Education Commentary


By David Ruenzel — July 03, 2019 3 min read

TEACHING FOR UNDERSTANDING: Challenges for Policy and Practice, edited by David Cohen, Milbrey McLaughlin, and Joan Talbert. (Jossey-Bass, $29.95.) It is hardly novel to suggest that teachers should teach for understanding—that they should help bring their students to a conceptual understanding of subject matter rather than merely teaching them, say, the mechanical steps in solving a math problem. But as the authors of these essays recognize, it is no easy matter for teachers to take this approach. Most teachers, for one thing, are rewarded for meeting narrow curriculum objectives, working against deeper and time-consuming conceptual explorations. For another thing, teachers are trained to think of themselves as authoritative transmitters of knowledge, believing it their responsibility to provide answers rather than a framework for meaningful exploration. Lastly, and most critically, few teachers have a thorough enough grasp of subject matter, making it difficult for them to reshape and reformulate the ideas that students bring up. Teaching for understanding demands flexibility—the ability “to follow students on a variety of trajectories”—and flexibility demands a grounding in subject as well as pedagogy. It is the teacher who knows least who is most likely to overcompensate with a face-saving presentation of facts. All of this is best exemplified in an article written by 3rd grade teacher Sylvia Rundquist and teacher-researcher Deborah Ball. Rundquist, who felt deeply insecure about her teaching of mathematics, soon realized while watching Ball teach in a collaborative teaching situation that the source of her insecurities stemmed from her deficiencies in subject matter. Having never really thought about mathematics, she did not expect her students to think about mathematics either. Her job was “to give [students] something to put into their heads.” Only when Rundquist began to explore for herself topics such as probability and the subtraction of negative numbers could she spur her own students’ mathematical interests. As she gained confidence, she found she “simply could no longer write lesson plans,” which do little more than set up predetermined limits as to what her class could accomplish. Teaching for understanding, as one author summarizes, does not mean premeditated lectures and lesson plans but rather responding to students as they respond to you in a kind of “cyclical improvisation.”

GENDER PLAY: Girls and Boys in School, by Barrie Thorne. (Rutgers, $12.95.) In her extensive studies of schoolchildren, sociologist Thorne observed that boys, often engaged in team sports, tend to spread out over playing fields while girls tend to cluster around the school building, taking up minimal space. But this and other findings do not place Thorne into the camp of those who believe in fundamental sex differences. Instead, she argues that gender is socially constructed, pointing out that schools, in contrast with neighborhoods, are sites of heightened sex segregation. In part, this is due to the fact that school cultures are centered on sorting and separation (dividing by grade and age, for example); her research demonstrates that children are much more likely to cross “gender boundaries” in smaller, mixed-aged contexts. Thorne makes a strong case in Gender Play for learning from those students who do cross gender boundaries, as they represent what the others—once freed from restrictive sex stereotyping—can also do.

B.F. SKINNER: A Life, by Daniel Bjork. (Basic Books, $25.) In 1971, B.F. Skinner caused a great stir by suggesting in Beyond Freedom and Dignity that “the autonomous man” was but a fiction, that all our supposedly free decisions were in fact determined by the environment. Earlier, in the 1950s, he had attempted to apply this general view to education, introducing a “Slider Machine” that presented students with problems of increasing difficulty. In essence, this was a multiple-choice test, as each correct answer acted as a reinforcement to encourage the student to proceed to a new question or problem. The student’s thought processes were unimportant; all that mattered was the student’s behavior or response. Skinner, Bjork tells us, was profoundly disappointed with what he saw as his negligible impact upon education, believing that the field was being taken over by educational psychologists more interested in therapeutic rather than behavioristic approaches. While few teachers would agree with Skinner’s behavioristic viewpoint, this cogent presentation of his ideas makes one wonder if we haven’t occasionally gone too far in the other direction, overvaluing how and what a student is thinking and feeling while minimizing the importance of tangible results.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Books

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