The manufacture of disbelief and the challenge of science education

STEM teachers out there are probably very well aware of the current sustained attempts across the country to undermine the credibility of science. The “wedge issues” tend to be those that relate to issues of identity and cultural complacency — evolution, climate change, biomedical advances, and so on — the list is familiar enough.  There are other things at issue, such as air and water quality regulations, occupational safety, and so on.

Now, one of the things that’s going on is a debate, sometimes explicit, and sometimes not, about what counts as knowledge.  I am not a philosopher, but I think I understand that most kinds of knowledge about the world require us to make inferences from evidence.  In doing so, we have to have some confidence in our inferences, and some way of knowing that we have come to a satisfactory conclusion (at least provisionally) that accounts for (most of, a lot of) the data.  But what counts as “satisfactory”?

William James, in A pluralistic universe, urged us to accept that philosophizing and other kinds of knowing are conducted by people (surprise!), who have temperaments, limitations,  and particular interests or concerns.   One’s “philosophical style” will to some degree (often a large one) have a bearing on what counts as a satisfying solution to  a problem of knowledge.  So it is no surprise that if a person has a lens that is deeply affected by such personal interests as political or economic advantage that they will prefer not to yield to external standards that conflict with their constructed reality.  Upton Sinclair famously wrote “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

The practices of science (and related fields), rooted as they are in social exchange, are some corrective to the tendency to view the world completely on one’s own terms.  Isaac Asimov’s famous short essay, “The relativity of wrong,” demolishes the fallacy that “everything that isn’t perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.”   As he says,

when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

He goes on to trace in his limpid style a couple of examples that illustrate how the give and take of scientists — with each other and with Nature — move towards “more true.”

Such reflections as these seem particularly important in considering the implications of current political and policy discussions whose tendency is in effect to argue that every assertion is so colored by individual perspective that we cannot really tell what is likely to actually be the case. This then allows a remarkable license, by which “every one can do what seems right in their eyes,” with no external reference needed or desired.  One of the effects of this is to free those who are so inclined to refuse to consider the consequences of their actions, to “externalize” costs or likely futures, and thus pretend that they do not exist.

STEM teachers are in many ways the first bulwark against this particular guise of chaos — I could imagine many good teachers I have known making an argument much like Asimov’s, to help show how even if final truths are rarely to be found, still, there are truer and less true things to be known and built upon.

What set me to grinding this favorite axe of mine was a recent short documentary in the New York Times about the teaching or non-teaching of evolution in the schools.  As a follower of sites like the National Center for Science Education will be aware (see just the most recent story, “A new antiscience bill in Florida”), the effort continues to liberate students and other humans from the constraints of scholarship or the nature of things, and simulate “free inquiry” in the absence of knowledge or method.


NOTE:  The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation. 







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Buzzwords: Programming teaches you how to think

A widely circulated video from opens with a quotation from Steve Jobs:”Everyone should learn to program a computer.. programming teaches you how to think.”    There is a tidal wave of rhetoric surging across the educational landscape advocating programming, or coding, as a new fundamental “literacy”  (and not just in the US — here’s a Dutch sample, which I came across while following a link from a post on Larry Cuban’s blog).  Some advocates make very far-reaching, not to say hyperbolic,  claims, some based upon an account of the Way We Live Now:

Software… is the language of our world. In the future, not knowing the language of computers will be as challenging as being illiterate or innumerate are is still crucial that every child learns to code.  This is…about promoting computational thinking. [his link, to an article by Wing). Computational thinking is how software engineers solve problems. It combines mathematics, logic and algorithms, and teaches you a new way to think about the world.  Computational thinking teaches you how to tackle large problems by breaking them down into a sequence of smaller, more manageable problems. It allows you to tackle complex problems in efficient ways that operate at huge scale. It involves creating models of the real world with a suitable level of abstraction, and focus on the most pertinent aspects. It helps you go from specific solutions to general ones.


Some reach even farther (I have seen this passage from a piece by Richard Culatta echoed widely)

Coding is the universal language of problem solving…Whatever problem we are presented with, at some point along the way coding is almost always part of the solution.

Of course, some commentators, while they see programming as a valuable skill that should be encouraged and available to any one who wants to learn it, frame their advocacy in a more nuanced way:  Yevgeniy Brikman’s well-known argument is that kids (and all of us) should be learning to think, rather than learning to code — instead, he recommends learning computer science and its principles:

The real goal should be to teach people a new way to think. In other words, we should be trying to teach computer science and not just coding…General purpose classes like physics, math, biology, and history teach you how to think about a wide variety of topics, including [e.g.] airplanes; this is in contrast to a class that teaches you how to use a tool, such as how to fly one specific type of airplane….For the same reason, we should focus on teaching computer science and not just coding: the former is a general purpose way of thinking, whereas the latter is a specific tool.

I am grateful for passionate advocacy in the cause of education, but there is some reason for caution when the Web and other instruments of mass culture (most of which are tied in to the Web these days, come to think of it) start to create the appearance of conventional wisdom, with little attention to glib assumptions or possible alternatives.  So with the “programming — thinking” meme.

When I first read the Jobs quote, I thought back to the arguments often used for teaching Latin — the language somehow had a mystical power to improve the clarity of your thinking, and the precision of your writing or speaking — as well as deepening your participation in the stream of Western Culture.  (The evidence about the impact of language learning on thought are oceanic in volume, and tend to be inconclusive, though there’s clearly something going on, at least sometimes.  Here’s a teaser…)

But there is definitely research that suggests that your thinking  — even your logical/procedural thinking, as well as various affective values — can be improved by learning various other things.  Chess, for example, may (or may not) have positive impacts on math learning (and here also), metacognition, social-emotional development, and so on… (See here for a chess research portal).

And what is thinking, anyway?  John Dewey’s analysis of  “how we think”  (written originally for teachers) suggests a different armature for the analysis of thought, as he sees thinking in the context of his analysis of inquiry  (see here for a valuable introductory essay from Brainpickings, with links to the whole book, and here a short attempt I made to relate his theory to classroom inquiry).  Dewey sees thinking as deeply embedded in the substance of the world and of the individual doing the thinking.  It is a process of imagination, application and reconstruction of knowledge (and search for additional resources), and testing of consequences until the original, unsettling “problematic situation” is deemed by the thinker to have reached (for now) a satisfactory conclusion.  Though, as an experimental psychologist, Dewey would be interested by the power of computational tools for the exploration of thinking, I think he would be cautious about a too-clean, “reduced,” account of the thinking process:

Thinking [is] not a machine-like, ready-made apparatus to be turned indifferently and at will upon all subjects, as a lantern may throw its light as it happens upon horses, streets, gardens, trees, or river. Thinking is specific, in that different things suggest their own appropriate meanings, tell their own unique stories, and in that they do this in very different ways with different persons. As the growth of the body is through the assimilation of food, so the growth of mind is through the logical organization of subject-matter. Thinking is not like a sausage machine which reduces all materials indifferently to one marketable commodity, but is a power of following up and linking together the specific suggestions that specific things arouse.

And then there is Douglas Hofstadter’s fascinating research on analogy (not to mention George Lakoff and Mark Johnson on metaphor) (for a fun if challenging read, I really recommend Surfaces and Essences:  Analogy as the fuel and fire of thinking).  He makes the strong claim that it is analogy, not analysis, that is at the heart of much human cognition:

One should not think of analogy-making as a special variety of reasoning (as in the dull and uninspiring phrase “analogical reasoning and problem-solving,” a long-standing cliché in the cognitive-science world), for that is to do analogy a terrible disservice. After all, reasoning and problem-solving have (at least I dearly hope!) been at long last recognized as lying far indeed from the core of human thought. If analogy were merely a special variety of something that in itself lies way out on the peripheries, then it would be but an itty-bitty blip in the broad blue sky of cognition. To me, however, analogy is anything but a bitty blip — rather, it’s the very blue that fills the whole sky of cognition — analogy is everything, or very nearly so, in my view.

It might seem paradoxical that Hofstadter’s work has among other things deployed rich computational tools in his research, but here is his account of the “central cognitive loop” that he believes underlies the flow of thought:

A long-term memory node is accessed, transferred to short-term memory and there unpacked to some degree, which yields new structures to be perceived, and the high-level perceptual act activates yet further nodes, which are then in turn accessed, transferred, unpacked, etc., etc.

(For more, there’s another book:  Fluid concepts and creative analogies: computer models of the fundamental mechanisms of thought.)

So now,  having rootled around in my mental storage closet looking for things labelled “learning to think,” I am prepared to come back to coding, where I started.   It seems to me that coding is a cultural tool, and a powerful one, and like all such tools it can be a source of insight, accomplishment, and indeed delight.  From an article by Jill Robbins,

examples of cultural tools include language, different kinds of numbering and counting, writing schemes, mnemonic technical aids, algebraic symbol systems, art works, diagrams, maps, drawings, and all sorts of signs

One of the remarkable things about our tools is that, when we are using them in the service of imagination and curiosity, they are in a sense  participants — they can teach and speak to us, in their own, specific, curious language.  As Robbins writes,

An important characteristic of tools is that they do more than simply assist in the development of mental processes. They also essentially shape and transform them… According to Vygotsky, tools ‘mediate social and individual functioning and connect the external and the internal, the social and the individual’ (quoting from John-Steiner and Mahn, pg 256)

Our tools are not inert, and the richer and more powerful they are, the more they can introduce surprise and new possibilities to the analogizing, metaphorical mind-body: a hammer may seem at first to speak only of driving nails, but I’ll bet that in your mental cupboard the label hammer is attached to quite a lot else. A hammer teaches you to think, too.

NOTE: Opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s alone, and not necessarily those of  MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation. 

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Neuromyths and research for teachers and learners

I recently returned to a blog that I have not visited for some months, Daniel Willingham’s Science and education blog.  Willingham is a cognitive scientist whose views on learning and teaching are always worth hearing, because he generally draws from (and links to) recent research related to his topic.  (His “Ask the cognitive scientist” column for American Educator reminds me of the refreshing, and sometimes revelatory pieces Gerry Bracey used to write, from his viewpoint as a statistician and researcher– e.g, the “Bracey Reports.“)

Willingham has recently written about “fidget spinners” and math practice, about the validity of the “21st Century skills” buzzword (though generally skeptical, here he provides research to support the value of one such skill), about Nazis in Charlottesville, and about learning styles, a topic which he has addressed searchingly over the course of many years.  (His website even has a “Learning styles FAQ” entry all to itself, which I recommend).

Willingham’s most recent post on this topic is entitled “How many people believe learning styles theories are right, and why?”  He reports on a recent study by Macdonald et al. which examines the % of the general population, and of educators, who accept as true various “neuromyths.”   Such misconceptions include ‘”Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style,” “Differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain, right brain) can help explain individual differences amongst learners,” and that old stand-by, “We only use 10% of our brain.”

The authors found that

The general public endorsed the greatest number of neuromyths (M = 68%), with significantly fewer endorsed by educators (M = 56%), and still fewer endorsed by the high neuroscience exposure group (M = 46%).

They also found that “More accurate performance on neuromyths was predicted by age (being younger), education (having a graduate degree), exposure to neuroscience courses, and exposure to peer-reviewed science. These findings suggest that training in education and neuroscience can help reduce but does not eliminate belief in neuromyths.”

This is in interesting contrast to the findings of Dekkar et al., in a study of neuromyths among teachers in the UK and Netherlands, summarized in their abstract thus:

Results showed that on average, teachers believed 49% of the neuromyths, particularly myths related to commercialized educational programs. Around 70% of the general knowledge statements were answered correctly. Teachers who read popular science magazines achieved higher scores on general knowledge questions. More general knowledge also predicted an increased belief in neuromyths. These findings suggest that teachers who are enthusiastic about the possible application of neuroscience findings in the classroom find it difficult to distinguish pseudoscience from scientific facts. Possessing greater general knowledge about the brain does not appear to protect teachers from believing in neuromyths.

They also point out, as does Willingham in his writings on the subject, that many of the neuromyths are often based on good scientific findings, but that they are over-generalized and applied directly to practice in ways that the original research does not at all warrant. As part of the “rush to implement” phenomenon (which is rife at almost every level in education), the authors note that advertizing and the commercial ed market often propagates (and, I would add profits from) these misapplications of research:  “In particular, myths related to commercial brain-based educational programs were commonly accepted.”

As I have probably noted before, teachers’ “theories of mind” became a matter of interest to me during a research project that Joni Falk and I conducted in the late 1990s, on teachers’ understanding and impementation of “inquiry” in the science classroom.  I was struck by statements like this from an eighth grade teacher (who seemed to me, despite his long service to be a bit over his head):

I don’t mind teaching to a group of concrete learners, and I don’t mind teaching to a group of kids that are making the transition from concrete to abstract, and I don’t mind teaching to abstract learners; but I don’t like to have a roomful of kids that I have all three. And I know that I’m going to lose somebody, or lose a group… And it bothers the hell out of me.

He used this concrete-abstract distinction as a core organizing principle in his thinking, and could easily characterize each child in his classrooms along this continuum.  His theory of the student had direct influence on his pedagogical choices — for example, in the design of student tasks, in his opinions about ability grouping (and his tendency to do such grouping in his heterogeneous classes), and his judgments about when it was appropriate to “do inquiry,” and when not.

I had no doubts at all about how much this teacher cared about his students’ success, and his desire to do right by them.  I started asking all our collaborating teachers if they could talk about the kinds of learners they saw in their classrooms, and though the theories varied (at the time, my impression was that some form of  “learning styles” and “multiple intelligences” theory were the most popular).  Teachers encounter, and must respond to, tremendous intellectual diversity in their students, and it can help a thoughtful practitioner deal with the extreme complexity of their work by getting a “good theory to work by,” with regard to what one might call syndromes — heuristic patterns that can make their pedagogical challenges manageable.

And with some skill and flexibility, such organizing rules-of-thumb or folk theories can serve a sensitive and observant teacher, even if their theory is an echo of the actual science.      A classroom observer from our “inquiry” study wrote:

A boy is helping a girl to write her entry. She says, “ I am really bad in science” Another girl replies “No, you’re not” The first says, “Yes I am, I get bad grades.” The boy says ‘different people have different strengths, like I can never do what you do in art.” I am touched by this interaction and relate it to [the teacher] after class. She reports to me that she spends quite a bit of time discussing multiple intelligences with the kids. I am aware that what makes this classroom successful is not the fact that the students are in groups, but rather that these groups have a culture of how to work together.

This teacher was one of  many whose work I have felt privileged to observe, who are present in the moment for their students, and bring to bear whatever they know and can do, to support and encourage the young person in front of them.  People make mistakes, or don’t quite execute as they’d hope, but that’s the nature of honest craft of all kinds.  Teaching is one of those enterprises in which one is constantly required to summon and “reconstruct” one’s  knowledge and experience, in unexpected situations, and it’s why teahcers need to be given time for reflection and inquiry about their practice (see here an essay I wrote on another incident in which a great teacher improvises).   Like science, teaching is an enterprise in which (to borrow Bridgeman’s famous phrase about scientific “method”) you are  “doing your damnedest with your mind, no holds barred.”

In that light, then, it is important to note many things about educational neuromyths:  [1] they are everywhere and inevitable, reflecting as they do some aspects of reality; [2] they are often exploited by commerical, political, and other non-educational enterprises, which reinforce and ratify mistaken applications; [3] more knowledge cannot extirpate these myths, but can mitigate; [4] a key role of scholarship at every level (from the teacher to the ed school to the university researcher) is to continually be aware of, and engage, widespread assumptions (hypotheses) about learning and teaching, examine them critically, and remember that in education especially, “theory” and “practice” form a dynamic, and organic, unity, and the moral stakes are high, because we are all jointly responsible for the students whom we serve and learn from.


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Education and economics: seeing a little daylight between them

I am not the only one who has noticed, with sorrow, the relentless intensity with which education policy is distorted (and has been for decades) by the assertion that education holds the key to American economic well-being, and that therefore education must be retooled so that as much as possible it serves the needs of The Market, that clay-footed idol.

A few posts ago, I wrote about research that made the basic point, evident to many from their own experience, that education is not necessarily the key to upward (economic) mobility  — and one can question other assertions that are used to strategize about ed policy.  There is reasonable evidence, for example,  to question alarms about a STEM labor shortage of crisis proportions  (start here and here for an introduction to the topic and some research) —  at the least, the existence or not of such a shortage cannot be shown except by examination of specific job types or fields, and specific demographics.

Yet the rhetoric of “reform” continues to rely more than anything else upon the claim that [1] the economy is now dramatically, radically different from what it was just X years ago; [2] that public schools are not preparing our students for this reality, that [3] this is because “traditional” schools still are based on a 19th (or 18th or 17th, depending on the rhetorician) century model, and therefore [4] we need to do Something Disruptive as soon as possible.  In recent years, we also are told that the new education being advocated will solve the problem because at last we are putting the student at the center.   (I have not added links for all these, because the language is so pervasive in publications from think-tanks, private foundations, and public agencies.  This report from the Aspen Institute can serve as as sort of omnibus sampler.  We will return to this report among others in a future post).

I recommend now a recent post by Larry Cuban, “Questioning the unquestionable: Schools and the economy.”   Cuban characterizes the mainstream viewpoint quite neatly:

Schools surely matter in building citizens, strengthening character, teaching students to live in culturally and socially diverse communities, and, yes, preparing students to enter the workplace with essential skills and knowledge.  But it is the latter goal that has come to dominate public policy for schools in the past 35 years. The iron-clad belief that schools create human capital as students march to Pomp and Circumstance and enter the workplace to build a strong competitive economy in the global marketplace is pervasive. It is as if public schools serve the economy and if graduates cannot fit in the workplace or find the right job, it is the school’s fault.

Cuban introduces a wide range of recent studies (be prepared to spend several hours with his post if you follow all the links!) which present evidence that school quality is only one factor among many — and not the most important — that determine one’s job success (at least in economic terms).  Other factors which are shown to matter include segregation, family structure, income inequality, and “social capital” — a term that actually means things like one’s social relationships, and the patterns of communication and mutual aid that obtain in one’s network, here nicely captured in a quotation from Lyda Hanifan:

those tangible assets [that] count for most in the daily lives of people: namely goodwill, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up a social unit

One reads with a certain sadness, given recent trends and policy towards unions,  this note from one of Cuban’s sources (and this is not the only study he cites that makes the same point):

Based on the research for this report, it is clear that there is a strong relationship between union membership and intergenerational mobility. More specifically: Areas with higher union membership demonstrate more mobility for low-income children.

Discussions about education are so determinedly focused on students as economic factors, playing into parents’ fear for their children’s futures, that we get concerns about rigor and productivity even in connection with pre-K (see here for a characteristically acute and acerbic discussion by the indefatigable Peter Greene).

Though alas we all know that policy very often is made in defiance of the evidence,  I hope Larry Cuban is right in his hope that the dominance of economics as the fundamental concern in education is starting to wane:

Maybe, just maybe, the deeply entrenched “wisdom” that quality schools graduating students will strengthen the economy ain’t the “wisdom” it has been since ANation at Risk was published in 1983…..None of these studies that challenge the current “wisdom,”—important as they are–  diminish the continuing task of improving school quality for reasons other  than economic ones. Better schools that are safe, engaging, ambitious in getting students to learn and places where students and teachers work together to reach common goals is worth striving for beyond whether such schools strengthen the economy.  Bravo, I say, to those economists that question the unquestionable “wisdom” of the moment.

Go read his post!

Note:  The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation. 

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Buzzwords: The Zone of Proximal Development

I have been reading lots of reports and blog posts about personalization and related ideas.  There is an encouraging diversity of opinions about what “personalized” or “comptence” or “mastery” might mean, and how they (it) should look in the classroom.  One term that keeps cropping up is Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, which I will abbreviate hereafter as “ZPD,” the way people do these days.  The frequency, not to say the faddishness, of the term has caught my attention ( a new addition to my little collection of   terms from what I like to call “folk ed psychology” — which could serve as the basis of an interesting study that I, alas, am likely never to get around to).

Lev Vygotsky, the “Mozart of psychology,” was particularly interested in the psychology of learning and teaching, working to elaborate a theoretical framework that was consistent with Marx’s view of society and human nature. I am not competent to provide a resumé of Marx’s thought, but an excerpt from Erich Fromme’s account Marx’s concept of man may serve here:

Man’s potential, for Marx, is a given potential; man is, as it were, the human raw material which, as such, cannot be changed, just as the brain structure has remained the same since the dawn of history. Yet, man does change in the course of history; he develops himself; he transforms himself, he is the product of history; since he makes his history, he is his own product. History is the history of man’s self-realization…For Spinoza, Goethe, Hegel, as well as for Marx, man is alive only inasmuch as he is productive, inasmuch as he grasps the world outside of himself in the act of expressing his own specific human powers, and of grasping the world with these powers….Inasmuch as man is not productive…he is dead. In this productive process, man realizes his own essence…..

Vygotsky was interested in the ways that people (especially children, but not only they) participate in this process, which is not only inwardly driven but shaped by one’s environment, above all the social or cultural environment.  As Holbrook Mahn writes, “Qualitative leaps in the development of personality, identity, and awareness of self, as the child begins to think conceptually and to understand systems — social, linguistic, cultural, logical, and emotional — were of particular interest to him.”  Vygotsky worked from a theory of human mental/psychological development which posited that people pass through stages, each of which is characterized by the development and inhabiting of new capabilities for purposive action.   Each stage is “prepared” by the child’s growth,which in essential ways is unified with her interaction with and awareness of her social/cultural environment — the individual and the social being in an important way a unified system (I think this is what Dewey would call a transactional relationship).  Such a “rhythm” of stability bounded by transformational crisis is reflected in Thomas Kuhn’s distinction of “scientific revolution” vs “normal science.”  The crisis, on Vygotsky’s view, contributes to personality formation.

It is from this point of view that I have been reading various recent statements, blog posts, and advertisements for educational technology, school reform, and other products and projects.  For example, from a post by Courtney Belolan on

The Zone of Proximal Development is the sweet spot of education; this is where meaningful learning happens…The ZPD is at the core of performance-based learning, individualized learning, and customized learning….a student is in the ZPD when they still need support from a teacher or a peer in order to do or understand something new. Once they no longer need teacher or peer support, they are out of the ZPD for that particular skill or understanding.

Here’s something from the Kars4Kids website, which offers a lot of advice to parents and educators:

The idea is that wherever a child is in his or her learning, there is a range of learning that is within reach, but not yet attained. This is where the child can get to with a nudge from a teacher that sees the child as he or she really is at a given moment in time, rather than where he or she is supposed to be according to external guidelines set by say, the Board of Education…. We learn through Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development to always see a child as something that is never static, as someone that can always learn and grow and move forward.

And from Edsurge:


“It’s the Goldilocks of cognitive challenge for students—you don’t want it too hot, you don’t want it too cold, you want it just right,” explains [John] Reyes [director of educational technology for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles]. “If we’re able to scaffold through prior knowledge, the structure of the activity and the timeframe, then we’re able to hit the cognitive sweet spot.”

Reyes isn’t the only one to raise the connection between ZPD and personalized learning—the term seemed to resonate with teachers during a recent iNACOL survey and multiple attendees at the Los Angeles EdSurge Tech Leaders Circle mentioned it conversations as they shared about what personalized learning means for them.

Digital personal learning experiences rely on technology tools that keep students engaged by meeting them in their ZPD. These tools can also provide teachers with valuable insights into the different needs of all students, and can loosen up teacher time, allowing for meaningful 1:1 conference time with students.

In commenting on current notions of ZPD, Seth Chaiklin writes:

The common conception of the zone of proximal development supports or inspires a vision of educational perfection, in which the insightful (or lucky) teacher is able to help a child master, effortlessly and joyfully, whatever subject matter is on the day’s program. With this kind of conception, a reader is likely to expect that a chapter about the zone of proximal development and instruction will explain (a) how to identify a child’s zone of proximal development for each learning task, (b) how to teach in a way that will be sure to engage the zone of proximal development, which (c) in a smooth and joyful way will significantly accelerate learning.

But the ZPD is about development, not learning of specific content or skills. Chaiklin:

Vygotsky distinguishes instruction aimed “toward [the child’s] full development from instruction in specialized, technical skills such as typing or riding a bicycle” . In short, zone of proximal development is not concerned with the development of skill of any particular task, but must be related to development.

Chaiklin also points out that popular descriptions (and I would add, commercialization) of the ZPD, place a heavy emphasis (as in the EdSurge quotation above) on the role of the ‘more skilled other,’ which might be peers, or teachers, or digital environment.  This very often is expressed in terms of a technical method:  Assess Johnny, find out his ZPD, then apply the correct tool/intervention to move him successfully through the lesson.  But, as the literature on ZPD makes clear, identifying someone’s ZPD is not a trivial task, and it’s not done in relation to specific skills in math, say, vs. science or literature.  As Chaiklin says,

the zone of proximal development is not simply a way to refer to development through assistance by a more competent other. This assistance is meaningful only in relation to maturing functions needed for transition to the next age period.

In a sense, a learner’s ZPD is determined by an inquiry, based upon a developmental theory which frames the educator’s examination of the child (always remembering that we are speaking of the child-in-context).  To that extent, Courtney Belolan’s advocacy of diagnosis is on to something, with an important caveat:  the ZPD is highly particular to the child at his/her current stage of cognitive development, but this is not the same as his/her current conceptual issues with the division of fractions.  Chaiklin again:

It seems more appropriate to use the term zone of proximal development to refer to the phenomenon that Vygotsky was writing about, and find other terms (e.g., assisted instruction, scaffolding) to refer to practices like teaching a specific subject- matter concept, skill, and so forth.This is not to deny the meaningfulness of other investigations (e.g., joint problem solving, dynamic assessment of intellectual capabilities), only to indicate that there is no additional scientific value to refer to this as zone of proximal development


The reason I think this point is important is that terms like ZPD can be invoked to lend “cultural authority” to techniques or products which have no more than a tangential relationship to the concept that Vygotsky identified, and that several generations of scholars have tried to understand and critique.   While in some cases, a fuzzy notion like the folk-simplification of ZPD will serve as a useful “rule of thumb” tool for a teacher trying to listen to student thinking, in other cases it can open the door to quite curious developments.  From the Edsurge piece cited above, for example:

Over the past few years, Peskay [Matthew Peskay, Chief of Innovation and Technology at KIPP LA Schools] explains that use of the term ZPD has decreased and there has been an uptick on Angela Duckworth’s ideas on grit and Carol Dweck’s beliefs about growth mindset. But he says they’re all related. “I could see it shift over time. In a few years, it might be the zone of grit,” he speculates.

The bottom line is, when someone starts talking about ZPD, stop and ask:  What’s going on here?


Note:  The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone, and not necessarily those of MSPNet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation. 



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Teacher professionalism and saving the phenomena

In her Answer Sheet education blog in the Washington post, Valerie Strauss has made a practice of bringing in many voices to enrich conversations about a wide range of education topics.  I find that a recent column relates to my last post on teacher professionalism.

Adam Jordan and Todd Hawley make the point that the question, “Are teachers professionals?” has been kept alive primarily because of the way that schools are such a focus for political, ideological, and social debate and engineering:

From our perspective, the question of whether teachers are professionals has been allowed to persist primarily due to one simple truth: Lots of folks who are not teachers have plenty to say about teachers and education….When decisions about how to best educate children are made by people who have never been teachers, then we have a problem — one that leads folks to believe teachers aren’t professionals.

A central piece in their argument relates to whether teachers’ judgment about education policy is taken seriously (mostly, not).  Take  the example of  “growth measures” or “value added measures”  (VAMs) using student test scores to evaluate teacher quality.

State legislatures keep passing laws that base teacher evaluation on value-added models, or as they are commonly called, “growth models.” Teachers knew from day one that this was a ridiculous idea because they know that these growth models are based only on standardized test scores and solid student evaluation is much more complicated than that.

Even when teachers’ arguments were backed by such organizations as the American Educational Research Association and the American Statistical Association, with strong technical evidence, “value-added models are still used to evaluate their effectiveness.”

Misunderstandings of what education is, and therefore how it can best be measured, are supported by a range of ideological commitments that tend to make that measurement as simple and “cost-effective” as possible.  Politicians and many policy makers want to be able to tell a simple story:  Johnny or Jane can be scored as Successful or Not Successful, based on a simple and reliably computed measurement (usually a test score), and the outcome is a result of a few reliably computed characteristics of their teachers.

Yet there is persistent evidence that this sort of approach, however satisfying in operational management terms, is not particularly appropriate for understanding what is happening in schools.  Quite aside from technical weaknesses in the VAM model (developed by an economist with little understanding of the system he was modeling), there are deep issues with the reliability of standardized tests — see here a recent article reinforcing a long-established point about non-school factors that strongly affect test scores.  The author, Christopher Tienken, writes

We decided to see if we could predict standardized test scores based on demographic factors related to the community where a student lived. By looking at three to five community and family demographic variables from U.S. Census data, we have been able to accurately predict the percentages of students who score proficient or above on standardized test scores for grades three through 12. These predictions are made without looking at school district data factors such as school size, teacher experience or per pupil spending.

As he elaborates on a series of studies his team has conducted to explore the impact of non-school factors on test scores, Tienken also reminds us that there is strong evidence that standardized test scores are not as good a predictor of student success in college as is GPA — the average of grades assigned by teachers over the course of the students’ high school ‘careers.’  Though there is legitimate debate about how to evaluate teachers’ skill and performance, there are good reasons to be skeptical about systems that, derived from other areas of research, are not adequately adjusted to actually apply to education,  and are not used with respect for their limitations.

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley has a recent discussion about a cascade of measurement assumptions that have shaped discussions about VAMs as opposed to other measures, and given rise to the “Widget effect,” the “national failure to acknowledge and act on differences in teacher effectiveness.  The claim is that meaures of teacher effectiveness are not well-enough designed to detect differences that must exist between better teachers and worse teachers.  Amrein-Beardsley points out that, though variation in teacher “effectiveness” undoubtedly do exist, most of the “widget” discussion starts from the assumption that a more satisfactory meaurement scheme should show teacher variation in something like a normal distribution, and therefore if your measurement system doesn’t show this, it should be tweaked until it does so.  As Amrein-Beardsley writes,

What this means in this case, for example, is that for every teacher who is rated highly effective there should be a teacher rated as highly ineffective, more or less, to yield a symmetrical distribution of teacher observational scores across the spectrum.

In fact, one observational system of which I am aware …is marketing its proprietary system, using as a primary selling point figures illustrating (with text explaining) how clients who use their system will improve their prior “Widget Effect” results…Evidence also suggests that these scores are also (sometimes) being artificially deflated to assist in these attempts

(see the whole post for careful discusison, references, and links to further studies).

I know I am not alone in feeling that we are in the grip of persistent, inappropriate reductionism in policy-making.  It’s important to make sure that our models are as simple as possible — but not so simple that they don’t actually model the system.  Since lives ( life-courses) of actual people are at stake (of students, of course, but also of teachers, parents, and beyond, since we all are affected by the lived outcomes of education!), our models and systems do not trick us into forgetting the actual nature of things (save the phenomena!).

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Teacher ‘professionalism’ and the nature of education

When you hear the phrase “teacher professionalization,”  what do you think about? It’s an idea that’s rising up again, for good reasons — but what is actually the nature of the challenge?  Is this a live issue for you?

MSPnet’s “What’s New?” in its issue for 7/27/17 included this introduction to some new items in the MSpnet Library:

With the support of the Center on International Benchmarking at the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), and the Ford Foundation, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) drew together a global team of education researchers in the three-year study, producing unparalleled insights for U.S. educators, researchers, and policymakers. The result is the International Teacher Policy Study (ITPS).  The study produced five policy briefs to summarize each of the identified strategy components used in high-performing countries to ensure all students have high-quality professional teachers.

Not a recent idea!  The discussion about the need for teaching to become, or to be seen, or to function as, a profession, goes back a century in this country.  According to Laurence Cremin’s The transformation of the school (1961), discussions about the subject can be traced at least back to the 1890s.  He gives some attention to the formulations of the idea by James Earl Russell, “the organizing genius who would transform the struggling professional school [Teachers College, Columbia] into a world-renowned center of pedagogy” (pg.  172) after his advent in 1897.    Discussions and manifestos have been published in every decade since (see for example Hunt’s 1937 article in Teachers College Record “Teaching becomes a profession” paywall!!), alongside calls for a deepening understanding of the nature of education itself  (a flagship publication in this regard is Dewey’s Sources of a science of education (1929), but the roots of the learning sciences and of “theorized pedagogy” can be found much further back, of course).

What does it mean?  As Cremin tells it, Russell argued that the College would pursue 4 goals which were foundational to a modern professional preparation:  [1] general culture, [2] special scholarship [~subject matter knowledge], [3] professional knowledge [= educational psychology, child study, history and philosophy of education, administration, school and society];  [4] technical training [methods].

This approach to teacher professionalization is based on the identification and promulgation of a distinctive, core set of knowledge (academic and craft knowledge), comparable in its extent and depth to the knowledge defining the other, historically established professions (theology, law, medicine, for example, though “professionalization” was a long process for them, too).

Suggestions for teaching as a profession most often start by (often sympathetic) comparisons with “real” or fully-established professions.  For example, in “What professionals see when they look at teaching,” a mathematician comments

teachers in the U.S. have very little autonomy.  Teacher training in the U.S. has become increasingly unstandardized, with little agreement on what constitutes core professional knowledge.  Similarly, there is scarce agreement on what constitutes professional ethics in teaching.

Sadly, unlike mathematicians, teachers in the U.S. are not professionals.  They are labor.  And, as labor, they are being managed.  Managers, in the guise of principals and superintendents and education policy chiefs and politicians, specify outcomes – often naively, like the requirement in 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act that fully 100 percent of American schoolchildren be proficient in reading and math within 12 years – and then hold teachers responsible for achieving these outcomes.  Moreover, precise recipes are given to teachers in the form of curricula and regular assessments, and teachers are told to follow these guides instead of their instincts.  Accompanying these recipes are calls for teachers to collect more data… In turn, managers use data teachers collect less to help them improve teachers’ practice and instead as evidence in evaluating teachers’ performance.

Further attention to the conditions under which teachers work, and which constrain the professionalism of teaching,  can be found in other accounts — a typical prescription is in Jal Mehta’s 2013 piece in the New York Times (paywall):

Teaching requires a professional model, like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture and many other fields. In these professions, consistency of quality is created less by holding individual practitioners accountable and more by building a body of knowledge, carefully training people in that knowledge, requiring them to show expertise before they become licensed, and then using their professions’ standards to guide their work.  By these criteria, American education is a failed profession… in the absence of a system devoted to developing consistent expertise, we have teachers essentially winging it as they go along, with predictably uneven results.

It need not be this way. In the nations that lead the international rankings… teachers are drawn from the top third of college graduates…Training in these countries is more rigorous, more tied to classroom practice and more often financed by the government than in America. There are also many fewer teacher-training institutions, with much higher standards….Teachers in leading nations’ schools also teach much less than ours do… the balance of teachers’ time is spent collaboratively on developing and refining lesson plans.

These countries also have much stronger welfare states; by providing more support for students’ social, psychological and physical needs, they make it easier for teachers to focus on their academic needs.

Our sympathetic professional mathematician helpfully points out that

One of the hallmarks of a profession is that professionals feel a responsibility not just to themselves but to the values of the profession itself, and as such they feel compelled to act in defense of these values when they are threatened.

This is great, and no one can pay any attention to the educational press, the mainstream press (especially on the local level) or the edublogosphere, and not see stories about teachers doing just this.  The problem is that the public to which they are speaking, and the authorities to which they make their representations, apparently have little respect or interest in the nature and craft of teaching.

The pedagogy of policy speaks very clearly, and has for a long time, and education as seen in policy is not the same as education as an art, craft, profession, or even a human transaction.  Instead, politics and economics Now the measure of all things) see education in terms of workforce development, creation of “human capital” or the manufacture of consent — if the latter phrase sounds too harsh, just consider the continuing controversies (and legislating) about uncomfortable science or other curricular matters (for a penetrating round-up of just a few recent examples, see Julie Carr’s article in Bioscience)

As has often been noted, everybody’s an expert about education except the educators, and this in itself is an atmospheric pollutant that takes a heavy cost from people wanting to make constructive changes — and leads educators, including teacher educators, to focus on the “pull yourselves up by the bootstraps” approach which comes through in the many articles on teacher professionalism.

I confess that after my tour of prescriptions and pronunciamentos about teacher professionalism of the past 120 years, I could not but welcome the professional’s satire in Peter Greene’s recent blog post on, lamenting yet another market-based nostrum:

Entrepreneurship has been trampling up and down the fields of education, like some beautiful windswept unicorn.  Read the work of reformsters…and you will begin to imagine that… loathsome teachers and miserable unions and the loathed “status quo” keep trying to harpoon the beautiful unicorn and wrap it up in a net of regulations tied down with straps of resistance…This narrative would lead one to believe that entrepreneurs are somehow imbued with a special quality, a quality that people who merely devoted their entire professional lives to education sorely lack.


I’d like to recur, therefore, to the ever-mild, ever radical Dewey, from his “Sources” piece (emphasis added) :

The sources of educational science are any  portions of ascertained knowledge that enter into  the heart, head and hands of educators, and  which, by entering in, render the performance of  the educational function more enlightened, more  humane, more truly educational than it was before.

But there is no way to discover what is “more truly educational” except by the continuation of the educational act itself. The discovery is never made ; it is always making.

It  may conduce to immediate ease or momentary  efficiency to seek an answer for questions outside of education, in some material which already has scientific prestige. But such a seeking  is an abdication, a surrender. In the end, it only  lessens the chances that education in actual  operation will provide the materials for an improved science. It arrests growth ; it prevents  the thinking that is the final source of all progress.

Education is by its nature an endless  circle or spiral. It is an activity which includes  science within itself. In its very process it sets  more problems to be further studied, which  then react into the educative process to change  it still further, and thus demand more thought,  more science, and so on, in everlasting sequence.

NOTE:  The opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.




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Motivation and the hope of mobility

Scanning the edublogosphere this week, I came across a recent post by Larry Ferlazzo.  He moves from a recent paper on how students’ perceptions of their future prospects affect their willingness to “persist” with academic challenges.    The paper,  “Perceptions of Socioeconomic Mobility Influence Academic Persistence among Low Socioeconomic Status Students,” (you can read a pre-publication copy here)  makes for interesting reading.

The authors point out that, while some challenges to succes that face students of lower socioeconomic status (SES) are obvious enough,  some of them are a less obvious.  What happens, for example, if you are told repeatedly that education is the path to a desirable future success in life, “characterized by stable employment and a respectable income”  but you don’t see that working out for others? They suggest that “low-SES students’ perceptions of socioeconomic mobility reflect an overarching and powerful…contextual cue that influences their psychological inclination when faced with academic difficulty.”   Therefore, they argue that students who believe that social mobility is not a fact in their society will be less motivated to persist.

It’s worth stopping here to note that “social mobility” as here defined does not necessarily equate to “upward mobility,”  whose likelihood is often measured by the probability that I will do better than my parents did.  It is widely reported that upward mobility has been stagnant in the US since the 1970s;  a widely cited study by Chetty et al. (see here for a journalistic account) suggests that this rate is not that different from what it was in the previous three decades.  In any case, I tend to agree with Neil Gilbert’s argument that “upward mobility” is not the metric for economic progress that we should be most focused on. Rather we ought to care about prosperity — economic quality of life, if you will.  Upward mobility was a big feature of American life in the middle of the 20th century — as the trend to 2-earner families gathered momentum, for example.  Browman et al’s focus on students’ expectations of “stable employment and a decent income” fits with this point of view.

The study (actually 3 studies, two with high school students and with university students) shows that if your social milieu is telling you that a good education doesn’t buy you a good job, you are going to be less inclined to persist through academic hard times.  If you see people for whom the promise tends to be fulfilled, that will provide positive motivation.    Thus, we see another link between social conditions and the development of young people’s sense of agency (or powerlessness), in this case in the important though limited sphere of schooling.It is a cautionary tale. Ferlazzo responds with a series of suggestions for ways to address students’ sense of agency, or otherwise motivating them to stick with school.

My own reflections take another turn:  If school’s value from the learner’s point of view is primarily extrinsic — the (possibly illusory) likelihood of financial reward (in the hardly-real Future) — there are very many reasons for a student to dismiss it in favor of more vivid, more accessible, and more evidently vital concerns.  This seems quite reasonable to me.  It turns out that people are not only economic beings.  While economic stability (state income and decent income) is of great importance, human flourishing encompasses more than this.

What Larry Cuban has called (in an excellent series of posts, check them out starting here) the “new vocationalism” has taken over most rationales for education (something often lamented in this space).  The rhetoric supporting this school-as-training view of education has often led to distorted representations of employment trends and opportunities — more the result of industry self-interest and special pleading than of sober engagement with education for a diverse, democratic society.  Cuban writes, in a passage that echoes the best of Gerry Bracey,

Today, high tech entrepreneurs and CEOs lament the need to outsource coding to other countries and import software engineers from India and elsewhere (but do it nonetheless on special visas) pointing to the lack of U.S. graduates skilled in programming, systems analysis, and computer support. The growth rate in such jobs will continue to escalate by 2020. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that computer and information technology jobs will grow by a half-million from 3.9 million in 2016 to 4.4 million in 2020.

Keep in mind, however, that the U.S. economy now employs nearly 164 million workers. Those technical jobs in 2020 would represent less than three percent of the overall workforce. Far larger growth in jobs will occur, according to recent estimates, in health care and social assistance (almost six million), professional and business services (nearly four million), and construction (nearly two million) far surpassing computer and information technology (half-million).

Coding for all U.S. students to prepare for jobs that represents less than three percent of the workforce?

Many who propagandize about the power of education to improve people’s lives of course really care about social improvement.  The focus on the economic/vocational argument, however, which sees the developing child primarily as a future economic factor, opens the possibility (if not the certainty) of promises that ring false to far too many.  The costs to the individuals and to society are incalculable.  Even as we face the gathering storms of climate change, and the continuing threats of war and social chaos, there are few “values” issues more important to engage than the nature of education.


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I have written about “personalized” education in this blog  before (most recently here), as I have tried to pull together the many threads that are converging with this term.  It is tied up with “competency based education (CBE),”  micro-credentialing and the block chain, virtual schools (for profit or nonprofit, charter or otherwise), the press for digital curriculum and computerized testing, privatization … and many other features of the current education scene.  I am still struggling to get my arms around the Hydra, so to speak, so here is an interim report from my reading, providing some entry points if you have not been riding this particular hobby-horse.

You will quickly find, as you read these and other links, that anyone who seeks to understand the state of play, and who wants to avoid joining a “party” or taking a position prematurely, has to read apparently endless numbers of “reports,” “research,” “white papers” and other emissions from interested parties.   A common rhetoric has developed, at least among the advocates for the Agenda, by which I mean the complex of ideas, selling points, technologies, and strategies hinted at in my first paragraph.  This rhetoric is worth a separate study, and is a good place to begin reflecting on how your educational values (and experience) relate to the tidal wave of claims.  Some of the buzzwords (“factory model” or the increasingly popular “Prussion model”;  “student-centered”; “traditional schooling”; “anytime, anywhere”, etc.) have formed the subject of earlier posts in this blog, but these and others will need attention again.

One final prefatory note:  My aim in this blog is to provide a service by scanning and reflecting upon ed blogs that touch on interesting and important trends and ideas relating to STEM education.  I struggle to find blogs that seem to bear on this directly and with little reference to policy issues or politics. I have found, however, that even blogs written by class teachers are absorbed, to a considerable degree, with the sausage grinder that is American education policy-making.  I am about to go on vacation, and see a new landscape, and when I return I will enter with refreshed attention on the STEM side of things — and send me suggestions!!! — but of course, the policy-type turmoil creates the conditions within which public education has to try to accomplish its mission, and so the many voices of power, influence, and ideation are heard in each classroom, often with significant consequences for “what I do on Monday.”  So much for my sorry-not sorry apology.    Here are 5 entry points.

A. Personalized learning is a coming thing.  A recent article in the National Education Assoc. publication NEA Today makes the case for personalization, both on the merits and as a coming wave (so get with it).  The commonest theme is voiced by Rachel Moola, a Pennsylvania teacher: “We wanted to modernize the school and make what we were doing more authentic for our kids.”  The article moves back and forth from vignettes at a couple of schools, to quotations from experts who voice guarded enthusiasm for the movement, to views on the spread of the phenomenon.  The closing quotation, from a teacher, ends the piece on an appealing note:

We’re not standing in front of the whole class presenting a lesson,” Brown says. “We’re working with each student, helping them with what they need at that moment, helping them develop skills in a way that keeps them engaged. Every day can be different If we want it to be, and I’m seeing these kids learning and succeeding. I see sparks every day. That’s what being a teacher is all about.

No one explains why this kind of creativity and diversity has only been possible because of this innovation (and indeed that it could be achieved in other ways than are getting the most press, see this  article for one example).

As more people read about it, personalized learning has become more popular,” explains Elliot Soloway, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan. “But as a term, it’s become more and more melted down and confusing.”

According to the National Education Technology Plan issued in 2010 by the U.S Department of Education, personalized learning puts “students at the center and empowers them to take control of their own learning by providing flexibility on several dimensions.”

The result was a hybrid blended learning program built around a flex-rotation model. An individual student receives a portion of their instruction online and then is rotated through small groups, either to work independently or to collaborate with fellow students. Later, the student and the teacher meet face-to-face to address and analyze the student’s struggles or successes.

“With this model, every student is answering a minimum of ten questions on every single topic,” says Schreiber. “I know within minutes that a student doesn’t understand a particular concept. In years past, I really had no idea what their level of knowledge was until I gave them a test a couple of weeks down the line.

B. The research base is thin.  Reforms and innovations in schools require systemic adjustments of various kinds, even if the “reform” is aimed at the classroom — just look at the adjustments that have resulted from the Common Core or NGSS. While decision-makers at various levels in the system may make positive decisions to implement the innovation, in many cases teachers are not given that voice, and students and their parents almost never have a substantive voice.  The result is that new results amount to an experiment (often not well designed) with subjects who have not given informed consent.  At the very least, it would be nice to know that some care had been taken, some rigorous qualitative and quantitative research conducted, so that some evidence backs up claims of costs and benefits.      Personalization lacks much of a research base, and for many of its advocates, this is at worst an inconvenience.  Trial and error seems like a daring and “disruptive” basis for action.   The spirit of the age is expressed clearly in this article on personalization, whose tone is quite positive:

We think that personalized learning makes sense,” Zuckerberg told Education Week in an exclusive telephone interview last week. “We want to see as many good versions of this idea as possible get tested in the world.” In December, the couple announced they will eventually give 99 percent of their Facebook shares—worth an estimated $45 billion—to a variety of causes, headlined by the development of software “that understands how you learn best and where you need to focus.”…. While companies have generated hundreds of products and a smattering of new school models are showing promise, there is little large-scale evidence that the approach can improve teaching and learning or narrow gaps in academic achievement.  Many in Silicon Valley, including Zuckerberg, don’t seem to mind.
“We don’t know for certain that it’s going to work,” he said. “All we can really hope to do is provide an initial boost and try to show that this could work as a model, and hopefully it gets its own tailwind that carries it towards mainstream adoption.



C.It can mean a lot of different things, which makes evaluation of the idea difficult, and makes you wonder if sometimes what’s being sold is the “sizzle” of novelty.  A historical perspective can help here, and Larry Cuban’s blog  is a good place to start.   As part of a larger study he’s been engaged in (and blogging about), he talked with “more than 3 dozen teachers in 11 schools in Silicon Valley.  He found little consensus among this group of innovators, and reflects

The popular policy innovation of “personalized learning” has a history of Progressive reformers a century ago embedded in it. Implementation today, as before, depends upon teachers adapting lessons to the contexts in which they find themselves and modifying what designers have created. Classroom adaptations mean that rigorous–however it is defined–lessons will vary adding further diversity to both definition and practice of the policy. And putting “personalized learning” into classroom practice means that there will continue to be hand-to-hand wrestling with issues of testing and accountability.

D. Personlized learning, if it is of the high-tech variety currently favored in press accounts, is often bundled with other tools and strategies, including collecting “big data” on students, the institution of a competency-based approach, changes in the work force, as “teachers” can be replaced by other kinds of education workers, and more.  Check out this report from Wrench-in-the-gears on controversies in Boone County, Ky.

E. Policy and technology are also ideological. Given that good teachers have always tried to work with the children that are before them, and given that many teachers and schools have found ways to encourage and invite students to exert agency in their learning, why is the current wave of emphasis on “personalization” (which is couched very often in terms of   choice, even when the choice is highly channelized) so deeply attractive?  Why are straw-men (straw-teachers, straw-schools) constructed with such rhetorical passion, when their destruction provides very little positive evidence for anything?  Audrey Watters has reflected on this question, as she explores spoken and unspoken messages in current policy conversations about personalization:

we can see “personalization” as both a product (and I mean quite literally a product) of and a response to the rise of post-war consumer capitalism. Monograms on mass-produced objects. Millions of towels and t-shirts and trucks and tchotchkes that are all identical except you can buy one with your name or your initials printed on it. “Personalization” acts as some sort of psychological balm, perhaps, to standardization. A salve. Not a solution.   But “personalization” is not simply how we cope with our desire for individuality in an age of mass production, of course. It’s increasingly how we’re sold things. It’s how we are profiled, how we are segmented, how we are advertised to.

As I close out this t00-long piece, one observation.  I have heard people comment, upon some of the dissenting voices in the ed blogosphere, that they sound “strident” or partisan.  All I can say is that the proponents of the Idea of the Hour also speak loudly and urgently —stridently if you will — with a difference, that their alliances with the powerful, such as billionaire philanthropists or major business sectors provide a certain normalization, so that they are seen as the “ground” so that voices in opposition stand out as the figure — angular and in tension with the ground.  A philosophical or historical perspective is essential if we are to get outside the agonistic system, and construct our own understanding of the challenges before us.

Note:  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the writer alone, and do not necessarily refect the position of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation. 

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On avoiding oversimplifications

My title could apply to almost any subject matter, of course, but today I am thinking about how education is conceptualized in the mainstream these days. I am not the only one who’s been disturbed by the increasing focus on education as first and foremost part of the economic sphere. You can make your own list of consequences, but they include talking about education as a product — or are students the product? Or not even students, but students-as-represented-by-test-scores? Teachers then become factors of production in a market-driven enterprise to be critiqued and manipulated according to market values.
But I’d like to call your attention to a different angle (which however plays into the idea of education conceived mostly as an economic process), which is the view of schools as a favored locus for social engineering — and as a way to pretend to grapple with a problem that the school cannot solve (even if it can be a part of the solution).
My reflections are stimulated by a recent post by Jennifer Berkshire entitled, “Have you heard?  Education can’t fix poverty.  So why keep insisting that it can?”  This post is an interview with Harvey Kantor on a recent publication by Kantor and his co-author Robert Lowe on the “educationalizing” of social policy.  (see on the same topic a paper by David Labaree in Educational Theory vol.58(4).  This is behind a paywall, alas,  but I was able to obtain a copy from the author through Research Gate.).

Labaree puts the problem in almost comically stark terms:

We ask education to ameliorate race and class inequality through school desegregation, compensatory coursework, programs to reduce prejudice, and free lunches. We ask it to counter gender inequality by developing gender-neutral textbooks and encouraging girls to pursue studies in science and math. We ask it to attack public health problems by hiring school nurses, requiring vaccination for students, and providing classes in health and physical education. We ask it to promote economic competitiveness by developing programs in vocational and career education and by adapting its curriculum to the skill needs of the knowledge economy. We ask it to reduce crime by requiring school attendance, developing school discipline codes, and mandating courses in good citizenship. We ask it to promote sexual responsibility through sex education, traffic safety through driver education, healthy eating through nutritional education, and preservation of natural resources through environmental education. American society asks its system of education to take responsibility for remediating all of these social problems, and for the most part educators have been eager to assume the burden.

Kantor and Lowe provide a historical account of the “educationalizing” process since the New Deal. They start with the New Deal, because here they see the origin of the modern view that the federal government carries responsibility for system ills of many kinds, from infrastructure to health care (a belief I mostly share).  One cannot call this a “consensus,” since there have always been those who long for the nullification of the New Deal and all its works. (As a high school student just learning some modern history, I was taken aback in a conversation with my generally reserved and laconic paternal grandfather, when a passing reference of mine to FDR elicited an amazingly intense denunciation of Roosevelt’s policy, personality, and associates. )

The New Deal was intervening principally around economic stimulus and job growth, of course, but as the trauma of the Depression was succeeded by WWII, and then the post-war recovery, other issues came forward to be incorporated into the framework for intervention — racial equality and entrenched poverty, both of which can be seen as issues of opportunity, and have many cross-connections:

School desegregation was a more robust method of redistribution. In contrast to Title I, which did not disturb power relations between the races, it sought to root out racial inequality by providing African American students with access to the superior resources of the schools White students attended.

Using schools as the principal locus of social change was and is a huge oversimplification, since it does not do much to address all the rest of society (in which even school children spend most of their lives).  It has the attractive feature of reducing huge systemic issues to building-sized dimensions, giving the illusion of tractability.

Even when the paradigm for social engineering changed, schools continued to be the safest place (politically) to enact Big Ideas:

Between 1970 and 2000 the programmatic legacy of the New Deal/Great Society welfare state and the ideological consensus that sustained it was challenged by the popularization of a different conception of the role of the state in social policy…this new view of the state’s role in social policy proposed to limit the federal government’s responsibility for income security and to restructure the system of social provision by minimizing direct redistributive measures in favor of more market-oriented forms of social protection. Nothing in this transformation altered the trajectory set in motion during the 1960s that placed educational reform at the center of social policy making. (Kantor and Lowe pp 32-3)

The oversimplification has been a bipartisan affair.  As interviewer/blogger Berkshire puts it,

The belief that poverty can be overcome if we just find the right technocratic fix for what ails our schools reached a crescendo during the Obama Administration. You describe this as substituting accountability for redistribution.

Berkshire later raises a key assumption about social policy in our country, which is that it is amenable to technical, engineering “solutions” which can be put in place by regulation, or even better by market forces (including incentives and disincentives), whether underlying problems are addressed or even recognized. Kantor comments,

One of the end results of the way the accountability movement has transpired and evolved has been to narrow the questions about educational inequality to very technical questions. If we can just put in place the right teacher accountability system, or figure out the right curriculum standards,  that’s going to solve the problem of schools with large numbers of poor kids not doing as well. What I consider very technical questions bracket the larger questions of why it is we have so many kids concentrated in poor schools. Why do the rich kids get better schools? These aren’t just questions about accountability. They’re  more fundamental questions about class and race and power and inequality. Even though the accountability movement has often couched itself in the language of *no excuses,* and *every kid can learn,* its approach has been to narrow the debate even more and make it harder to address the questions that really underlie why some kids get an education that is so much better than other kids.

I encourage you to check out the interview, and follow up, starting with Kantor and Lowe among others.  Anyone who works with children or teachers knows that ideas have material consequences, that the endless struggles to frame and reframe education — both in school and as a universal process of growth (see an earlier post on “education policy and the process of authority” for a related Dewey-flavored comment)— are as good a place as any to come to grips with the truths and the consequences of our society’s condition.

NOTE:  The views expressed here are those of the author alone.  They do not necessarily represent those of MSPnet, TERC, or NSF. 

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