Teachers and Students: the Relationship at the Heart of the Matter

by Kyle Johnson and Leslie Blair
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XI, Number 2, August 1999, At the Heart of the Matter: Improving Teaching and Learning Through Professional Development

As the twentieth century draws to a close, educators across the country are reviewing this period of unparalleled innovation and change for America's schools. From the birth of modern education reform with John Dewey and the so-called Progressive movement of the early 1900s, to the Sputnik-driven radical overhaul of math and science curriculums in the 1960s, to the present era of comprehensive school reform and the push for national standards, virtually no school remains untouched by the whirlwind of reform. However, relatively few have been touched in a meaningful way. The question first posed by John Dewey in 1908—"How do we make a quality education available to all people?"—remains as salient as ever.

"It's all been pretty much like a drop of water rolling off the back of a duck," says Stephen Marble, manager of the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory's Program for the Improvement of Teaching and Learning (PITL). "We've seen lots of ideas, and a few very, very good ideas that have had isolated success and stimulated a lot of national debate. But they've all more or less failed to take hold across the broader system—we haven't done a very good job at figuring out how to make change sink in."

Why is that? Richard F. Elmore, a professor at the Harvard University School of Education, has spent most of the last six years attempting to answer that question. In his 1996 research paper, "Getting to Scale with Good Educational Practice," he largely faults a pattern of over-emphasis on trying to bring change about at a broad policy level at the expense of teaching teachers the skills needed to implement reforms in the classroom. Citing prior research by University of Chicago professor Larry Cuban, Elmore notes that even the Progressive movement had a "weak, diluted" impact on the education system as a whole, only "slightly" affecting the daily practice of teachers in less than 25 percent of the nation's classrooms.

"If you're not changing the way teachers behave in the classroom, what are you doing?" says Elmore. "Whatever it is, it will have at best an indirect relationship to student learning, or more likely no relationship, or a completely random relationship—which explains why virtually all of the major reforms this century have missed their mark. We've become very good at changing the overarching structure of the education system without really changing anything."

This insight led Elmore to formulate his "core relationship" idea of school reform, which holds that for any effort to be meaningful, it must somehow extend to the fundamental manner in which teachers and students conceive of their roles, subject matter, and interaction in the classroom. And, says Marble, that model of teaching and learning has lately helped SEDL address the many challenges it faces in helping to implement school change.

"Thinking about the core relationship represents a significant break from the old way of thinking about school improvement, which centered around changing the mechanics of education," says Marble. "The main idea of the core relationship, really, is how do you get people to examine the relationship between students and teachers and ask the questions, What is the heart of the matter? What do we want our kids to be doing in the classroom?"

"Those are very difficult questions to answer," he adds, "because educators in general are not very sophisticated about really talking about the relationship between kids and teachers. But those are the questions we must answer if we want what we're doing to make a difference"

At SEDL, the "heart of the matter" is fostering a core relationship where teachers and students are truly partners in the learning endeavor—a relationship where teachers are constantly looking for ways to build their knowledge of the learning process to enhance that partnership.

"We're really urging people to move away from the core relationship that exists in most classrooms today, where teachers stand up in the front of the classroom and recite their knowledge and the kids write it down. In SEDL's vision of the core, teachers and kids build knowledge together, because that's the way a significant body of research shows that most people will learn the most effectively."

The improvement of teaching and learning, then, requires that teachers shift their focus from what they teach to how students learn. But getting teachers to shift their focus is not easy. Marble tells of the following example of the difficulties of making changes that matter. Elmore also draws on a variation of this example when discussing structural changes schools make that don't necessarily result in changes in teaching and learning.

Block scheduling finally went into effect at the school after a difficult, two-year process during which time the superintendent had to convince the local school board, teachers, parents, and students that the scheduling change would enable teachers to have the time to get to know students and move toward more in-depth instruction based upon student needs, and that the schedule change would give students the time necessary to learn challenging material. The next year it gained widespread acceptance. Although some teachers at the school used the extended learning periods effectively, others did not. One teacher exclaimed during an evaluation session, "I love it! Now I can show the class the whole movie in one sitting!"

Marble says of this example, "It was just one incident, but I also think it's not an isolated one in terms of how we generally view school reform. All these years of work, and obviously not much had changed for this one teacher. For me, it really drives home the fact that if we're going to change the schools, the core relationship is what we must focus on. Changing the bell structure, or laying down a tough new set of standards, or buying a bunch of wonderful technology doesn't mean a whole lot if we don't teach teachers to use those tools."

SEDL's Emphasis on the Core Relationship

"Professional training, the day-to-day pressures of teaching jobs, and much of the dialogue about educational ills and improvements tend to push teachers' attention toward what teachers do rather than what students learn. We have come to believe the only way to find meaning in the instructional task is to make student learning the central focus," reports SEDL program associate Sandy Finley. "This involves viewing teaching and learning from the perspective of what students need to learn and how they can best learn it."

Everything goes back to that basic core relationship between the teachers and students, and the fact that if we aren't really working to significantly impact teacher practice in the classroom, we probably aren't working very smart.—Shirley Hord

One way SEDL is helping teachers shift their focus to understanding how students learn is through discussion and study groups. Finley explains that as part of the Promoting Instructional Coherence (PIC) project, SEDL staff met with groups of teachers every two-to-three weeks. Throughout the school year, the teachers spent time discussing the learning process and reflecting on their teaching practices. During the first semester, in the SEDL-facilitated study group sessions, the teachers examined their choices about curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Their conversations revolved around such questions as:

  • How do I think students learn?
  • What do I want my students to learn?
  • Why is it important for my students to learn this?
  • How will I teach this concept so that my students can learn it?
  • How will I know if they understand the concept?

During the second semester, SEDL staff developed new activities to augment the discussions and provide teachers with new learning experiences. In one group, the teachers were given an engaging science problem to solve. They predicted what would happen and conducted experiments to test their ideas. Afterward, they discussed the process they used to understand the problem, to think about predictions, and to explain what actually happened in their experiments. The teachers also talked about how their learning experiences in the activity related to learning experiences students have in their classes.

Examining students' work was another activity the teachers performed together. Issues such as quality of work, different methods of assessment, and the relationship of assessment to curriculum and instruction were discussed as a result of the activity.

During the discussions throughout the school year, Finley reports the teachers' understanding of the learning process became much more sophisticated, and the decisions they made regarding curriculum, assessment, and instruction became better decisions for the students. "By having a greater understanding of the learning process, they are empowered to make better choices," she says.

SEDL initiated PIC with the idea that placing learning at the center of practice was the best way to assist teachers in making good decisions about their instruction, thereby improving the core relationship between student and teacher. SEDL staff, however, did not realize the vital role that group settings could play in helping teachers translate ideas into practice.

"To some teachers, getting to discuss their work with their colleagues became a highly valuable part of the year's experience, as important as the changes they were seeing in their classroom," says Finley. "We also found that teachers who engaged in personal and group reflection began to value and also question the expertise that they brought to teaching." Other SEDL programs that work toward changing the core relationship by helping teachers concentrate on the relationship include the Reading Coherence Initiative (see SEDLetter, March 1999), Creating Communities of Continuous Inquiry and Improvement (CCCII, see story 2 of this issue), the Southwest Consortium for the Improvement of Mathematics and Science Teaching (SCIMAST, see below), and the Technology Assistance Program (TAP, see story 3 of this issue). The Reading Coherence Initiative provides teachers with a framework for the reading process and uses a literary profile to help teachers assess student learning and inform their instruction. CCCII focuses on helping schools to become professional learning communities that function much like the study groups in the PIC project.

Teachers who have been involved in these programs overwhelmingly say they have changed their instruction and their relationships with students.

One SCIMAST participant reports:

The idea of a core relationship has encouraged me to refocus and work harder to align my instructional content more with the needs of the students.

Another writes:

Too often educators get "caught up" in trends and truly forget that the core relationship is what makes learning happen. The idea of the core relationship helped me to realize that sometimes superficial things occur without any real impact on learning. It made me realize teachers need more than just material things to be good teachers.

A teacher wrote about her experiences through the PIC project and the impact on her professional growth:

I had to question my educational philosophy. I had to hash out a few of my ideas on how to teach. I learned about me as a teacher. My strengths, my weaknesses. [Being in a teacher study group] has helped me grow as a teacher. We became very focused on what we do in the classroom, why we do it, and what are the effects from doing what we did . . . . I will continue to talk to other teachers. To hash things out. To learn. To be inspired.

Program manager Shirley Hord, whose team coordinates the CCCII project, says these SEDL projects are successful professional development vehicles not only because they change practice, but also because they involve teachers in active, engaged learning. "We're not lecturing to teachers, we are engaging them in processing information in a way that is meaningful to them. Both Stephen Marble's team and our team does a lot of that—figuring out how we can get people engaged so that they are building meaning of new concepts themselves, and not having somebody just tell them so that they go away with rote knowledge."

"We've tried all manner of things to fix the schools," says Hord, "and somewhere in the process we've forgotten the most important thing we know—that the single biggest factor that determines whether or not a kid will learn is that teacher in the classroom. Everything goes back to that basic core relationship between the teachers and students, and the fact that if we aren't really working to significantly impact teacher practice in the classroom, we probably aren't working very smart."

SCIMAST Works to Change the Core Relationship

Changing the core relationship is the unifying framework for most of the services and support provided by Southwest Consortium for the Improvement of Mathematics and Science Teaching (SCIMAST). Each fall SCIMAST hosts approximately 100 educators at a regional forum that probes important science and mathematics reform topics by engaging them in conversations that cover complex ideas, new sources of knowledge, and participants' ideas and experiences. In 1998, the forum focused specifically on clarifying the core relationship between teachers, students, and knowledge in school settings and then explored how understanding the core can assist educators in making important school reform decisions. Participants first analyzed film clips of teaching, learning, and classrooms as portrayed in the popular media to develop their construct of the core relationship, and then discussed how the core might impact decision making in two reform scenarios. Through reflection and dialogue, participants were asked to further articulate the significance and implications of the core relationship to their own work.

A second example of SCIMAST's emphasis on the core relationship can be found in the project's approach to professional development. Each activity that SCIMAST sponsors engages teachers as learners, assisting them in the construction of new understandings of content, instruction, and assessment through interactions with ideas, materials, and their peers. Teachers at Los Padillas Elementary School in Albuquerque, N.M., for example, have become students of their local environment on the way to designing a curriculum for their own students that incorporated the science and social history of the acequias, the canals which make up the complex irrigation system in the Rio Grande Valley where the school is located. In their study of native plants, ethnobotany, and the cultural connections surrounding the irrigation system, the teachers experienced a different relationship with knowledge than they had in their own formal schooling. They then applied what they learned when designing thematic units to take their own students into the field in a nontraditional study of the local environment.

Kyle Johnson is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. He writes frequently for the Christian Science Monitor and is a former reporter for the Austin American-Statesman. Leslie Blair is a SEDL communications associate and editor of SEDLetter.

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