Tag Archives: classroom practice,

From Policy to Practice: Chains or Pasta

Metaphors are shortcuts for understanding complicated concepts: Time is money. The mind is a computer. Each metaphor powerfully illuminates and enriches an idea. Which metaphors come to mind when districts try to put reforms into classroom practice to increase student learning? The common (and inaccurate) metaphor is a chain with many links. A more apt one would be spaghetti.

In the U.S. Army’s command-and-control structures, generals believe that their decisions can steer what infantry platoons do in the field. Yet the metaphor of the “fog of war” and a history of misunderstanding orders at the company and platoon levels during battles suggest that even in command-and-control structures,decisions moving down the chain of authority may turn out far differently than intended. Novels and memoirs from War and Peace to Jarhead, films from The Longest Day to Platoon, and officer and enlisted men reports make that point.

School district organizational charts resemble military organizations with structures showing authority flowing downward from the board of education to teachers. Here also, the belief that policymakers can frame problems, adopt solutions, and steer classroom practice prevails. Yet school districts are hardly command-and-control operations since new policies get interpreted and re-interpreted by different actors at each link of the supposed chain of authority as they proceed downward into classrooms.

Consider former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, He got the state legislature to eliminate the elected school board and give him control of the schools in 2002. He appointed lawyer Joel Klein Chancellor and through that school official commanded the school district. The Mayor said: “there is a direct link from the teacher’s desk in the classroom, right to the mayor’s desk in City Hall.” For political rhetoric, it is a great one-liner but , truth be told, school decision-making in New York City, Fargo, North Dakota, and Los Altos, California doesn’t work that way.

The supposed command-and-control chain of authority from a mayor or a school board to classroom have many links (mayor=superintendent=district office=principals=teachers=students), but influence doesn’t always flow downward from the top. Sometimes it flows from the bottom up. Sometimes, teachers get rid of principals; sometimes principals do the opposite of what district administrators seek; sometimes students don’t do homework. Moreover, other important factors such as incidence of family poverty, race and ethnicity of enrollments, size of district, and history of reform in the city gum up the chain metaphor. Finally, in far too many instances, policymakers’ assumptions about the desired reform are simply mistaken.

And it is in classrooms where teachers make decisions about what the policy is and which parts, if any, get implemented. What was intended by policymakers may well turn out to be something quite different. The metaphor of a linked chain for putting educational policies into practice is inapt. A better image than links in a chain is policy-to-practice pasta. Consider the following two examples.

Mrs. O., a veteran California second grade teacher in the late-1980s had embraced a new math curriculum aimed at replacing students’ rote memorization with mathematical understanding. A researcher observed Mrs. O teach and interviewed her many times. She saw herself as a success story, a teacher who had revolutionized her mathematics teaching. But classroom observations revealed that her practices were really old wine in new bottles. Yes, Mrs. O was now dividing students into groups–an innovation–but the groups memorized rules taken from the new text. In short, Mrs. O’s blended traditional and innovative practices to create lessons that transformed the state policy directive into something quite different from what policymakers had intended.

Interactive whiteboards. Replacing traditional classroom chalkboards, TV monitors, and DVDs, these wall-mounted electronic devices connect a desktop computer and projector to a whiteboard where teachers can click keys to show videos, visit websites immediately, and call upon other sources of information. A stylus permits teachers and students to write on the whiteboard to do math problems, point out aspects of lava flows from erupting volcanoes, and allow teachers to record their lessons as digital video files for students to review at a later time.

Promoters have hailed interactive white boards as a technology that will transform teaching and learning.

A reporter described Spanish teacher Crystal Corn’s high school class in Cumming, Georgia:

“[Corn’s students] … use a stylus at the whiteboard to match pictures and vocabulary words, they use it to visit Web sites that feature news from Spanish-speaking countries, and they even made a music video and played it in class on the whiteboard. This school year, Corn plans to use the interactive whiteboard to hold videoconferences with classes in other countries.”

Sounds terrific. But over the past three years, I have observed nearly 20 classrooms using whiteboards in four different districts. I saw versions of Mrs. O again and again. Consider the half-dozen high school math teachers that I observed using whiteboards daily. Nearly every one began the lesson with a “brain teaser,” reviewed homework problems, had students use the stylus on the whiteboard to show how they solved particularly difficult ones, introduced new material, asked if students had any questions, then assigned new problems for homework. In short, these math teachers in different cities used traditional math lessons with an innovative high-tech device. Yet those teachers spoke rapturously about how whiteboards had enhanced their teaching. Hello, Mrs. O.

So what if the policy-to-practice continuum is best captured by the image of spaghetti than iron-welded links in a chain? The answer is again found in the four questions I have asked many times about whether the policy was fully implemented and whether teaching practices had changed. The catch is, of course, that I do not know if Mrs. O and the whiteboard examples capture typical teaching practices when it comes to implementing curricular and high-tech policy decisions. We won’t know until more systematic classroom observations occur. School policymakers facing their own “fog of war” can only guess how teachers teach daily.

Yet teachers make daily policy decisions in their classrooms. When teachers work collaboratively within schools and districts, when policymakers work closely with teachers to make decisions that touch classrooms, when teachers run their own schools as in Minnesota, links-in-a-chain and pasta metaphors are inappropriate.

More apt may be metaphors of organizational collaboration such as a team white-water rafting or a relay team running hurdles. But those metaphors are seldom used to capture the policy-to-practice road into classrooms. Pity.

 

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Will Teaching and Learning Become Automated? (Part 3)

Part 2 of this series described the spread of software-driven automation across the economy in the past half-century. I used examples of automated flights, driverless cars, and electronic medical records. I did not mention that now software programmers have written precise instructions for clinicians to diagnose X-rays and MRIs, provide legal documents—called “discovery–for a trial, and  design ships and skyscrapers across the globe through CAD–computer-aided-design. The shift to automating the work of professionals has been stunning.

Driving this change is the market imperative to cut costs, raise productivity, and increase profits. That imperative, married to remarkable gains in applying artificial intelligence to professional tasks, has swept across the private sector. To those enamored with technology, spreading automation means progress. And there has been that kind of “progress” in K-12 schooling as well.

Advanced software to handle administrative work in K-12 districts have been put in place to manage payroll, personnel, purchasing, and similar tasks. Systematic collection and analysis of student personal and performance data has also multiplied over the past two decades. Automated processes, then, are hardly foreign to administrators. Nor to the three million-plus K-12 teachers who have latched onto software to help them keep tabs on students, assign grades, and manage their behavior. It is in the realm of teaching and learning in classrooms, however, that automation has stumbled.

No, I have not forgotten about online tutorials, screens filled with skill-driven worksheets, and the onset of automated grading of essays. Such software has helped many teachers.

But claims from technological enthusiasts that “progress” means classroom teachers will be obsolete in the 21st century are, at best, premature, or, at worst, mindless. It is this conceit that super-duper software will eventually, not today but in some future tomorrow, automate teaching that I take up in the final part of this series.

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The onslaught of automation in the private sector and its seeming success in industrial, commercial, and professional work has given strength to those who see smart software conquering hitherto unassailable occupations like teaching and medicine. In schooling, the advance of automation has raised anew the most basic question of purpose: Toward what ends should schools strive? And exactly what role do teachers play in reaching those ends?

The purposes of tax-supported schooling

What technophiles forget, neglect, trip over—pick a verb–are the multiple purposes for tax-supported schools in a democracy. They and many others futurists err—my verb choice—in equating access to information with becoming educated. The purpose of schooling is reduced to acquiring information.

But information is, I hate to repeat the obvious, not knowledge. Googled facts do not add up to knowing something. Surely, knowledge depends upon accurate information but without context, interpretation, and experience facts are forgotten quickly. That obvious distinction between information and knowledge has been skipped over in the current passion for more classroom software to automate teaching.

Tax-supported public schools have been and are social, political, and moral institutions whose historic job has been to help children and youth acquire multiple literacies, enter the labor market well prepared, vote, serve on juries, contribute to their communities, think for themselves, and live full and worthwhile lives.

Until three decades ago, these diverse purposes for tax-supported public schools were obvious; now those purposes have been narrowed to job preparation; the other purposes are mentioned when diplomas are handed out. Engaged citizenship, contributing to one’s community, and living worthwhile lives remain in the shadows. Few policymakers, philanthropists, technology futurists have challenged (or are willing to challenge) the swelling embrace of automated instruction that promise transforming schools into information factories.

Teacher roles

The community–taxpayers, voters, families, and businesses–expects teachers to help children acquire multiple literacies, prepare for  the labor market, serve on juries, contribute to their communities, think for themselves, and live full and worthwhile lives.

Effective teaching, like work in other helping professions such as medicine, social work, and religious counseling is anchored in relationships. Those student/teacher relationships convert information into knowledge and, on occasion, knowledge into wisdom about the self and world. Teachers, then, from preschool through high school  are far more than deliverers of information.

In classrooms, they set and enforce the rules that socialize the young to act consistent with community norms. They set an example of adult behavior becoming for some students exemplars to model. They create classroom cultures that can encourage individual achievement, cooperative behavior, and independent decision-making. I may have left some roles off the list but readers who remember their student days can supply others that have gone unmentioned.

Obviously, not all teachers are stellar in performing these complex roles. Like doctors,  therapists, nurses, social workers, and clergy engaged in the helping professions variation in performance occurs. The key point is not the variation but the public and professional expectations that teachers do more than give information to their students. And in performing these multiple roles in classrooms, teachers have to decide moment-by-moment what to do.

Teachers make thousands of decisions in planning, conducting lessons, and assessing how well students are doing. Hundreds of those decisions are made in the nanosecond during teacher/student exchanges in daily lessons. Many decisions are moral ones in that they involve her authority as teacher, parental expectations, and student behaviors. Decisions over right and wrong are ever-present in classrooms. Teachers sort out conflicts daily among students over truth-telling and differences between parental values and school norms. They make both moral and intellectual decisions.  No software program that I know has algorithms that either make instantaneous decisions when events pop up unexpectedly or split-second moral decisions.

So, because of multiple purposes for schooling and the daily press of classroom decisions, I believe that automation of teaching is not around the corner. Were teaching to be defined as wholly the delivery of information, then teaching could be software-driven. But, oh, what a loss it would be to the intellectual and moral lives of students and a democracy that depends upon tax-supported schools to educate the next generation.

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The School of the Future: Automated Classrooms? (Part 1)

Technological fantasies of the future school have been around for decades. Here’s one from 1910. Note all of the information going into students’ heads comes from textbooks fed into a wood chipper.

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Or another from 1963 cartoon called “The Jetsons.”

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Or this one in 1982 predicting that the future school will be monopolized by the then dominant company Atari.

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And then “Meet The Classroom of the Future” in 2015 at David Boody Intermediate School (IS 228) in New York City.

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Modeled after the School of One, an  innovative program that began in New York City a few years ago, sixth-to-eighth grade students work at their individual skill levels based on data collected from state and  school tests, diagnostic assessments, and past performance. From this data bank, software installed on laptops presents individual lessons tailored for each student to work through on the screen daily. These individual lessons become the day-to-day “playlist” for each student in various subjects. Teachers monitor, adapt, and enrich  lessons for each student.  The blended learning program at IS 228 touts “personalized instruction” for  over 800 students (2012) who apply to its varied magnet programs.

The journalist who described his visit to IS 228 began the article by saying: “The classroom of the future probably won’t be led by a robot with arms and legs, but it may be guided by a digital brain.” Describing a sixth grade math class at David Boody Intermediate School,  the classroom of the future  “may look like this: one room, about the size of a basketball court; more than 100 students, all plugged into a laptop; and 15 teachers and teaching assistants.”

Who’s in charge of the teachers, students, and laptops? “Beneath all of the human buzz,” the journalist said, “something other than humans is running the show: algorithms.”

Whoa! Algorithms? Yes, algorithms, those coded step-step procedures that drive Google searches, determine what is displayed on Facebook pages, and generate pop-up ads on each of our screens.

Back to the description of IS 228:

Algorithms choose which students sit together. Algorithms measure what the children know and how well they know it. They choose what problems the children should work on and provide teachers with the next lessons to teach.

Step-by-step instructions written in code, of course, is nothing new. Over a century ago, machines to generate electricity and make cars were programmed to run on instructions. Robotic machines began manufacturing scores of products in the 1960s.  A half-century later, software contains coded instructions to read X-rays, transfer millions of dollars in stock and bonds, prepare tax returns, guide driver-less cars and pilot jumbo jets across oceans. It is called automation and has added new jobs unheard of before while slicing away old familiar jobs.

In schooling, automation entered classrooms with  teaching machines in the 1950s, Scantron grading of tests in the 1970s, and software in the 1980s and 90s to help teachers take attendance, manage point systems to grade students in their classes, and communicate with students and their parents. In the last decade and a half, new software helps teachers do an incredible range of tasks from behavioral management (ClassDojo) to grading essays (Pearson WriteToLearn) (see  EdSurge for new products that they claim help teachers across K-12 grades).

The work that teachers do daily and what students experience in bricks-and-mortar buildings, however, is far from becoming thoroughly automated. Even with the hyped talk of classroom robots and predictions of schools of the future that go well beyond what occurs at David Boody Intermediate School in New York City, from kindergartens to physical education classes to Advanced Placement course remain far from automated. To fully see what happens in other sectors of society that have become far more, even dramatically, automated one has to look beyond schooling children and youth. In Part 2, I describe the extent of automation in transportation, medicine, professional, and business institutions. Part 3 will return to the question of automating classroom teaching.

 

 

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Leave No Pound Untouched: Fighting Obesity in Schools

I wrote this post over five years ago. I updated it with some minor changes. The war against obesity continues in and out of school.

What might policymakers do if they were dead-set in reducing the number of fat kids?

Imagine civic, business, and foundation leaders so worried about the social and individual costs of health problems that overweight children would face as adults that they wanted schools to fight a war on fat. Imagine, further, that these policy elites, riding the current moral crusade against obese children, wanted to solve the problem now. Would they follow Singapore?

Since the early 1990s, Singapore had operated an obesity-reduction program called “Trim and Fit.” School officials identified overweight young students and compelled them to join a “health club.” In these “clubs,” teachers instructed chubby students to run, jump rope, and do other exercises. They received “calorie cash” coupons for school meals that would not exceed the number of calories stamped on the ticket. Lunches were monitored to reduce soft drinks, French fries, and fast foods. Teachers measured students’ height, weight, and body mass monthly. The government awarded cash to schools that found new ways for students to shed pounds.

SingaporekidsAccording to government records, these “health clubs” and incentives reduced the proportion of overweight students from 14 percent in 1992 to 10 percent in 2003. Serious drawbacks arose, however. The head of physical education at the elite Singapore Chinese Girls’ Primary School said that “to keep them in the club for a long time is bad for their self-esteem because there’s a stigma tied to it.”

In 2007, the government ended the program even after substanial reductions in overweight children, because policymakers–spurred by parents and educators–concluded that the psychological costs to “club” students of being bullied and teased unrelentingly outweighed (yes, a bad pun) program gains.

Singaporean culture, centralized national authority, and a decided preference for social control nearly guarantee that this program would not fly in the U.S. So consider another possibility.

Imagine that President Obama recently signed the Leave No Pound Untouched Act, a variation of No Child Left Behind, to prevent increased incidence of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other crippling diseases associated with obesity. OK, it is a huge leap in imagining but humor me.

The Act gave government officials the authority to use the Physical Fitness Test (it does exist) as a lever to reduce fatness. Adequate yearly progress (AYP) standards would be set and, if met, schools would be identified as “fit and trim.” Those schools that failed to meet standards would be rated “unfit” and if those schools continued to fail, they would be closed. State, district, and school officials would make public all of the above information, particularly the poundage gap between trim and unfit schools.

In schools eager to meet standards, principals and teachers would identify those students close to their expected body mass index or just a few pounds overweight. These students would have the best chance to pass the Physical Fitness Test. Extra physical education sessions would be scheduled for them to practice body curls, push-ups, and pull-ups. All vending machines for candy, sugary sodas, and chips would be replaced with ones dispensing carrots, celery sticks, and sugarless candy. Low-calorie, tasty lunches would be served daily. healthy vending machine

Even were this implausible scenario of a moral crusade and federal law to occur in the U.S., the spread of obesity among children would continue unabated, particularly among low-income minority families, since the causes of obesity are hardly located within schools between 8AM and 4 PM.

Consider other causes. The lack of concerted federal action since the 2001 Surgeon General’s Call to Action on obesity (updated by a subsequent Surgeon General in 2010) underscore the inherent conflicts between food industry profits and federally-led campaigns promoting healthy eating. Moreover, the hours children watch television, how little or how much money families have to spend on food, and a dozen other reasons anchored in personal, social class, and cultural norms encourage obesity. Schools, at best, are only a finger in a badly leaking dike.

Direct action focused on changing adult behavior similar to past and current anti-smoking campaigns is needed, not schoolhouse lessons, changing vending machines, and nutritious lunches. Muscular action from the Surgeon General’s office, anti-obesity groups lobbying for legislation to tax high-calorie soft drinks, and banning fast food industry ads targeted at minors are some measures that have a chance to stem the tide of fat spilling over the nation. Expecting schools to reduce obesity  repeats the dismal history of foisting national problems onto schools and substituting talk about nutritious lunches in schools and less sugary sodas in vending machines for direct action.*
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*A recent study showed a large drop in obesity rates among children between ages 2-5 or those mostly out of school. See here.

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Updating Data-Driven Instruction and the Practice of Teaching

The following post appeared May 12, 2011. Since then it has been the most read post I have written–nearly 28,000 views. I am updating it with a few changes in language and additional studies and comments that were not in the original post.

I like numbers. Numbers are facts: blood pressure reading is 145/90. Numbers are objective, free of emotion. The bike odometer tells me that I traveled 17 miles. Objective and factual as numbers may be,  still we inject meaning into them. The blood pressure reading, for example, crosses the threshold of high blood pressure and needs attention.  And that 17-mile bike ride meant a  chocolate-dipped vanilla cone at a Dairy Queen.

Which brings me to a school reform effort centered on numbers. Much has already been written on the U.S. obsession with standardized test scores. Ditto for the recent passion for value-added measures.  I turn now to policymakers who gather, digest, and use a vast array of numbers to reshape teaching practices.

Yes, I am talking about data-driven instruction–a way of making teaching less subjective, more objective, less experience-based, more scientific. Ultimately, a reform that will make teaching systematic and effective. Standardized test scores, dropout figures, percentages of non-native speakers proficient in English–are collected, disaggregated by  ethnicity and school grade, and analyzed. Then with access to data warehouses, staff can obtain electronic packets of student test data that can be used for instructional decision-making to increase academic performance. Data-driven instruction, advocates say, is scientific and consistent with how successful businesses have used data for decades to increase their productivity.

An earlier incarnation appeared four decades ago.  Responding to criticism of failing U.S. schools, policymakers established “competency tests” that students had to pass to graduate high school. These tests measured what students learned from the curriculum. Policymakers believed that when results were fed back to principals and teachers, they would realign lessons. Hence, “measurement-driven” instruction.

Of course, teachers had always assessed learning informally before state- and district-designed tests. Teachers accumulated information (oops! data) from pop quizzes, class discussions, observing students in pairs and small groups, and individual conferences. Based on these data, teachers revised lessons. Teachers leaned heavily on their experience with students and the incremental learning they had accumulated from teaching 180 days, year after year.

Both subjective and objective, such micro- decisions were both practice- and data-driven. Teachers’ informal assessments of students gathered information directly and  would lead to altered lessons. Analysis of annual test results that showed patterns in student errors  helped teachers figure out better sequencing of content and different ways to teach particular topics.

In the 1990s and, especially after No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, the electronic gathering of data, disaggregating information by groups and individuals, and then applying lessons learned from analysis of tests and classroom practices became a top priority. Why? Because stigma and high-stakes consequences (e.g., state-inflicted penalties) occurred from public reporting of low test scores and inadequate school performance that could lead to a school’s closure, negative teacher evaluations, and students dropping out.

Now, principals and teachers are awash in data.

 

How do teachers use the massive data available to them on student performance? Researcher Viki Young studied four elementary school grade-level teams in how they used data to improve lessons. She found that supportive principals and superintendents and habits of collaboration increased use of data to alter lessons in two of the cases but not in the other two. She did not link the work of these grade-level teams to student achievement.  In another study of 36 instances of data use in two districts, Julie Marsh and her colleagues found 15 where teachers used annual tests, for example, in basic ways to target weaknesses in professional development or to schedule double periods of language arts for English language learners. Researchers pointed out how timeliness of data, its perceived worth by teachers, and district support limited or expanded the quality of analysis. These researchers admitted, however, that they could not connect student achievement to the 36 instances of basic to complex data-driven decisions  in these two districts.

Yet policymakers assume that micro- or macro-decisions driven by data will improve student achievement just like those productivity increases and profits major corporations accrue from using data to make decisions. Wait, it gets worse.

In 2009, the federal government published a report ( IES Expert Panel) that examined 490 studies where data was used by school staffs to make instructional decisions. Of these studies, the expert panel found 64 that used experimental or quasi-experimental designs and only six–yes, six–met the Institute of Education Sciences standard for making causal claims about data-driven decisions improving student achievement. When reviewing these six studies, however, the panel found “low evidence” (rather than “moderate” or “strong” evidence) to support data-driven instruction. In short, the assumption that data-driven instructional decisions improve student test scores is, well, still an assumption not a fact.

Numbers may be facts. Numbers may be objective. Numbers may smell scientific. But we give meaning to these numbers. Data-driven instruction may be a worthwhile reform but as an evidence-based educational practice linked to student achievement, rhetoric notwithstanding, it is not there yet.

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Teacher Use of Academic Research

What follows is the Foreword that I wrote for a book about why many teachers are allergic to academic research yet seek it out and, in some cases, almost religiously, apply research findings in their classroom lessons. It is a puzzle. Jack Schneider, a historian of education, tries to unlock that puzzle in his book, From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse (2014).

 

Over half of U.S. public school teachers have master’s degrees. Many courses that these teachers took to earn their degrees in disciplines or in education included reading and analyzing research studies. And many of these teachers wrote a master’s thesis or research papers to complete the requirements for the degree. For those teachers without an advanced degree, most have been exposed to recent research in their discipline or educational specialty through professional development workshops, media articles, or may have even participated in classroom research projects. And many teachers search restlessly in academic journals and professional literature for studies that will point to ways that they can improve what they do daily in classrooms. So most teachers have been either consumers or creators (or both) of research.

But that familiarity with research seldom stills the frequent and intense rhetoric from policymakers, researchers, administrators, and lay reformers who ask teachers to use “evidence-based practice” and “best practices” identified in research studies. They want teachers to incorporate results of scientific studies into their lessons on fractions and decimals, phonics, photosynthesis, and the causes of the Civil War.

Moreover, since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001—the law mentioned variations of “scientifically-based research” over 100 times– calls upon teachers to use research in classroom practice have multiplied. The federally funded “What Works Clearing House” founded in 2002 to “provide educators, policymakers, and the public with a central and trusted source of scientific evidence of what works in education,” concentrates on empirical studies meeting rigorous standards of effectiveness as measured by standardized test scores. No surprise, then that frequent and intense interest in getting teachers to use knowledge harvested from research literature, especially from experimental and quasi-experimental studies, has increased dramatically in the past decade.

Yet in light of so many teachers exposed to research in their graduate programs, an expanding empirical base for effective programs, and a large population of teachers familiar with the ins-and-outs of research, so little of that knowledge has filtered into classroom practice. Decade after decade, critics have characterized teacher use of research as slim.

This marginal use of research by classroom teachers, however, has not occurred for lack of trying. For decades, university teacher educators have taught undergraduates and graduates how research studies are put together, identified studies that can improve practice, and assigned research projects. State, federal, and private efforts over decades have spread the results of research studies to teachers. Consider, for example, the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) that began in 1966. It contains over a million documents most of which are studies freely available to anyone. The National Diffusion Network (NDN) disseminated research on programs that worked in classrooms between 1974-1995. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) started its Educational Research and Dissemination program for classroom teachers in 1981.

Here, then, is a puzzle. Highly educated teachers familiar with research joined to mighty efforts to change that situation over decades, and yet the bulk of the nation’s teacher corps seemingly ignore scholarship easily accessible to them.

There are reasons galore for why this puzzle exists. For some critics of academic research, the primary reason is that most studies answer questions teachers seldom ask. So many studies are largely irrelevant to those issues that bite at teachers daily. Other critics see the reason located in teachers themselves who are so immersed in a culture of practice where experience and stories carry far more weight than findings from scientific studies. And then there are those who point to the age-graded school and the structural constraints (e.g., tight schedules that leave little time for teachers to meet and discuss instructional issues, number of students taught) that fix teachers’ attention on daily logistics rather than applying results of scientific studies. Whatever the reasons, most teachers, critics say, ignore the fruits of research studies that could be used to enhance both teaching and student learning. Instead most teachers rely on experience-based practice, that is, the authority that comes from their knowledge and skills gained through prior experience and the wisdom of respected colleagues.

The situation, however, is not as grim as critics would have it. Those familiar with the history of teaching know that certain ideas shaped and baked in academia, have, indeed, been adopted and adapted by teachers and put into practice in their classrooms. And that fact is an important clue to unraveling the conundrum.

Jack Schneider, a historian of education, takes that clue and turns it into an eye-opening book. He does what gifted songwriters do: create a new melody or rearrange a familiar one, add fresh lyrics and end up enthralling listeners. He does so by artfully building an original interpretation about teacher use of research. His “song” will surprise teacher educators, policymakers, researchers, and lay reformers baffled over the conundrum of teachers knowledgeable about research yet seldom adopting scientific findings to improve their classroom practice.

The central question that drives From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse is straightforward: what explains that some scholarly ideas, and not others, appeared in classrooms practices? He answers that question by examining Bloom’s Taxonomy, Multiple Intelligences, The Project Method, and Direct Instruction, concepts stamped made-in-academia. Schneider travels back and forth in time from a century ago to the recent past to identify the features of those ideas that made them accessible and useful to teachers in their daily work. In making the case for the essential features that he identifies, Schneider also recognizes that luck is an ingredient to the success story—being in the right place at the right time.

Not only does Schneider make the case for the key features of those four ideas that tie together their successful research-to-practice journey, he also takes four very similar research-driven concepts—The Affective Taxonomy, Triarchic Intelligence, Project-based Teaching, and Behavioral Analysis also baked in the ivory tower—that stumbled on their way into classrooms, seldom making it past the classroom transom. He shows that some features characterizing the successful transplanting of research findings were missing-in-action in these comparable ventures.

In clear, crisp prose enlivened by spot-on quotes, richly detailed examples, and flashes of humor, Schneider offers readers, particularly teacher educators, researchers, policymakers, practitioners, and lay reformers, a fresh historical explanation for the puzzle of teachers and their uneven use of research to improve classroom practice.

In this fine book, Schneider shows how historical research not only begins unlocking policy conundrums but also can inform policies that might well bring teachers and scholars together to deal with the complexities of classroom practice. Whether the suggestions he offers in the closing pages, based on those research ideas that have informed and changed classroom practice will, indeed, alter the historic breach between the Ivory Tower and the Schoolhouse, I cannot say. But those suggestions surely got me thinking that they are worth trying to mend the unfortunate gap that still exists between researchers and classroom teachers.

 

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Classroom Alchemy (Michele Kerr)

Michele Kerr is a math and history teacher at Kennedy High School in Fremont, CA. She also wrote about teaching English and higher standards in previous guest posts. This post comes from her blog.

 

“Hey, how was Philadelphia?” asked Darius*, as I checked his work (“Sketch a parabola in which b=0″).

“Pittsburgh,” I said, pleased and taken aback. It was Wednesday, first day back after our 4-day Veterans

Day weekend. Sometime on the previous Thursday, I’d mentioned casually I was going back east for my uncle’s 70th birthday. Six days later, Darius remembered my plans.

“The family reunion, right?”

“Yeah. How nice of you to remember. I had a wonderful time.”

I moved back to the front, checking for universal understanding of the impact that b=0 had on the position of a parabola, and then told everyone to sketch a parabola in which c=0.

“Did a lot of people show up?” Darius asked across the room.

“They did! Over 90 people. All my uncles and aunts on my dad’s side, and several of their cousins. Eleven of my fourteen surviving cousins on that side. At least 9 of the next generation–my son’s. And even some tiny members of the generation after that—the great-great-grandchildren of my dad’s parents.”

“Wow. Did you know them all?”

“Some of them I’d never met before, because they hadn’t been born the last time I’d visited. Others I’ve known all my life, like some cousins, and my aunt and uncles. We even had someone from my grandfather’s generation. Aunt Ruth–my dad’s aunt–who is 94, looks fantastic, and just came back from a trip to Paris.”

“Was the food good?” from Harres.

“Outstanding. It was simple, nothing dramatic. They put the food on different tables throughout the room.”

“Oh, I don’t like that,” Darius again. “I always want everything, and can’t decide which table.”

“There was a table with two big haunches of meat. One roast beef, one ham, with really good bread rolls. I had no trouble deciding which table.”

After we finished up c=0 and they were figuring out the significance of a parabola with just one zero/solution, Darius waited again until I was checking on his work.

“Did you talk to people there?”

“Me? Oh, yes. Non-stop talking. There were so many people I hadn’t seen in years, and then others I wanted to get to know. I wish I’d had more time. I need to go back more often. If I wait as long again, I’ll be older than my uncle is now.”

“I went to a family reunion one time.”

“You did? How was it?”

“No one talked to me. I was like this.” and Darius humorously mimed standing all alone, silent, looking about for something to do.

So that’s why he remembered.

“Darius, I can tell you for certain that no one at my family reunion was sitting all by himself. I’m sorry. That probably wasn’t fun.”

“Yeah. It was weird. I didn’t know anyone there, and they were all talking to each other.”

“That would totally suck. I’m sorry. We’d have asked all about you.”

As they worked out the next task, I had a brief moment of introspection. Darius, who’s a cool cat in every sense, is far less likely to be the one sitting alone at a party than, say, me, a cranky introvert who has to brave up for crowds so she can exercise her natural garrulousness. I know that my uncles, or my dad, would have probably joked about a teenaged African American appearing at the party. Some or all of them, egged on by siblings and downstream kin, would one up each other with ribald wordplay and puns about where and who had done what when to add color to the family tree. But they’d have sought him out, gotten him some food, grilled him on his life story, likes and dislikes, found out his plans after high school. Looked for links and common interests, bring in others to get conversation going. But would I have done everything to reach out? Or would I have been too busy enjoying not being the one sitting alone?

As the bell rang, I was actually showing Darius and others some family pictures from the night, which sounds impossibly boring, but they seemed genuinely interested in seeing evidence of my stories.

“I’m really sorry you felt isolated at your own family reunion, Darius.”

“Yeah. It’s always the same. I’m like the whitest person when I’m with my black relatives, and the darkest person when I’m with my white relatives.”

“Well, you’d have been the darkest person at my family reunion, for sure. I don’t think our bloodline moves east of Aberdeen. Maybe London. We’re pretty thoroughly white folks. But even though you felt isolated because of your race, some of it could just be family dynamics. My family’s big, boisterous. Really loud.”

“Everyone here was loud. They just were loud to everyone else but me.”

Kameron* punched his arm lightly. “I hear ya.” At Darius’s look, he elaborated. “I’m half black. My mom’s white.”

“Oh, then you know.”

“Does your black family ask if you’re ‘all-black’?”

“You get that too? Isn’t that idiotic? Like they’re measuring?”

“Well, gee, I guess at least the white side of the family didn’t ask if you were ‘all-white’.” I pointed out, and they cracked up.

“There’s a lot of research and profiles on biracial kids, did you know?”

“Really?” Both Kameron and Darius looked interested.

“Yes, that feeling you both have of not being one nor the other, of being slightly separate, is not uncommon. It’s also not unique to kids with one black and one white parent. Biracial Asians have similar feelings, whether their other parent is black, white, or Hispanic.”

“Huh. Really.”

“Sure. There are some good books that you can read about other teens with the same background. You should check them out. In any case, I promise you, Darius, that you wouldn’t have been all by yourself at our family reunion.”

“So the next one you have, invite me!”

“It’s a deal. Have a good day, guys.”

Such exchanges are classroom alchemy, a magical transformation of mundane, random elements into golden moments. They spring from elixirs of personalities, events, spontaneous conversations, the incidental inspired nudge. They are occasionally unrelated to content knowledge and always irrelevant to test scores. They will never be found in MOOCs, nor in classrooms obsessed with tight transitions. They are criterion deficient; ed schools can, to a limited extent, prepare teachers for such moments only with open-ended assignments that are probably opinion-based.

I don’t confuse alchemy with the meat and potatoes of teaching. Darius and Kameron are both doing very well, improving their competency and fluency in quadratics, modeling real-life situations with algorithms and, importantly, taking on intellectual challenges that don’t immediately hold interest.

But teachers are responsible for more than content, whether we are aware of it or not. We are the first adults students interact with, the first engagement students have with the outside world. Independent of content, we can give students a feeling of competency, of capability, or of frustration and helplessness. We can communicate values both indirectly and directly. We can teach them that work is a serious business, or we can teach them that work can be fun and entertaining—or both. We teach them how to interact with a wide range of personalities, how to ask for help, how to give help. It doesn’t matter if a teacher is determined to convey nothing but content. Simply by the nature of our job, we create an environment that has its own entirely unmeasured learning outcomes.

I am a teacher who focuses primarily on conveying content, as all observers have noted over the years. Yet for a teacher who doesn’t see her job in terms of its emotional impact, I have my fair share of classroom alchemy, the moments of knowing my classroom has been a positive force in the universe, whether for one student, a group, or a class of thirty five.

I never plan these moments. As the great Terry Pratchett noted (with props to Neil Gaiman), you can’t second guess ineffability. It’s just going to come along on its own terms.

 

*Darius and Kameron both confirmed this exchange as written.

 

 

 

 

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