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Missing Ingredient in School Reform

Educators lack a common professional vocabulary to describe what people do while learning. With this vocabulary, educators could design more precise lessons and ways to instruct as well as discuss them. Educators and their supporters could then use that precision to formulate policies and programs that contribute a bottom-up view to a reformulation of schools in which all students will more likely learn all lessons, as do the most accomplished members of society.

Lacking this vocabulary, public policy makers in the United States have used political processes to formulate top-down or what may be called trickle-down views of education. School reform efforts have given priority since the early 1960s to such strategies in efforts to increase learning in public schools. This view has organized the ambition to produce for schools what Thomas Kuhn referred to in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970) as the need for a “decisive transformation” in the image of science.

The hoped for image of transformed schools has included that all students will earn academic performance levels capable of adding value to the U.S. economy and will be competitive with students in other developed countries. More recently, advocates have tried to amend the image to include that students will live a just, equitable, and satisfying life. Various human rights laws and regulations, judicial opinions, financial incentives, research programs, administrative changes, and communication technologies have theoretically added incremental adjustments in practices that transform the image of schools.

The implicit agenda of top-down policies has been to persuade individual public school educators to use their discretion in ways that students increase learning from each lesson taught. Educators have tried nobly to make this transformation occur. Those who have increased learning have relied on creative mixtures of common sense and personal experiences mixed with references to research, not to public policies. These mixtures have failed to persuade most other educators to replicate their successes.

Top-down policy views have changed the operation of schools. However, teachers see limited, if any connection between public policy views of education and what teachers do in classrooms. To cover this disconnect, teachers adopt the vocabulary of the moment in their schools, but seldom change their instruction in ways that increase learning.

Missing from this trickle down strategy have been agreements on what constitutes learning and how it occurs. Theories of learning and of its ecosystem abound, each with its own vocabulary and model. Some theories have resulted in libraries of empirical research studies that describe various aspects of learning.

In general, theories of learning can be traced to philosophies rooted in politics, religious beliefs, or the scientific method. Educators in public schools seldom discuss these theories and methods, or link them directly to practices in schools. Instead, they refer to clusters of theories indirectly as professional experiences, professional discretion, or by the name of a program a consultant or professor has described or a researcher has published. This leaves educators in a muddle; without an agreed upon professional vocabulary to describe and discuss precisely and accurately what happens when students learn lessons. Lack of this vocabulary leaves learning from lessons a gamble, an image of schools that no educator wants.

Educators need a common professional vocabulary that emerges from the most precise and accurate scientific research descriptions of learning from teaching. Lack of this agreement disables teachers from contributing more to school reform. The ingredient of a common vocabulary may provide a decisive link between images of transformed schools and efforts to make learning all lessons consistently available to all students.

Last Edited: June 28, 2016


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