Is it possible that anyone could really question the idea that the children and young people of this nation should improve the level of their academic achievement in our public schools?
In This Issue:
Rethinking “Academic” Achievement: Is This What We Really Want For Our Children? By Evans Clinchy
From the Director By Christopher Koliba
A Reflection of Early Education By Christie Randell
Teaching After September 11 By Ron Scapp
A Brief Update from the John Dewey Project By Dewey Staff
Democratic Education Media Fund Request for Proposals
From the Director
Christopher J. Koliba, Ph.D.
Director, John Dewey Project
Welcome to the latest installment of Progressive Perspectives, the monograph series put out by the John Dewey Project. We feel very fortunate to be able to feature an article by Evans Clinchy, titled, “Rethinking ‘Academic’ Achievement: Is This Really What We Want for Our Children?” in this edition.
Evans’ essay is timely, indeed. With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, high stakes testing has arrived in schools in Vermont and across the country. The result: “no child left untested,” with “underperforming” schools fearful of a mass exodus of the best and brightest students to schools with higher test scores. As if the public education system in this country were not under enough pressure, the new testing regime is causing some of our most dedicated, creative, caring teachers to ponder an early retirement. “Teaching to the test” via “canned curriculum” will be the norm in all but the most courageous (or richest) schools.
Evans begins by rightly asserting what we all desire: kids who achieve. It is what we mean by “achievement” that is at stake here. As is the case with so many public policy debates these days, our language has been allowed to be defined by conservative voices. “We are for student achievement!” claims the Bush administration, leaving those of us who disagree with their policies to be against achievement. Evans makes a gallant attempt at wrestling the term “achievement” away from the conservatives (who, by the way, have co-opted liberals like Edward Kennedy into supporting their rhetoric). Evans asks some very fundamental questions of us: What is important to us? Is it a child’s ability to recite facts? Or is it a child’s ability to reason, to care, and believe in her or his ability to act, think critically, and problem solve?
I pulled up my email one morning to a news item sent to me by a colleague from the Midwest. The headline read: “End Creative Teaching, Official Says.” The article quoted former Assistant Secretary of Education, Susan Neuman, who, referring to creative and experimental teaching, commented that the No Child Left Behind Act, “will stifle, and hopefully it will kill (them)…” Under the guise of “scientifically proven” educational practices, the Bush Administration and those of us willing to comply with their directives, are placing our children’s future at risk.
Also included in this installment of Progressive Perspectives is an essay written by a UVM undergraduate student, Christie Randell, who wrote an essay in one of my classes concerning an educational experience she had at an early age that left an indelible mark on her psyche. An incredibly bright woman, Christie “survived” an incident that left her questioning her own abilities. Her story is a testament to the (negative) power of education. I believe that in Christie’s story, we can all recall that place, deep inside our memories, in which a teacher’s stilted sense of “achievement” crushed the tender spirit of curiosity of a young learner.
We also feature an article written by Ron Scapp titled, “Teaching After September 11.” Although Ron wrote this piece shortly after 9-11, his words still ring true. As we ponder our responses to No Child Left Behind, Scapp reminds us that “Patriotism is taking pride in all that is good and noble about our great country… But patriotism is also about having the moral courage and strength to confront all that works against justice and the promise of democracy here, at home, as well as around the world,” adding poignantly, “this is what real progressive education is all about.”
In hushed tones I have heard colleagues lament high stakes testing, lament the loss of creativity in the classroom. The writings of Evans, Christie, and Ron lead to an inevitable question for our times: Can we muster the political will to do something about it? We hope that this installment of Progressive Perspectives will stimulate our thinking and stir us to action. The future of public education, and, by implication, the well being of our democracy, is at stake.
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Rethinking “Academic” Achievement:
Is This What We Really Want For Our Children?
First Defining What We Are Talking About
Well, whether we should
be for or against this national educational juggernaut depends in the first
place on exactly what we mean when we talk about "academic achievement."
While most of us would probably agree with Webster's working definition of achievement as "an accomplishment: a result brought about by resolve, persistence or endeavor," it is unlikely that we could all agree with the definition--or, for that matter, the educational virtues--of that which we call "academic." Indeed, it is precisely the attempt to impose a single standardized definition of such "academic" achievement--and the question of who should establish such a definition--that is raising a storm of controversy all across the land. Many people--parents, teachers, school administrators, professors of education and testing experts--are deeply distressed not simply by the standards themselves but most especially by the use of any single "high stakes" test--or, for that matter, any battery of such tests--to determine whether any child is to be labeled as a success or a failure not only in school but by extension in later life.
What Happens When Children Learn
Before getting too
bogged down in fractious disputation, it might be useful here to explore
a little more carefully what actually happens when children and young people
go about the task of learning and developing.
According to the developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, most educational researchers have noted what is obviously true, that children's learning outside of school walls (and particularly in those societies that do not have formal schooling)
occurs almost exclusively in the context in which the training will be used. They learn to weave, sail or hunt simply, and effectively, from accomplished adults who are themselves carrying out those actions. Gradually the children become helpers and participants in these on-going activities, and eventually they assume the key role themselves. Little talk, little reliance on miniature demonstrations, is necessary: learning comes from doing. (2)And as those same researchers have noted, children in our modern Western society up until the age of five still learn "contextually" and "informally" through their own direct, first-hand experience, simply by living in a family and learning from whatever adults and older children happen to be around. In most cases, this includes not only the rapid acquisition of a spoken language, but the minimal rules of acceptable and unacceptable behavior, how to dress themselves, the basic skills of getting along with other people, the basic rules of economics as practiced in the home and the neighborhood, and at least the rudiments of the great social principle of reciprocity, the fact that the survival of any human society depends upon the cooperation and collaboration of the individuals making up that society. The local baseball sandlot in these instances can be the very best kind of "school."
…a pervasive antagonism often develops between the school's logical, out-of-context knowledge system and that practical participation in daily activities fostered informally by the culture. If this antagonism is to be lessened, schools both here and in less developed regions of the world must be viewed as comfortable and significant environments, rather than hostile providers of useless knowledge. This means that schools must contain everyday life within their walls, while also revealing the relation between the skills they teach and the problems children find significant. (3)Back to top
In two columns printed
in 1989 in the New York Times, the late Albert Shanker, then president
of the American Federation of Teachers, reported on work done by Lauren
Resnick, director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the
University of Pittsburg and Sue E. Berryman, then director of the National
Center on Education and Employment at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Resnick, said Shanker, identifies four ways in which "out-of context" school learning differs from the kind of thinking and learning that occurs in and is required by what we are here calling the "real" world, that is, the larger society that the 98 percent of our students who will not become academic scholars or elementary and secondary school teachers will be living and working in when they finish school.
Resnick describes these four ways in the following fashion:
First, school learning is mostly done on the student's own, whereas most non-school learning is shared with others. While there are some group activities in school, students are ultimately judged on what they can do by themselves-on individual tests, homework, in-class exercises and the like.
On the job, in the family, and at play, Resnick points out, we are expected to ask those close to us to show us, to explain, to help. The important thing is to get something done right, and usually that means doing it together with others. In school, asking others for help is often called "cheating."
A second major difference, according to Resnick, is that school learning consists mostly of "pure thought" activities--what individuals can do without the external support of books, notes, calculators, or other complex instruments--activities that include the taking of purely pencil and paper tests. But in most jobs and other situations outside school, thinking is done with the use of such "tools". People more often get the job done with tools than without. "The problem," writes Shanker, "is that schools continue to downgrade the very skills that are most valuable on the work site."
Resnick's third difference is that school knowledge consists of manipulating purely abstract symbols while thinking outside school is always in a specific context. We all know of people who didn't do well in math in school but who can do math quite easily out in the worlds of banking, investment, or at the local bowling alley.
Resnick's final point is that school learning is generalized, but the knowledge needed outside of school is specific to given situations. Resnick points to the specific differences between school knowledge and the skills learned on the job in a number of fields. For example, she cites a study showing that expert radiologists interpret x-rays using mental processes different from those taught in medical courses, textbooks, and even hospital teaching rounds. There is mounting evidence, she concludes, that points to the possibility that very little can be transported directly from school to out-of-school use.
Shanker then suggests "that the way we make students learn in school may undercut their chances of functioning and learning on the job or in social settings--or even in school itself."
He then quotes from a speech by Dr. Berryman in which she says that we have in our schools a large number of youngsters--and not just our so-called "at-risk" young people, either--"who do not perform well in traditional schools or in training programs arranged like traditional schools."
“We need," said Shanker, “to consider the possibility that… many youngsters don't see the point in playing the game of mastering material or skills that are so radically different from what people are doing in the outside world." As Berryman puts it, students who are failing may not be willing
to tolerate or make some sense out of a school-based experience that is relatively isolated from non-school experiences…From this perspective, traditional schools may be creating their own problems…mainly because children see clearly that our schools offer a system of learning so completely at odds with the way people function in the outside world.(4)Roger Schank, a professor of psychology, education and social policy and director of the Institute for Learning Science at Northwestern University put the matter this way: "One of the most interesting issues to me today is education. I want to know how to rebuild the school system." In schools today, he says,
students are made to read a lot of stuff, and they’re lectured on it. Or maybe they see a movie. Then they do endless problems, then they get a multiple-choice test of a hundred questions. The schools are saying, “Memorize all this. We're going to teach you how to memorize. Practice it, we'll drill you on it, and then we're going to test you.”Imagine, says Schank, that a young person is asking your help to learn to appreciate food and wine. You tell him or her that they are going to read about food and wine, and then they are going to solve problems about the nature of food and wine, such as how to decant a bottle, what the optimal color is for a Bordeaux, and so forth. And then they'll be given a test of all of it.
because what you have to do to learn about food and wine is eat and drink. Memorizing all the rules, or discussing the principles of cooking, isn't going to do any good if you don't eat and drink. In fact, it works the other way around. If you eat and drink a lot, I can get you interested in those subjects. Otherwise, I can't.Everything taught in school, says Schank, is designed so that the students can be tested on it to show that the students know it, instead of taking note of the obvious, which is that people learn by doing what people want to. The more they do, the more curious they get about how to do it better--if they're interested in doing it in the first place. You wouldn't teach a young person to drive by giving him or her the New York state test manual. If you want someone to learn how to drive, they have to drive a lot.
do everything but allow kids to experience life. If kids want to learn about what goes on in the real world, they have to go out into the real world, play some role in it, and have that motivate their learning. Errors in learning by doing bring out questions, and questions bring out answers."I don't think there should be a curriculum," Schank goes on to say,
what kids should do is follow the interests that they have, with an educated advisor available to answer questions and guide them to topics that follow from the original interest. Wherever you start, you can go somewhere else naturally. The problem is that schools want everyone to be in lockstep; everyone has to learn this on this day and that on that day. (5)Real learning, says Schank, takes place outside of school, not in school, and young people who want to know something have to find it out for themselves by asking questions, by finding sources of information, and by discounting pretty much anything they learned in school as being irrelevant.
is the idea that knowledge is represented as a set of facts. It's not. You might want to know those facts, but it's not the knowing of facts that's important. It's how you got that knowledge, the things you picked up on the way to getting that knowledge. Otherwise what you're learning is just an unrelated set of facts. Knowledge is an integrated phenomenon; every piece of knowledge depends on every other one. School has to be completely redesigned in order to be able to make this happen. (6)Back to top
The Pursuit of Higher Order Thinking
This view is further supported by Lauren Resnick's description of one of the things that most educational reformers believe is of great importance these days-- assisting children and young people to develop their "higher order thinking skills." Resnick takes the position that these "thinking skills resist the precise forms of definition that we have come to associate with the setting of specified objectives for schooling. Nevertheless, it is possible to list some key features of higher order thinking. When we do this, we become aware that, although we cannot define it exactly, we can recognize higher order thinking when we see it in action.” Consider the following, she says:
· Higher order thinking is nonalgorithmic. That is, the
path of action is not [and, indeed, cannot be] fully specified in advance.
· It tends to be complex. The total path is not “visible” (mentally speaking) from any single vantage point.
· It often yields multiple solutions, each with costs and benefits, rather than unique solutions.
· It involves nuanced judgment and interpretation.
· It involves the application of multiple criteria, which sometimes conflict with one another.
· It often involves uncertainty. Not everything that bears on the task is known.
· It involves self-regulation of the thinking process. We do not recognize higher order thinking in an individual when someone else ‘calls the plays’ at every step.
· It involves imposing meaning, finding meaning in apparent disorder.
· It is effortful. There is considerable mental work involved in the kinds of elaborations and judgments required. (7)
In short, the acquisition
of higher order thinking runs precisely counter to the whole notion of
predictable, carefully specified and prescribed educational "outcomes"
laid down in advance either by scholarly authorities, or curriculum specialists
or politicians or corporate CEO's or all of the above combined.
There is no possibility that any of Resnick's aspects of "higher order thinking" could be encompassed and practiced if some higher authority is "simplifying" things so that they can be tested on multiple choice tests, if those authorities are "calling the plays" at every step of the way and specifying in advance what will be learned in every course at every grade level, if they are limiting the nuanced judgments and interpretations made by students, if they are reducing not only any and all uncertainty about the outcomes of the thinking but reducing as well the complexity and the number of possible solutions to a problem, and if they are reducing the degree of self-regulation and initiative that students can exercise in their quest for knowledge and understanding.
Such limitations and restrictions on what and how children and young people are going to learn and think could hardly be less in line with the aims of education as set forth by developmental epistemologist Jean Piaget:
The principle goal of education is to create men [and women] who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done--[people] who are creative, inventive, discoverers.
The second goal of education is to form minds which can be critical, can verify and not accept everything they are offered. The great danger today is of slogans, collective opinions, ready-made trends of thought. We have to be able to resist individually, to criticize, to distinguish between what is proven and what is not. So we need pupils who are active, who learn early to find out by themselves, partly by their own spontaneous activity and partly through materials we set up for them: who learn early to tell what is verifiable and what is simply the first idea to come to them. (8)
The Problems of What and How
In short, when we talk
about "academic achievement" in our schools we are dealing with two intertwined
problems --the problem of what we are asking children and young
people to do in school and the closely connected problem of what we still
call "motivation"--that is, the problem of convincing children and young
people that what they do in school is an activity that any normal, red-blooded
child might find worth his or her while to pursue.
What Gardner, Shanker, Resnick, Berryman, Schank, et al. appear to be saying is that by asking children to learn in such a relentlessly prescribed, strictly academic, "out-of-context" fashion, we may well be destroying a large portion of what would naturally and normally constitute any child's desire to learn anything at all. Indeed, in so far as our schools persist in these anti-educational practices, we are making our students stupid and alienated rather than promoting their intellectual, social, and moral development.
Theodore Sizer, the creator of the Coalition of Essential Schools movement, also stresses this point when he says that the work students are expected to do in our schools,
is to a considerable degree 'decontexualized,' a process compounded by much of the testing apparatus. Needless to say, not much sticks very long and the intellectual habits thereby learned help little with [the student's] need to make sense of the world. There is too much stuff and too little thoroughness, too many students coming at teachers and too few of them being known, too much fractionation and confusion over what rigorous thinking about important things may in fact be. (9)Indeed, when we incarcerate thousands of children and young people in our disconnected, impersonal, often crumbling and far-too-large school buildings, when we then put 30 or more students in an isolated classroom with a teacher up front who proceeds verbally to "instruct" those students in the content of an abstracted academic discipline, we have managed to divorce education from life. We are essentially asking students, indeed we are teaching them, in the formulation of the educational philosopher Jane Roland Martin, to be spectators of life rather than active livers of life, active agents in and of the larger world. (10)
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Thus the Arguments in Favor of "Service” and "Experiential" Learning
These arguments against
the disconnected academic approach to how children and young people can
best go about the task of learning and developing will be familiar to the
many (and the growing number of) progressively minded people who advocate
"experiential" education in general and most specifically those who advocate
"service" learning experiences in which students make direct contact with
and learn out in their local communities and in the larger "real" world.
While these approaches clearly have a great deal of merit, it is also true that many of them do not necessarily involve a radical rejection or rethinking of the academic curriculum itself. Rather, they are often seen as ways to bolster the conventional "academic" learning that takes place in conventional classrooms, and their effectiveness is often judged primarily by the same "high" academic standards imposed on conventional classrooms and thus by any consequent rise in scores on the conventional "high stakes" standardized tests.
Insofar as this is the case, these approaches--while a step in a more productive direction--do not constitute the kind of "complete redesign" of the educational system that the Roger Schanks’ among us are hoping for.
What Then Should Students Learn?
In all of these connections,
then, we also need to be clear about several other things here. It is undoubtedly
necessary in this society for students to learn to grasp and make use of
our abstract symbolic systems--to learn to read with skill and pleasure
and thus be able to acquire new knowledge, to be able as well to write
clearly and do at least elementary arithmetic.
I'm not at all sure, however, that every student, for instance, needs to learn algebra or other higher branches of mathematics. I was forced to take math in prep school (actually a clone of an all-male British "public" school) through algebra, trig and solid geometry, hating and quickly forgetting every minute of it. I never did grasp algebra despite one-on-one tutoring, and I have never been called upon to use it or any of my other mathematical non-accomplishments at anytime since graduating from high school and college as a phobic math illiterate. I am not proud of being a math illiterate. Indeed, I resent what I am sure (or at least I hope) was simply bad teaching rather that innate logico-mathematical stupidity, since I'm also sure there are wonderful things to be experienced through a love of mathematics.
However, while I may be a math phobe, I am a passionate pursuer of many other fascinating topics--not because I studied them in "school" but because I came across them or became reacquainted with them after leaving school--including human evolution, the rise of the ancient Mesopotamian empires, the creation of the U.S. Constitution, advanced physics, molecular biology, Classical Greece, the paintings of Michelangelo and Monet, the plays of Shakespeare, and the music of Bach, Handel, and Henry Purcell.
Despite my passion for these great human achievements, I do not think that every student should be compelled to study and be tested on them whether they are ready to appreciate them or not just because I and many other people happen to be fascinated by them. All students, of course, should have the opportunity to explore and come to love all of these possibilities and many others, including algebra and higher mathematics. Just as they need in the course of their twelve years of schooling to explore and acquire those fundamental skills of reading, writing, and basic numbering-- always assuming that these necessary skills are developed in students in ways that enable them to practice the skills with pleasure rather than pain.
There is no excuse, in short, for imposing on students what all too often appears to them to be Gardner's "hostile provision of useless knowledge" and thereby creating that "pervasive antagonism" between school and what is going on in the heads of children and young people and the lives they live in the very real world outside school. What we thus need to do is to see if we cannot turn our schools into friendly providers of useful knowledge.
As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Kevin Rathunde and Samuel Whalen put it in their book, Talented Teenagers,
the problem with our technologically-inspired views of education is that we have come to expect learning to be a function of the rationality of the information provided. In other words, we assume that if the material is well organized and logically presented, students will learn it. Nothing is further from the fact. Students will learn only if they are motivated. The motivation could be extrinsic--the desire to get a well-paying job after graduation--but learning essential to a person's self must be intrinsically rewarding. Unless a person enjoys the pursuit of knowledge, learning will remain a tool to be set aside as soon as it is no longer needed. Therefore we cannot expect our children to become truly educated until we ensure that teachers know not only how to provide information but how to spark the joy of learning. (12)Or as Gardner has put it:
The single most important contribution education can make to a child's development is to help him [or her] toward a field where his [or her] talents best suit him [or her], where he [or she] will be satisfied and competent. We've completely lost sight of that….We should spend less time ranking children and more time helping them to identify their natural competencies and gifts and cultivate those. There are hundreds and hundreds of ways to succeed and many, many different abilities that will help get there. (13)
The Question Answered?
So the answer to the
question framed in the title of this piece may well be that, yes, academic
achievement needs to be completely re-examined and re-thought. Indeed,
if we are seeking genuinely to "reform" our system of American public education,
we should not be trying to do it through the imposition of endless high
"academic standards" and anti-educational high stakes testing. Rather,
we should be concentrating our efforts on how we can best help students
to identify and cultivate their natural, inevitable interests and spark
their joy of learning. Once we have done that, we will better know what
our "high" educational standards should be and even how we might then be
best able to determine whether those standards are being met.
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1. For two brilliant assessments of this educational agenda, see “The Standards Juggernaut” by Marion Brady. Phi Delta Kappan, May, 2000, pgs. 649-651, and One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards by Susan Ohanian, (Portsmouth, NH, Heinemann, 1999).
2. Howard Gardner, Developmental Psychology, (Boston, MA, Little Brown, 1982), pg. 448.
3. Ibid, pg. 448.
4. Albert Shanker, “School Learning and Job Learning: Exploring the Missing Connection,” New York Times, June 19, 1988, Sec. 4, pg.2, and “Rethinking Failure and Success: The School/Student Connection,” New York Times, June 26, Sec. 4, pg.3.
5. Roger Schank, in The Third Culture, edited by John Brockman, (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1995) pgs. 171-174.
6. Roger Schank and Lawrence Birnbaum, “Enhancing Intelligence” in What is Intelligence, edited by Jean Khalfa, (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1994) pgs. 72-106.
7. Lauren Resnick, Education and Learning to Think, (Washington, DC. National Academy Press, 1987
8. Jean Piaget, quoted in “The Educational Implications of Piaget’s Work,” by David Elkind and Eleanor Duckworth, from The Open Classroom Reader, edited by Charles E. Silberman, (New York, Random House, 1973), pg. 196.
9. Theodore Sizer, “School Reform by the Feds; The Perspective from Sam,” Paper delivered April 21, 1992, AERA panel.
10. Jane Roland Martin, The Schoolhome, (Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press, 1992), pg. 90.
11. See the special editorial section on service learning edited by James C. Kielsmeier, Phi Delta Kappan, May, 2000, pgs. 652-680.
12. Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi, Kevin Rathunde, and Samuel Whalen, Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure, (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1993), pg. 195.
13. Howard Gardner, quoted in Daniel Goleman, New York Times Educational Life supplement, Nov. 9, 1986, pg. 21.
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I can remember that day so distinctly, as if
someone took a Polaroid of that moment and burned the scene into my retinas.
I was in a four-year-old’s preschool program and it was a few weeks before
Christmas. My classmates and I were all sitting around little tables, in
little wooden chairs, probably suffering with excess energy from the sugary
effects of snack time. The teacher, whose face and form I can no longer
recall, had just handed out crayons and freshly copied pictures of an outlined
infant Jesus sleeping in a manger. We were instructed to color in the scene,
using our imaginations and a rainbow of colors to bring life to the snowy
white paper. For a few brief moments, we were free to use our creativity,
as long as we stayed in the lines and chose the appropriate colors.
After all, everyone knows that hay is not found blue in nature and mangers
are not usually dripping with polka dots. I can still smell the scent of
those waxy crayons, held dagger-like by clumsy, chubby fingers.
I can imagine myself contemplating this handout with the intensity of a young Michelangelo, determined that this mimeographed masterpiece would reside on the fridge forever. I remember picking up a crayon and in large, unsteady letters, showing off my latest spelling achievement. I had just learned to write “Merry Christmas,” and as I rendered it across the page, it sloped in that downhill way as I painstakingly shaped each letter. Nonetheless, my paper had something wonderful that noone else had — I knew that made me special and so I beamed. My seat neighbor noticed what I had done and demanded that I scrawl the same message across her paper. Eager to comply, I printed the words and then paused to admire my handiwork. Suddenly, everyone at the table began to clamor for me to adorn their paper with the message. Like a dutiful celebrity, I wrote the phrase across each paper shoved in my direction, feeling an indescribable rush of pride with each one. For those few minutes, I felt as if I had become the king of my preschool world. For the first time, I was the kid everybody wanted something from — it felt amazing!
“Time’s up,” the teacher called out cheerfully, “it’s time to hand in your papers!”
I looked down at my blindingly white picture. There was nothing but some uneven letters covering the top. Baby Jesus, his bed, and the hay were blank! In desperation, with my eyes welling up and threatening to spill over, I did the only thing I could. I picked up a mud-colored crayon and with a swooshing of my wrist, I scribbled. Looping, figure eights formed by a brown crayon covered the scene. Baby Jesus was now buried beneath a mess of uneven scribble marks and the half of his face that survived the wrath of the crayon peeked out sadly from the wreckage. I remember my face reddening as I reluctantly turned in that paper, the shame of ruined work stifling my earlier feelings of pride.
When the papers were handed back to us, I remember that it was a traumatic experience. While I am not certain if it was a bright red “F” or an unhappy face that glared from the top of my paper, I can never forget the shame I felt when I got back that picture and realized that I had let down my teacher, my family, and everyone I had ever met. I took that paper, crumpled it into my backpack, and hid it deep in my sock drawer at home, hoping desperately that it was all a bad dream. It took me weeks (and probably the preschool version of an ulcer!) before I could find the courage to take out the wadded ball of paper and confess the details of my crime to my parents. Instead of the disappointed looks I expected, I got hugs and acceptance for a job well done. They explained that I was being nice and good to others when I shared the “Merry Christmas” message with my friends and classmates. They told me that they were proud that I had taken the time to help the others in my class! And through this moment, they gave me the reassurance that being kind to others and helpful (a four year old’s version of social responsibility) was more important than any grade.
While my parents responded to my fears and sense of shame with the right message and lots of love, my preschool teacher responded with the chilly dismissal of a bad grade. While she could not begin to understand or recognize the extent to which I had invented and internalized notions of self-worth based on grades and gold stars at the tender age of four, her actions nonetheless served as a reminder to me that school was not about being nice or kind or helpful. School was all about being the best: getting the highest grade, doing the best work, following directions and completing assignments in a timely manner. Social responsibility had no place in a system of class hierarchies, skill based segregated learning groups, and constant, endless competition. Pure and simple, school seemed to be dominated with Darwinian “survival of the fittest” opportunities to win or lose.
Social responsibility, as Berman (1997) describes it, relies on people understanding how they are connected to others and the larger world. A socially responsible individual has a sense of meaning and place, moral integrity, a high sense of efficacy, and a connected sense of self. Thinking back to my elementary school experiences, I feel that although we were expected to sink or swim collectively as a class, the good swimmers always made it to the shore without much thought to those who were struggling. Whether competing for prizes or teacher praise, the lessons associated with being socially responsible took a back seat to the individual success we could achieve if we worked hard enough. My feelings of pride did not stem from being a good citizen on the playground; instead, I was special because I had my own reading group with my first grade teacher, or because a few classmates and I worked on advanced math problems in the library while the rest of the class remained behind for the daily lesson. I dreamed about being pulled aside and having my skills recognized publicly so that everyone would know of my greatness.
When I entered third grade, I met a teacher who changed my focus. Ms. B, a living, breathing epitome of social responsibility, ruled her classroom with compassion and respect for others. She challenged each student to exceed expectations and encouraged all of us to achieve amazing results in our schoolwork. Beyond that, daily lessons of citizenship were explained, enforced, and mimicked through her example. I can remember having an awards ceremony, as often as once a week, and everyone got some recognition for something. Whether it was for reading or spelling or most improvement, those awards were not as important as the awards for good citizenship. Whoever had shown the most respect for his or her neighbor, whoever had helped selflessly and thoughtfully, etc., got public recognition and appreciation for doing so. Ms. B emphasized the importance of schoolwork, but she also emphasized how we, as third graders, could change the world.
My sense of efficacy was further developed by her instruction and example. We created our own poetry books, beautifully laminated and bound collections of our work with poetry. We would write and illustrate our own poems, haiku, etc., as well as copy over and illustrate the classics. My love-affair with Langston Hughes’ poetry began in that third grade class, when we were given a copy of “I, too, sing America.” Looking back, Ms. B was the best possible role model for me in helping to develop a sense of social responsibility. She provided me with stories and words in which to journey through the world and its many cultures. Through her classroom, I grew to share the vision espoused by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.. My eyes widened and my knowledge of the world grew as I traveled through Asia, making paper cranes, origami projects, and dabbling in calligraphy. And I did all this while being encouraged to assist my classmates and others as a good citizen should.
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Somehow, despite the necessity of teaching the three “R’s” and dealing with the bureaucracy of public school rules and regulations, Ms. B managed to integrate “respect” into the curriculum as the fourth “R.” Through this, we all learned that being a good person meant being responsible to others. Probably the most rewarding thing Ms. B did for me personally was ask me to sit next to Brad and take him under my wing. Brad was the kid in class with the taped together glasses and the messed up hair who was always being teased for wearing the same clothes and smelling a little sickly. In hindsight, Brad was just living proof that poverty is a terrible condition. He was a sweet, well-intentioned kid who was destined to never catch a break from his classmates who could not get past their noses. Ms. B understood this far more than I did and when she asked me to help him out with his work and be his friend, I was pleased that she asked me, but not terribly enthusiastic about the task. However, once I started working with him and opened myself up to his world, I realized that he was a great kid with a not-so-great life and that my smug, misguided superiority had added to his misery. (While I wish I could say that after taking him under my wing, he was able to enter the ranks of the popular kids, eventually ending up as prom king with a scholarship to Harvard, I cannot. However, I did gain a new friend for that year and a lesson in compassion and a reminder of the importance of moral integrity.)
I suppose that Ms. B’s classroom serves as a blueprint for developing social responsibility in elementary students. While the tasks of citizenship may be different, (eight-year-olds can’t vote and their natural human agency is often restricted by low, age-appropriate expectations) the values of citizenship and, hence, the values of social responsibility can be structured into the school experience. Education can be restructured so that reading and good citizenship are valued equally. Of course, the preceding statement is capable of starting a war of words because values are inherently subjective and arguments will brew if, “values” are taught in the classroom. The characteristics of social responsibility do not cross boundaries of culture or religion; instead, they serve as ways in which people connect to others and the greater, global community. For example, moral integrity has to do with linking values to actions. While schools should not be in charge of determining those values, the message of “standing up for what you believe in” is a worthy one and can be taught. By being socially responsible individuals, teachers can lead by example and encourage their students to promote change. They can introduce their students to examples of injustice and suffering while promoting empathy. They can give their students opportunities to make those meaningful decisions which help develop a sense of social responsibility.
In addition to the teachers, the schools themselves can change their current style which seems to promote the individual over the common good. They can desegregate students from their homogenous groupings and provide meaningful ways for students to learn from each other. These elementary schools can promote programs of peer advising, increase opportunities for service-learning, and give community service the respect it deserves. Most importantly, schools can enforce the notion that everyone is connected and that no one can be successful while others are left behind.
If I had the opportunity to go back to that preschool classroom where the “tragedy” of the Baby Jesus incident occurred, I would. For many years, that memory resided in my mind as a black mark on my academic career. It was my first failing grade, my first unhappy face scolding me for careless work, and my first realization that school only cared about my end product and not the journey. After a lifetime spent wishing that I could erase that day from my psyche, through all of this reflection, I’ve discovered a better solution. If I could, I would go back to that classroom, wrinkled photocopy in hand, and I would carefully choose the right colored crayon. I would pick it up, take a deep breath, and finish shading in the unscribbled side of Baby Jesus’ face. Then, that paper would finally be ready to leave my conscience and assume its rightful place of honor — on the fridge.
Berman, S. (1997). Children’s social consciousness and the development of social responsibility. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press.
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Long time recipients of Progressive Perspectives will probably note the absence of words from our founding Director, Kathleen Kesson. Kathleen has left the John Dewey Project to serve as an Associate Professor of Urban Education at Long Island University, Brooklyn. Kathleen has been the driving force behind the creation of the John Dewey Project. Her passion for progressive education and keen intellect have been missed. We wish Kathleen well and hope to keep her involved in our projects as we move into the future.
Chris Koliba, who has served in the capacity of Research Assistant Professor with the John Dewey Project for the past four years has taken over as Director. Chris has spent the last several years conducting research and outreach involving Vermont schools around topics relating to service-learning, civic engagement, school culture, and social capital. He is excited about taking on this responsibility, as we look to chart a future for the Project.
Gustavo Teran served as a Research Assistant Professor with the John Dewey Project for three years. As of this past fall, Gustavo became a post doctoral fellow with the University Center for International Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he is continuing his scholarly work relating to community education and indigenous voices.
In addition to Chris, our staff is currently comprised of Business Manager, Sarah Page, who began her fourth year of affiliation with the Project this past fall; Graduate Assistant Georgina Achilles; Research Associate Sara Rabin; and AmeriCorps*VISTA Team Leader Marissa Barbieri.
Despite the losses of Kathleen and Gustavo, this year has been a productive one. Although we will only put out one monograph this year, we have managed to organize and promote two discussion series. One on John Dewey’s Legacy in Vermont that has featured a partnership between the Dewey Project and Goddard College and another offered on the UVM campus on issues pertaining to “Community Partnership and Engaged Scholarship.”
The Academic Learning Integrated with Volunteer Experience (ALIVE) Program continues on into its second year with the creation of a course titled, The Reflective Practitioner. Presently nine AmeriCorps*VISTAs are enrolled. We are sending several participants to the National Service-Learning Conference to give a workshop on ALIVE this spring.
Evolving out of our ongoing research and outreach to Vermont schools, the John Dewey Project has played a key role in developing the High Schools on the Move Through Service-Learning Grant Program, designed to link service-learning with high school reform. The Vermont Service-Learning Steering Committee has been established to advise this program and to advocate for service-learning across the state. The John Dewey Project has also been involved with a policy initiative designed to promote the notion of community engagement among policy makers.
In the area of research, we continue to work with colleagues from the University of Nebraska and Bowdoin College on a study regarding the creation of the state of Vermont’s sustainability and place-based standards. This Spencer Foundation-funded project includes a survey of all teachers in Vermont who teach grades 4, 8, and 10.
Our case study research on the impacts of service-learning on student learning, school culture, and school community relations is finally yielding some results with the publication of Vital Results Through Service-Learning: Linking Students and Community in Vermont Schools, published by Community Works Press (see announcement on page 7). Several scholarly articles have been produced out of this work, presented at national conferences, and prepared for journal publication. These articles are titled Principals with Principles: Participatory Instructional Leadership and the Sustainability of Service-Learning in Schools and The Role of Service-Learning in the Generation Social Capital Between Schools and Their Local Communities. We anticipate placing in depth case studies of the seven schools we studied onto our website by the end of the semester.
Lastly, we are pleased to announce the creation of a pilot project designed
to support the promotion of progressive outlooks on educational practices
and policy. A Democratic Education Media Fund will be administered
by the John Dewey Project. Grants of $1,000 to $15,000 will be given to
organizations and individuals for media projects that focus on placing
stories and commentaries in the popular and independent media that promote
progressive perspectives on education and educational policy within the
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Democratic Education Media Fund (DEMF)
With the recent bi-partisan passing of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, educators around the country are expressing concerns about the Bush Administration’s effect on good practices and democratic ideals. A U.S. Department of Education official was quoted as saying that the administration wants to put an end to “creativity in the classroom.” These views are backed up by the NCLB mandates for student testing in every grade from 3 to 10. School districts and states are scrambling to make sense of the new federal mandates, raising concerns about the costs of a heavy testing regime on budgets and teacher and student morale. Calls for accountability are ringing throughout public education, in what is often touted as a new era in education.
The criticism of the educational system has been relentless, and propagated by an intricate network of conservative think tanks and marketing firms that have teamed with a number of conservative philanthropic foundations to support the proliferation of the conservative perspectives and to promote a conservative educational agenda that includes: the privatization of public schools, high stakes testing, the commercialization of education, the characterization of unions as bad for education, and, most recently, an organized attack on the merits of teacher education programs.
Within this charged context, very little media attention is being given to alternative stories concerning effective teaching and learning: teaching practices that take into account the whole child and diverse learning styles, while attending to a student’s social development as well as academic achievement. At stake is the future of the educational system in the United States and its role in sustaining a free, open and democratic society.
To promote a more balanced view and dialogue, the Democratic Education Media Fund (DEMF) seeks to support media projects designed to counter conservative perspectives on education and/or promote positive practices and policies that support progressive educational practices and policies.
Media projects can include:
· Efforts to increase or
generate editorial and op-ed pieces criticizing current educational policies
and/or promoting progressive ones.
· The placement of stories about progressive education ideas and successes in the popular media.
· The generation of press releases for educational journalists and news outlets announcing research findings that support progressive education and/or refute conservative policies and practices.
· Efforts to inform social activists about conservative assaults on education, thereby linking the need for progressive education to wider social movements.
Organizations and individuals are
encouraged to apply. Grant awards of $1,000 to $15,000 will be given.
Deadline for submission of proposals is April 1, 2003.
For complete details including proposal guidelines visit our website at www.uvm.edu/~dewey
or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
or contact: Christopher Koliba, Ph.D., Director, John Dewey Project:
University of Vermont, 411 Waterman Bldg., 85 So. Prospect St., Burlington, VT 05405-0160
Funds for the Democratic Education Media Fund come from a grant from the New Visions Foundation. No state or federal funds are being used in the administration of this program.