Beyond Terry's Old Windows:
 A Teacher's Thoughts 
Between Centuries

Phi Kappa Phi Forum Columns


Posted on March 12, 2010 at 8:43 PM

The larger the pendulum, the more slowly it moves, covering a wide expanse of territory, evenly, smoothly. At the end of its sweep the reverse in its direction is dramatic; without a moment to reorient, it is off again. The change is most tolerable to those who anticipate it and understand its history, those who know that the entire path will again be covered. At some moments it reaches extremes, at some moments it is truly centered, but never for long ...

Children in elementary and middle school classes have spent a large portion ot their school day in the past two decades working in collaborative groups, in curricula that has emphasized process, inquiry, and discovery. Shared experiences, peer brainstorming, trial and error, role modeling, hypothesizing, experimentation, and demonstrative proofs have been a large part of every student's classroom.

Math classes have incorporated learning centers in various stations around the room, stocked with manipulatives and small-group instruction sheets. Groups of students have been encouraged to work collectively to discover and implement the functions of mathematics, to guide each other toward experiencing the excitement of "figuring it out," and to complete problem-solving challenges together. Reading groups, whether of the whole language or of the sequential-skill variety, have been designed to allow an increase in oral participation for each child. Several groups working simultaneously in a classroom has resulted in what principals enjoy calling "the productive hum" of collaborative learning.

Writing workshops have focused on the writing process, from shared prewriting activities to peer editing to publishing for an audience. Science classes routinely involve labs with partners, providing hands-on experimentation and written products that demonstrate a familiarity with and a grasp of variables and controls, all lessons dependent on group input.

Social studies lessons have become experiential exercises, group simulations offering an improved understanding of people in geographic settings and cultural situations. Historical outcomes are presented as the result of identifiable trends and circumstances. Students have been involved in governing their classrooms, and relevant decision-making strategies have occurred as extension activities.

So many interactive, participatory experiences have filled each school day.So much emphasis, so much class time, has been allocated to achieving the process rather than simply the product, and to developing "group skills" such as considerate listening, respectful inclusion, open-minded discussion, and patience. These are lessons that take time, that take careful planning and execution. They cannot be hurried and are difficult to measure comprehensively, expeditiously. Teachers exhibit remarkable management skills in leading these classes, expending more physical energy in a day than most site managers might muster in a week. They capably guide their young students along the path toward becoming productive, collaborative, contributing members of our economic society, and life-long learners. Teachers' days have been spent preparing materials, clarifying directions, moving from group to group and motivating their students as workers. Teachers have become facilitators, managers, and evaluators, believing that their students will work in jobs that have not yet been conceived; the process of learning has been considered as valuable as the lessons learned. It seems, though, that the pendulum has reached its outer-most limit. Change is in the air.

Most classrooms in the past two decades have exemplified the creed "Childhood is a journey, not a race." But the path has just altered; checkpoints and a finish line have been erected along the way. States are creating mandated assessment tools that call upon quite different skills. The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) of 2001 requires that students as young as fourth grade (and again in eighth and tenth grades) spend a minimum of fifteen hours over a two-week period in sitting still, reading silently, and answering questions independently, demonstrating what they have learned by identifying and defending in (solitary) writing the correct answer.These high-stakes tests are not assessing whether a student has mastered a collaborative style. Content is the issue. Individual mastery is the goal.

Our teachers are returning to the study of pacing and sequencing charts, preparing now to lead their classes through a prescribed progression of skills, covering territory they have been told will be tested. Schools are working toward aligning their district-based choices within state-mandated frameworks and identifying clearly measurable benchmarks reminiscent of the detailed objectives of the early 1980s. Local press is interviewing principals in an effort to explain to the district taxpayers why students excelled in one area versus another. The pass-fail point is a hotly debated topic.

Massachusetts is not alone. Cities and towns across the nation are purchasing new materials at all grade levels and are calling for staff development that familiarizes teachers with the newly chosen scope and sequence. Colleges and universities in Massachusetts are being scrutinized, and their teaching candidates' pass-fail rates on the state's new certification tests are to be a factor in accreditation for these institutions of higher learning. The magic word in all educational circles is accountability. Can we prove what we have taught? Can our students prove what they have learned?

Wisdom tells us that education reinvents itself every twenty years, and that what once was will once again be, if one stays long enough to see it. The Foucault Pendulum at the Museum of Science in Boston is a wonderful visual example of the twenty-year cycle. In twenty-four hours, the relentless bob knocks over a full circle of pins at the outermost limit of its swing. It is able to do so not because it is rotating (the pure back-and-forth motion is protected by a wooden swing limiter and a small electro-magnetic motor at the steel cable's top) but because we, on earth, are rotating beneath it. Whatever our position is, the time will come when our pin will fall.

Collaboratively, educators at all levels could work together to respond to this current trend in assessment and devise a better way to allow our students to show the true measure of all that they have learned, the skills that will take them forward into the future. That would take time (and those collaborative skills of considerate listening, respectful inclusion, open-minded discussion, and patience). Individually, it seems more expedient to prepare our students for the tests they must take now, while the pendulum begins its reverse sweep. To do so, move the teacher's desk back to the front of the room, break up the clusters and put the student desks back into rows, and model an appreciation of independent study skills by praising the student who achieves singular success, for his time has come. The pendulum will cover this path again, but not in this decade. Steadily it moves, sweeping us along with it.

by TerryPalardy, Copyright National Forum: Phi KappaPhi Journal Winter 2001



Categories: collaboration, teaching, grading/assessment

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Reply Dave
8:27 PM on March 17, 2010 
The last paragraph is wonderful. Kids still have an immediate reaction to entering class when the seats are in rows. That is a positive sign that the pendulum has not completely "swept us along" even after 9 years.
Reply Terry
9:12 PM on March 12, 2010 
In the decade since this writing, the standardized tests have increased in frequency and length. The federal "No Child Left Behind" built on the Massachusetts model, adding the requirement of reading and math every year from third through eighth grade, and science and social studies in alternating years...In 2009, Massachusetts discontinued its Social Studies tests, claiming a budget deficit that required cutting back on assessments. They are currently revising and reconsidering the tests.