper.  In an age of standardization of schooling, one has to wonder about the implications for such a wired approach to learning in a classroom of students.  We’ll explore computers and technology in the age of standardization in future blog posts, but for now, what is your view of the use of computers in the age of standardization?



Culturally Responsive Pedagogy Enhances Student Achievement

In an important article in Education Week, Willis D. Hawley and Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, explain why students’ cultural identities are integral to “measuring” teacher effectiveness.

As it stands now, student achievement test scores are being used as the measure of teacher effectiveness in terms of the value added measure (VAM).  VAM is a data driven measurement that is totally based on changes in test scores from one year to the next for an individual teacher.  Critics of VAM have noted that research studies show that VAM scores are very inconsistent.  Furthermore, the Board on Testing and Assessment (BOTA) of The National Academies issued a letter to the Department of Education on the Race to the Top Fund (RTTT).  The essence of the letter was a critique of the RTTT Fund’s insistence on linking student test scores to teacher effectiveness.  In the letter, the BOTA had this to say:

The initiative should support research based on data that links student test scores with their teachers, but should not prematurely promote the use of value-added approaches, which evaluate teachers based on gains in their students’ performance, to reward or punish teachers.

Drs. Hawley and Irvine  believe that the practices that teachers use should be part of any teacher assessment system.  Teaching practices, to be used in teacher assessment, need to be observed, or need to be described by teachers themselves.  In particular, the authors suggest that there are teaching practices that are called “culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP), and that these need to be included in any “high-stakes teaching evaluation.”

As Hawley and Irvine point out, culturally response teachers,

  • understand that all students, regardless of race or ethnicity, bring their culturally influenced cognition, behavior, and dispositions to school.
  • understand how semantics, accents, dialect, and discussion modes affect face-to-face interactions.
  • know how to adapt and employ multiple representations of subject-matter knowledge using students’ everyday lived experiences.

Hawley and Irvine identify six examples of CRP that taken individually can make a huge difference in embodying the racial and ethnical effects on student learning.  These practices are not new, but they reflect a more indirect approach to teaching and learning, and in all cases, the nature of the students is seen as fundamental in teaching.  Highly effective teachers use practices such as these, and they should be an integral part of the assessment of teachers.

  • Learning from family and community engagement
  • Developing caring relationships with students
  • Engaging and motivating students
  • Assessing student performance
  • Grouping students for instruction
  • Selecting and effectively using learning resources

As you look back at this list (see their article for details on each), these practices ought to be used as measures of culturally responsive teaching, and as the authors point out “these describe the practice of all effective teachers, regardless of the characteristics of their students.  By making sure that teaching practices such as these become part of the evaluation of process, we make assessment more closely aligned to what teachers are really doing in their classrooms, rather than simply depending on an average test score that students score during a one-two hour period in the spring.



Science As Inquiry Website

This week, the 2nd Edition of Science As Inquiry will be published by Good Year Books.

Science as Inquiry is based on the idea that learning is deepened if viewed as a communal experience, and that students are involved in making decisions about not only how they learn, but what they learn. Center stage in Science As Inquiry is cooperative (collaborative) learning, and how cooperative learning can be used to heighten and motivate students in learning science. Whether we are engaging students in hands-on activities, designing and carrying out projects, investigating and debating important science-related social issues, or participating in Internet-based learning experiences, cooperative learning is a crucial cognitive tool to improve our student’s learning.

To integrate the ideas and activities in the book, Science as Inquiry, I have developed an interactive website on the following areas of investigation:

You can link to this new website here.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll discuss aspects of the book and website, and how you might get involved in using the book and the activities—especially the online science research investigations—with your students, courses and programs.

If you are interested in getting involved this summer, let us know.


The Dinosaur Footprints Puzzle: Is it pedagogy or paleontology?

In the last post I reviewed the article “Tracking the Footprints Puzzle: The Problematic persistence of science-as-process in teaching the nature and culture of science by Charles Ault and Jeff Dodick which was published in the recent issue of the journal Science Education. I also reflected on my own experience in teaching and writing with the Footprints Puzzle.  In this post, I am going to explore this idea: The Dinosaur Footprints Puzzle: Is it pedagogy or paleontology?

Ault and Dodick, among other issues, highlight that science teachers have been preoccupied for a long time of how best to connect content and process and to teach scientific inquiry.  Questions arose such as how should schools depict science content and process in science inquiry.    Their view on this question is that teaching science as process was a premier trend and is revealed in this quote from their article:

From the 1960s through the 1980s, the scales tipped away from content as many science educators advocated “a process approach” (American Academy for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 1967; Gabel, 1984) to teaching science. This approach treated a small number of content-free skills (typically 14 in AAAS’ Science: A Process Approach [SAPA]) as representative of the sciences, suggesting that mastery of these skills might enhance student learning in several different subjects. Furthermore, the process approach discouraged mixing content knowledge with training in process skills. Proponents worried that students might become confused by the content, feel discouraged, and therefore lose sight of the process objective. For example, in an exercise for teaching about hypothesis testing students were challenged to define variables influencing rotational speed of a “Whirly Bird” device, isolate an independent (or “manipulated”) variable, and test for the system’s response (also defined operationally as the dependent or “responding” variable) to the manipulated variable (Gabel, 1984, pp. 87–92; Science Curriculum Improvement Study & Berger, 1970). Developing the ideas of angular momentum and rotational inertia (or any intuitive precursors to these concepts) remained outside the lesson’s purview—unnecessary complications that might obscure the logic of experimental design central to the process of scientific inquiry.

The authors ague that science is more than process, and that the nature and concepts of the discipline of inquiry (geology, marine biology, astrophysics) ought to be an important part of science inquiry.  We would agree.  They explain the meaning in this passage:

Mary Budd Rowe, a scholar whose contributions to inquiry science remain unsurpassed (e.g., the role of language, wait-time, and fate control; Rowe, 1978), believed in the appeal to students of science as specially crafted stories about the natural world (Bianchini, 2008)—as meaningful interpretations of experiences (“experiments” being a particular type of experience). Paleontological interpretation of fossil dinosaur footprints is one such story. To learn this story means to journey through the landscape of genuine fossil artifacts guided by the imagery of evolutionary thought—to engage in disciplined inquiry. Paleontological inquiry, representative of the importance of context to observing and inferring in particular ways, promises fascinating stories that amplify experience with meaning (Ault & Ault, 2009).

The Footprints Puzzle as depicted in the original ESCP Text designed to help students investigate fossil dinosaur tracks.

So, as I raise in the title of this post, is the Dinosaur Footprints Puzzle a pedagogical exercise, or an experience in paleontology?  The original intent of the science educators that designed the Footprints Puzzle for the Earth Science Curriculum Project materials in the 1960s was an inquiry activity within the construct of paleontology.  Students were told that the footprints were dinosaur tracks, and they were informed that the tracks were fossils, and were made by dinosaurs in Texas during the Mesozoic Era.  The activity as originally used in the ESCP text was to help students use the tracks to tell a story about about dinosaurs, and how paleontologists use by process (measurement) and concepts (geological time) to interpret events in the rocks.  Naturally, the tracks as shown here represent tracks in nature, and as Ault and Dodick point out, the teacher would need to involve the students in examining real fossils, looking at real tracks, determining the age of the rocks in the area of the tracks, and other important paleontological concepts that would help them build a story.

The dinosaur track activity and its selection as an important activity in an earth science course is an example of the application of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK).  It is a powerful and useful form of representation of key ideas about fossils, and over time it has been recognized as one way to make some aspects of paleontology understandable to students.

The Footprints Puzzle has become for me an important tool in not only the teaching of geology and earth science, but as a vehicle for teaching science pedagogy.  In geology and earth science, I’ve used the Footprints Puzzle as an activity to help students explore fossils, and geological time.  Supplemented with field work to hunt for and collect fossils, students can use the Footprints Puzzle is use their imaginations to create stories about animals as they lived and roamed the earth, and in this case, during the the Mesozoic Era.

I would agree with Alt and Dodick that the original intent of the activity has been distorted by its use as a simple exercise in which students make observations and inferences about tracks on a piece of paper, with no context, or reference to real fossils, dinosaurs, and the earth’s past.  In some cases, the students are told these are tracks in the snow, perhaps by birds; in other cases, students simply make lists of observations.  Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with doing activities in science that focus on observations.  Many of us have used the CHEM Study activity in which students observe a burning candle and are challenged to make as many observations as they can.  Providing an authentic context (for the Footprint Puzzle) is tantamount to making use of research in the learning and cognitive sciences.  Much of the rationale for this approach can be traced back to John Dewey, and then forward to Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and Jerome Bruner.

In the next post I will explore how the Footprints Puzzle became an important tool for teaching teachers important teaching and learning strategies.