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Teaching and Learning: Embracing a New Vision

by J'Anne Ellsworth

Teaching is a complex interplay of professional skills and personality traits rather than a set of moves or maneuvers (Clark & Astuto, 1994; Hyman, 1997). It is human interaction (Piaget, 1970; Schon, 1983; Borko, 1989), the scientific, dramatic, and artistic, crafted and blended. Infinite potential interactions occur from the number of student and teacher behaviors that are potentiated.

This can be multiplied exponentially by the underlying motives, developmental needs and stages, the desires of each participant, the learning ability, the interests and motivation (Tochon & Munby, 1993). It is daunting to pare the possible exchanges and teacher responses that occur in the good classroom into definable, observable, quantifiable events. (Peterson & Comeaux, 1989). In classrooms that are open and creative, learning interactions may vary even more dramatically (Kirst, 1991a, 1991b; Wolf, et. al., 1991).

Attempts to define characteristics that set a dynamic world class teacher apart from the typical teacher, and turn those assets and peculiarities into reproducible behaviors that could be generated en mass, only partially succeed (Swanson, et. al., 1990) for many of the most crucial elements in a great teacher are elusive and idiosyncratic. Through history many of those revered and beloved were teachers (Socrates, Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, Copernicus).

Still, we are not able to reproduce them, nor are teachers of such status commonly recognized among us. In fact, frequently during their lives, our greatest teachers were neither recognized as paragons nor valued highly for their contributions. Often they were denigrated by their fellows and it was as a result of their students and the "life" their teaching took on, that the prowess of their teaching ability was perceived.

3 gods graphic

Authentic Learning

In the same way that teaching is difficult to define, understanding and recognizing learning can be as difficult to capture. Theories abound that speak of cognition, meta-cognition, recall, perception, forgetfulness (Siegler, 1991; Gagne, et. al, 1993; Driscoll, 1994). We seem hampered by the need to name, capture and calculate this process and we are still grappling with what is occurring in the classroom, the miracle of how the mind accomplishes so much, why some people are unable or unwilling to learn some of the material presented; the miracle of those who extend learning and create novel and functional approaches that go beyond instruction.

In the past we returned to the developmental nature of conceptualization (Piaget 1973, Vygotsky 1986), to social psychology (Allport, 1954; Erikson, 1963) and the study of modeling (Bandura, 1986) to capture learning and teaching. We probed brain research, memory and retrieval, nonsense syllables, visual, auditory and kinesthetic reception. We delved into encoding, the long and working memories, training versus learning, and developed theories of motivation (Stipeck, 1993).

Pressing to produce a working model, we turned to multiple forms of intelligence (Gardner, 1993), linked learning styles and Jungian personality theory (Dunn & Dunn, 1978), evaluated and measured types of questioning (Bloom, 1968; Weigand, 1971), probed retrieval of facts and names, apparent learning blocks or disabilities, tactile and intuitive ways of knowing.

Despite years of research, this quest for the working of the human mind is very much an emerging frontier. We cannot assure that good teaching necessarily leads to learning. There may be little direct relationship, a curvilinear manifestation, or a coincidental rather than causal tie. Each researcher has a perspective, and a predetermined way of defining learning. What the researcher looks for is often what is observed. Using this research model, we are still wrestling to define and measure intelligence, grappling with definitions and measurement of creativity, humor, esteem.

Interestingly, most children love to learn, have a natural curiosity and desire to question. By age five the child of normal intelligence has learned a language, gained a personal sense of self, body control and sophisticated utilization of large muscles, a vocabulary that includes hundreds or thousands of words, social skills, coping mechanisms, and has a natural proclivity to advance intellectually and fascination with inquiry. Undoubtedly learning is occurring, yet this process primarily occurs in the absence of an organized teaching setting. There is little competition, no formal evaluation or grading system, few external rewards, seldom a curriculum or goals and objectives. Capturing this excitement and sustaining the natural energy and motivation could frame our future enterprise

Paradigm Shift

In the 1960's, Life magazine published articles about advances in scientific knowledge. The DNA building blocks were one, the theory of Plate Tectonics was another. They added such clarity to constructing the next steps in science that we didn't miss the theories they replaced. We are at that place in human science, but we seem on the cusp of visualizing a new paradigm (Kuhn, 1962). The wish to reform is evident, the pain to motivate is certainly in place. The need has provided impetus and energy and trials. To be true to the scientific model, we must look beyond current methods. Exploring human nature, understanding the dynamics of teaching and learning, working beyond our current tools for quantifying human qualities may be intricate work and call for different ways of observing, but we are at critical mass and moving forward.

Building Blocks

We usually approach education as applying content to children, preparing teachers to instruct and test acquisition of content. Revamping that perspective and using an ecological vantage (Donaldson, 1985; Doyle, 1990) is a powerful shift. When seen from a systemic perspective, teacher, student and content are enmeshed and each adds dimension to education. Figure One represents the concept of weighting each equally.

Figure One: The systemic nature of education

Adjusting the balance influences the student role most profoundly. Rogers (1969) spoke to the importance of enhancing the student role and changed the way he taught. Those visionary statements provide the foundation for enhancing student and teacher roles.

Each person knows self better than anyone else can --and is unique, important, invaluable Trust the learner, the individual, and encourage and honor personal evaluation and insights
Each person must believe in self and potential for growth and learning to occur Facilitate healthy evaluation, affirmation and teach / model self discipline and responsible self control
Acceptance by an authority is a powerful motivator Show unconditional love of each student affirming efforts and strengthening resolve rather than punishing error
Desire to be healthy, to mature and to learn are always present Remain committed in actions and thoughts to the power of students to strive for health, joy, knowing
Safety is present, growth will be natural and ongoing Provide safety and structure for optimal environment
Rejection stops growth an decreases ability to learn Build relationship that honors effort & trusts insights
adapted from C. Rogers 1969

Rogers implemented some of his ideas with graduate students and found the work complex and many students resistant. Students did not immediately embrace the opportunity to shoulder more educational responsibility. He also found that empowerment of the student to make meaning of the educational experiences spilled into changes in every other area. It changed the teaching role, evaluation, impacted the learning community and changed the very structure of education.
The same experience occurred for teachers who really implemented these ideas. Johnson & Johnson (1994) experienced many of the same events as they implemented cooperative learning. Reinsmith (1993) also found significant differences in the learning environment and the role of student, content and evaluation every time he altered the teaching role.

The child is already a master at learning, but has little experience learning with rigor and in the milieu of community. The youth is likely to have limited ability to describe the self assessment he or she performs and modest opportunities to verbalize personal feelings or share those insights with others. To balance the roles and succeed, students need many essential process skills and guided practice and support while learning and practicing the new roles and responsibilities.

The teacher's role also shifts. Teachers perform the multitude of roles of significance -- mentor, counselor, facilitator, educational leader, team builder, builder of community, arbitrator and model (remember to visit optional readings in this module to find 10 teaching roles). Teachers continue to give energy and attention to interactions of teaching, learning, and subject matter, the dynamics of process, becoming more adept at using a range of personal powers, recognizing and extending unique personalities, gauging student development and motivation. The energy to teach, to share and transcend self is highly significant, as is a thorough and deep understanding of the content being shared. The productive synergy of traits, teachers and students, immersed in content continues to be the teacher's domain. The following suggests some of the elements critical to the more complex blend.

Strands in a Multi-dimensional Education
Teacher Student Content
Assess power and control dynamics
Utilize process skills to enhance shared responsibility
View role as multi-dimensional
Increase skills as facilitator
Validate student efforts and "Let go"
Prepare students to self evaluate and assist in self monitoring and testing
Teach and utilize group processes
Relish ownership of learning
Contract to accept responsibilities
Acquire content development skills
Set personal guidelines and self monitoring strategies
Develop self evaluation processes
Self monitor and record progress
Honor rigor and task completion
Work responsibly in community
View as a continuum and provide range of lessons and sets of skills daily
Develop assessments for student ownership
Teach process skills
Peer tutoring
Community building
Rigor and mastery valued

Step One - Strengthening Student Skills

The student role is the lynch pin in changing to a more dynamic educational process. Teachers who work to change their own roles without altering student perception and student abilities find pressure from students to "get back in the box." There are several critical processes and tools that facilitate student growth. The following instruments are helpful tools for initiating and managing the learning curve for students. They include: 1) learning contract, 2) student goal development, 3) student self monitoring, 4) student self assessment, 5) conflict resolver.

The student contract is empowering for teachers and students. It provides a clear structure, a base for understanding expectations and a vocabulary to help students and teacher discuss behaviors and actions productively and less defensively or angrily. The contract can be presented by the teacher, discussed and altered by the class as a whole and then can be sent home to parents so they are informed of expectations.

It can serve as a mechanism for developing a behavior contract if some expectations are beyond the reach of specific students. It can be individualized to facilitate student development, serving as a safety net and a source of inspiration and aspiration. For a student who is having difficulties, self assessing person behavior can be empowering as the student works to recognize and accept personal actions. Then the student can reflect on the contract, and a meeting between teacher and student could ensue. If improvement continues to lag, others in the school could work with the student in establishing successful routines and it could become part of a behavioral IEP.

This contract is geared for middle school and high school. The language can be simplified for younger students and the process skills can serve as a curriculum guide, with each area addressed and practiced in the lower grades and implemented one skills at a time, adding new expectations as the basic skills are in place.

Student Contract


an Honor Student at _____________________ school,

verify by my signature that I understand for following:

  1. The purpose of my being in the classroom

  2. My duties as a student

  3. My freedom as an Honor Student

  4. The