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Reflections on Teaching: Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn

by Vito Perrone - 1997

This article is essentially an autobiographical reflection on forty years of teaching. It makes use of various accounts of schooling and teacher education practice, placing against them some of my experience and questions. Among the areas explored are the following: the continuities of teaching across the various levels, progressive teaching practice, matters of race in schools and in society, teaching for understanding, teacher education, knowing the students, learning communities, teaching as a moral and intellectual formulation, and constructive pedagogy.

This article is essentially an autobiographical reflection on forty years of teaching. It makes use of various accounts of schooling and teacher education practice, placing against them some of my experience and questions. Among the areas explored are the following: the continuities of teaching across the various levels, progressive teaching practice, matters of race in schools and in society, teaching for understanding, teacher education, knowing the students, learning communities, teaching as a moral and intellectual formulation, and constructive pedagogy.

In . . . shared activity, the teacher is a learner and the learner is without knowing it a teacher.”

—John Dewey, Democracy and Education

This DeGarmo lecture corresponds to the conclusion of my fortieth year of teaching. As forty years have special significance in our society, one of those marking occasions, it seems the right time to share some of what I have learned over the years about teaching and learning in relation to my work as a teacher educator and active participant in the life of schools.

Writing before the turn of the century, John Dewey suggested the need for teachers to be “students of teaching,” persons able to establish and maintain a reflective capacity as well as to be articulate about instructional intentions.1 When I first read Dewey’s philosophical stance regarding reflection and intentionality, it had immediate resonance, in large measure because I had long reflected on teaching practice, understanding fully that there were many critical lessons in the teaching-learning exchange, in and out of schools. I have been guided for many years by these lessons.

By carrying you through a small part of my reflective journey, which is my intention, I hope to provide encouragement for each of you to work your way through aspects of your own learning about teaching. Concurrently, I am using my reflections to make a number of observations about teacher education and the schools that I hope will guide some of our collective work as educators—though acknowledging that I can manage only the surface of this critical territory.

As a matter of context, you should know that I was a teacher long before my baccalaureate degree and teacher certification. I suspect this was also true for many of you. In the neighborhood in which I grew up, almost all the younger children learned how to play outdoor games from me—baseball, football, basketball, soccer, hockey, four square, volleyball, newcomb, paddleball, tennis, badminton, dodgeball, and kick-the-can, among others (and there were many others). There was not a game that I did not have a working knowledge of or was unable to actively teach with confidence. This kind of teaching continued throughout my high school and college years, extending beyond sports and recreational games to crafts, literature, reading and writing, community studies, and religious education.

What did I learn from all this early, pre-professional teaching? Most of all that teaching is not telling, that readiness for learning matters, that exemplars—actual, visible performances and products—are critical. Learning to play baseball meant in the end actually playing baseball; learning to read meant actually reading real books, real texts. The teachers of my three college teaching courses were not very close to those kinds of understandings, a circumstance I was particularly conscious of.

My postbaccalaureate teaching, which I also value greatly, has brought me into intensive exchange with young children, adolescents, and adults in early childhood centers, elementary and secondary schools, community settings, and colleges and universities. Needless to say, I have enjoyed my teaching at every level, unable, even when pressed, to speak of a preference.2 That may be the case because I have come to see my approach to teaching to be more similar than different at all the levels. Asking a young child “Why do you think that is?” or “What if you tried it another way?” is not so different from the questions I ask adults in the university setting. Deborah Meier notes, in this regard, that Central Park East Secondary School features a pedagogy that can be easily associated with a good kindergarten.3 I understand that. To the degree that a good kindergarten teacher takes children’s intentions seriously and understands that children need to construct meaning for themselves, practice at this kindergarten level could easily guide practice at all levels, including the university. Dewey offered a similar perspective about kindergarten teaching and university teaching.4

There has always been something natural about teaching—complementary relationships with others, conversation, and most of all learning. I emphasize learning because teaching, it seems to me, is the most powerful venue for learning that exists. Those who believe, for example, that the crucial preparation period for teaching occurs during preservice have lost sight of the power of ongoing teaching, actively reflected upon, as an even more potent source for learning about content, curriculum, and pedagogy.

My student teaching, at age twenty, occurred in West Junior High in Lansing, Michigan. It was not at the time a favored setting, being as central-city as a Lansing public school could be. (It was, I learned much later, the school Malcolm X left as a youth.) The teaching that I observed fostered considerably more passivity than activity on the part of students—the educational process governed mostly by textbooks, questions at the ends of the chapters, the filling in of blank spaces in various sentences and paragraphs. There was little genuine discussion and few demands for inquiry, interpretation, speculation. All the energy and enthusiasm was in the hallways, the gym, the concrete that surrounded the school. At the time, I thought a great deal about the contrast between the energy of students at West Junior and those I had worked with for many years outside of school—who used their active impulses as a base for learning.

Lisa Schneier, one of my current classroom teacher colleagues, wrote a remarkable essay several years ago contrasting the energy of students in the school hallways and in classrooms at her school. Regarding the latter, she writes: “A boy sits at a table [in my room] with his head down and covered by his arms when a few minutes before he had been dancing in the halls. . . . If we see, in the classroom, students who have withdrawn their vitality, if we see them turning for that time into shadows, it must be, at least partially, that this is all that we call forth.”5 I agree with Lisa that much of what students are asked to do makes few connections to their lives, to what matters for them. They are certainly not challenged to use their minds well or actually do something with their learning. That many become shadows may even be understandable.

When I first read Lisa’s account, I was immediately brought back to West Junior—and many of the other schools that have been a part of my life over the years. At the same time, based on good personal experience, observation of such schools as the Urban Academy and Central Park East in New York and the Pilot School and the Fenway in Cambridge and Boston respectively, and my review of thoughtful portraits of many different schools across the country that are providing their students a particularly powerful education, it is clear that classrooms can be places for serious inquiry, intellectual energy, and personal engagement. Not surprisingly, these classrooms are in schools that have made classroom energy and high-quality teaching and learning intentional goals that are worked at actively day after day. I stress day after day because good classroom practice takes ongoing attention. These are also schools in which the curriculum is the product of ongoing teacher exchange in the school site, assessment is primarily school based, and the purposes are fully visible in what people do day in and day out. They are schools that have intentionally been designed to fit the students and not schools that ask only that students fit the schools. Lillian Weber has made clear in regard to such examples: “If good practice exists in even one place, it is possible everywhere.”6 Our challenge is to help those in every school see for themselves that their settings can be different, that there can, in fact, be “dancing in the classrooms” as well as “dancing in the halls.” We can and should bring a similar perspective to our work in the academy.

I also grasped more fully while at West Junior the ways that students of color, who were poor, became marginalized. Given my own growing-up history, I entered the setting aware of the segregated housing patterns and economic inequities that existed. They were too sharp to go unnoticed. I remembered as well the occasions in school when questions about race and associated issues of class were put off, when race and class-related discussions I thought were important seemed always to be brought to abrupt conclusions. But in this new role, as a classroom teacher, I was pushed to think about all of this anew. The conventional wisdom is that new teachers, based on their long experience as students, enter settings they know a great deal about. Yet young teachers have long shared with me what I also learned, that sitting “behind the teacher’s desk” makes what may have seemed familiar ground a very different, even strange place.

Black-white racial divisions, two worlds, were particularly evident in the school. I thought the negative effects on teaching and learning should have been apparent. But as I noted carefully in my journal writing at the time, “issues of race and matters of equity are never discussed. ‘Things are as they are,’ is the prevailing view.”

Race needed to be discussed then. It needs desperately to be discussed now. Can we really believe that the barriers that now exist, that keep us from achieving the democratic ideals, the social justice, the economic progress that we hold out in our public discourse, will ever fall away without confronting more directly matters of race in the schools and in the society? How many more generations of silence can we endure? As it is, inquiries into matters of race in schools and in colleges and universities are awkward, guilt-ridden, sometimes hostile, but mostly absent. Where beyond schools and college classrooms are young people to learn to discuss matters of race with intelligence and sensitivity? How else but through active consideration of race will teachers and administrators in schools assume a higher level of awareness and take more seriously the effects of inequitable educational opportunity? I continue in this regard to be surprised by the denial of differential education for students of color—overplacement in special education and in lower-level courses, higher levels of suspension, lower graduation rates, higher dropout rates. When will such problems matter enough that we actually do something about them? They don’t exist by chance.7

I was also particularly conscious at West Junior of the fact that there were no African-American teachers in the building, even as the African-American student population was very high. It was probably not different in the schools I attended, but in this teaching role, with what seemed a heightened awareness, the lack of African-American teachers was fully visible. As I learned through my questions then and in later studies, the composition of the teaching staff in the school was not unique in Lansing or anywhere outside the then segregated schools in the South. What is dismaying today is that most schools in the United States still have an overwhelmingly Euro-American teaching staff, and we are forty-two years beyond Brown and in a new world regarding the demography of the student population. As things stand, most students in our schools can still expect to complete their K-12 schooling and not have a single teacher of color. This, I believe, is a tragedy for all students, regardless of their racial-cultural backgrounds, denying them a critical cultural education. What are we doing to change all of this?

After the student teaching semester and graduation from college, I went off to complete a two-year military obligation with very few expectations. The experience is on my mind now after a recent discussion with one of my students who served a four-year stint in the Marines prior to entering our program. He made the observation that our Teaching for Understanding framework matched well much of what he experienced in his military training. His comments brought me quickly back to my own observations of the military as school, something I actually thought about a good deal as I was going through it. Much of the teaching I observed through some six months of intentional instructional activity was precise, the purposes clearly delineated, known at the outset, with much of the evaluation having a performance base and an ongoing quality. In its own way, it clearly had many of the ingredients of what is currently held out as good teaching, as teaching for understanding.

I noted in letters to former teachers and friends how successful instructors were in getting everyone to a reasonably high level of proficiency in tasks that were not rooted in most people’s experience—for example, firing a variety of weapons with high levels of accuracy; reading and making successful use of contour maps of particular terrains; finding obscure places with the aid of compasses; designing, hooking up, and making use of complex communications systems. While obviously not high-level intellectual tasks (and the morality of much of what these activities were intended for quickly became insupportable to me), they all demanded high levels of intellectual concentration and active experience. That it was not the telling environment of the schools was clear, something I noted often in letters home.

For my last year in the military, I was involved in educational and cultural programs that were far removed from the mainstream of Army life, working mostly with civilians who directed theatrical productions from Hamlet to Showboat, organized a variety of musical concerts, and taught courses in visual arts and crafts. This immersion in the performance-oriented world of the arts was new to me. The instructors acted every bit like the coaches Theodore Sizer and the Coalition of Essential Schools have actively promoted for schools.8 Their teaching was personal and highly interactive, with room for the students to be inventive, making the work their own. What was obvious was the naturalness of what they did. There was little of the didacticism that dominates so much of what passes for teaching in the schools and colleges.

Observing in this environment brought me back to my childhood teaching experiences. It also reminded me of occasions in school when my learning was larger than usual. I noted in particular becoming my school’s expert on National Socialism—the Nazi movement—in Germany, the product of five months of intensive research as a high school junior. Helping students gain personal control over a body of knowledge was clearly a goal of my history teacher. It ought to be every teacher’s goal in all courses, at all levels. How much different the teacher-student exchange would be if such a purpose existed.

Over the past several years, as part of our Harvard research project on Teaching for Understanding,9 I have been asking students, mostly at the middle school, high school, and undergraduate college levels, about times when they were most engaged intellectually, when their understandings were larger than usual, when their learning had a “special” quality. Needless to say, the response brought me back to my junior year in high school, to my last year of military service, and to many additional personal experiences in schools since in which teaching and learning assumed more active directions. Among other things, students spoke enthusiastically of working on projects they chose, that they cared about, with time to pursue their work intensively, gaining in the process what they acknowledged to be some form of expertness. Teachers were described as persons who worked actively with them, posed questions, did not appear to have fully determined ends in mind with regard to individual projects, seemed genuinely interested in getting them to wrestle with ideas, even learned from them. Why is that not the norm—the common experience—for students in our schools and in our colleges and universities?

Entering a secondary classroom as a first-year, now professional, teacher in Michigan was to be yet another powerful learning experience—another place for serious reflection on teaching and learning. I have thought a good deal about that beginning experience in relation to all the debates that have raged over the past forty years (and, as I have learned from my studies of educational history, in the previous hundred years as well) around one question: Are new teachers prepared sufficiently to teach at high levels? I often wonder what such a question actually means. I was clearly ready to make a beginning, and I understood that I was making a beginning, engaging in a journey in which I anticipated learning more and more, day by day. That I would be a much better teacher after five years or twenty years was very much with me, even as I was confident about being successful in this first year, fully expecting to serve the students well.

In light of such an outlook, how have I come to think about teacher education? I will share several experiences that relate to that question. In the 1960s and 1970s, I had the privilege of working in an experimental college that prepared teachers primarily through liberal arts courses, occasions in which prospective teachers reflected carefully on their experiences as learners (essentially autobiographical inquiry), close observation of children, intensive one-on-one teaching experiences (in many respects related to Eleanor Duckworth’s clinical interviewing10), and extensive internship experiences in “cooperating schools” in which the students had full teaching responsibilities for one academic year along with weekly reflective seminars, classroom research, and intensive journal writing. The quality of the teaching of these students was exceptional—inquiry-oriented, active, filled with high-level learning of the various subject matters, imaginative in regard to literacy activities and ongoing assessment, including self-evaluation, use of community resources, and connections to parents. That experience shapes much of my continuing thought about teacher education.

I have come, over the years, in spite of all the reform agendas, to believe that the best we can do in teacher preparation programs, through a variety of courses and clinical experiences in intentionally selected schools, is to help academically able and socially committed students enter teaching with constructive dispositions and skills relating to young people, curriculum content, pedagogy, and the power of collective thought; well-developed habits of observation and reflection; reasonable confidence and an understanding that they are entering a process of learning something important every day, working toward the largest possibilities they can imagine. Regarding the latter, I think it is important to keep before us and our students in all that we do the largest of possibilities—the best classrooms and schools we can imagine, the most productive exchange with students we can imagine, the most interesting and engaging curriculum we can imagine, the most useful connections to parents and communities we can imagine—believing with Alfred North Whitehead that “when ideals have sunk to the level of practice, the result is stagnation.”11 I also think a great deal about Erich Heller’s related admonition, “Be careful how you define the World, it is like that.”12

When students who are considering teaching ask me about what they might do prior to beginning their preparation programs that would be particularly helpful, I suggest they try for an extended period of time to be careful observers of children and young people in the natural environment, watching them in subways, trains, buses, in the streets, at parks and playgrounds; listening to their talk with each other and with adults; getting a larger view of similar as well as different patterns. Teaching, after all, is about knowing children and young people well—outside as well as inside schools. What we often learn through such observation is that children and young people are more competent, responsible, imaginative, and attentive to what is around them than the public media or our observations in schools might suggest. Given the structures in many of our schools, and the heavily negative media accounts of young people, it is quite easy to see them as having few of these qualities.

One of the most critical lessons I learned in my early years of teaching, and I am intentionally breaking from the teacher education discussion, was the importance of knowing the students well, coming to know what they care about, beginning always with their meanings, seeing the need to make connections with what we do in school and the world beyond school. How is it possible to teach students well without knowing them well? As I think about this, many examples come to mind, but I will share one experience in particular, from my fourth year of teaching at a very large, integrated secondary school in Lansing, Michigan, as it still influences my thought.

I had two brothers in my tenth-grade history course who were very quiet, doing too little with the course, often late. When I talked with them about getting to class late, they told me they ran traps in the morning and sometimes it took longer than they anticipated. Since we were in the city, nothing about the traps made sense to me. As it turned out, they lived outside the city in a swamp area. They asked without hesitation if I would like to walk their trap line with them. How could I say no? We made arrangements for me, and my two-and-a-half-year-old son, to go to their house on a subsequent Saturday morning. Getting to the house meant driving through parts of the swamp on a perilous road that gave me many second thoughts. They lived with their parents in a very neat two-room cottage the father and sons had built. It was the beginning of a most engaging three-year conversation.

These two young men had what I considered impressive knowledge about the flora and fauna of the swamp area. They were first-class naturalists, who comprehended, it seemed, everything possible to know about the growth of plants and the habits of various wildlife. Yet, as I learned, they were struggling with their biology class (and their teacher never did learn about their wilderness lives). They were also excellent landscapers and builders. And there was little they could not do with an automobile—whether engine or body work. Moreover, they produced wooden bowls and wood sculptures that were truly works of art. (Their woodworking teacher, whom I met at one of their exhibits, did know a great deal about their talents. He also was a model for the kind of teacher I hoped to become, the ultimate examplar of the teacher as coach.) My point in this, and I have told only a very short part of the story, is that I found these young men’s abilities and understandings inspiring, yet they were hardly making it at the school, did not see themselves as exceptional learners, and were given virtually no encouragement to believe they could be successful academically or consider any postsecondary education.

What if their strengths had been a basis for their education? As it was, these young men, and I suspect large numbers of others, are invisible to many of us in the schools. The need to know my students well, to be in a position to work from their strengths, their interests, their intentions, has stayed with me. It still animates my work as a teacher. It also shapes some of the ways I think about school structures, leading me increasingly to believe that we need to think about smaller school communities with smaller numbers of students working with a core of teachers who plan together, who gain individual and collective insights into the students they work with in common, who can engage the discourse of curriculum and standards, for example, with the seriousness such matters deserve, with the students they know well the focus of their attention.

When teachers are asked to reflect on what makes their work captivating, what from their collegiate background and ongoing reflection contributes most to their successful practices, what do they say? The technical pieces—lesson plans, record books, academic majors and minors, the policy debates, what is often the core of teacher education programs—fade quickly. Little seems easily reduced to a course on this or that. Everything takes on a more complex, even messier direction. The design for better teacher preparation, they suggest, has more to so with dispositions toward inquiry and reflection, curiosity, a particular intellectual passion, a social commitment, a set of beliefs, a love for the unexpected, a general interest in human growth and development.

The exceptional teachers I know are passionate about learning. They have deep interests in some particular aspect of learning—history, literature, science. They are so steeped in this passion that they could manage well if all the textbooks, workbooks, and curricular guides that fill the schools suddenly disappeared. They see connecting points everywhere. It is not possible to take a walk with them without noting that they are almost always seeing around them possibilities for their students. They make particular note of books, insist on “checking out” libraries and museums, write down addresses of people and places. Schools must promote and support passion of this kind. Teachers need more opportunities to reflect on their learning, on how they first came to the interests they possess and how to revitalize those interests. They need to be in schools that are authentic centers of inquiry, intellectually oriented settings where they can share their learning with others, read together, and have opportunities for writing and further study. Our task whether we are in schools or colleges and universities is to help build such learning communities.

One means of creating a fully generative learning community, intellectually and socially challenging environments in which teachers’ learning and commitments to the learning of their students grow deeper by the day, is for schools to be reciprocally engaged in a collaboration with colleges and universities. That, of course, is not a new story. And such partnerships can obviously go in many different directions. The models are, in fact, large. I want to share, however, a recent experience that has generated exceptional enthusiasm, especially among teachers, as a direction that is attractive to me, personally, as it starts with the belief that teachers can be the serious scholar teachers Dewey wrote about,13 quite capable of charting their own directions, even producing a literature of their own.

In a program funded by the American Council of Learned Societies, eight to twelve teachers per year, over the past three years, have been freed from their classrooms for 40-60 percent of the time to come to Harvard for courses in humanities fields, use of the libraries, and once-a-week collective seminars around a humanities text and its classroom potential, becoming resources to teaching team members in their respective schools. To have a chance to read and explore ideas has proven to be particularly generative. These teachers have demonstrated an inspiring level of scholarship. During this past year, one of the teachers completed a book on poetry while also doing research on Langston Hughes that has enriched his classroom greatly. It also enriched the work of everyone else in the seminar. Another entered saying she wanted to learn, among other things, how to draw and paint, having been told in the third grade she “was a hopeless artist.” She brought each week some of her work in progress. Her work got better and better and she put up an impressive exhibit of thirty pieces at the Cambridge High School Library by the end of the year. She was also able to articulate an inspirational, freshly developed view of learning. And a sixth-grade teacher who left her children at 10:30 each morning, was asked early in the year, “Where do you go each day?” She told her students about the courses she was taking in philosophy and religion. They asked about what she was learning and what she was reading. From then on she spent part of each day sharing with her students the ideas she was exploring, the examples the professors used, what she made of what she was reading, the questions she had. The students’ enjoyment of all this was overwhelming, causing this teacher to ask about the curriculum—whether it was challenging enough, personal enough. Now I can multiply these stories by the number of participants.

Why is not such experience more commonplace? These teachers made clear that they desire continuing professional development around ideas, real texts, the world—not more workshops on how to teach reading or writing or learn about learning styles or some new teaching technique or more occasions to share what they think of some new curriculum being devised somewhere else.

Why was I a teacher of history? That is a question I have often been asked. The short answer is that I have long enjoyed historical study. I was engaged from childhood by historical accounts, in particular biographies. I was not, though, always enamored of history courses—which seemed too large, always rushed, the details more important than the larger stories, the possible meanings. As a college student, I understood early on that the courses were mostly about coverage, even as the time frame grew shorter over the undergraduate years. My interests moved me in the direction of wondering about the anomalies embedded in human events, and I posed quite regularly such questions as “How did they do that?” or “How and why did that happen?” As it was, such questions did not seem to matter much in the courses. I suspect that attending to them seriously would have seemed too time-consuming. I was often in awe, filled with wonder, as I observed, for example, the fine jewelry of the early Egyptian civilization, only to find that the particular course I was in wanted me instead, because a few weeks had passed, to think about government in Rome, thousands of years later. It was clear to me that history was more than coverage, even as coverage was the model for most of the history courses I took.

I brought such a critical perspective to my early teaching—making inquiry my base—understanding history always my overarching purpose. Getting through everything became less and less important with each year of experience. As it turned out, I had implicit support for such work. I understood this more fully in my fifth year of teaching as a veteran history teacher of thirty years said to me one day, “I wish I could do the things you do.” When I asked him what that meant, he said, “The principal would never let me develop my own curriculum, not cover the textbook, work only on large projects.” It had not occurred to me that the principal had anything to so with it, but I have come to understand that administrators can influence practice. Whether I knew it or not, I clearly had support to teach history for understanding. All teachers should have such support and the dispositions to work toward ends that matter.

I learned over time increasingly more about inquiry—about the kind of help students needed to engage in inquiry, about the power of questions, about the importance of resources and the consequential nature of time. I found slow, carefully measured beginnings—times when the students and I were learning together how to read documents, how to pose questions, how to use reference materials, how to do interviews, how to do careful note taking, how to present ideas (all around specific content)—to be particularly helpful. The quality of later work always seemed higher for the time devoted to preparing to do good work. How many students do not do good work because they do not know what good work is or how to do it, or do not understand that good work is their work and not work they do only for the teachers?

I also found that when the students gained a sense of control and confidence around a small topic—a person’s life, an event—they were eager to fill out pieces of the story surrounding these areas. They read more and more history. I think a great deal about this now as the lists of what students are “supposed to know” expand, along with the corresponding belief that if everything is not covered by the teacher, much will be missed. I worry that enthusiasm for the subject matter will be the largest missing piece—and in the end that will assure that the content being worried about will also be missed—certainly forgotten quickly.

I had many other good experiences early in my teaching that helped set some constructive patterns, that helped shape as well as deepen my philosophic orientation—my moral and intellectual stance—to teaching and learning. There are two instances from my initial year that I want to share, as they have continued to influence the ways I think about assessment (and, of course, teaching and learning more broadly). The first is about one of my students in a World History course who handed in blank papers each week for the first four weeks of school, prompting me finally to ask him about it. His response was very straightforward, “I don’t know how to read or write.” As we talked—and I am sure I was having a harder time than he—he said, “How would it be if I gave reports to the class?” Given the fact that I was still wondering about why he had not acquired any knowledge of reading and writing, or what kind of neurological problem he might have, I quickly said, “That seems like a good idea.” For the rest of the year, every other week or so, he gave fifteen- to twenty-minute reports. Those I recall most vividly were on pyramids, rockets, how birds fly, how to build a skyscraper, and how the telephone works. These presentations always included interesting drawings on the board. He got the information principally from pictures, photos, and television, though he must have gleaned some of it from personal observation in the environment. He was not always accurate with the information but he was listened to respectfully and everyone applauded at the conclusion of each presentation. Importantly, he established for me a base for ongoing conversation with him rooted in some real content—even as it was not always related to what we were studying at the time. Learning to connect well with him enlarged greatly my ability to make connections to other students. That lesson remains critical for me. Moreover, the quality of his classroom participation was much better than had been usual for him in school and he taught others in the class a great deal about matters of difference. At the same time, I was forced to reflect more seriously on what constitutes learning and how it is to be assessed, as well as the situational aspects of teaching and learning.

The second instance came with the first big unit examination on the Ancient World—three large, complex essay questions. Overall, the students did not do as well as I had expected. Being extremely conscientious, I established times to meet one-on-one with students who had done especially poorly. The first student I met with told me that he had not done well because I asked the wrong questions. I then asked him to share with me what questions would have given him the opportunity to inform me about his knowledge, his understandings of the Ancient World. To my surprise, he did just that. In the process it was clear that he had taken away from the unit far more than his performance on my test had indicated. I clearly had not tapped what he had actually learned.

I did not give another test that year, or for many years after, that did not leave room for the students to write three or four questions each believed important to what we were studying, and then to answer two or three of them, always understanding that their questions were important indicators of their understanding. I also did not engage in a unit of study that did not include a number of opportunities for students to demonstrate understanding through some kind of performance activity—an oral presentation, a dramatic interpretation, a comparative essay, a model, a drawing, a research project. And before that year was over and for all the years that have followed, my students’ work has always been built on previous work—everything is scaffolded, always constructed so that all students complete work that matters for them. Everything is about success and not failure. Students are not faced with surprises.

It was clear to me very early, and it has been reinforced since, that the important assessment questions must be about what students understand and are able to do, not what they do not know (though there is obviously power in not knowing as a base for generating new understandings). In recent years, the focus of much of what passes for assessment, primarily rooted in an assortment of multiple-choice tests, is on what students do not know, or do not know how to do well enough according to someone who is far removed from the actual setting where the teaching-learning exchange is occurring.

As I moved over the years to interpretations, extensions, comparisons, and many personal constructions with regard to assessment, to a performance base, all efforts to get closer to what I understood to exemplify important learning, I had to rethink what constituted appropriate standards. How was I to deal with the students in my classes who entered with wide variations of skill levels and prior knowledge and experience? It seemed that I had to individualize the assessment process. But could I individualize the process without tying instruction and assessment together as well as finding ways to see patterns in student growth over time? Having students maintain “portfolios”—what I called work folders at the time—seemed natural. And self-evaluation around work over time also seemed natural. Have I worked all of this out yet? Not fully—but I have grown over the years more confident about assessment. As it has grown more complex, cumulative, personal, and internal, it has assumed larger possibilities for the students, encouraging risk-taking and leading to higher and higher quality work. The point is that instruction and ongoing assessment are intertwined, never separate.

Teaching can be approached, I have learned, in many different ways. I found over the years ways to team teach, do large, several-month projects, and create with students new courses. The power of writing was apparent early and journals became a staple. Using documents, the local community, and personal experience always made what we did more engaging. The power of cooperation and collective thought was so clear that my talk in a classroom declined consistently over the years that I was in a secondary school. That also influenced greatly how I thought about university teaching, which began in a department of history where I taught courses in Western Civilization, American History, and historiography.

The style in the university setting was lecture but I moved away from that format rather quickly, seeing my own contribution increasingly to be the selection of interesting and challenging materials to read, posing questions that pointed toward anomalies or provoked more questions, helping students assume the dispositions of historians, able to engage in genuine historical inquiry, to construct their own narratives. Given such a stance, I also understood the need to assume a role of careful responder to students’ work and ongoing synthesizer of ideas—which I still put into writing in the form of regular letters to students.

Lectures are still the dominant mode of teaching in the schools and in the colleges—even as reading materials and media are more accessible than ever. Lectures are, without doubt, often useful. I enjoy going to lectures to hear various people I admire share some part of their lives, some of their thinking. But I would not want an entire course of lectures. I would prefer to read the lectures and enter into a conversation, consider alternative views, seek other possible explanations, speculate about possible connections to other formulations, other topics, different experiences.

Yet so much of what students experience in their education, especially at the collegiate level, is lectures, one after another. Teacher education students often discuss with me, mostly with disdain, all the lectures they receive in various education courses about the power of cooperative learning, the need to listen carefully to their students, the importance of the dialogue that Paulo Freire wrote so much about,14 the constructivist nature of most learning that matters. They have no problem understanding there is a good deal of parody here.

Another important lesson that I learned very early, have refined since, and still plays a large role in my teaching is the importance of completing myself the various exercises I ask students to do. By actually doing the exercises, I have come to understand more fully the complexities embedded in them, learned about more of the nuances, considered more productive questions to pose, and found, in the process, that I could respond more constructively. I also developed a point of sympathy, to use Dewey’s formulation.15

Those of us who work in Education schools, where most of our students are preparing to teach or are teachers seeking additional challenge, confirmation, or revitalization, must be conscious of our teaching and all that can be learned from it. How do we meet our students? As if it is an encounter of persons wishing to learn from one another? As a dialogue in which the students’ questions matter? As a process aimed at extending learning in fresh directions? Do we ask our students to read the most challenging materials we know about? And in relation to what we ask our students to read, who are the writers? Do they represent various intellectual and cultural traditions? Does their experience sufficiently mirror the diversity of our society? And how does all this relate to children and young people in the schools? to the ways schools are organized? to curriculum, pedagogy, and the social realities that surround school practice? I actually have at least 101 additional questions. Even though I have been at this work for forty years, my journey is still in progress. I am still learning. We should all be still learning.

A version of this article was presented as the DeGarmo Lecture for the Society of Professors of Education at the AERA annual meeting in New York, April 11, 1996.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 98 Number 4, 1997, p. 637-652
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9611, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 2:31:55 PM

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  • Vito Perrone
    Harvard Graduate School of Education

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