by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

IMG_9563 A teacher has made a commitment to design and execute a unit which explores the curriculum embedded in a small creek at the edge of her schoolyard. She didn’t just decide, then go; instead, she visited the creek, became familiar with its parts, then drew on some information she had gleaned at a teachers’ conference to construct a basic plan for how the unit would work. The plan included elements like: Place students in work groups assigned a particular task, Identify and exploit the curricula embedded in the creek and its banks, and Use group reporting to bring all of the learnings to all students in the class.

Before moving on, let’s compare what she’s done so far with what the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards teacher certification program is looking for in teachers. Their vision of effective professional teaching is based upon five propositions:

1. Teachers are committed to students and their learning;
2. Teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students;
3. Teachers are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning;
4. Teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience; and,
5. Teachers are members of learning communities.

Let’s look at each of these propositions from the standpoint of the work of this teacher, and that of another who teaches from the book, and is committed to teaching a particular publishers’ curricula. This other teacher knows that, at the least, her students will have covered what is on the standards tests, and how well they do on that is up to them. These two teachers’ approaches to teaching are interesting to me in that they embody a dichotomy of approaches to many aspects of being human, that I, and others, identify as hierarchical:individualistic vs. egalitarian:communitarian and teachers identify as didactic vs. constructivist. This dichotomy in the way we approach life’s problems and decisions is directly related to the parts of the brain engaged. There’s a direct tie to the quality of conceptual learning in that dichotomy, both in the pedagogies employed and in the way the brain works in each case. In teaching, we’d call the two basic approaches teacher-centered and didcactic vs. student-centered and constructivist. I’ve been exploring this topic from time to time in this blog, and we’ll explore it some more.

I diverge. Back to the National Board’s Propositions. Proposition #1: Allowing groups to learn their particular part of the work, and then teach it to the rest of the class, with feedback from the teacher, tells me that she understands how students learn, how the brain learns, understands her students, and uses these understandings to develop an approach or delivery to a new set of learnings that is tailored to this class. And that she trusts that her students are ready to engage in learning. Because she intends to work with them as they negotiate and construct meaning, she knows who they are and how they learn, and has tested this enough times to have confidence in it. The other teacher presents a common base of information to her class, and helps students learn it. She uses the information in the teachers’ manual, in the prepared materials, what she has learned on her own, and would probably engage a guest speaker if she knew one. Student learnings are limited to what they read, hear, and see, and are not influenced by elements in the real world that they are learning about.

These two approaches meet the first proposition, Teachers are committed to students and their learning, to varying degrees. The first teacher is planning with what she knows about the subject, what she knows about her students, and what she believes her students can do. By moving beyond the so-called tried and true (which doesn’t actually develop into good test scores), she evidences her commitment to her students’ capacity to use their own brains to learn. The other teacher appears to be committed to the publishers’ curricula she uses, and is willing to allow an outside person to speak to the class. The fact that she conscientiously applies this curriculum indicates that she has confidence in it and is committed to her students’ learning, but places bounds on how much learning she believes they can be responsible for themselves.

Proposition #2: The teacher who uses the creek visits it to decide what to teach, and what she needs to learn. As she moves through the area, she amplifies what she knows about the subjects she uses the creek to deliver; she learns more as she teaches. Locating the curricular pieces embedded in the creek and its banks enables her to understand them better, and increases the methods she can pull off the shelf to teach them. She decides to teach more than the science of the creek, and, I assume, knows those additional subjects. I say that because she looks for them embedded in the place. (You can practice this by looking for examples of fractions and alliteration in a natural area nearby. You’ll note that you have to know the subject in order to find it.)

Here are some hurdles she must overcome in organizing and delivering her curriculum via that which is embedded in the creek and its banks: Food Webs – she has to learn about them. Mathematics – where are percents, exponents, pre-algebra, coordinates on the site. Physical Science – water quality chemistry, velocity – how to measure them in a creek rather than at a lab table. Geology – water quality and velocity = erosion, riparian geology, soils, mapping, stream morphology – how much does she know and understand about them. Social Studies – maps, vegetation communities, animal communities, transport – does the community which inhabits the creek and its banks use communities and transport systems.

The other teacher may have a background in the creek and its inhabitants, either from actual experience, or from learning about them. She may use this background to add to the curricular material the class studies. However, their learnings are mainly acquired by listening, reading, and memorizing, and not from direct personal experience. And, they are less likely to be able to teach the other groups in their class via group reporting. What is contained in the teachers’ manual and prepared materials are their main sources of insight. Both of these teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students again, to varying degrees.

Proposition #3: The first teacher allows students to correct misconceptions, and amplify their learnings and thoughts, as they work and report. This teacher’s strategy of having student groups report during the project is an effective method for monitoring student learning and making mid-course adjustments. Because their teacher invests in her responsibility for managing and monitoring student learning, they are allowed to monitor and adjust their own learning activities, with the concomitant result that they also manage the flow of their work. Due to the way she delivered her curriculum, she learned more about pertinent subjects as she taught. While sharing those learnings through the activities she engaged her students in, this teacher developed methods of managing and monitoring student learning such as organizing the class into work groups, and using group reporting as learning and monitoring vehicles.

The other teacher uses standard classroom management techniques to organize her students, and publishers’ handouts to manage student learning. She knows the subject as it is expressed in the publishers’ curricula, and uses prepared handouts, assignments, quizzes, and summative tests to monitor student learning. She expands her understandings as the publishers she uses expand content particulars. She probably supplements these learnings from presentations at conferences. This is standard practice, but does not induce involvement and investment in the learning, nor does it empower her students. Again, the two teachers are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning to varying degrees.

Proposition #4: Exploring new curriculum deliveries by deciding to use the creek, visiting it, looking for embedded curricula, organizing space, and employing group reporting, compared with relying on what others have developed in curriculum deliveries, forces the first teacher to pull what she understands about teaching into working memory, and use careful critical thinking to find and engage the pedagogical components and processes that will facilitate the work. (That’s a long sentence! I’ll try to tone them down.) Locating and placing embedded curricula within its thematic place in the larger curriculum of each discipline addressed is a systematic process as is group reporting as a pedagogical strategy. Using group reporting as a teaching and assessment strategy, using what emerges from them to monitor and adjust her delivery, infers that she is considering all of the components of her curricular delivery as a system. This teacher also learns from experience and incorporates these learnings into her practice as she goes. The other teacher uses publishers’ materials conscientiously, learning the way their curricula and directions are structured, and using this structure to organize her delivery and has, at some time, learned about the effectiveness of guest speakers. As before, the two teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience to varying degrees.

Proposition #5: There are two learning communities associated with the first teacher. First is her classroom community, a true community of learners, The teacher allows herself to learn with her students, developing concepts together, organizing the class into work groups, and consolidating learnings via group reporting. Learning about the creek with her students generates a learning community in which all members benefit and grow. This kind of community, classroom as learning community, mirrors the dynamics of learning communities of educators in which, as proposed by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, “. . . teachers contribute to the effectiveness of the school by working collaboratively with other professionals on instructional policy, curriculum development and staff development.” Because the first teacher intimately involves her students in the process of learning, her class seems to be based upon the concept of a community engaged in mutual learnings; a community which shares learnings, discoveries, and methods in order to achieve a community goal.

Teachers are also members of their own professional learning communities. For this teacher, that would include the teacher who presented at the conference which started her on this journey, and the other teachers in her school. It also includes the school administration and resource personnel, and their interactions like curriculum development, staff development, and so forth. We haven’t met most of this community, so can’t say much about what they do, or assess how she works with other professionals in her school and district. Working together, this community has the potential to evaluate school progress and the allocation of school resources in light of their understanding of state and local educational objectives. The other teacher may be active in her professional learning community, but we don’t have any information with which to assess that. The two teachers developed different classroom learning communities. The first is based upon a community engaged in mutual learnings; a community which shares learnings, discoveries, and methods in order to achieve a community goal. The other community is less egalitarian, with students learning from the teacher, who is learning from the publishers and other external authorities. Most meaning in this classroom is learned, rather than being negotiated. Again, these two teachers are members of learning communities, classroom and professional, to varying degrees.

In sum, both teachers taught their students about creeks and creek communities. Only one teacher taught in a way that involved and invested her students in their work and learnings, and empowered them as persons. This was the teacher who started her students in the real world, developed incipient conceptual learnings, then used her subject knowledge and her knowledge of her students, to create an environment in which the students went to the publishers’ curricula as their efforts generated needs to know information, or to seek confirmation of what they believed they were beginning to understand. They were assuming ownership of their learning. This is what we need to teach for.

jimphotocroppedThis is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”