Reflections on the course

Overall, there were a number of signs that the students were getting a fair amount from the course. The feedback from students throughout the course as well as their reflections and comments on the standard evaluation and on my own assessment sheet were very similar. In addition, before almost every class, while I got my things together, I found that students were actually talking together about the readings. In many ways, I felt like we simply could have continued these impromptu in-class discussions because they were often focusing on issues that I wanted to address.

Furthermore, during our discussions in class, I was impressed by the extent to which students referred specifically to passages within the readngs. To me, these kinds of discussions were indicators that the students were really attending to the materials and thinking about them carefully. Another indicator of the development of our discussions was the fact that there was more and more discussion among the students (and not just between students and me) as the quarter progressed. I also felt as if I gained more and more insights from our discussions, so rather than simply summarizing the discussions, by the end of the quarter I found myself reporting on what I was learning and thinking about as a result of our conversations (see the summaries for Week 5 or Week 6 for example)

In conversations with me, several students also suggested that they were becoming much more critical consumers of these programs. For example, one told me that before she came to this class she generally thought that programs that included many of the "best practices" we’d been discussing were good; but after examining the programs in class, she said "I’m much more critical. It’s hard to be satisfied now." In her presentation on her report that same student (who was interested in the Foundation world and was writing the report as if it was a review of a proposal to fund a program) also said that she rewrote her recommendations for her paper three times. First she told herself, "I have to recommend this, because I picked this program and I liked it," but then she said, "I can’t recommend this because there’s no theory, no evidence of effectiveness." And finally she said "but what else am I going to recommend?" There’s nothing that’s better." Therefore, in the final report, she recommended the program with qualifications and recommendations for improving it.

But what did students really learn?

At the same time that I felt the course and discussions went quite well, as the quarter progressed, I began to call my original goals for the course into question. For example, when I planned the course, I think I imagined that it might help students develop or refine their own approaches to teaching and learning. But at the end of the semester only one student reported a substantial change in their approach.

Furthermore, although my original goals included helping students to develop deep understandings of these approaches and to develop their skills in analyzing these approaches, the whole experience contributed to my growing concerns about how much students can really learn (and teachers can really teach) in one course in a limited amount of time. Thus, I tried to build students’ understandings of the different approaches by focusing on a single approach each week and returning to summarize them in charts and comparative discussions throughout the quarter. But even though we went into some significant depth particularly on Hirsch and Gardner) I still don’t really know how well they understood these approaches or the main authors’ points of view. I specifically asked students at several points whether they could explain these approaches to their classmates and colleagues, and many reported that they were doing just that. But, again, I don’t really know what they were saying to their colleagues or how sophisticated their explanations were. In addition, while the discussions and presentations suggested students were developing deeper understandings of these approaches, I felt like some of the final reports could have provided a more sophisticated analysis than they did; but

(From an interview with one student – a former lawyer now seeking certification as a math teacher)

Didn’t you learn all this already in Law School?

I think what law school contributes is the ability to take a huge pile of fairly disconnected stuff that's been dumped in front of you and fairly quickly sort, sift, and categorize and parse it. You have to do a lot of that in law. You got 50 pages in which to write a brief in which $5 million is at stake after a long trial with 30 or 40 issues up on appeal, and you've gotta be able to gather all this stuff and package it and try to make it succinct and comprehensible along the way. So, what you see in my final paper in terms of managing the information is largely law background. In terms of straight analytical skills, I would say to the extent I have them, they predate law....
[But even if] I have analytical skills from my prior life, they weren't tuned to this context. I didn't have a particularly good way to choose which tools I had to apply and how I'm to apply them. I had no roadmap of any sort for where to begin. I didn't I know the territory. So, I need somebody who can lay out the territory, given me some frameworks in which my tools work... It's a huge timesaver. It's immensely efficient compared to trying it on my own.

What did this course contribute to your own understanding?

I think what this course was good for was to give me a framework for analysis. We spent a lot of time in the class talking about this theory of learning or this theory of action. I didn't have an analytical tool yet of any sort for this kind of approach. I didn't have a framework in place and starting points to use. And I think what was really valuable to me was getting that. Here's a way to look at it, here's a way to do the analysis.
[For example] before I took this course I had never looked at any claims for effectiveness. I had no basis for contrast. So if I'd done the same [investigation of a program for my final project], if I'd looked at the same materials, I would have had an awful lot less context and these material would not have meant the same to me. I wouldn't have had any way of knowing what is a significant change [in student performance] and what isn’t. So the variety of programs we looked at helped a lot for me to see what people think is a great showing, what's a poor showing, what's a mediocre showing? I wouldn't have begun to know how to evaluate that. I had no calibration of any sort for evaluating quality.

Why did you take this course in the first place?

I didn't actually look at this to begin with as something to directly influence my teaching. I wasn't seeking something to change the way I would do things on a day-to-day basis. I was looking at this more as a something to be informative and elucidating on a much, much broader basis than as something that might someday have some influence on what happens in a faculty meeting or what I do in a class environment. I really wasn't looking for a direct impact on my teaching. It might happen, and I think I may know that in a few months. Maybe I'll start to see things percolate up and appear and have some influence. But, I really wanted something at a level of a survey of why are people doing these things, how do they think they work, what's going on, rather than how do I survive in the classroom on Tuesday kind of thing.

that could simply be a reflection of the fact that the assignment itself was not sufficient or well-structured enough to help them demonstrate their understanding. Finally, even if students were developing a deeper understanding of these approaches, to what extent could I say that this course really contributed to their learning? Many of these students had already been teaching, had had numerous courses in education, probably had excellent analytical skills in the first place one had even been to law school and practiced as a lawyer for a number of years), and I therefore wondered what this course really added to their previous learning.

In talking with the students, however, and reading the students’ reflections at the end of the year, I began to see that they might be getting something else out of the course. Rather than thinking that students should be refining their own philosophies or developing deep understandings and skills of analysis in a single quarter (less than 30 hours of class time...), I began to recognize that the course was providing them with some of the information and tools they needed to make sense of the often confusing world of school reform. In the end, I felt like what I was doing was:

1) informing students about key ideas, people, and approaches (helping them develop "core knowledge" for school improvement in a way),

2) helping them to develop a deeper understanding of approaches than they had before (and an appreciation for the diverse perspectives behind them),

3) providing them with a framework for thinking about these issues and for making comparisons and assessments in the future.

As a consequence, at the same time that the experience reinforced for me how difficult it is to develop deep understandings in short periods of time, it also helped me see that one thing I can do even in a single quarter is to provide an opportunity and a foundation for students to explore new fields and issues that they have not addressed directly before.

Course content: My own learning about school reform

In terms of content, I was concerned that students might end up simply disillusioned with the whole reform process and all the various approaches, rather than developing better means for critiquing, advancing and implementing them. But, in general, my discussions with the students suggested

What do you think about these approaches now?

I came into this with intense skepticism because I was in 1st grade when Sputnik went up and I was the subject of a lot of programs myself in my own education, 30 or 40 years ago. And, it always seemed to me to be the flavor of the month10 And so, I never assumed that there was a hell of a lot of thinking behind many of these, that they seemed to be faddish, and that within six months, it would be different. But I now understand, I have greater appreciation for the theoretical basis behind some of these approaches than I would have had otherwise. So I was certainly skeptical about their results and will continue to be. But I am less skeptical about sources of these programs, you know. What provokes people to try them? What sort of thinking underlies it? Do they really have a theoretical basis? Might they not have some notion about how people learn that would make them want to go change things? Everyone wants things changed, but, but how and why is another matter. And I think I probably have more respect for the folks who are attempting to come up with some reasons, foundation for a change, than I had before. It can look pretty arbitrary [when you just look at the basic features of the approaches].

that many gained a deeper appreciation of the thinking and diverse viewpoints represented in this work at the same time that they were developing their capacities to critique them. In particular, several students said they were able to develop an understanding of Hirsch’s argument -- and even found that they agreed with a few of the things he had to say – even though they felt they were not supposed to like his work because of his anti-progressive stance.

At the same time, through focusing in on these approaches in this course, I also gained a greater appreciation for the difficulty of the task of school reform and for the need to try to do something even if each reformer doesn’t have all the answer worked out. Yet the experience also reinforced for me how much better these approaches could be if we could learn how to build on one anothers’ work more effectively.

Through teaching the course, I also came to some new understandings about the specific approaches we addressed. In particular, I found that, in some senses, the approaches of Gardner and Hirsch are much closer than I expected. Even though they differ considerably about whether and how to focus on basic information or in-depth study, they are both concerned with helping students to develop the information Hirsch) or the disciplinary understandings and methods (Gardner) they need to appreciate, participate in and advance their cultures. In contrast, standards approaches (like Tucker’s) and Slavin et. al.’s Success for All approach are much more concerned about efficiency and organization (see overview chart).

In the end, teaching the course caused me to rethink my assumption that reform programs have to have a strong theory of learning. If a reform program didn’t have a theory of learning, and got one, how much would it really help? If they did have one, and refined it, how much would that help? Does a theory of learning really matter or is it sufficient to make an organization more efficient? While I have not abandoned the idea that a program can be strengthened by examining its theory of learning, I think I have a better understanding of the difficulties and possibilities for developing a program that combines an explicit theory of learning with explicit theories of schooling and change.

Course design

Several aspects of the design of the course worked particularly well. For a number of classes, I divided up responsibilities for reading about a number of different aspects of an approach or different programs and then asked students to do "informal presentations" for the rest of the class. I emphasized that these should only last about five minutes and should not involve a lot of preparation (beyond reading the materials and preparing a handout or overhead). The result was that people did not seem to feel pressured or put "on the spot," but they generally performed quite well and started good discussions and seemed to keep everyone engaged. Asking presenters to bring a handout or overhead really helped to focus the presentations and allowed them to get across a lot of information in a short period of time.

Similarly, I tried to keep the reflections on the readings very short and informal and did not grade them for content or quality, but I did begin each class by having students read one another’s reflections. This made it possible to begin discussions with a general understanding of the different perspectives participants had and to get a number of questions out on the table before beginning discussion. While it’s impossible to say whether the discussions would have been as good if students had not done and shared these reflections, students certainly came to class prepared, were able to refer to and draw on one another’s points and questions in discussion, and seemed to get to know one another’s perspectives pretty quickly.

In the future, making the "informal" presentations an explicit part of the skills to be developed might be useful. Similarly, it might be useful to make the criteria of good presentations and reflections clearer up front. One way to do this would be to produce a guiding sheet for presentations (e.g. provides summary handout so don’t have to describe too much of the program; provides an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses, and an overall recommendation/conclusion about the piece). I could also share some examples of different reflections initially and talk about the features of good reflections. Of course, these efforts might put more pressure on the presentations and reflections and make them seem more like assignments than means of collecting and distributing knowledge among the group.

The course was also designed to enable people to to pursue projects and topics of interest to them. While this necessitated a certain amount of flexibility and ambiguity, for the most part, this seemed to allow students to draw on their work and experiences and help them to go deeper in areas where they were personally concerned. For example, one student told me that this course allowed him to make connections among his work in a number of other classes (even though, as a visiting instructor, I was unable to find out much of anything about what students were actually doing in their other classes).

In terms of changes to make, I felt like the projects could have benefitted from a more extended discussion of the criteria used to assess them. I had planned to develop the criteria together with the students, but ran out of time for doing that every time I planned for it. Relatedly, I also should have developed a way to give people feedback on their performance in the course earlier along. This could have been in the form of a more formal evaluation of the students’ project outlines, or, preferably, on all their participation, reflections, project plans etc. While I am more concerned with giving them useful feedback than quantifying that in a grade, I found that if I give them feedback but they don’t know what grade goes along with it, they don’t really know how to interpret or use the feedback. Finally, I am still struggling with figuring out how to give students the time to focus on their projects and do the necessary preparation and how to make best use of the classes at the end of the semester. Students’ participation and preparation for discussion dropped off for the second-to-last class (when they were supposed to be bringing in a "problem" to discuss related to their projects), but maybe this is an inevitable consequence of the end of the semester.

Scholarship of teaching

In many ways, this class was an experiment to see if I could do the work of the class and some regular reflection at the same time. Furthermore, I wanted to see if I could produce a web-site that documented the course relatively simply, in a relatively short period of time. In general, I was surprised at the extent to which my reflections on each week ended up being integrated into my preparations. Most importantly, I found that the reflections led to a weekly summary I could share with the students and serve as a reminder for the students as well as for me about what was going on in the course. The use of a web-site, which allowed me to collect students’ work and reflections in an electronic format (as well as organized my own summaries and assignments) was also a critical factor that made it easier to produce this web-site than I had anticipated. Of course, the small number of students and the fact that I did not have to teach other classes at the same time made this work that much easier, but, in the end, I think I still have a better idea of how to tailor my level of documentation and reflection to meet the amount of time available.

Trying to decide which aspects of my assignments, comments, reflections, the students’ work etc. to make public, however, also made me acutely aware that this work could be judged and assessed by an audience that might interpret the work very differently than I did. For example, I chose not to make all of my notes in preparation for each class or all of my reflections public because, even though I knew I wanted to "make my teaching public", these notes and reflections were written for me. Furthermore, in some cases, they reflected my initial efforts to develop and "try out" critiques of authors and programs, one’s that I ultimately may refine or discard.

More importantly, this experience also reinforced for me the extent to which these documentation efforts could expose students’ work to unanticipated scrutiny. Thus, I chose not to make the students’ weekly reflections public on this web-site because these were also, as they were supposed to be, informal musings that allowed students to say whatever was on their mind. These issues also surfaced when I asked students to fill out a consent form indicating whether or not they were willing to have their work shared in this web-site (students were given the consent forms in class, but they were delivered to me after grading was completed so willingness to participate could not influence my assessment of their work). At that time, several students pointed out that their project reports included information that they obtained from observations in schools and conversations with school members. These school members agreed to participate with the understanding that they were contributing to a class assignment not a report to be published on the world wide web. Another expressed a concern that she was developing ideas for her own program that she feared others could use or borrow before she could copyright or protect them. I was also concerned because I was asking the students’ to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the programs they were investigating, and, if published, that information -- like my own critiques -- could eventually make its way back to the programs themselves. Therefore, I encouraged every student to either choose not to participate or to write any conditions they desired onto the consent form. In the end, three wrote brief conditions (to only use a portion of their report or not to use their report), and, ultimately, I chose only to include the project and presentation of one student who was happy to have his work used as part of the site.


Overview of a Course on Current Approaches to Teaching, Learning, and School Improvement. c. 2000, Thomas Hatch, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  All the material contained on this site has been produced by Thomas Hatch or other authors as noted. These materials can be downloaded, printed, and used with proper acknowledgement, including the name and affiliation of the author and the web-site address.