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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Science video: Where does it fit in our work and our learning?

The TERC team that is hosting the STEM for All Videohall events (this year’s begins on May 15th, at;  last year’s event is archived at began experimenting with video presentations some years ago in an electronic community for graduate students in the IGERT program (  The videos started as accompaniments to on-line posters, which the young scientists developed to share their work with their colleagues and  with experienced scientists.

At the time, my curiosity was piqued by how the videos and the posters complemented each other. I think my first sense was that the videos were great at engaging attention, and  supporting the IGERT students in their intent to gain skill in speaking about their work to non-specialists.  The trend of science journals permitting or encouraging video abstracts was under way and attracting attention (see a widely-cited article by Berkowitz on video abstracts  here).

Some people have taken to this opening “multi-modality” easily — at least as viewers/hearers;  others have been slower to embrace it, laden as it is with the need to learn some new techniques, authorial skills, and technology.  But expertise is spreading rapidly, and guidelines and standards are emerging (see for example this study on video abstracts, and the website “The Scientist Videographer,” which has much useful advice and critique, as well as links to other resources; also see TERC’s for diverse examples of videos from recent years).

But then, as I saw more and more videos, I realized that, when a video was able to convey something substantive about the importance, context, or methodology of the research, I was being reached on several channels — the typically text-and-graph heavy poster, and the narrative, visual, and somehow participatory video.  When conversation was added (for example if I posted a question, as a visitor or as a judge for the competition), the exchange was mostly in text (I write a comment, the presenter answers, etc.), it felt like a different kind of text than the text of the poster — conversational, less stylized, often more exploratory or “think aloud,” even if the messages were composed after some reflection.  It is indeed an example of dialogue-as-inquiry, a continually fruitful idea since at least the time of Plato, and something that is enacted every day in classrooms, workplaces, laboratories, and other forums.

And another thing:  When you listen to scientists talk informally about the ideas or phenomena in their areas of interest, you often see gestures and other kinds of body language, hear sounds imitated, see phenomena (including experimental procedures or field experiences) re-enacted — all accompanied by the variety of facial and vocal expressiveness that are inevitably part of animated conversation.  This, too, is part of how science is done, and sometimes it is these dramatic performances (if you will) that engage a learner, make him or her realize that this is something to be excited about and to enjouy — maybe to participate in.    In many videos, that part of the great dialogue that is science is captured, the same excitement stimulated, the invitation to connect is extended.   This, I think, is yet another channel, another mode of exchange — dramatic or mimetic or even theatric.

How do all these work together?  I found myself rereading a piece by Jay Lemke, “The literacies of science,” which I recommend.   Lemke, trained as a physicist, has joined to that background some serious inquiry into semiotics, ethnography, and science education, and the multimodality of his interests and inquiries often produces very interesting reflections.  In this piece, from 2004, Lemke explores  ideas such as those I have been sketching in this blog post, and reinforces me in my sense that more meaning, not just more information, can be conveyed using multimedia, multi-modal methods.

Lemke points out that science (his focus and mine, though he also draws examples from mathematics) as practiced is inherently not a verbal enterprise, however important words are as one component:

It is often said, by scientists, that mathematics is the language of science, but it would be closer to the whole truth to say that the language of science is a unique hybrid: natural language as linguists define it, extended by the meaning repertoire of mathematics, contextualized by visual representations of many sorts, and embedded in a language (or more properly a ‘semiotic’) of meaningful specialized actions afforded by the technological environments in which science is done. The texts of science are not written in any natural language studied by linguists. They are written in as much of this hybridmeaning-making system as can be presented on paper or animated on a computer screen

This is because science is about the world, and the world is a nonverbal thing:

The world makes meanings that go beyond what natural language can say: our proteins, our cells and their membranes do; organisms of other species do; ecosystems do; cosmology does. Science is the great enterprise of paying attention to the kinds of meanings that require us to go beyond natural language.

I suspect that many  students are discouraged from science, get the feeling they can’t do it, or understand it, because so much of the world, and of the investigation of the world, is not included in science education, with honorable exceptions — laege chunks of the “message” just are never made available.  Sometimes those chunks can “engage,” but sometimes they might indeed bring the kind of insight about a subject (phenomenon, puzzle) that excites in ways deeper than is usually meant by “engagement.”   As Lemke writes,

The whole of meaning, the whole of communication is an evolved human capacity for survival in a physical and biological world. The whole of communication includes gestures and posture, facial expressions, mime, nonverbal vocalizations, drawings, and a great deal more. What can you communicate with a gesture that you cannot say in words? What can you represent with a drawing or a map that cannot be said? Even speech is more than language: we vary the timbre and pacing of our voices, the sharpness and force of our articulation in ways that convey emotion, mood, health, seriousness, importance, urgency, surprise, doubt, need, desire, and a host of core human meanings essential to our social cohesion and group survival.

It seems to me that this states very powerfully the ground for a multimodal approach to science education — and I should say that “video” is not “the answer,” either.  The opportunities and affordances that video, or video + discourse, or video+discourse+text, offer — the excitement that comes from every expansion or permutation of our dialogues about the world — serve first and foremost as a reminder that “experience” in our world is the ideal  — not just doing and undergoing, as Dewey would say, but immersion and reflective, inquiring conversation (or quarreling) with the world, and with other people (past and present) who are trying to make some more sense about the Whole, and also who we are as a part of it.    To close with a bit more from Lemke’s article:

There are no names in natural language for all the angles from acute to obtuse….There is no way to describe the shape of a mountain or a cloud or a face. No way to precisely describe the twists and turns of a winding path. There are no words to distinguish degrees of speed, or trajectories of motion. There are no words for all the intervals of time that matter in life. There are not nearly enough words for all the degrees of certainty and doubt, importance and urgency, unexpectedness and surprise, need and desire, that matter to us.


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

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Education policy and the process of authority

The idea of democracy…is that every individual must be consulted in such a way, actively, not passively, that he himself becomes a part of the process of authority…[emphasis added] that his needs and wants have a chance to be registered in a way where they count in determining social policy. Along with that goes, of course, the other feature which is necessary for the realization of democracy—mutual conference and mutual consultation. (John Dewey, “Democracy and education in the world today.”)

I am wrapping up my attendance at AERA 2017.  I  am only an occasional attender at conferences, because although I recognize their utility, I have a hard time with large crowds however cheerful and insightful, and it takes a lot of preparation before I am able to just start talking wtih total strangers.  But it’s fascinating to be immersed in the AERA sample of the educational Zeitgeist, and (as we say) “situate”  myself and my work with respect to it.

Educational researchers often worrry about “impact,” about how their work may possibly be changing society for the better.  Most of us work at a very small scale — one project, one paper, one proposal at a time.  At big gatherings like this, we have the sense of how many such efforts are under way, how much ingenuity, patience, insight, and passion characterizes all this work.  At any such conference, people are there to advance careers, impress colleagues, build or renew social ties, and scheme or dream about future work.  In almost every conversation, however, a wholesome moment comes (and usually soon) when all that fades away, and what comes to the foreground are the ideas, the teachers, the learners, and the love of the craft.

But in the current political climate, after several decades of educators’ being battered, manipulated, blamed, and exhorted by people whose primary concerns are not educational, the role of educators as participants in the achieving of democracy is vividly salient.

A recent addition to the MSPnet library, a document from  NNSTOY, thenational organization of state “teachers of the year,” is full of practical suggestions, many ways for educators (in this case teachers, but most would  “work” for anyone).  They note that “engaging educators in policy shaping is not happening as much as it should,” and my only problem with their piece is that it doesn’t talk much about why policy makers are so little interested in teachers’ voices, much less the voices of educator agggregators such as AERA or the more specialized groups like NCTM, or NABT (or even AAAS).

On the other hand, another article, by Brandi Hinnant-Crawford, describes how teachers whose thinking she studied very clearly articulated the sense of alienation from policy.   She writes

Current waves of educational policy de-professionalize the teaching force, minimizing the autonomy once experienced by closing the classroom door. The shift in federal educational policy from an emphasis on equity to accountability has had real consequences for the nature of teaching.

There is a well-documented distress among teachers who often feel like they are merely the instruments of someone else’s ‘reform’:

Standards-based reform policies have made it difficult for teachers to maintain the buffer between classroom instruction and educational policy, “tight[ly] coupling” practice and policy in ways unseen before…

Given this analysis of their own situation, it is not surprising that teachers’ sense of agency is blunted, their creativity is constrained, and their professional energy is sapped, symptoms deriving from the belief that they are caught in a system that has little concern or respect for them and their students:

The qualitative data revealed several unsettling images about teacher beliefs in their ability to influence educational policy. The four dominant themes were: (a) it is difficult or impossible to make a difference, (b) the role of the teacher in educational policy is during implementation, (c) policymakers cannot be trusted and are ill informed, and (d) the U.S. society does not value or respect teachers.

As I listen to presentations here, and read the news, and blogs that cover ed policy, the asymmetries of power that characterize our current system of governance and economy are painfully evident.  It is interesting to think about this, placed alongside the massive demonstrations by scientists, climate-aware citizens, women (and allies), and more that have filled our streets (though often not our news outlets).  One of the tendencies in governance is to streamline the flow of opinion and critique, seeking to channelize, filter, and aggregate the many voices calling out, demanding, pleading, accusing…. I don’t blame legislators and civil servants in their desire to just manage the flow.  But there’s always the issue that filtering and data reduction results in loss of information, and some things may be screened out that are actually of importance.

Hinnant-Crawford brings forward a helpful taxonomy of kinds of teacher agency that have been seen in others’ research (and to some extent in her own), adducing

the unique power of teachers within the policy structure. Croll, Abbott, Broadfoot, Osborn, and Pollard (1994) discuss four models for teacher interaction with education policy: (a) teachers as partners, (b) teachers as implementers, (c) teachers as opponents, and (d) teachers as policymakers in practice.

In all these cases, the voices that matter are individual ones, not the voices of groups or associations — individual voices engaged with power in their own milieu.

I found it salutary to attend the John Dewey Society meetings during this time.  A repeated focus of the speakers was the short Dewey essay, “Creative Democracy.”   As usual, Dewey starts off with a diagnosis (in the shadow of the rise of fascism in Europe — with some enthusiastic allies in the US, it should be remembered).  Having suggested that the unique American project, the “creation of democracy,” at first was facilitated by historical contigencies such as the dominance of the “frontier” with its metaphors for exploration, the power of the individual as part of the creation of communities.  But

At the present time, the frontier is moral, not physical….for a long period we acted as if our democracy were something that perpetuated itself automatically; as if our ancestors had succeeded in setting up a machine that solved the problem of perpetual motion in politics.

We acted as if democracy were something that took place mainly at Washington and Albany – or some other state capital – under the impetus of what happened when men and women went to the polls once a year or so – which is a somewhat extreme way of saying that we have had the habit of thinking of democracy as a kind of political mechanism that will work as long as citizens were reasonably faithful in performing
political duties….

In considering how to overcome the deadening effects of such attitudes, so as to recreate a thriving and progressing democracy in a globalizing, pluralistic, and warlike world, he argues that

democracy is a personal way of individual life; that it signifies the possession and continual use of certain attitudes, forming personal character and determining desire and purpose in all the relations of life. Instead of thinking of our own dispositions and habits as accommodated to certain institutions we have to learn to think of the latter as expressions, projections and extensions of habitually dominant personal attitudes…..

The members of the Dewey Society heard this is a call to individual action, socially coordinated.  Other voices, with other philosophical accents, were calling for such engagement as well.  What might the result if educators (alongside scientists, electricians, farmers — name your favorite group) recognized the broader understanding of democracy as a process of committed  learning, negotiation, and engagement based on their own experience, but seeing that in this society, their work is incomplete until they act to connect (and modulate) their learnings, concerns, and aspirations with those of other interests, voices, centers than their own?  On this point of view, “STEM education” is a subset of a much greater effort, which is indeed education for those creating the common weal.

Since it is one that can have no end till experience itself comes to an end, the task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute.

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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Virtual schools: flying with broken wings

The National Education Policy Center ( is out with the latest in a series of “Virtual Schools Reports”, presenting data and analysis on the state of virtual and blended schools around the country. The 103-page report has three parts: [1] Full-time virtual and blended schools: Enrollment, student characteristics, and performance; [2] Still no evidence, Increased call for regulation: Research to guide virtual school policy; [3] Key policy issues in virtual schools.  Note that the “virtual schools” for the purposes of this report have no face-to-face interaction between students and teachers, while “blended schools” have varying proportions of in-person vs. on-line activity. In what follows, I will focus on the “virtual schools” strand of the report.
The increased emphasis on “choice” in education, championed with fresh energy by USED Sec. DeVos, but part of the education agenda in the Obama years as well, is likely to add further energy to the virtual/ blended school “market,”  one of many sectors in the “education market.”   (Sorry for the scare quotes, but I continue unreconciled to the construal of education as just another economic process.)   Especially in areas where there are not lots of alternatives to public schools, but authorities do not wish to invest in school improvement, virtual schools are increasingly advocated as the solution of choice.   The growth in such schools is documented in this report:  in 2015-16, they write, there were 528 full-time virtual schools, in 34 states, with an enrollment of 278,511 students.   Moreover, there is “virtual school legislation” under consideration in a large number of states (37 in 2016), and this trend is likely to continue at least for a while.

Now, as with labor-force projections, it’s important to keep track of what is being counted in reading accounts of the shape and structure of the virtual schooling phenomenon.  Case in point:  Who’s in charge?  Well, if you look at percentages of schools, it looks as though private “Education Management Organizations” (EMOs) are a small portion of the whole — just under 30% of the total.  However, the private EMOs account for 70% of the student enrollment across the country.

There are significant implications just related to this point alone, since increasingly these private institutions (managed by not-for-profit and for-profit entities of various stripes) are recipients of taxpayer funds,  as public education money is allowed to “follow the child”  in one of various ways.

Meanwhile, accountability to state or local entities is (as has been widely reported and is documented in this report) either lax or non-existent (as with charter schools). Indeed, “many states have frozen their accountability systems,”  or are loosening whatever financial or operational oversight is being exercised on charters as well as virtual schools.   The authors of the report were only able to get school performance data on schools form 18 out of the 38 states that have virtual or blended schools.   The news that emerges from the available data, however, is not reassuring:
• teacher:student ratios are higher in virtual schools (1:34) than in regular public schools (1:16), and in for-profit virtual schools it’s even higher (1:44).  Meanwhile, other data suggest that in many cases the teacher’s role is more circumscribed than the typical public school teacher’s, for example because the EMO purchases curriculum and associated assessments, and expects parents to take on some of the teacher’s role in overseeing and coaching the student.
•  For-profit virtual schools have lower proportions of lower-income and minority students than do mainstream schools;  not-for-profits seem to be closer in their demographic make-up to the mainstream school population.
• Available data about on-time graduation rates show virtual schools with much lower success than mainstream schools (about 44% for virtual schools vs 82% for public schools), with some for-profit virtuals even lower (schools operated by K12 Inc at about 37%).
• Some states rank school performance, on the basis of variables relating to academic performance.   Data from 19 states were available for the study period.  Looking across all full-time virtual schools, about 37% received an “acceptable” rating.  Interestingly, district-operated virtual schools had a much higher percentage of “acceptable” ratings (56%) than did for-profit schools (26%).

There are data on teacher quality and the sources of teachers;  more details on demographic factors; and an interesting examination of available data on the qualifications of principals or other administrators of virtual schools.

Another broad area is in accounting for costs, and here the data are also murky — indeed, the authors suggest that virtually (sorry) no state has required consistent accounting of the cost-structure of these schools, especially for-profits, which are no less expensive then brick-and-mortar schools.  The authors suggest some possible reasons that virtual schools might not cost less per pupil than mainstream schools — but these are conjectures, and cannot be tested as yet with actual data.

One of the many unfortunate consequences of market-driven innovation is that markets tend to be created for new products before there is any strong evidence that the new thing is a better thing.  So we try one thing after another, using teachers, students, and everyone else in the system as experimental subjects quite as a matter of course, and quite without consent.  Of course, education is not the only arena in which we allow such trial-and-error intervention — nor the only area in which we can carry on the intervention (one cannot call it an experiment) for long periods of time without even collecting reasonable data about the outcomes and impacts.  It has become common-parlance to use terms borrowed from economic modeling such as “cost-benefit analysis,” but a model is only as good as the data used to test and refine it, and I have seen no educational modeling yet that seems adequate to the multi-variate problem presented by almost any educational policy.


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


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Models of teacher learning– What’s yours?

As one does, I found myself reading over the National Academies 2015 study on science teachers’ learning (you can download it here), and thinking again about the range of models of teacher learning that the MSPs and STEM-C projects include.

The study starts from a premise that NGSS represents a major change in the understanding of sciece education:

Conclusion 1: An evolving understanding of how best to teach science, including the NGSS, represents a significant transition in the way science is currently taught in most classrooms and will require most science teachers  to alter the way they teach.

The study gives a good overview of the qualities needed in a good teacher PD program.

Conclusion 4: Science teachers’ learning needs are shaped by their preparation, the grades and content areas they teach, and the contexts in which they work. Three important areas in which science teachers need to develop expertise are
• the knowledge, capacity, and skill required to support a diverse range of students;
• content knowledge, including understanding of disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and scientific and engineering practices; and
• pedagogical content knowledge for teaching science, including a repertoire of teaching practices that support students in rigorous and consequential science learning.

Allowing for variations in jargon from one “reform wave” to the next, these have been core desiderata for science teachers during my whole career (and long before!).  They are clearly difficult to ensure. It is to be hoped that pre-service will change to address these needs, but meanwhile there are a lot of teachers already teaching who could benefit from some strengthening on one or more of these bullet points.  More specifics of the vision emerge in a later conclusion:

Conclusion 5: The best available evidence based on science professional development programs suggests that the following features of such programs are most effective:
• active participation of teachers who engage in the analysis of examples of effective instruction and the analysis of student work,
• a content focus,
• alignment with district policies and practices, and
• sufficient duration to allow repeated practice and/or reflection on classroom experiences.

These and other conclusions of the report almost constitute a theory of action — the latter points (and elaborations of them) are particularly important, because the changes needed are more than cognitive shifts, or matters of technique, since they demand of the teacher an ability to diagnose where a student is “on the fly,” and to provide guidance that involves a schooled imagination by which the student’s growth is envisioned and translated into suggestions for revision, alterations of tasks, connection with collaborators, or new resources.  This improvisational work is no secret, but it does not get included in policy documents, even those as well-founded as this NAS study.

The MSPnet library has a range of discussions and reports that describe, elaborate, or hint at theories of teacher change that underlie their work. Just to take one line of work that has recently been posted in the library, there are two papers (here and here)  from the SF Bay Integrated Middle School Science Project in which lesson study (in a form modified for use in an American system) is the mechanism to make possible “repeated practice and/or reflection on classroom experiences,” as the NAS study advises — with the added dimension of peer collaboration, building the rudiments (at least) of a culture in which teachers in a school take active ownership of their professional growth.

One piece of the picture that I have not come across, either in the NAS study, nor in my unsystematic browsing of recent MSP/STEM+C projects, is teachers actually doing science, so that they are not just learning about the nature of science, and about science practices as they are seen in a classroom.  It has always seemed to me that science teachers should have at least modest experiences participating in actual science, which has no direct bearing on lessons they will teach, but instead adds to their capacity to think scientifically, on topics of interest to themselves, and provides insights into the learning experience that only come from reflecting on what one might call first-order engagement. (You can see a report here on a project that Joni Falk and I were part of, that was aimed at such teacher learning.)  The obvious analogy is with teachers of music– we expect them to have command of an instrument (or voice), as well as the ability to talk about the theory and history of the music they’re teaching.  Not only do they have the capacity to play, but they also have available to them the whole history of how they acquired that capacity, and what it takes to keep it up — as well as what it takes to talk about it, and bring along new, inexpert practitioners into their art.

How in your project do you effect change in teachers’ imaginations, their relation to the practice of a particular science (or kind of mathematics, etc. )?  Where in your model do actual practitioners of the subject take part?


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Personalized: What questions to ask?

Personalized learning, and its close companion, “competency based learning,” are now the wave of the future, and indeed the very near future.  The Obama administration, in Race To The Top and ESSA  (Every Student Succeeds Act), supports it;  so do high-tech voices such as the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and Eli Broad; so also major business interests such as Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Hewlett-Packard, and others.  It is a favorite focus for the Nellie Mae Foundation, whose vision combines personalized education, competency-based learning, student control of learning, and the claim that learning takes place anytime, anywhere. Many states are moving in this direction;  New England is a hotbed of personalization (see here and here for very fresh news from Massachusetts, for example.  Tip of the hat to the blog Wrench in the Gears).

i have written before about the abundant use of “straw man” arguments (such as the “factory model“)  to create a sense of urgency and indeed inevitability — now is our chance to break the chains of tradition, so that we can meet the demands of the 21st century economy, and “unleash greatness” (though we also need to move from “great” to “excellent,” as Michael Fullan puts it. ).  Apparently, never before have we realized that learning can take place anytime, anywhere, nor has it been possible….

Because “personalization” is a current nexus for many different strands of policy, rhetoric, marketing, and technical development, it is worth attending to from various angles.  One of these angles is the state of the evidence.  Of course, what “personalized” means varies a lot, but still one can identify some claims, and ask what evidence there is to warrant large investments of public and private funds and large shifts in education policy to adopt the new approach.

The state of research in any field is a moving target, but here is a reasonable read-out on the research base on personalized learning as of 2016, thanks to Data & Society.   The report, authored by Monica Bulger, puts the aspirations for personalized learning thus (page 2):

New technology is promised to level the playing field, effectively creating equal access to learning opportunities by democratizing information and instruction. Advocates hope that a technology- enabled shift (e.g., from teacher-based classroom interventions to personalized tablets and data-driven individualized learning plans) can provide a new incarnation of the one-teacher-one-student model— tailoring the learning experience to individual progress, interests, and goals. Classrooms could then be spaces in which advanced students and struggling students alike not only have their needs met, but are supported in the curious and creative pursuit of their own paths. Through personalized learning, these lofty goals seem within reach.

It’s nice to read a discussion of such a topic that acknowledges some history — that good teachers have always personalized their teaching a lot, for example — but Bulger focuses on the recent vision, which is inextricably linked with technology.   Technology is intrinsic to this movement both as justification (the New Economy is high-tech, and so education must prepare our children to compete), and as mechanism (the goals of the new education can’t really be realized without lots of technology for content delivery, for student expression, and for massive data collection through which smart systems can inform students, teachers, and administrators or policy makers about How It’s Going, and how to do better).

The report also notes that “personalized learning” has become woven together with other ed ideas (also more and more tech-implicated):

The promise of personalized learning is often bundled within competency-based education and/or Common Core, making it difficult to separate the performance of one from the other, or truly distinguish personalized learning from associated assessments or teaching of competencies. At the same time, the controversies surrounding Common Core and competency-based education also tend to shape impressions of personalized learning.


Bulger goes on to describe and illustrate various ideas or approaches embraced by this increasingly comprehensive approach to “21st century” education — adaptive technologies,   big-data and data-driven instruction, and so on.

She then examines what evidence there is for the promised benefits of personlization, differentiation, data-driven instruction, and a few other typical claims.   The basic message is, the promises are being made, and policies are being adopted, on the basis of very little evidence, but rather on the basis of inferences, hopes, and anecdotes.  As with so many innovations in education in recent decades, we are beginning another round of large-scale social engineering, with schools, teachers, students, parents as experimental subjects.

There are some basic underlying assumptions that need to be clarified, as well, before ever the edu-technological interventions could actually be properly evaluated.

Underlying adaptive personalized learning systems are algorithms—analyses driving programs to serve content that increases the likelihood of reaching a desired end goal. But which goals are being encoded in the design of personalized learning systems? Multiple goals are described in marketing materials (e.g., improved scores on quizzes or preparation for Common Core), yet optimizing for multiple goals is ineffective. It is currently unclear from descriptions of personalized learning  systems, what goals each are optimizing for, and how they are differentiating between interim goals (e.g., testing to represent mastery) and larger end goals (progressing to the next grade level).

There are other questions — student privacy is a big one — still wide open.  One of the biggest is, as always, equity — what resources will get diverted to make the massive investments that the new vision will require?  What human or other resources will be reduced or eliminated,  in these times of austerity thinking, to make the investments possible? What outcomes will we watch for, and which will we not know to measure, until after we’re already committed to surfing the new wave?

No doubt one or another aspect of this newly favored approach is taking shape near you.  How does it look?  What difference is it making in policy, in teaching, in students’ experience, in actual learning?

Because there is so little research on many aspects of Personalized Learning, some of the most interesting thinking is to be found in the gray literature, the world of reports, presentations — and blogs:  the hunting ground of the Bloghaunter.

Note:  Opinions expressed in this blog are those of the writer alone, and are not to be attributed to MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.

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Questioning assumptions: Connectivity leads to prosperity

My title may not sound like there’s a connection with STEM education, but here’s the link, at least in my mind:
Schools are under tremendous pressure to integrate more digital technology into the STEM curriculum — with special emphasis on Web-based resources and activities. “Technology integration” becomes an endemic problem for teachers (and their schools and IT and finance departments) to address. Because “technology” is always changing, driven by strong market pressures, the integration of technology (which? how much? for what purposes? with what results?) is very often not driven by pedagogical considerations, but by many others — obsolescence (sometimes real, sometimes not); purchasing economies (real or imagined); sales campaigns that suggest that the new product is so good that you’d be doing a disservice to your students and teachers by not buying it — the story is familiar enough.
Well, one of the lines of argument used to sell digital equipment, especially Internet-enabled equipment, is that connectivity by its very nature is good enough, productive enough of well-being, to justify massive investments in products and the necessary infrastructure to support them. It is this assumption that’s on my mind this week, stimulated by Audrey Watters’s March 3 Hackeducation news roundup.

Here is a nice, clear statement of the basic claim, from a report on the impact of the Internet in Africa:  “The Internet is a tremendous, undisputed force for economic growth and social change. Not only has it unleashed new forms of connectivity, but it has also provided an outletfor new forms of innovation, entrepreneurship and social good.”  You can see other such optimistic claims, mostly not evidence-based, here, in a story from the Council on Foreign Relations.   The Obama administration created the Global Connect International Connectivity Steering Group in 2015, whose mission is “Accelerating entrepreneurship and economic opportunity by expanding Internet access globally.” Whether this initiative continues under the new administration or not, its mission encapsulates assumptions about connectivity as a prime strategy for economic and social (including education) policy.

Yet in this area, as in others, caution is advised.  Nicolas Friederici and colleagues have published a paper examining the evidence for claims about the role of connectivity as a positive economic force in Africa, where live a substantial proportion of the estimated 4 billion un-connected people.  Obviously, economic development is a central concern for many of the nations of the global South — but is getting everyone on the Internet the best way to expend local, regional, national, and international resources?

Friederici et al. examined a collection of policy documents and reports on the impact of “connectivity”, and identified several common categories of claims.  For example, there are claims about how connectivity improves economic development or similar outcomes.  Some assert, in essence, that “by adopting [technology], a country about be able to transform into an information and knowledge-rich economy, and thereby reach higher levels of development.” [itals in original].  Others suggest “an indirect effect:  connectivity is seem to facilitate ongoing economic processes (e.g. through increasing efficiency and productivity) or enable new economic processes in the information and knowledge-based economy.”   Both the more vaporous (my term, not Friederici et al.’s!)  and the more theory-driven claims share the basic assumption that “participation in a globally integrated information or knowledge economy will produce growth and development faster than other types of economic activity.”  Finally, the documents also assume that connectivity will overcome digital divides, and integrate currently marginalized groups into mainstream economic life.

And yet. The authors note that “not a single policy cautions against connectivity potentially deepening inequality and existing digital divides, ” even though there is clear empirical evidence that this is a significant effect of our rapid leap to the digital world.

Moreover, there is an element that appears in the documents reviewed that will seem hauntingly familiar to educators in this country:  The assumption (the authors call it “optimistic technological determinism”) that when we deploy all this expensive new technology, it must necessarily be a Good Thing — so if it isn’t, the problem is “local factors” or “cultural factors” that prevent the arrival of the inherent goods of connectivity.   I have certainly heard such claims made about technology integration in schools — and for sure, I have seen cases where “school cultural factors” of various kinds play an important role in the fate of technology-mediated innovations.  However, acquaintance with teachers and schools in the throes of technology adoption (or not) has also convinced me that merely identifying such factors, or other aspects of “resistance,” is only a first diagnosis, and that there are underlying rationales, sometimes very cogent ones, which drive the attitudes of the cautious and the unwelcoming.   (As Ahab said to poor Starbuck, “Hark ye!  the little lower layer!” )

The available evidence seems to be that some of the touted benefits of connectivity can be documented — but very often, it’s the “haves” who benefit more than the “have nots.”  That is, the poor, uneducated, marginalized, or disenfranchized may reap no benefits at all, or if they do, the effect is proportionally much smaller than the benefits received by people who are better off, already more connected, and otherwise have pre-existing conditions such that connectivity has a catalyzing, releasing effect.   Friederici et al. note that few of these policy documents quote actual data to back up their claims, and that data are often just not available anyway.  Beyond that, there is an assumption that “all positive developmental outcomes come from an open and accessible Internet.”  With the exception of a very few reports, they find bad news is ignored or dismissed (e.g. by arguments such as those mentioned above).  One result is that the hunger for actual research to examine and test assumptions is dulled, and investments and policies are made and implemented based on speculation.

They conclude with a paragraph that has real application to trends in technology in education (and technology through education):

Our worry here…is that the Grand Visions of connectivity will themselves lead to an exacerbation of the very things that they purport to solve.  For instance, by framing inequality as something that can be effectively tackled with connectivity, we might take away focus from the structural economic processes bringing about widening inequalities. What is worse than a developmental intervention not working is believing that an important issue has been effectively addressed when it, in reality, clearly hasn’t. (pg. 17, emphasis added)

Note:  opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.


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Good Stuff

What does “stuff” — physical objects — contribute to the science classroom?  I think a lot, but there’s certainly another point of view.  To be quite argumentative about it, my prejudice is that if your primary concern is that students get excited about the world and ways of learning  more about it, then you like having stuff around.  If you are primarily focused on outcome measures and “student achievement,” you worry about students being distracted from officially approved learning goals.

My dad was a junior high science teacher, and though I never had a class with him, I spent a lot of after-school time in his room, while he cleaned up, shuffled papers, and did the other things a teacher needs to do before heading home. There were terrariums, samples of rocks and  minerals (mostly gathered by us on weekend excursions), skulls, birds’ nests, beach-combing trophies, balance scales, geometric solids, field guides. maps, star charts —a microcosm world-jumble. Always something to see, handle, watch, tweak.

Maybe it’s because of this early exposure that I have always felt that a healthy science classroom needs to be full of stuff — some of it to some obvious curricular purpose for this week’s focus, some of it present as a result of past moments of curiosity or narrative.  In moments of distraction or rumination, natural objects, machinery, instruments can raise questions, invite an idle probe or an object lesson, which suddenly clicks into a real interest, or adds to the “mulch” of acquaintance with the world that nourishes the inquiring mind (“mulch” a favorite word of John King, experimental physicist and educational experimenter at MIT, and longtime TERC ally).  As James Lovelock said, of connecting with natural places and objects, “Well, I think if you can, you feel part of the world, you feel much more interested in it, and your sense of wonder is stimulated.”  (in Wolpert & Richards, Passionate minds.)

I have been influenced in my own work by  David Hawkins’s essay “I, Thou, and It”. In this piece, Hawkins proposes that in the science classroom, the learning situation includes teacher (he speaks from this point of view, as “I”), the student (“Thou”), and It = the subject matter, the phenomenon which serves also as a boundary object, upon which the I and Thou each have their own perspective — so they have something to talk about, look at, make sense of together,  which is not “mine,” or “thine,” but is a common puzzle — the world itself (in part).

My attitude is not related to any particular pedagogical technique, such as project-based learning.  Rather, I simply believe that there are many reasons, some of them intellectual, some affective, and some ethical/moral, to ensure that learners have a lot of experience with physical objects — actual physical objects, not 2-D or even 3-D representations— and that some of this experience should NOT be driven by curricular imperatives.  I could cite Dewey or other educators before and since, but the testimony of scientists about the origins of their engagement speaks very clearly on this point.  (A good place to start reading about this nexus might be Sherry Turkle’s book Falling for Science:Objects in mind.)

It’s been hard to find research on this general topic.  There are definitely good practical resources, many of them based in the “informal ed” or museum literature (not surprising!), such as Teaching with objects and photographs  by Ellen Sieber and Sarah Hatcher — which argues for the importance of realia in stimulating curiosity, in providing opportunties for small-group collaboration, improving conceptual learning and sensory literacy.   More theoretical in tone,  there’s lots of work on “embodied cognition,” which might feel relevant (see for example this useful if slightly grouchy review article by Margaret Wilson, who seems never to have done any hunting or gathering).   There is recent research that shows that sensori-motor systems of students with relevant practical experience are activated in new learning situations, to improve their learning about physical phenomena in physics lab.

None of these are about “stuff”, however.  With the continuing emphasis on achievement and competitive advantages, we may not see research about this topic for a while.  More likely, we will see more research based on the desire to enforce attention to tasks, which takes a dim view of distraction.

In commenting on a previous post (on Money), Talbot Bielefeld wrote:

Regarding the value of all the “stuff” in classrooms, there is research out of Carnegie Mellon suggesting that visually crowded classroom environments may actually interfere with learning. See Fisher, Godwin, & Seltman, 2014 (

While this study focuses on young kids, for whom acculturation to desk work and learning on schedule is a major challenge, I have seen it quoted in many other contexts.  A good enough result in itself, it is also serviceable to certain views and aims of education policy, so I expect it to serve as the vanguard of many similar studies, and quickly to be incorporated into policy guidelines about classroom environments.

For myself, I close with a comment from that old psychologist, Walt Whitman:

There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of his for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years…

(The full poem is here among many other places).

What is your experience of stuff in the STEM classroom?

Note: The opinions in this blog are solely the author’s, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.

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