I have a collection of books scattered around my work area. Some that have languished on shelves for a while; others that have been perched on my "to read" pile for another while. John Spencer's Vintage Innovation rubs covers with Kieran Egan's Getting It Wrong from the Beginning which rests near Neil Postman's The End of Education which shadows James Alan Sturtevant's Hacking Education: 50 Tips & Tools to Engage Teachers and Learners Daily. There are others muttering that I should be paying attention to them as well. I share this observation about the cluttered range of texts I've read and revisited as I continue to ponder this beautiful work of teaching and of learning because, in what drives and motivates and encourages us, all teachers are learners.It was ground-breaking at the time as he showcased how his teaching embodied student-centered learning which was, in many ways, what we came to call constructivism, and as he reflected on the pedagogical examinations of Paulo Friere and Friere's notion that students are not vessels into which teachers pour knowledge. (You can find considerably more information about Friere in a brief biography here and a more philosophical context here. His best-known work Pedagogy of the Oppressed is hauntingly significant just now.)
From the beginning of his book, Shor elucidates one of the challenges of teaching that resonates nearly 30 years later: students expecting teachers to tell them what to do and waiting for teachers to "do education to them" (p. 2). He relates his own experience during which he considered retreat rather than pursue his intended course of action and then how he adjusted. In my re-reading of this book, I realized how that in itself is an on-going challenge for teachers who find it easier to give in rather than persevere. I cannot blame teachers for not wanting to battle students and their attitudes because we don't realize that yielding to their intransigence reinforces students' perception of what education is and isn't. Just because a teacher stands (or sits) in the room and teaches does not mean that there has been learning.
What becomes most important in good teaching is that educators find ways to help ensure their students can learn and will learn. Part of teaching is helping students learn how to learn, and there is both an art and a science to that.
If you've studied this movement at all, you know that constructivism isn't new. While Vygotsky and Piaget get a lot of the credit for constructivism, some of the theory is rooted in the work of John Dewey.
Constructivism is one of the reasons we talk about eliciting prior knowledge and building background knowledge. Constructivism is also one of the reasons we talk about Socratic dialogue, inquiry-based learning, problem- and project-based learning, the 4Cs, deep learning, and even personalized learning. It is the genesis for talking about scaffolding and the whole "guide on the side" and teacher as facilitator. It is one of the reasons we talk so much about engagement, empowerment, and students being responsible for and owning their learning. It's one of the reasons we talk so much about the way students are grouped. It's one of the reasons people embraced multiple intelligences and learning styles, and multi-modal learning.
We have lurched into components of constructivism as though we sort of, kind of, maybe think it could be a reasonable way of thinking and doing, but not really committed to or its gotten lost in all the shiny new things that the field of education consistently propagates.
Constructivism is at the heart of providing options, opportunities, pathways, channels, or whatever you want to call it for students to learn. It encourages and challenges, or maybe just nudges, students to think differently about what they think they know so they will consider the possibility of digging a bit deeper to discover what else there is to know.
My personal opinion, based on observation and experience and with absolutely no data to back me up, is that constructivism got sidelined by No Child Left Behind. It's easy to throw stones at No Child Left Behind and its subsequent renewal in ESSA, but that is overlooking a whole bunch of facts. So let me digress a bit into the policies and politics of education. You are welcome to skip this segment if you just started feeling shooting pains in your head. I understand.
A relatively brief history of NCLB, ESSA, and the devastation of AYP
In 1965, President Johnson signed in to law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. That seems benign but it marked one of the first times the federal government elbowed itself into educational policy because the federal government soon discovered it could shape policy by attaching requirements to the millions of dollars distributed by ESEA. States that did not conform would not get the money.
With ESEA, Title I swept into being. Fundamental decisions about Title I schools were left to states. . . at first. With each revision of ESEA, more prescriptive measures became part of Title I, and under the auspices of ensuring the money was spent for the intended students.
The 80s was the "education excellence" decade. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education of the DOE published "A Nation at Risk." The document was controversial then, and remains so, just as it remains a pivot point in the on-going conversations and shifts in how Americans thought about education and how it should be done.
In the late 80s and early 90s, the talk was more pointedly about reform, and standards. Goals 2000: Educate America Act became law in 1994 under President Clinton, a proponent of standards-based reform. The act was intended
To improve learning and teaching by providing a national framework for education reform; to promote the research, consensus building, and systemic changes needed to ensure equitable educational opportunities and high levels of educational achievement for all students; to provide a framework for reauthorization of all Federal education programs; to promote the development and adoption of a voluntary national system of skill standards and certifications; and for other purposes.
The act identified and defined eight national education goals, a list of things to occur by the year 2000, a mere 6 years away. The list that follows is the highlighted version of the entirety of the goals, so the objectives that support the goals are not included:
- School readiness: all children will start school ready to learn.
- School completion: the high school graduation rate will be at least 90%
- Student achievement and citizenship: students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 "having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter. . . and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well. . . ."
- Teacher education and professional development: educators "will have access to programs for the continued improvement of their professional skills and the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to instruct and prepare all American students. . . ."
- Mathematics and science: students will be first in the world of mathematics and science achievement
- Adult literacy and lifelong learning: every adult American "will be literate and posses the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy. . . ."
- Safe, disciplined, and alcohol- and drug-free schools: "every school will be free of drugs, violence, and unauthorized presence of firearms and alcohol. . . ."
- Parental participation: parental involvement will have increased and parents will participate in promoting SEL and academic growth
All of these are good goals. They are. But if you were remotely close to education or involved in education in the mid- to late 90s, you know some of the challenges. Not one of these goals is easy. And trying to find ways to accomplish all eight of these goals and in six years? Oh my.
NCLB was signed into law in 2002. It was the latest iteration of modifications to the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The concern was that American education was no longer competitive in a world with an increasingly global reach.
Testing in math and reading became an imperative for all students in grades 3 and 8, and at least some time during high school. Students and schools were gauged on their levels of proficiency based on those test scores. Teachers were required to be "highly qualified" and there were financial penalties for those schools that did not make "adequate yearly progress," or AYP.
But administrators and teachers gamely and grimly got to work--as did hosts of providers--to help this become a reality, though another reality was that school funding was tied to whether or not schools made AYP.
It is absolutely no surprise that teaching made a shift to ensuring that students could pass their tests. In fact, I remember working with teachers who were less concerned about strategies for social studies and science because they were not, at the time, testing subjects. And few cared as much about such things as art, music, health, or PE because they were not "core" subjects.
The hierarchy of what mattered in education became more solidified, and it became harder to see the value of just learning or to see the skills that students were able to develop and even hone in other subject areas that might be of some value in math and reading, maybe even science and social studies.
Working with veteran teachers as recently as Spring 2020 B.P. (before the pandemic), some were focused on skills and knowledge students would need for tests. It has become far too easy to conflate student success on tests with teacher success, and not necessarily intentionally.
I remember a teacher once telling me how frustrated she was when students didn't do well on a test because she had just taught them about that very thing the day before. And here is the tip of my point: teaching does not necessarily yield learning. Just because I "covered" something does not mean my students learned it.
Changing these ways of thinking about teaching and learning will take time, and patience.
It is imperative that I, as an educator, find a balance between the ways I teach and what I am doing as an educator to help ensure my students can, will, and do learn. Is that more rigor or thinking differently about rigor actually means and what it actually is? Is that a better awareness of cognitive load? Is that more effective ways of using technology? Is that being more mindful of the ways I use formative assessment and that I am aware of the results of any informal formative assessment? Is it the way I use standards? Is it the way I try to ensure that my students understand the standards and what they need to do to achieve proficiency in those standards? Yes, to all of the above. Probably.
In Part 2, I'll tackle this balance a bit more.
Thank you for being on this journey with me.
"A Nation at Risk"
Ansary, T. (2007). Education at Risk: Fallout from a Flawed Report. Edutopia.
Kamenetz, A. (2018). What 'A Nation at Risk' Got Wrong, and Right, about U.S. Schools. NPR.
Park, J. (2004). A Nation at Risk. Education Week.
Patterson, C. (2018). Measuring the Lasting Impact of 'A Nation at Risk'. Walton Foundation.
Klein, A. (2015). No Child Left Behind: An Overview. Education Week.
Jorgensen, M.A. & Hoffman, J. (2003). History of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). Pearson.
Rudalevige, A. (2003). The Politics of No Child Left Behind Education Next.