And What Do YOU Mean by Learning - Heinemann

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And what do you mean by learning? / Seymour B. Sarason p. cm. Includes bibliographical references. ISBN 0-325-00639-3 (alk. paper). 1. Learning. 2.

And What Do YOU Mean by Learning?

Seymour B. Sarason

Heinemann Portsmouth, NH

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Heinemann A division of Reed Elsevier Inc. 361 Hanover Street Portsmouth, NH 03801–3912 www.heinemann.com Offices and agents throughout the world © 2004 by Seymour B. Sarason All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Sarason, Seymour Bernard, 1919– And what do you mean by learning? / Seymour B. Sarason p. cm. Includes bibliographical references. ISBN 0-325-00639-3 (alk. paper) 1. Learning. 2. Educational change—United States. I. Title. LB1060.S27 2004 370.15’23—dc22 2003021258

Editor: Lois Bridges Production editor: Sonja S. Chapman Cover design: Night & Day Design Author photo: Zach Fried Typesetter: Valerie Levy/Drawing Board Studios Manufacturing: Steve Bernier Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper 08 07 06 05 04 VP 1 2 3 4 5

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To Nathaniel Feuerstein with his grandfather’s love.

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Contents

Preface ix One

The Major Themes 1 Two

Words and Things 11 Three

Infant and Parental Learning 27 Four

Parents as Teachers 39 Five

Home and School Contexts of Learning 55 Six

What Do We Mean by Critical Thinking? 69 Seven

Practical versus Impractical 87 Eight

Creativity and Classrooms 107

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Contents

Nine

The Disconnect Between Administrators and Classroom Learning 125 Ten

What Do Administrators Know About Contexts of Learning? 141 Eleven

What Is Missing in a Voucher Policy? 169 Twelve

What Can People Become? 187 Postscript

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood 197 Bibliography 201

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Preface

This book is centered around two assertions. The first is that the word or concept of learning is not only lacking in substance but also has the characteristics of an inkblot; in addition, the relationship of those characteristics to actions is illogical, confusing, and self-defeating. The second assertion is that unless and until research provides a credible basis for distinguishing between contexts of productive and unproductive learning in the classroom, educational reform will be fruitless. I know that together the two assertions will elicit surprise in some people, disbelief in others, if only because people unreflectively assume that what they mean by learning is obviously clear, right, natural, and proper, and not in need of scrutiny. I do not claim to have done justice to either assertion but I do claim that there is evidence that both assertions cannot and must not be dismissed out of hand. Learning is not a thing. Learning is a process that occurs in an interpersonal and group context, and it is always composed of an interaction of factors to which we append labels such as motivation, cognition, emotion or affect, and attitude. Neither singly nor in their interactions is the strength of these factors ever zero. Direct observation of the learner can give us a limited, albeit important, picture of the factors always part of the learning process. How we intuit or deduce the role of the factors depends on the psychological-conceptual sophistication of the teacher. For example, parents of preschoolers are always trying to make sense of the relation between what they directly see and what may be in the minds of their youngsters. That is why in the pages of this book I contrast the parent-as-teacher with the classroom teacher. For example, when a nine-month-old child unexpectedly begins to display marked anxiety when strangers come near, parents may become puzzled, especially when the child has never displayed such behavior. The parent may ask, Why this “new” behavior, what does it mean, what does it portend, what should or can I do, what is going on in that little head? In a classroom of twenty to twenty-five children the teacher is almost daily asking and trying to answer similar questions she has about students. Teacher and parent feel compelled to do something, but at the same time neither feels secure about what is going on in the child’s mind.

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Preface

Teachers, like parents, get concerned when a child cannot do something children of that age should be able to do. Both seek answers because both have to act. If you peruse any of the widely used books by parents on infant and child care, containing as they do instances of puzzling or difficult behavior a parent seeks to repair or prevent, you will see that the advice given in the book is based on the author’s implicit or explicit conception of learning. And over the decades different authors have differed widely (even wildly) in their conceptions, as Hurlbert’s (2003) recent book has so clearly demonstrated. Your conception of the learning process not only has enormous implications for classroom learning contexts but also goes a long way to explaining why I have long predicted that educational reforms, resting as they do on a superficial conception of learning, will continue to be disappointing. This book was written not only for educators, but also for a general public puzzled by how little the reform movement has to show despite the fact that since World War II several billions of dollars have been poured into the reform movement by federal, state, and local governments, as well as foundations. In fact, the failures of the educational reform movement should have alerted us a long time ago to the possibility that our conception of learning and its contexts is part of the problem. For example, it is now the conventional wisdom to proclaim mantra-like that schooling will not improve unless there is a partnership between teachers and parents, that they need each other and the child needs both of them if he or she is to benefit from the partnership. But what do we ordinarily mean by and about partnerships? If we know anything about partnerships, marital or business, it is that they are not interpersonal beds of roses. That has long been the case in the relationship between teachers and parents. That should not be surprising for many reasons, but let me mention a few here which would explain why this book contains what it does. First, both before and after a child starts school, parents know and experience their child in ways teachers do not and cannot. Similarly, teachers know that child in ways that parents do not and cannot. What teachers and parents know may vary from being similar to being widely discrepant. Second, partnership requires—it certainly implies—that each partner knows what the other one is thinking, doing, and why. Each should feel safe expressing their point of view because they have the same goal: maximizing the quantity and quality of what the child learns. When, as is so often the case, issues of turf, temperament, and power enter the picture, the exchange of knowledge about and experience with the child plummets and the goal of the partnerships is negatively affected. Partnership becomes a label, not a reality; the partners do not learn with or from each other. Third,

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aside from the fact that teachers receive no training whatsoever in how they should talk and relate to parents, the culture of schools in no way makes up for that mission in training. What are schools for? The universal answer is that they are places where children learn. No one, educators or otherwise, has ever said that schools are places where teachers learn. I have long regarded it as a glimpse of the obvious that teachers cannot be expected to create and sustain a context of productive learning for children if such a context does not exist for teachers. And such a context hardly exists for teachers. In many schools it exists not at all; the poor quality of parent-teacher relationships is but one instance of it. Fourth, parents, indeed people generally, are ignorant of how a teacher is embedded in a school system in which he or she is at the bottom of an organization chart with layers of administrators above her in power and responsibility but who provide little or no direct help with the learning of teachers and students, let alone of parents. So we have at least three school learning contexts: teacher and students, teacher and administrators, teacher and parents. None of these contexts is independent of each other and all of them are under increasing critical scrutiny because of puzzled dissatisfaction with the level of quality of student learning. It is not surprising that public frustration leads to blame assignment and scapegoating, a reaction that is understandable but in my opinion will continue to be without positive consequences. It is quite understandable to me that a parent with a child in school is most concerned with who is her child’s teacher this year, who may be the child’s teacher next year, etc. And I say “concern” advisedly because parents know that their year will be a good or bad year depending on who their child’s teacher is. It is the rare parent who has not had bad years. It is, I suppose, too much to expect of parents that they understand that teachers are victims of training programs that ill equipped them for the awesome, demanding, sensitive role of teacher, and that school systems do little or nothing to help. In my experience there is one group of teachers who will agree with what I have said: these are teachers whose children are in school and who for one or another reason have reservations about how their children are being taught or treated, meet with the teacher, and end up resentful because they have been made to feel unjustly critical, subjective, or demanding. Someone should do a study of such encounters between teachers. I predict that the results will be similar to what is described in books written by physicians who became hospital patients. Learning is not a thing, it is a process. This book is an elaboration of that assertion. There is learning and there is learning. I try on

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these pages to distinguish between contexts of productive and unproductive learning. And by productive I mean that the learning process is one which engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more. Absent wanting to learn, the learning context is unproductive or counterproductive. Is it not noteworthy that the word or concept of learning probably has the highest of all word counts in the diverse literatures in education and yet when people are asked what they mean by learning they are taken aback, stammer or stutter, and come up with a sentence or two which they admit is vague and unsatisfactory? Teachers, like parents and everyone else, have far from complete control over the context in which they carry out their assigned roles. The mother and father may not see eye to eye on how to rear their child, the father may not be around much and the mother feels overburdened and alone, if there is more than one child the mother and/ or the father may feel they are not giving each the quality and quantity of the attention the parents think each child needs, financial resources constrict what parents would like to have for their children, etc. It is no different in the case of teachers, a fact parents tend not to recognize and appreciate. I have written about educational reform in previous books and in this book I had no intention to go over or even summarize what I have written. The one exception has to do with the nature of the relationship between the classroom teacher and those in the administrative hierarchy whose responsibility it is to insure or monitor the degree to which contexts of classroom learning are appropriate and effective. If the relationship between the teacher and administrators is superficial and infrequent, as is now the case, changes and improvement in student learning cannot occur. In this book I devote only one chapter to this issue because it will give readers, especially if they are not educators, some understanding of why in the school culture the concept of learning is not discussed, challenged, or changed. “And what do you mean by learning?” Is it not strange that that question is hardly discussed in schools? Would you not find it strange if in churches and synagogues there was hardly any discussion of the essential feature of religion: faith? It took the better part of the twentieth century for mental health professionals to begin to recognize that troubled children and parents can be helped beyond a small degree by treating any or all of the family not in a one-on-one way but rather literally as a family. Every family is a system of relationships in which each member affects all other members in small or large ways. The task of understanding and altering the family’s system is never easy. We blithely acknowledge that classrooms and schools are part of a school “system,” and then proceed to deal with the major problems by riveting on part X, then on

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part Y, and so on, as if each part in no way bears the imprimatur of a larger system. In theory and practice, it is a confirmation of Mencken’s caveat that for every major problem there is a simple answer that is wrong. It is like the way we use the concept of learning where we are not aware we are missing the trees for the forest. In my experience, parents have a working understanding about their family as a system, although it tends not to prevent them from reacting only to its parts. That is far less the case with school personnel for whom the concept of system is as murky and superficial as their concept of learning. What were the features of the learning contexts that were productive for you? If readers ponder that question, they will have no difficulty following my argument, and, I predict, they will agree with me, especially those who are parents. I can assure the reader that I do not mean I believe that I have said the last word on learning. I shall be more than content if this book stirs discussion on what is meant by learning. And my cup of content will overflow if it persuades readers that noncosmetic educational reform will be impossible unless it rests on a conception of learning radically different from the contentless one about which it can be securely said that it has been neither practical nor helpful. As always, it is with the deepest gratitude that I acknowledge my thanks to Lisa Pagliaro for the many practical ways she is helpful to me. —Seymour B. Sarason Stratford, Connecticut

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Preface

This book is centered around two assertions. The first is that the word or concept of learning is not only lacking in substance but also has the characteristics of an inkblot; in addition, the relationship of those characteristics to actions is illogical, confusing, and self-defeating. The second assertion is that unless and until research provides a credible basis for distinguishing between contexts of productive and unproductive learning in the classroom, educational reform will be fruitless. I know that together the two assertions will elicit surprise in some people, disbelief in others, if only because people unreflectively assume that what they mean by learning is obviously clear, right, natural, and proper, and not in need of scrutiny. I do not claim to have done justice to either assertion but I do claim that there is evidence that both assertions cannot and must not be dismissed out of hand. Learning is not a thing. Learning is a process that occurs in an interpersonal and group context, and it is always composed of an interaction of factors to which we append labels such as motivation, cognition, emotion or affect, and attitude. Neither singly nor in their interactions is the strength of these factors ever zero. Direct observation of the learner can give us a limited, albeit important, picture of the factors always part of the learning process. How we intuit or deduce the role of the factors depends on the psychological-conceptual sophistication of the teacher. For example, parents of preschoolers are always trying to make sense of the relation between what they directly see and what may be in the minds of their youngsters. That is why in the pages of this book I contrast the parent-as-teacher with the classroom teacher. For example, when a nine-month-old child unexpectedly begins to display marked anxiety when strangers come near, parents may become puzzled, especially when the child has never displayed such behavior. The parent may ask, Why this “new” behavior, what does it mean, what does it portend, what should or can I do, what is going on in that little head? In a classroom of twenty to twenty-five children the teacher is almost daily asking and trying to answer similar questions she has about students. Teacher and parent feel compelled to do something, but at the same time neither feels secure about what is going on in the child’s mind.

vii

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Preface

Teachers, like parents, get concerned when a child cannot do something children of that age should be able to do. Both seek answers because both have to act. If you peruse any of the widely used books by parents on infant and child care, containing as they do instances of puzzling or difficult behavior a parent seeks to repair or prevent, you will see that the advice given in the book is based on the author’s implicit or explicit conception of learning. And over the decades different authors have differed widely (even wildly) in their conceptions, as Hurlbert’s (2003) recent book has so clearly demonstrated. Your conception of the learning process not only has enormous implications for classroom learning contexts but also goes a long way to explaining why I have long predicted that educational reforms, resting as they do on a superficial conception of learning, will continue to be disappointing. This book was written not only for educators, but also for a general public puzzled by how little the reform movement has to show despite the fact that since World War II several billions of dollars have been poured into the reform movement by federal, state, and local governments, as well as foundations. In fact, the failures of the educational reform movement should have alerted us a long time ago to the possibility that our conception of learning and its contexts is part of the problem. For example, it is now the conventional wisdom to proclaim mantra-like that schooling will not improve unless there is a partnership between teachers and parents, that they need each other and the child needs both of them if he or she is to benefit from the partnership. But what do we ordinarily mean by and about partnerships? If we know anything about partnerships, marital or business, it is that they are not interpersonal beds of roses. That has long been the case in the relationship between teachers and parents. That should not be surprising for many reasons, but let me mention a few here which would explain why this book contains what it does. First, both before and after a child starts school, parents know and experience their child in ways teachers do not and cannot. Similarly, teachers know that child in ways that parents do not and cannot. What teachers and parents know may vary from being similar to being widely discrepant. Second, partnership requires—it certainly implies—that each partner knows what the other one is thinking, doing, and why. Each should feel safe expressing their point of view because they have the same goal: maximizing the quantity and quality of what the child learns. When, as is so often the case, issues of turf, temperament, and power enter the picture, the exchange of knowledge about and experience with the child plummets and the goal of the partnerships is negatively affected. Partnership becomes a label, not a reality; the partners do not learn with or from each other. Third,

Heinemann--Sarason [fm].p65

8

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Preface

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aside from the fact that teachers receive no training whatsoever in how they should talk and relate to parents, the culture of schools in no way makes up for that mission in training. What are schools for? The universal answer is that they are places where children learn. No one, educators or otherwise, has ever said that schools are places where teachers learn. I have long regarded it as a glimpse of the obvious that teachers cannot be expected to create and sustain a context of productive learning for children if such a context does not exist for teachers. And such a context hardly exists for teachers. In many schools it exists not at all; the poor quality of parent-teacher relationships is but one instance of it. Fourth, parents, indeed people generally, are ignorant of how a teacher is embedded in a school system in which he or she is at the bottom of an organization chart with layers of administrators above her in power and responsibility but who provide little or no direct help with the learning of teachers and students, let alone of parents. So we have at least three school learning contexts: teacher and students, teacher and administrators, teacher and parents. None of these contexts is independent of each other and all of them are under increasing critical scrutiny because of puzzled dissatisfaction with the level of quality of student learning. It is not surprising that public frustration leads to blame assignment and scapegoating, a reaction that is understandable but in my opinion will continue to be without positive consequences. It is quite understandable to me that a parent with a child in school is most concerned with who is her child’s teacher this year, who may be the child’s teacher next year, etc. And I say “concern” advisedly because parents know that their year will be a good or bad year depending on who their child’s teacher is. It is the rare parent who has not had bad years. It is, I suppose, too much to expect of parents that they understand that teachers are victims of training programs that ill equipped them for the awesome, demanding, sensitive role of teacher, and that school systems do little or nothing to help. In my experience there is one group of teachers who will agree with what I have said: these are teachers whose children are in school and who for one or another reason have reservations about how their children are being taught or treated, meet with the teacher, and end up resentful because they have been made to feel unjustly critical, subjective, or demanding. Someone should do a study of such encounters between teachers. I predict that the results will be similar to what is described in books written by physicians who became hospital patients. Learning is not a thing, it is a process. This book is an elaboration of that assertion. There is learning and there is learning. I try on

Heinemann--Sarason [fm].p65

9

01/06/2004, 12:17 PM

x

Preface

these pages to distinguish between contexts of productive and unproductive learning. And by productive I mean that the learning process is one which engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more. Absent wanting to learn, the learning context is unproductive or counterproductive. Is it not noteworthy that the word or concept of learning probably has the highest of all word counts in the diverse literatures in education and yet when people are asked what they mean by learning they are taken aback, stammer or stutter, and come up with a sentence or two which they admit is vague and unsatisfactory? Teachers, like parents and everyone else, have far from complete control over the context in which they carry out their assigned roles. The mother and father may not see eye to eye on how to rear their child, the father may not be around much and the mother feels overburdened and alone, if there is more than one child the mother and/ or the father may feel they are not giving each the quality and quantity of the attention the parents think each child needs, financial resources constrict what parents would like to have for their children, etc. It is no different in the case of teachers, a fact parents tend not to recognize and appreciate. I have written about educational reform in previous books and in this book I had no intention to go over or even summarize what I have written. The one exception has to do with the nature of the relationship between the classroom teacher and those in the administrative hierarchy whose responsibility it is to insure or monitor the degree to which contexts of classroom learning are appropriate and effective. If the relationship between the teacher and administrators is superficial and infrequent, as is now the case, changes and improvement in student learning cannot occur. In this book I devote only one chapter to this issue because it will give readers, especially if they are not educators, some understanding of why in the school culture the concept of learning is not discussed, challenged, or changed. “And what do you mean by learning?” Is it not strange that that question is hardly discussed in schools? Would you not find it strange if in churches and synagogues there was hardly any discussion of the essential feature of religion: faith? It took the better part of the twentieth century for mental health professionals to begin to recognize that troubled children and parents can be helped beyond a small degree by treating any or all of the family not in a one-on-one way but rather literally as a family. Every family is a system of relationships in which each member affects all other members in small or large ways. The task of understanding and altering the family’s system is never easy. We blithely acknowledge that classrooms and schools are part of a school “system,” and then proceed to deal with the major problems by riveting on part X, then on

Heinemann--Sarason [fm].p65

10

01/06/2004, 12:17 PM

Preface

xi

part Y, and so on, as if each part in no way bears the imprimatur of a larger system. In theory and practice, it is a confirmation of Mencken’s caveat that for every major problem there is a simple answer that is wrong. It is like the way we use the concept of learning where we are not aware we are missing the trees for the forest. In my experience, parents have a working understanding about their family as a system, although it tends not to prevent them from reacting only to its parts. That is far less the case with school personnel for whom the concept of system is as murky and superficial as their concept of learning. What were the features of the learning contexts that were productive for you? If readers ponder that question, they will have no difficulty following my argument, and, I predict, they will agree with me, especially those who are parents. I can assure the reader that I do not mean I believe that I have said the last word on learning. I shall be more than content if this book stirs discussion on what is meant by learning. And my cup of content will overflow if it persuades readers that noncosmetic educational reform will be impossible unless it rests on a conception of learning radically different from the contentless one about which it can be securely said that it has been neither practical nor helpful. As always, it is with the deepest gratitude that I acknowledge my thanks to Lisa Pagliaro for the many practical ways she is helpful to me. —Seymour B. Sarason Stratford, Connecticut

Heinemann--Sarason [fm].p65

11

01/06/2004, 12:17 PM