WEEK 1                   Notes        Overheads       Pre-assessment       Class Summary    

Notes for Week 1

Today, what I'd like to do is just to tell you a little bit about my own work and background and why I'm teaching this course, and then spend some time digging right in to a debate about teaching and learning that E.D. Hirsch and Howard Gardner have been having in print and on the radio.

At the end of the day, I'm going to ask you to write a bit about your current ideas about teaching and learning, relevant background information, and contact information.

My background and the rationale for the course

In my previous work at Project Zero, I began studying the intellectual and social development of young children. I got more and more involved in issues of educational reform as I worked on projects in Boston and around the country where we tried to create school and aftershool environments that would support the development of the strengths and interests of each child.

This work brought me to the Carnegie Foundation, where I've chosen to try and get a better understanding of the many reform efforts that are underway around the country and the many different approaches to teaching and learning that they encompass.

In that work as well as in visits to other schools, I've been struck by the fact that you can always make an argument in favor of a given approach and always argue against it as well. No matter how good an approach or how perfect it seems to be it just may not work or fit in some places and no matter how much I dislike certain approaches there still may be some places where they do work well. My concern is that we spend too much time trying to figure out which one is better and in the process either end up distorting how good a program is or how bad it is. My question is this:

  • Can we take a balanced view that allows us to see both the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches and develop our abilities to understand how they can be carried out effectively in particular schools and communities without leading to the kinds of polarizing debates about which one is "better"? So this course is really designed to do that. I'll talk about how we'll try to do that in a moment.

Current approaches to school improvment and "comprehensive reform"

First, I want to talk a little bit more about why I think this is such an important issue right now. As some of you may know, over the past 20 years or so, there's been a tremendous growth in programs that promise to either help schools transform their curriculum in one or more subjects or transform their curriculum as part of a whole-school reform effort. In fact since 1983 (when Nation at risk was published) the number of programs available has doubled.

(See Figure 1)

And just this past year, the Department of Education helped to fund several more programs that focus on middle and high school. This approach has become particularly popular since 1998 when Congress passed legislation to create the CSRP program. In which they have explicitly encouraged schools to adopt one or more programs that could help them to create a comprehensive, school-wide approach to improvement.

Now, it is possible that this is the best, least controversial way that Congress can spend money on Education. Nonetheless, it is also far from clear whether schools working with these programs will really improve. In fact, several recent evaluations have suggested that only about 2 or 3 of these programs have really demonstrated their effectiveness. Furthermore, it is also clear that, in many cases, schools are simply adding programs on to the many school, state, and district initiatives that are already underway. In fact, in a survey I conducted in 1998 in one district here in the Bay Area, I found:

(See Figure 2)

I know from my experiences with ATLAS, that in many cases, these programs reflect very different approaches not only to teaching and learning, but also to the whole process of change. They have what those of you who have taken courses will recognize as different theories of action. (Theories of action is something we will talk more about later...) As a result, it can be extremely difficult to integrate them effectively or adapt them into a schools' own approach.

Goals for the course

So we'll come back in the next few weeks and talk more about the development of CSRD, how to examine and compare the theories of action of different programs, but:

  • from my perspective, the current drive to get schools to adopt programs established by what are often referred to as "external developers" is one of the main reasons why it's important to learn how to carefully examine some of the primary approaches to teaching and learning that are reflected in those programs, and how to explain and justify our own beliefs about teaching and learning.

Let me just add, that I don't mean to suggest that adopting these programs is necessarily a bad idea and that schools should really be developing their own approaches. That may work some places but that is not likely to work everywhere. Nor am I here to advocate for this approach or that approach, although you will certainly learn about my preferences as we go through the course. Nor do I expect everyone to come out of here agreeing that all approaches are likely to be equally effective.

But I do hope people emerge from this course with a:

  • better understanding and appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches,
  • the ability to explain and justify their own approaches more clearly and effectively than they might have before,
  • the skills to critique the approaches they come across in the future,
  • and the ability to identify and deal with the inevitable conflicts that arise when different people and institutions advocate different approaches.

So how are we going to accomplish this? Since the quarter is so short, I've decided to focus on only 4 approaches that I am fairly familiar with. And then leave some time for working on the final projects which I'll talk about in a moment. So let's walk through the syllabus... There are a couple of important things to note here. First, this is designed for us to spend most of our time in discussion. I will talk specifically about some issue or something that goes beyond our readings, but for the most part, the quality of our discussions and a lot of what you learn will depend on what you bring to this course. To the extent possible, for each topic, I'll try to find out what other relevant reading or work you may have done, and see if there are ways we can draw on that. For example, I may ask those of you with particular expertise on relevant subjects to help me lead the discussions or to make a brief presentation.

Second, I expect people to do a lot of reading in this course, but I don't expect anyone to do all the reading. The point of these assignments is not to read what I assign, but to use the readings I've assigned and any other information, resources, ideas whatever you can get your hands on to address the basic questions before us:

  • what are the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches;
  • what's the rationale used to justify them,
  • what implications do they have for our own beliefs

I expect you'll come to class each week prepared to share your opinion on that, and some weeks we'll deliberately ask people to cover different readings or web-resources so that we can all develop and expand the groups' understanding of these approaches.

To help facilitate that, I'm going to ask you to write a brief, and, * a page is fine, but no more than a page, reflection most weeks, and to share it with the other participants. That reflection will be due on-line by 6PM each Monday before class. Ideally, I hope people will have a chance to skim those reflections briefly before class, so that we can jumpstart our discussions.

Final project

In terms of the final product, I want to be clear as possible about what I want so you don't have to wonder what you're supposed to do. At the same time, I very open to talking with each of you about how to tailor the project so that it fits in with your interests and concerns. See the Final Project Handout.

Criteria for grading

Grades will be based on participants' contributions to the Seminar discussions, their weekly reflections and final projects. There will be no incompletes because the work needs to be completed in order for you to be a meaningful participant in the Seminar discussions.

Initial discussion of Hirsch/Gardner debate

Today I want to just jump into the Gardner/Hirsch debates so that we can try to figure out what we need to do in order to get beneath the rhetoric and determine the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches. At the outset, I want to acknowledge that we're dealing with deeply-held beliefs here, and I hope that their will be some important differences of opinion around these issues, but I expect our discussions to be respectful and to allow people to express and develop different opinions.


Next time: Gardner/traub handout; Gardner bio on PZ web-site. When you come to class next week, I'd like you to be prepared to discuss:

  • What is Teaching for Understanding from Gardner's perspective?
  • How does he justify the value/importance of the approach?
  • How might his background reflected in his approach?

For the Reflection next week, I'd like just half a page (and you might want to paste this into the discussion forum...) That describes your reaction to what you've learned about teaching for understanding:

What's most compelling about it? and/or

What problems do you see with Gardner's approach?

And then please let me know any questions that you have.

Initial assessment

Finally, I've got this information sheet and a few questions I'd like you to fill out. I want to use it to get a better understanding of your background and interests. Plus, I want to get a sense of what your own views on teaching and learning are, so I'd like you to let me know what goals and activities for students you think are most important, and I'm particularly interested in how you explain to someone else (just imagine you're talking to me for example) why your approach is valuable. We'll return to these questions at the end of the quarter.

My pedagogical approach

Just to help get a sense of what I'm interested in, let me just summarize how I might answer those questions. I'd say that my approach to teaching and learning is based on the idea that we need to build on students' prior experiences, help them develop a few key skills and develop their understanding of a few key concepts and ideas, and give them meaningful activities and problems in which they can explore and develop those skills and understandings. My goals, I talked about before, and in terms of key activities, for me those key activities include learning about students' backgrounds and previous experiences, reading texts closely, considering alternative interpretations and perspectives and debating them, having opportunities to revisit key concepts and ideas and exercise skills in different contexts (so for example, each week, we will be developing the same skills to examine, articulate and critique approaches to teaching and learning but with a different subject and often, with different kinds of materials), and finally to applying learning in new situations, and often, in the context of developing a product that has a meaning and usefulness that goes beyond this class.

I would justify that approach to someone else by explaining that my approach is based in part on my readings of psychological research, particularly Howard Gardner, David Perkins and Ann Brown, Allan Collins and others, my own experiences in elementary classrooms, and my work with teachers in k-12 and higher education. Through those experiences I've learned that teaching is a much more complicated process and developing deep understandings is a much more difficult undertaking than the educational system normally recognizes. Despite these difficulties, I've seen numerous cases in which providing students with learning experiences within their zones of proximal development can be particularly powerful; and I've also seen that students may not be able to generalize and sustain what they learn in one context without opportunities to apply skills and understandings in new contexts. Similarly, from my own experiences, and my work with students, I've found, that if you can create or tap into projects that people care about and have a reason to pursue you can find numerous opportunities to address many key learning goals.

I produced notes like these for many of the classes during the first six weeks. Rather than functioning like a "script" that I read, these notes serve more like a rehearsal for what I want to cover in class. Often, these notes, provide information for "mini-lectures" (in this case on current approaches to school improvement) which often come from or are used in subsequent papers, key questions for discussion, and reminders about administrative or procedural issues I have to address. I have provided these notes as an example because they provide relevant background on the main subject of the course -- current approaches to teaching and learning -- as well as a description of the pedagogical approach I was trying to pursue in this course.



Degree program and Year:

Area of concentration:

Work experience (if relevant, e.g. 9th grade Humanities teacher in a Coalition school; evaluator of school improvement efforts in the Bay Area etc.):

Why are you interested in taking this course?

Related courses taken:

Please indicate your level of familiarity with the following items (1= never heard of it, 2=heard of it, 3= somewhat familiar with it, 4=know it well)

  • Teaching for understanding
  • Cultural literacy
  • Success for All
  • America's Choice
  • The New Standards Project
  • The theory of multiple intelligences
  • The New Basic Skills
  • New American Schools
  • Annenberg Challenge
  • theories of action
  • A nation at risk
  • Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program
  • Reading Recovery
  • Bay Area School Reform Collaborative
  • Joint Venture
  • Silicon Valley
  • Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound
  • Modern Red Schoolhouse
  • Core Knowledge
  • Coalition of Essential Schoools
  • Accelerated Schools Project
  • School Development Program

How would you describe your own approach to teaching and learning? What are the most important goals for students? What are the key activities in which they should be involved? (Feel free to focus your answer on an area and/or level in which you have a particular interest e.g. High School mathematics, kindergarten etc.)


How would you explain or justify the value of that approach to someone who might hold a different view?

Class Summary

Our discussions raised a number of questions about the views of Gardner and Hirsch that we can continue to pursue in order to help us understand their views on teaching and learning and how they compare:

  • What are their main concerns or areas of emphasis? (or put another way, what are the main 'problems' they are trying to solve?)
  • What do they see as the purpose of education?
  • What is their view of an "educated person"?
  • What are the implications of these views for classroom practice? (What gets emphasized? What gets less attention?)
  • What do these approaches suggest about their views of the appropriate role of teachers, parents and others in the development and implementation of the curriculum?

In addressing some of these questions we identified:

  • some of the ways in which they may agree -- For example, they might agree that students in elementary school should focus on learning basic facts and skills, and students in high school need to develop deep understandings.
  • some of the ways in which they may agree in theory, but may disagree when it comes to deciding what to do in practice -- Both might agree that, ultimately, students need to have basic facts and skills and be able to understand material deeply, but may disagree when it comes to deciding what to focus on in the classroom.
  • some of the ways in which they disagree considerably -- About the nature and role of progressivism in American education; about whether or not "less is more" is a viable approach.
  • and some of the ways in which they are talking past one another -- e.g. HG empahsizes what's important for an educated person to be able to do, and EH talks about how to provide more equitable access to the dominant culture; HG talks about the process of learning from the point of view of what the individual needs to be able to do to understand the disciplines, Hirsch talks about learning from the point of view of the cultural content that needs to mastered.
I produced this summary and sent it to students via e-mail several days after class because I feared that students would get the feeling that the discussion served no real purpose. By creating this summary and subsequent summaries, I hoped to provide a foundation for further discussion by reminding us all of what we observed, how we felt, and what questions remained to be addressed.

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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.