Tag Archives: research and practice

What Guides My Thinking on School Reform: Pulling the Curtain Aside *

From time to time readers will ask me what I believe should be done about teaching, learning, and school reform. They usually preface their request with words such as: “Hey, Larry, you have been a constant critic of existing reforms. You have written about schools not being businesses and have pointed out the flaws in policymaker assumptions and thinking about reform. And you have been skeptical about the worth of new computer devices, software, and online instruction in promoting better teaching and faster learning. So instead of always being a critic just tell us what you think ought to be done.”

Trained as a historian of education and knowledgeable about each surge of school reform to improve teaching and learning over the past century, I cannot offer specific programs for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and voters to consider. But I do embrace certain principles that guide my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform. And also this blog for the past six years. These principles come out of my five decades of being a teacher, administrator, and scholar. These principles come out of my school experiences and as a site-based researcher. Most readers will be familiar with what I say. No surprises here. But these principles do steer my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform.

Context matters. Suggesting this program or that reform for all math classes or urban districts or elementary schools is impossible because the setting in of itself influences what happens in the school and classrooms. There is no  reform I know of aimed at improving classroom teaching and student performance that should be applied across the board (e.g., school uniforms, teaching children to code, project-based learning). Policies and programs delivered to teachers need to be adapted to different settings.

No single way of teaching works best with all students. Because students differ in motivation, interests, and abilities, using a wide repertoire of approaches in lessons and units is essential. Direct instruction, small groups, whole-group guided discussions, student choice, worksheets, research papers, project-based instruction, online software, etc., etc., etc. need to be in teachers’  tool kits. There are, of course, reformers and reform-minded researchers who try to alter how teachers teach and the content of their instruction from afar such as Common Core State Standards, the newest version of New Math, New Science, New History, or similar curricular inventions. I support such initiatives as long as they rely upon a broad repertoire of teacher approaches to content and skills. When the reforms do not, when they ask teachers to adhere to a certain best way of teaching (e.g., online “personalized” lessons, project-based teaching, direct instruction) regardless of context, I oppose such reforms.

Small changes in classroom practice occur often and slowly; fundamental and rapid changes in practice seldom happen. While well-intentioned reformers seek to basically change how teachers teach reading, math, science, and history, such 180 degree changes in the world of the classroom (or hospital, or therapist’s office, or law enforcement or criminal justice) seldom occur. Over the decades, experienced teachers have become allergic to reformer claims of fast and deep changes in what they do daily in their classrooms. As gatekeepers for their students, teachers, aware of the settings in which they teach, have learned to adapt new ideas and practices that accord with their beliefs and that they think will help their students. Reforms that ignore these historical realities are ill-fated. I support those efforts to build on this history of classroom change, teacher wisdom of practice, and awareness of the context in which the reform will occur.

Age-graded school structures influence instruction. The age-graded school structure, a 19th century innovation that is now universally cemented to K-12 schooling across the U.S., does influence what happens in classrooms. Teachers adapt to this dominant structure in following a schedule as they prepare 50-minute (or hour-long) lessons. Age-graded structures harnessed to accountability regulations have demanded that teachers prepare lesson to get students ready for high-stakes annual tests. These structures require teachers to judge each student as to whether he or she will pass at the end of the school year. School and district structures (e.g., curriculum standards, evaluation policies) like the age-graded school have intended and unintended influences on the what and how of teaching.

Yet adding new structures to shift the center of gravity from prevailing teacher-centered lessons to student-centered ones (e.g., “personalized” learning, project-based instruction) while retaining the larger organizational structure of the age-graded organization fails to alter daily classroom practices.

Teacher involvement in instructional reform. From the mid-19th century through the early decades of the 21st century, no instructional reform imposed upon teachers has been adopted by most teachers and used in lessons as intended. The history of top-down classroom reform is a history of failed efforts to alter what teachers do daily. I include new ways of teaching reading, math, science, and history over the past century. Where and when there have been changes in classroom instruction, teachers were involved in the planning and implementation of the reform. Examples range from Denver curriculum reform in the 1920s, the Eight Year Study in the 1930s, creation of alternative schools in the 1960s, the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, designed classroom interventions ala Ann Brown in the 1990s, and teacher-run schools in the 2000s. Reforms aimed at altering classroom instruction require working closely with teachers from the very beginning of a planned change and includes building on their existing expertise.

These principles guide my views of school reform, teaching, and learning.

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*This is a revised version of a post that appeared September 15, 2015.

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Recycling Poverty, Segregated Schools, and Academic Achievement: Then and Now

A recent spate of reports and books  linking family poverty, segregated schools, and academic achievement (see here, here, and here) have concluded that school improvement (insofar as test scores are the measure) has hit a wall. Over the past decade, test scores have plateaued in reading and math or even fallen (see here and here). After thirty years of reform after reform, achievement gaps between high- and low-income schools run to four or more grade levels between schools within and across districts (see here and here)   How come?

Researchers have pointed out for decades that the largest influence on school achievement (as measured by test scores),  has been family socioeconomic status. No surprise now with the release of new data on test scores that the same findings about poverty and segregation shape student achievement. Such findings have been around since the massive Coleman Report (1966) and have appeared regularly every decade since. With such findings appearing again and again,  the question asked a half-century ago is the same questions now: Can schools make a difference when socioeconomic conditions (e.g., poverty) clearly play a large role in determining academic achievement?

Those who say “yes,” then and now, have urged upon elected decision-makers different reform policies from better teachers and teaching, more parental choice in schools, higher standards, more testing, accountability, new technologies in schools, and larger investments in education. “No excuses” school leaders, acknowledge that poverty exists but  “good” schools can overcome zip codes.

Those who say “no,” then and now, have pointed out consistently meager outcomes in academic achievement and constancy in test score gaps between minorities and whites. These naysayers have urged those very same decision-makers to improve schools but politically work on reducing poverty in the U.S. (see here) because of the powerful effects of family background on student academic outcomes. The back-and-forth between reformers who see successful schools as the  solvent for poverty and their critics who see family and neighborhood poverty as factors that cannot be washed away by the solvent of schooling. That debate has been reignited in 2016 by recent reports documenting gaps in achievement and few test score gains.

Here’s the rub, however. Much has been written (again by researchers) that policymakers seldom use social science research to make decisions. Instead, they define crises that must be solved and use research to support solutions  they have already decided (see here, here, and here).  Research studies are dragged in to bolster agreed-upon policy directions. At best, then, these research findings get smuggled into the debate after a new policy has been decided. Making policy, then and now, has been far more about political will, mobilizing coalitions to back solutions, and the power to decide what should be done to end the crisis than leaning on rigorous research findings. Educational policy, then, is politics writ small.

Consider what happened to the Coleman Report (1966)–mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. James Coleman, a highly respected sociologist and his team surveyed pupil expenditures, quality of facilities and teacher certification because federal officials then were sure that low student achievement, especially in urban minority and poor districts  was due to inequitable allocation of resources. Instead, the Coleman Report showed a weak correlation between resources and achievement but a strong  association between family background and student test scores.

When government officials saw results that challenged their assumptions about the “problem” of low achievement, they kept these findings under wraps for months until the results leaked out (see here). These results gave plenty of ammunition to critics of the “War on Poverty,”  the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), and federal agencies pushing for more desegregation in the nation’s  school districts. All of these initiatives had the political muscle of  President Lyndon Johnson behind them. Educational policy and political will were joined at the hip then.

The Coleman Report’s controversial findings, however, gave a shot of adrenalin to opponents of these new policies and ventures in the early 1970s, particularly the huge increases in federal spending to end poverty and improve schools.  Opponents of desegregating residential communities in order to have blacks and whites attend school together found sustenance in these results also (see here). Schools remained a battleground in these years as the “War on Poverty” became a historical footnote.

So these current policy research findings, either supporting those who say “yes” or those who say “no” to the question of schools making a difference even amid strong socioeconomic influences, like similar studies in the past will revive the same old question that has divided the nation for the past half-century. But the research findings will not answer the question.

Results from 2016 studies such as Stanford University Professor Sean Reardon’s may recapture the argument used by earlier policymakers that investing more money in school improvement might be a fool’s errand, given the results from earlier reforms. Rebuttals to this line of argument come from social scientists  who urge expanded investment in pre-Kindergarten, and those, like Reardon and other researchers who point to the tiny fraction of high poverty, segregated schools that somehow perform beyond what researchers would have ordinarily predicted. Ditto for charter school proponents and advocates of “no excuses” schools who point to the high graduation rates, college admissions, and yes, high test scores that they have racked up and, according to their advocates, deserve more money and political support.

What’s missing now in 2016 from this brew of research, policy solutions, and advocacy, however, is what was present a half-century ago, a muscular political coalition, a sizable group of elected policymakers with the will to provide a popularly supported response to this conundrum that has divided this nation for decades over the role of schooling in a capitalist democracy.

 

 

 

 

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Technology Integration in Districts and Schools: Next Project (Part 1)

For decades, as a teacher, administrator, and researcher I have been a consumer and a skeptic of new technologies in both K-12 schools and higher education. My books, articles, talks, and this blog have documented the hype, adoption, and partial implementation of new devices from the 16mm film in the early 20th century, radio in classrooms in the 1930s, instructional television in the 1950s and 1960s, and the desktop computer since the early 1980s. And within the past decade, I have researched and written about the exponential growth in laptops, tablets, and hand-held devices with a cornucopia of apps and software that have swept through U.S. schools and colleges.

Student and teacher access to these shiny, new devices–ones that often become obsolete in the blink of an eye–and increased use in districts, schools, and classrooms for data gathering and instructional materials have been stunning to early adopters in and out of schools. Results of these major investments especially in the last decade, however, have been less stunning, even disappointing because the initial reasons for distributing the digital wealth have fallen short time and again. Gains in academic achievement, major shifts in teacher methods, and entry into decent-paying jobs–original goals for buying new technologies–have been missing-in-action when it comes to evaluating the return on investment in digital classroom tools. Thus, I have remained a skeptic and will continue to question the claims of high-tech entrepreneurs and avid champions when it comes to “transforming” the organization and practice of schooling.

Being skeptical, however, does not mean I have a closed mind. I have diligently looked for instances where districts, schools, and classroom teachers have mindfully infused software into their lessons to reach the learning outcomes they seek for their students. On my blog, I have featured such examples (see here, here, and here). For my next project I want to be more systematic in seeking out exemplars of technology integration in districts, schools, and classrooms. Why select exemplars?

First, the often-told story that highly promoted devices and software fall short of the promised outcomes is accurate. The literature on technology use in schools and universities is strewn with examples of broken dreams. I have no enthusiasm to contribute further to that literature since I know that others will document the holes in the Swiss cheese of high-tech hype. Furthermore, stories of failure have hardly blunted the continuing promotion of districts, schools, and classrooms that have come to rely on the latest app, software, and device. The volleying back-and-forth between uncritical advocates and skeptical users will continue into the next decade whatever I think and do. So I want to take a break from that badminton game.

Second, seeking out exemplars of technology integration leap-frogs over the current debates by examining (yes, critically) those instances where experts and local users believe that they are infusing software seamlessly into actual instruction. For them, the technology “works” (what I and others mean by “works” will be addressed later). By describing and analyzing “best cases” of technology integration I can delve deeper into puzzles that have rattled around in my mind as I researched access and use of new hardware and software over the past three decades.

And exactly what are those puzzles?

One that has bothered me for a long time is why “technology” in education is considered separate, an add-on, when that is not the case when observers look at technological tools applied to business, medicine, architecture, engineering and other professional work. For some reasons in these other domains high-tech tools are part-and-parcel of the daily work that professionals do in getting the job done well. Doctors, for example, diagnose illnesses. New technologies—hand-held devices that do EKGs and monitor heartbeats, machines that do CAT-scans–help doctors in figuring out what’s wrong with a patient. In medicine, technology helps in making diagnoses. That’s it. Not in schools and higher education. There, use of such tools is the subject and predicate. The problem to be solved is secondary. Why, then, unlike other professional work, has the use of educational technology been front-and-center in discussions about improving schools, changing teaching, and preparing students for the labor market? In looking at exemplars of educators infusing technology into their daily activities, perhaps a few clues will emerge to unravel this puzzle.

The other puzzle that has bothered me over the years is that teachers, like clinical physicians, nurses, and therapists engage in the “helping professions” where the use of their expertise is wholly dependent upon the responses of their students, patients, and clients. These helping professionals depend a great deal on frequent interactions to achieve any degree of success in improving learning and maintaining health. The introduction of online lessons, 1:1 tablets, Google glasses for doctors, robots in hospitals, and the like raise significant questions about the nature of the work these professionals do and how success is defined. Keeping this view of teaching as a “helping profession” and the crucial importance of teacher-student interactions lays out questions for me to answer in examining exemplars in districts, schools, and classrooms. In what ways do the best cases of technology infusion improve or hinder (or both) relationships between teachers and students?

Part 2 describes my thinking about how I will go about this project in the next year.

 

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Zombie Ideas Again: “The Learning Pyramid”

Stories, ideas, and beliefs that have been disproved through scientific studies litter the mind. Professionals across-the-board in medicine, law, architecture, engineering, and business take-for-granted stories that have little to no basis in evidence. Yet they persist.

In earlier posts, I have identified such “zombie” ideas that have scientific-crafted shafts buried in their heart yet arise again and again (see here and here). I offer another one that a viewer of this blog (Pedro De Bruyckere, a teacher educator in Ghent, Belgium) suggested in a recent comment . He and colleagues have written a book about common myths that educators hold and he reminded about the “Learning Pyramid.”

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A cottage industry of debunkers have pointed out many times over the past quarter-century that the “Pyramid” has no scientific standing and comes from unattributed sources mushed together in the 1960s and 1970s (see here, here, and here). Although it lives on, seldom, however, in official programs (there are exceptions, see here) the “Pyramid” resides quietly and strongly in the folk wisdom of those many practitioners who believe in their heart-of-hearts that active or experiential learning is far better (and more effective) than teachers talking, showing visuals, or demonstrating concepts. How come?

Such beliefs about knowledge retention exist in the minds of many college educators and practitioners across the professional spectrum–increased by the launching of lecture-dominated  MOOCs and surge in lecture-driven online courses–representing another instance of “confirmation bias.”

Why does the belief in the “Learning Pyramid” persist in the face of so much counter-evidence? The zombie effect about the “Pyramid,”and here is where I am speculating, reinforces the tilt that so many university teacher educators and workplace practitioners have toward student-centered, experienced-driven learning. Such ways of thinking about better ways of teaching were pushed by early 20th century pedagogical progressives, 1960s-era neo-progressives, and now with the explosion of “personalized” and blended learning, many reformers have shrouded themselves in the cloak of student-centered learning. Progressive rhetoric about student-centered teaching and learning abounds.

I have no bias for or against student-centered, project-based, whole child-driven progressive teaching (or whatever label best fits). I have stated my position often that those who teach daily need mixes of both student-centered and teacher-centered practices. They need a broad repertoire of ways of teaching. My histories of how teachers have taught since the mid-19th century make that point in capital letters. I have worked hard to scrub any bias toward one or the other set of classroom practices, always arguing that “hugging the middle” of the spectrum on teaching approaches is both historical and consistent with contemporary practices that I have found in classrooms around the nation. Having said that, I have also found that many teacher educators and practitioners cherish the notions, but particularly the talk, that one way of teaching is better than another and that way is student-centered, however defined. The “Learning Pyramid” while not often referred to explicitly gives such believers aid and comfort because the bottom three strata of the “Pyramid” confirm that student participation retains the most knowledge–even though past and current studies fail to find that to be true.

Consider teacher educators. David Labaree argues that university schools of education became centers of progressive rhetoric about child-centered education over decades (see here) even though the realities of public school organization, curriculum, and instruction tilted strongly toward encouraging teacher-centered instruction. Teacher educators, he says, prepared their charges for classrooms for a workplace where progressive methods should be used but seldom were. Lecturing to students, “direct instruction” and more teacher talk than student talk were negatives to many of these teacher educators. The “Learning Pyramid,” seldom referred to explicitly,  justified language and approaches to instruction that privileged discussion, small groups, and active student participation (see here).

Turn to classroom teachers. In my research of teachers past and present, I have found that primary grade teachers generally adhere to more student-centered, whole-child approaches than secondary school teachers. There does remain, however, even among those upper-grade teachers who see their primary duty to convey content and teach skills a rhetorical embrace of student participation with recognition that such approaches are harder to implement, particularly in times when standards, testing, and accountability are dominant policy prescriptions.

These deeply buried progressive beliefs among so many teacher educators and practitioners feed and nurture the “Learning Pyramid,” I believe, so that it persists well after it has been debunked and buried.

 

 

 

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Research Influence on Classroom Practice (Part 2)

Educational researchers have debated among themselves for decades the degree to which past and current studies have had an impact upon how teachers have taught and students have learned. Such debates over research findings reshaping practical work have not occurred among physicians or engineers, for example. Those who work daily with patients can see how research studies and clinical trials have influenced their diagnoses and treatments of illness. Research results have also had profound effects on how engineers solve problems and make new products. So what is it about educational research and the practical art and science of teaching that seemingly makes it impervious to the plentiful studies completed by researchers?

Many scholars have investigated the answer to the question and have come up with very different answers. Educational psychologist Robert Travers, for example, studied the past century of research and practice and with great certainty entitled his book: How Research Has Changed American Schools (1973). Yet his earlier and contemporary fellow psychologists (e.g., E. L. Thorndike, W.W. Charters, Julian Stanley), as Mary Kennedy points out, expressed deep disappointment of how little research had affected schools and classroom practice. Historian Carl Kaestle’s “The Awful Reputation of Educational Research” is another chord in that melody. This back-and-forth over the value of educational research to working teachers continues today. When it comes to teachers over the past generation, however, it presents a puzzle.

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. 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” 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.

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 sparse.

This marginal use of research by classroom teachers, however, has not occurred for lack of trying. 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. Age-graded schools are largely inhospitable places to apply research. 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 baked in academia, have, indeed, been sold and adopted by teachers and put into practice in their classrooms. From teaching young children to read to the National Writing Project to  Success for All, instances of academic research sorted and installed into teachers’ repertoires shreds the claim that educational research has no influence on practice. And that fact is an important clue to unraveling the conundrum.

Consider the work of Jack Schneider, a historian of education who wrote From the Ivory Tower to the School House (2014). In this 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 puzzle of teachers knowledgeable about research yet seldom adopting scientific findings to improve their classroom practice.

The central question that drives the book 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. Four factors distinguish those research findings that enter classrooms: teachers see the significance of the concept and studies for their students; the research findings accord with teachers’ beliefs and aspirations for their classrooms; the results of the research can be put into practice in their classrooms now not in the distant future–what Schneider calls “occupational realism”; finally, the new ideas harvested from research are “transportable,” they can be conveyed in plain language and the new structures called for are do-able within the confines of the classroom. 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 and sold from the ivory tower—that missed their way into classrooms. He shows that some features of research characterizing the successful transplanting of ideas and practices were missing-in-action in these comparable ventures.

The author also makes clear that the journey from robust research findings into teacher repertoires often get translated and adapted into versions that range from recognizable to distorted fun-house mirrors. Unintended consequences also flow from the zig-zag path that these ideas take from academia to the classroom.

So this is where I end up in the century-long debate over the influence of educational research on classroom practices. Yes, university-generated research has, indeed, influenced teaching practices to a degree but far from what has been promised or intended. Were reform-minded researchers and policymakers, however, to consider carefully teacher beliefs, aspirations, and questions, the conditions under which they work, and then join teachers to build cooperatively further knowledge and skills—then the chances of researchers’ answers to teacher questions might have an easier journey into classrooms.

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*Full disclosure: I wrote the Foreword for Schneider’s book from which a few of the above paragraphs were taken.

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Then and Now in Reforming the Teaching of History (Part 2)

A half-century ago, academics led an effort to reform the teaching of history and the social studies in a movement called the New Social Studies (NSS). Since the mid-1990s, again professors, social studies curriculum specialists, and classroom history teachers have focused upon creating usable lessons that introduce students to historical thinking and writing textbooks for novice and career teachers. Similar in ways that the New Social Studies during the 1960s created instructional units, current efforts, however, go well beyond those materials in using teacher-friendly digital lessons and assessments tailored to the age-graded school conditions that teachers face daily, a factor missing in the earlier movement. [i]

One of the leaders of this movement is Professor Sam Wineburg at Stanford University. Trained as an educational psychologist at Stanford in the late-1980s, Wineburg worked under the tutelage of Professor Lee Shulman who, after receiving Carnegie Foundation grants to assess teaching and learning across subject areas, recruited able graduate students. Wineburg’s peers included Suzanne Wilson and Pam Grossman both of whom have gone on to illustrious academic careers. As has Wineburg. [ii]

Appointed assistant professor of educational psychology in 1989 at the University of Washington’s school of education, Wineburg launched a career that garnered teaching awards and research grants. He worked with teachers in the Seattle public schools in various projects including creating materials for students to read and think like historians. He published articles in both psychological and historical journals that generated even more grants.

In 2002, he joined the faculty of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education working with doctoral students, beginning social studies teachers, historians, and psychologists. Wineburg’s previous work with Roy Rosenzweig at George Mason University moved him toward incorporating digital historical sources into units and lessons for teachers to use. [iii]

Wineburg expanded his agenda by starting the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG). His doctoral students designed lessons that dipped into primary and secondary sources showing teachers and students how to read and think like historians. One doctoral student developed document-based lessons on the Civil War for middle school teachers in San Francisco and in her dissertation designed an intervention for history teachers in five high schools. These ideas and practices of historians also found a home in the Curriculum and Instruction courses that he and doctoral students taught for entry-level social studies teachers in the Graduate School of Education. Finally, Wineburg created a network of partners and resources (e.g., Library of Congress, American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, National Council for the Social Studies) that covered both the discipline and teachers across the country.[iv]

From the collaborative work with doctoral students and teachers, SHEG increased production of teacher-friendly lessons in U.S. history and world history demonstrating how historians read documents, evaluate sources, and interpret historical events ranging from Pocahontas in 17th century colonial America to the Nanking Incident during Japan’s invasion of China in 1937. Posted on the Internet, these lessons permitted teachers to download them free. In early 2015, the Stanford History Education Group topped 2 million downloads. And they have added coaching services and professional development workshops for social studies teachers in San Francisco, Los Angeles city schools, and Lincoln (NE).[v]

With recognized standing in psychology and history, Wineburg bridges both worlds of research and classroom practice. Moreover, Wineburg is familiar with prior movements in the social studies, one of the New History a century ago led by James Harvey Robinson, the New Social Studies in the 1960s, and the movement to alter history teaching  since the mid-1990s. Rare, indeed, can scholars bridge disciplines and practice while retaining a deep familiarity with past and present social studies reform efforts.

Wineburg’s comparisons and contrasts of current efforts to the New Social Studies a half-century earlier offers glimpses of how he sees the past and present moments in altering how history teachers teach.

As for the relation between Reading like a Historian and the New Social Studies, obviously there’s a great deal of overlap. I cut my teeth on the Amherst history project materials and Charles Seller’s “As It Happened,” a textbook made up of almost exclusively primary sources. The whole issue of inquiry comes from the movement. So, in a sense, we owe a tremendous debt to our predecessors.

Wineburg then pointed out the differences between NSS and his current efforts.

First, all of our materials come with extensive scaffolding. We ‘tamper’ with history … by actually changing primary sources (and still calling them ‘primary’). We built this approach in high schools in San Francisco’s Mission [district] where 99% of the kids are native Spanish speakers and reading at 4th or 5th grade levels in the eleventh grade but often thinking (original italics) at college levels…. So our approach from the start had to deal with the reality of teachers in urban schools. Our lessons don’t go for a week either; each is tailored to a fifty-minute class. And we recognize that teachers simply don’t have the time to surf the net in search of documents or the appropriate graphic organizers to accompany a lesson. We provide everything.

Second, the New Social Studies did little in terms of testing their ideas in any kind of formal research setting. Lots of great stories; not much by way of rigorous evaluation. We field tested this work in San Francisco using a quasi-experimental design. And we continue in on-going field testing.

Third, we focus on explicit teaching of cognitive skills in a way that would have been foreign to the ‘discovery’ ethos of the 60s. I am a Vygotskian by heart and temperament. We provide teachers with guidance in how to explicitly model the cognitive skills they use when they interpret a document. We don’t want classrooms to [be] guessing games. If students don’t know how to ‘source’ a document, their teachers need to model it for them … making their own thoughts and hunches audible so that kids can have an explicit model of what a skilled reader does with a difficult text before trying to decode it themselves.

Fourth, we have taken up the issue of … formative assessment. When I co-directed the DOE’s [U.S. Department of Education] National History Education Clearinghouse, I got into a lot of hot water (original italics) when I basically blew the whistle on Teaching American History grants that were dedicated to ‘critical document analysis’ but then were testing kids with multiple choice items on battles of the Revolutionary War. It seemed like their two only options in the social studies testing world [were] multiple choice tests or 10-12 DBQs [document-based questions]. Neither was a useful tool for quick on-going formative assessment that gave teachers insight into what their kids were thinking and the processes they used. So with Rich [Shavelson] and Ed [Haertel]’s help, I took up the assessment mantle….That, too, is different from the New Social Studies.[vi]

In citing the similarities and differences between Stanford History Education Group and the New Social Studies of the 1960s, Wineburg made certain critical decisions over the past decade in SHEG coaching and materials to extend their use in classrooms beyond the shelf life of earlier NSS.

The first strategic decision Wineburg mentioned is shaping SHEG materials to the urban teacher’s work conditions within age-graded schools, the students they face daily, and the overwhelming demands of meeting standards, accountability and testing requirements. He and his colleagues adapted lessons to workplace conditions. In effect, he acknowledged the deep “grammar of schooling” shaping teacher behavior and worked within its boundaries.[vii]

Designing well scaffolded 50-minute lessons, as he points out, for teachers to use with students reading on different levels diverged from NSS leaders decades earlier who, more often than not, pitched their secondary school materials to “able” students except for Edwin (Ted) Fenton who realized that error in 1965 and launched his “slow learner” project. In addition, Wineburg built in formative assessments and highly interactive digital materials within SHEG lessons adding further appeal of these materials to teachers.[viii]

Another strategic decision was to align the lessons to the Common Core state standards in literacy. Wineburg realized that if these SHEG lessons containing cognitive skills embedded in how historians analyze sources, detect bias, and interpret facts were to last beyond NSS materials, they had to be tightly coupled to the Common Core standards’ focus on literacy skills. The standards in reading embraced most of the skills (e.g., how to “source” a document, how to corroborate the accuracy of a source) contained in SHEG-produced lessons. By fastening these materials to the standards’ literacy requirements and their accompanying tests, chances of a longer life span for this historical approach to teaching increased. [ix]

Beyond strategic decisions, Wineburg made a personal decision in teaching, writing, and scholarship. Over the past few years, he decided to reach beyond the specialized (and small) audiences he had written for in psychology and history journals to the larger audience of social studies teachers. In speeches and articles, Wineburg talked about his “crisis of faith” in academic research, making clear that he no longer believed published research in peer-reviewed journals with readership in the low thousands would improve teaching practices. Working more directly with schools and teachers was a new direction he charted for himself and SHEG.[x]

Now whether all of these strategic and tactical decisions will sustain SHEG lessons for more than a few years I cannot say. Nor can I say anything about the effects of these lessons on students since no studies have yet been done to determine their effectiveness. I can say that Wineburg and his colleagues have digested lessons from an earlier NSS generation of reformers and have made adaptations that have a reasonable chance of continued use among history teachers.

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[i] Beginning in the mid-1990s, both academics and teachers completed research studies and described classroom lessons using the historical approach. For academics, see, for example, Peter Sexias, “Parallel Crises: History and the Social Studies Curriculum in USA,” Curriculum Inquiry, 1993, 25(3), pp. 235-250; Terri Epstein, “Makes No Difference If You Are Black or White? African-American and European-American Adolescents’ Perspectives on Historical Significance and Historical Sources,” 1994, Paper Presented at Annual Meeting of American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA; Linda Levstik and Keith Barton, “ ‘It Wasn’t a Good Part of History:’ National Identity and Ambiguity in Students Explanations of Historical Significance,” Teachers College Record, 1998, 99(3), pp. 478-513; Jere Brophy and Bruce VanSledright, Teaching and Learning History in Elementary School (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997); Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001); S. G. Grant, History Lessons: Teaching, Learning, and Testing in U.S. High Schools Classrooms (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003).

Teachers who have written about their work include Bob Bain, “Into the Breach: Using Research and Theory to Shape History,” in Peter Stearns, Peter Sexias, and Sam Wineburg (Eds.), Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History (New York: New York University Press, 2000); Bruce Lesh, ‘Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer’: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12 (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2011).

Occasionally, an academic became a classroom teacher and studied how students learned history. See, for example, Suzanne Wilson, “Mastodons, Maps, and Michigan: Exploring Uncharted Territory While Teaching Elementary School Social Studies,” Elementary Subjects Center Series, No. 24 (East Lansing, MI: Institute for Research on Teaching, Michigan State University, 1990).

[ii] Wineburg’s dissertation (the committee was Lee Shulman, historian David Tyack, and psychologist Dick Snow) dealt with how students and historians read history texts.

Suzanne Wilson has been the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University since 1991; Pam Grossman began at the University of Washington in 1988 in Teacher Education and became full professor there until 2000 when she went to Stanford University in that year, staying until 2014 when she was appointed Dean of Education at University of Pennsylvania.

I focus on Sam Wineburg for two reasons. First, he is clearly a thought leader in reading and thinking like a historian. Other academics and teachers cite him repeatedly. His early work in the field, awards given by professional associations, and influence as a writer and speaker have been substantial. Second, as I knew Ted Fenton in the early 1960s and his work and mine coincided when I was at Cardozo High School, I also have known Wineburg for over a quarter-century. When he was a graduate student at Stanford University, I was one of the historian-subjects he interviewed for his dissertation. We have stayed in touch over the years and since his return to Stanford in 2002, we have had many conversations about career, the status of history education, writing, and his work in the field. For this chapter, I interviewed Wineburg (January 15, 2015). I also have emails he sent to me (he has given me permission to quote from them), articles he and doctoral students have written, textbooks, and videos of interviews and speeches he has given.

See Wineburg resume at https://ed.stanford.edu/faculty/wineburg

[iii] In 2008, “Why Historical Thinking Matters,” an interactive presentation on the Battle of Lexington that Wineburg and his colleagues had designed won the American Historical Association’s James Harvey Robinson Prize for an Outstanding Teaching Aid.

[iv] Avishag Reisman, “The Document-Based Lesson: Bringing Disciplinary Inquiry into High School History Classrooms with Adolescent Struggling Readers,” Journal of Curriculum Studies, 2011, 44(2), pp. 233-264 and “Reading Like a Historian: A Document-Based History Curriculum Intervention in an Urban Classroom,” Cognition and Instruction, 2012, 30(1), pp. 86-112. Partners of the Stanford History Education Group are listed and described on website. See: https://sheg.stanford.edu/partners

Wineburg’s Curriculum and Instruction Course taught to social studies teachers in the Secondary Teacher Education Program at Stanford University is at: https://gse-step.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/educ268_2014_0.pdf

[v] On the number of downloads and where they originated, email communication from Joel Breakstone January 23, 2015 (in author’s possession).

[vi] Email from Sam Wineburg to Larry Cuban, June 15, 2013 (in author’s possession). Richard Shavelson and Ed Haertel were colleagues of Wineburg and experts on assessment and tests.

[vii] David Tyack and William Tobin, “The ‘Grammar’ of Schooling: Why Has It Been So Hard To Change?” The American Educational Research Journal, 1994, 31(3), pp. 453-479.

[viii] Without federal funding, Fenton launched the “slow learner” project in 1967, a four-year social studies curriculum for grades eight through eleven. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston published the eighth grade text, The Americans. Fenton papers, Carnegie Mellon University, Box 4, folder 22.

[ix]See Sam Wineburg, Daisy Martin, and Chauncey Monte-Sano, Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School History Classrooms (New York: Teachers College Press, 2013). A large yellow circle is stamped on the cover saying “Aligned with Common Core State Standards.”

[x]Sam Wineburg, “Choosing Real-World Impact over Impact Factor,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 26, 2013; Interview with Wineburg, January 15, 2015.

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Cartoons on Evidenced-based Practice and Data-Driven Decisions

A few weeks ago, I completed a three part series on the role of evidence in determining school and classroom practices (see here, here, and here). I then began looking at cartoonists’ work on the role of evidence in making decisions. Of course, I found some. Perhaps you will chuckle and laugh as I did. Enjoy!

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Filed under school reform policies