Education is a Social Responsibility

If ever teachers needed justification for why their work matters — why teaching and the whole project of education isn’t just necessary but urgent — one need look no further than the current political pageant on display in the United States. When discourse has all but disappeared, when genuine argument and diversity of perspectives have come to seem ancillary to democracy, we find cause to get to our first principles of why school matters.

Why does school matter? This past weekend, I had the real pleasure of hearing David Perkins and Howard Gardner speak at the Washington International School. Jim Reese, WIS’s enlightened Director of the Professional Development Collaborative, has spent the last several years bringing the ideas of Harvard-Project Zero to the Washington, DC area. And lucky for us! Project Zero, a research group founded nearly fifty years ago in response to the paucity of knowledge on arts assessment, has now flourished into a global think tank of the very nature and purpose of teaching and learning.

Last Saturday, Howard Gardner reminded us all in his talk that one purpose of education — and surely there are many competing purposes at play as I will address here — was a social one. I am paraphrasing him, but the gist of his argument suggested that, in a democracy, the education of the polity is a civic responsibility, for how else would a democracy be sustained and protected if not for a population able to think, reason, and decide?

Think, reason, decide: did I mention that, as teachers, we have an urgency to our work?

Is the current political climate not a symptom of the failure of education to be guided by its proper object: the common good in a democratic society? Surely, students are still being taught things, but are we not missing a critical element in the mission: education for the sustenance of our democracy? Why has this disappeared? And can merely learning things achieve this broader social goal?

Not surprisingly, John Dewey has much to say on this point. And in a prescient article, written in 1899 (!), he offers views that haven’t lost a single grain of relevance. “We are,” he writes, “apt to look at the school from an individualistic standpoint, as something between teacher and pupil . . . Yet the range of the outlook needs to be changed” (“The School and Society,” John Dewey on Education, University of Chicago Press, ed. Reginald D. Archambault, 1964, 293). He goes on to say,

What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy. (293)

What does this mean, and how is this relevant to our day? Dewey implies that a ruggedly individualistic notion of education becomes antithetical to the shared responsibility of creating a community, whether at the local or national level. Indeed, we have seen that the trend over the last 120 years has been to view education in just these terms. “What is my return on investment?” a parent asks, after having spent lots of money on an independent school or through taxes for public education. And it is the definition of this “return” — i.e., what this “return” looks like — that reveals the motives of our culture. Sadly, this “return” is too often only measured by college admission and/or salary — and, too often, these are purely individual motives. College and career are not unimportant concerns; education of course has these objectives in mind, and we are indeed individuals with a right to our pursuits. But what about that more precious “return” — the intellectual preparation that allows for the evolution and protection of democracy where our individual rights and pursuits are protected? Surely, as a country, we celebrate democracy as the highest ideal toward which all civilization thrives. But how do we prepare our own house for this responsibility? Or do we at all?

And here we can draw lines of connection between the very pedagogy we choose as teachers (and schools and districts) and the civilization we hope to create. To be sure, educational research, theory, and practice has, of late, challenged the 19th-century model of education — i.e., the teacher merely transmitting information from the front of the room. We know that the transmission of knowledge is far, far less effective than students actually doing something creative with this knowledge, as Benjamin Bloom, over a half century ago, laid out and as researchers on neuroeducation have made plain. And so, now, more and more schools are coming on board to pedagogies and practices that coax higher-order thinking from students, that connect their learning to real questions and problems, and that employ authentic assessments to motivate them. But, for all this (and I am certainly in deep support of this pedagogy), we often omit talking about the social relevance of such teaching and learning — that is, how this kind of learning actually serves the ideals of a democratic society. To extend this, let’s hear John Dewey again:

The mere absorption of facts and truths is so exclusively individual an affair that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness. . . . Indeed, almost the only measure for success is a competitive one, in the bad sense of that term — a comparison of results in the recitation or in the examination to see which child has succeeded in getting ahead of others in storing up, in accumulating, the maximum of information. So thoroughly is this the prevalent atmosphere that for one child to help another in his task has become a school crime. Where the school work consists in simply learning lessons, mutual assistance instead of being the most natural form of coöperation and association, becomes a clandestine effort to relieve one’s neighbor of his proper duties. Where active work is going on, all this is changed. Helping others, instead of being a form of charity which impoverishes the recipient, is simply an aid in setting free the powers and furthering the impulse of the one helped. A spirit of free communication, of interchange of ideas, suggestions, results, both successes and failures of previous experiences, becomes the dominating note of the recitation. (301)

The “stand-and-deliver” model of knowledge dissemination (I won’t call that model “lecturing” as such since true lectures can be very effective) isn’t merely ineffective from a neuroeducational perspective; for Dewey, it’s anti-democratic. Certainly teachers who ascribe to the transmission model are not consciously anti-democratic, but they may not be cognizant of the missed opportunity to teach to a higher purpose: what Dewey calls “the broader, or social, view” (296). In other words, social and collaborative practices where students are at the center of constructing understanding can help prepare habits of mind and intellectual dispositions necessary for a healthy democracy — personal qualities that can allow children and adults to “think, reason, and decide.” It is ironic, then, that in schools across the country, we celebrate the teaching of character, the support of service, the infusion of “soft skills” learning into our curricula but often ignore the pedagogy to really inculcate — or “enculture,” as Ron Ritchhart would term it — these qualities. This remains an ongoing challenge.

It is no wonder, then, that I am inspired by the burgeoning work of the researchers at Project Zero where the very heart of their project is to promote cultures of thinking (cf. Ron Ritchhart’s Project). In my own use of the Teaching for Understanding framework (still an ongoing exploration for me) or of the Thinking Routines that emerged from the work of Making Thinking Visible, I have seen develop what Jim Reese has called the most “democratic” classroom cultures I’ve ever encountered. On more than one occasion, a student of mine has shared that thinking routines have obviated the anxiety to be “the first hand up,” as is often the case in AP classes where participation isn’t so much encouraged as it is mandated. The competition inherent in such a competitive situation — real or imagined — makes for bad learning, makes for a weak democracy. I’m not sure this is an overstatement.


A “Chalk Talk” About Shakespearean Comedy

As we hurtle into the future, I’m as driven to innovate our practice in education as much for what new ideas hold for individual learning as they do for the very foundation of our democracy: why can’t we see the individual in the community and the community in the individual? I think we can. The good news — the very good news — is that pedagogical practices emerging from groups like Project Zero give us the frameworks to achieve both of these ends. Have we ever needed them more?


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What Are Schools Thinking?

The implicit dichotomy between a humanizing education and a lucrative one is false. Employers consistently say they seek graduates who can think independently and analytically. Students learn to do so by means of technical skills, of course — which public universities teach — but also by learning the great and timeless ideas an education at a Public Ivy conveys.

— Charles R. Pruitt, “Politics is Cutting the Heart Out of Public Ivies,” Washington Post, Saturday, August 26, 2016

The above quote is worthy of PreK-12 institutions’ attention. As schools — at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels — face economic realities (tuition increases, stretched financial aid resources, student outcome pressure), we can easily fall prey to reactive thinking and planning — if, that is, we’re not looking ahead a decade or more. If, for instance, the dominant story asks, “Why isn’t my kid at such-and-such a college?” or “Why doesn’t my recent university graduate have a good job?” then schools have better work to 1) declare what they believe our purpose as schools should be, and 2) how they tell that story so that it’s stronger than the often surface discourse that passes for actual thinking. Schools, in other words, have to keep their purpose front-and-center, and that means naming this purpose and telling this story.

Let me unpack this. I accept the premise that a liberal arts education is, first and foremost, the preparation of people for civic service — i.e., the education of a citizenry that can think through complexity in order to protect a democracy that serves the common good. It is my belief that this stance simultaneously prepares people to enter any number of careers. In other words, I hope that graduates of high school and beyond are employable. And so, education shouldn’t be either preparation for employment or for humanization — it should be both. This is hardly an original idea, but it’s an idea that, sadly, doesn’t have the stickiness it should.

Simon Sinek has given a famous talk where he reminds us that any person, business, school — whatever — must think about its “Why?” Here it is:

This is an important idea because, without a strong “Why?” we remain in a reactive stance to planning and operating. Schools should be proactive with its story, with its “Why?”

At the outset, I said that schools need to declare their purpose and tell their story. But what is this story? I believe that we do our students the very best service if we teach them to think deeply and to help them develop dispositions such that they crave complexity, big problems, and creative environments. To have these ambitious dreams for them is, I think, our responsibility. I also believe in delivering dispositional learning through a carefully-curated liberal arts curriculum where engaging, important content serves as the vehicle for their creative and rigorous learning.

In the past year, I have been immersed in the research of thinkers like Ron Ritchhart, David Perkins, Tina Blythe, and the other members of Project Zero at HGSE (hence my reference to dispositions above, which is a cornerstone idea of this research group). The framework and practices that have emerged from the ideas of Teaching for Understanding, Visible Thinking, and Cultures of Thinking partner with a school’s and a teacher’s expertise to sharpen the impact on the user of this education — our students.

I believe that if we want students to emerge from our schools with the habits of mind, the resilience, and the facility to transfer understanding, we need to double down on the value of thinking. This is a story for the ages — and one I’m proud to re-tell.

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The Object Beyond The Subject

I am at the end of a scintillating day of professional development at McDonogh School. 30 teachers — PreK-12 — have spent the day coming to understand understanding. Vaija Wagle, newly retired from Washington International School (and I mean, like, last Friday), is our teacher. Trained in the work of the Project Zero classroom, she led us to think deeply about our roles as teachers and what it means for students (and us) to truly pursue the work of understanding — the very heart of this endeavor we call education. I have been working with the Visible Thinking protocols for a while now, and I am eager to work more fully with the Teaching for Understanding framework. In brief — today has been simply brilliant!


Vaija Wagle


I had a new insight today — a connection, really, with an experience on the Shakespeare front where I spend most of my days. We were studying Lewis Carroll’s poem, “The Jabberwocky,” and after a very deep dive into the poem via the See-Think-Wonder protocol, we were to share our interpretations of this poem through a single medium. For my group, it was sound and sound alone — no words, even! Other groups were to do this work visually, physically, etc. I was delighted at how invested every teacher was. There was none of the “this isn’t real work” rhetoric; rather, people saw the strength of this meta-cognitive exercise to extend learning beyond the immediate subject to other parts of our lives.

Our group got to work on what we thought the poem was about. To cut to the interpretive chase, we more or less interpreted the poem to be about a son who confronts a beast (the Jabberwocky) and that this was symbolic of how we must all confront our “Jabberwocky,” whatever that may be in our lives. We decided that each of us would be responsible for one stanza of the poem and to find a sound that would capture the “event,” so-to-speak, of that stanza. It was a great deal of fun, to be sure, but this effort was really so much more, for our work necessarily looped us through the very matter of the poem in a specific, recursive way. In the ELA classroom, we call this a close reading. And so, by focusing on an objective (or object) beyond the subject under study (the topic we, as teachers, need to “cover”), we, quite readily, did the work of the discipline. It was merely re-framed to engage us with a generative question to which we could relate.

I often talk about the notion of the object-beyond-the-subject with regard to the performance-base teaching of Shakespeare, which I do at McDonogh and which I teach for the Folger Shakespeare Library. When I am teaching teachers about the performance-based study of Shakespeare, I will say that a concrete set of practical problems connected with the staging of a scene will, of necessity, draw us through the same content we would ordinarily just lecture about. Let’s say you had a scene with four characters, you’d begin by asking some basic fact-finding questions: who enters where? what time of day is it? is so-and-so carrying a knife? By getting students to see a problem or challenge beyond the membrane of the subject itself (here, Shakespeare’s text), students’ eyes are re-directed to worry about something else. This has the happy effect of siphoning the anxiety away from the struggle about “what it all means” — at least as the first concern. When concrete, practical problems are the primary focus, a strange thing happens: meaning(s) start(s) to look after it/themselves. The possibilities of the text appear, and students find themselves in the throes of constructing interpretations — and not just looking for the one answer (we talked a lot about this today). To students’ surprise and delight, they are understanding Shakespeare!

I found this object-beyond-the-subject phenomenon present when using the thinking routines today in our workshop. Yes, we were using our phones to find sound effects to re-tell the “The Jabberwocky,” and yes we were laughing and having fun. But we were also engaged in sustained thinking about a difficult and challenging poem. And when we were done with out exercise — though hardly done with understanding fully Carroll’s text — we had not only come away with a clearer understanding of the poem; we had also rehearsed ways of thinking that could now live in us going forward.

I’d like to write about this more — and maybe with an image of what this object-behind-the-subject might look like. I think this very important, and so I’m glad I got to share my thinking with you.

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The Best Then, The Best Now

Yesterday, I posted a podcast I’d just discovered from my Making Thinking Visible feed on Facebook. In this podcast, Simon Brooks talks about working with Creating Cultures of Thinking, the most recent book from Ron Ritchhart, researcher at Harvard Project Zero. Just before the 8-minute mark, the host and Brooks discuss something I’ve encountered when facing change in schools: teachers feeling that somehow, in the face of new ideas, what they’ve been doing in their career until now is somehow being called “wrong.”

This is a reasonable feeling, and it’s easy to understand how that would make even the most curious teacher skeptical or resistant. But this is a notion worth exploring further. Has everything been “wrong” until now? Of course not. Teaching is such a dynamic practice that very few people, I think, have it entirely “wrong.” “Right” and “wrong” is a fall choice, for teaching is hardly a static practice; caring, sensitive, challenging teachers discover so many ways of having a positive impact on students.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t more effective practices, and teachers would be cheating themselves and their students if they thought they had nothing new to learn. I often use this comparison. If you were a surgeon in 1985 — say, the best there was — you would nevertheless continue to grow and learn in your practice; that’s just a given. Your patients would expect this of you (or they’d go elsewhere!) and you would expect this of yourself — particularly if you wanted to lead in your field. Or take cancer treatment:  no doubt, treatment now retains some of the practices that were current in 1975, but there are certainly far more precise treatments and procedures used to battle that awful disease. Medicine constantly evolves and we can measure those results.

Why is the teaching profession any different? It isn’t. Surely, veteran teachers have their own experience and habits that have made them successful, and the best of those practices should be retained and celebrated. But when one is open to new research, new frameworks, and more precise tools, a teacher will continue to be the best version of him or herself.

Trying something new doesn’t obviate past practice; it enlivens it.

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Podcast on Cultures of Thinking

Here is a worthy interview about Cultures of Thinking.

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The Importance of Empty Space

I’m a theatre teacher, and the phrase “empty space” conjures images of Peter Brook’s famous book of the same title. But I’m not going to talk about that today. Rather, I’m going to talk about a metaphor I’ve been using lately to talk about curriculum and how we might think about curating it for our students as we plan lessons, units, courses, and programs.

Compare the two images below:

Oakland Museum of California

Becoming Van Gogh  Exhibit at the Denver Art Museum Oct. 21 2012-Jan 20, 2013

Becoming Van Gogh, Denver Art Museum

Now, I am not a visual artist or a curator, but I venture to say that the second image here engages the viewer in a very different way than the first. The first saturates us, and our eyes — while perhaps stimulated — don’t know where to go and so we cover a lot but we risk gaining very little depth. There is, in my thinking, no space around the images to guide our attention to what’s important, what’s representative. The second, on the other hand, uses the space around the paintings by Van Gogh to great advantage. It directs our attention to a thoughtful arrangement of representative work. It also, I think, leaves us wanting more.

As schools continue to wrestle with what and how to teach, I recommend that we consider the two images above and what this might suggest to us. Is it better to cram as much onto the wall as possible out of fear that we’ll miss something? Or is it better to let the space around carefully curated and representative pieces focus us on what can really move us, really transform us?

Before we react against the nothing that we think is not there, might we pause and consider the nothing that is?

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Why Formative Assessment?

Whenever I use the phrase, “formative assessment,” I brace for eye rolls. Some find it “jargon,” and even John Hattie, whose work and research I admire, quarrels with the phrase. But I’m going to continue to use it because the phrase helps us value process and the teacher-student communication necessary to reach our mission as educators.

But it does more than this, I think. First, however, let me tell you what I think formative assessment means. Formative assessment is the timely, rich, and deliberate feedback a teacher and/or peer group can offer to a learner on a regular basis. I also find that the practice of formative assessment is just as potent for a teacher, for when formative assessment — the daily practice of observation, critique, feedback, etc. — is part of school culture, everyone understands where she or he is in their thinking. When this understanding is in place, we can all make better decisions on what and how to teach.

We know from brain-science that learning builds on prior knowledge and understanding (cf. Susan Ambrose, et. al., How Learning Works, Jossey-Bass, 2010). In order to know what students know, we need to assess them so that we can meet their needs and create an environment for them to do their best, most rigorous work.

But let’s talk about rigor. What does this look like? I imagine that, to many of us, rigor calls to mind students poring over tomes, sitting for difficult exams, dedicating hours to homework. Some of these images are accurate, and I won’t take the time here to deconstruct some of the issues I find with that narrative. Rather, I want to think about what people might see as a lack of rigor: kids working in groups, engaged in collaborative projects, getting messy with ideas, question, sticky notes, and Sharpie pens. Too often, this picture seems like “fun.” Well, such a scenario is fun — and why should that be incompatible with rigor and deep learning?

It isn’t.

In his excellent book, Why Don’t Students Like School? (Jossey-Bass,2010), Daniel T. Willingham tells us that people don’t remember what they try to remember; they remember what they think about. We cannot underestimate the importance of this statement. If true — and I believe it is — then a classroom must be a place to exercise thinking and not just a place to remember fixed facts and ideas.

Classrooms, in other words, cannot only be spaces where a unit can carry on for three weeks only to culminate with a test. Students may do well enough on that test, but how do we really know what they understand? How do we really know our impact? Have they checked out for two-and-a-half weeks only to cram for the test? We need to have a regular mechanism that can give us as much feedback as we hope to give them. Sure, keep the test, but make sure student thinking is visible during that time. In other words, exercise formative assessment. How do we do this? Well, we can certainly draw on some time-tested measures. Quizzing can, in fact, be effective not only to check for compliance (boo! if that’s the only reason — hate that word) but also because the act of retrieval, as Peter C. Brown, et. al. discuss so masterfully in Make It Stick (Belknap, 2014), helps students store ideas in long-term memory.

Another way to help advance student learning at the same time that teachers get rich feedback for their teaching is to use the superb work that has been hatched at Harvard Project Zero — in particular, Making Thinking Visible (Ritchhart, et. al., Jossey-Bass, 2011). More than just activities or exercises, the thinking routines presented in this book are intended to become a habit, a regular way of working and thinking — the stuff of “disposition building.” This is an important tool for teaching and learning  because Visible Thinking practice can shift the narrative such that we can answer — or, at least, that I can answer — what, in fact, a classroom should be.

A final note. Teachers — good, well-intentioned, conscientious — spend an enormous amount of time putting red marks on quizzes, papers, and other assessments on a daily basis. I know that this feels right — that it looks like the kind of (rigorous) feedback necessary for students to improve. My question is whether this is the best mechanism to help students with achievement in their study. I worry it’s not. Would the finite resources of teacher time and energy be better spent on creating the most engaging, thinking-rich lessons that promote thinking that is visible? Yes. If students are thinking in class and teachers can see this, they’ll know where students need help, where they need to slow down, go faster, etc. Too much time and energy is spent on the red pen and not enough of formative assessment that would free teachers up from deadening grading. This would be a big departure for many of us in schools: teachers, parents, and students. But, I argue, this would be a new kind of comfort that could awaken new ways to think, to learn, and to extend that learning.

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