Education Done To, For, or With Students?

Teachers caution student writers to avoid cliches like the plague, but many cliches harbor enduring truths.

Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic is an apt characterization of the rush to adopt and implement Common Core and next-generation assessments—particularly if we ignore the conditions of teaching and learning.

What happens in the classroom and which populations of students have rich learning opportunities are essential factors contributing to student academic growth, regardless of the prescribed standards (new or not) and regardless of which generation spawns the tests.

One way to consider the conditions of teaching and learning in the classroom is to examine the prepositions of teaching: (1) Education done to students, (2) education done for students, and (3) education done with students.

Education done to students. Traditional approaches to teaching and learning as well as the more recent “no excuses” model for schooling are driven by essentially paternalistic assumptions: Learning is reduced to a discrete body of knowledge to be imparted by the teacher and deposited in the student (Freire labeled this the “banking” concept). School becomes a place, then, where teaching is done to students.

Traditionally, education done to students has been common for the youngest students, couched inside an assumption that new learning is acquired best analytically (it isn’t because about 80% of people are global, not analytical thinkers) and in linear/sequential instruction. Direct and isolated grammar and phonics instruction, for example, represent well education done to students in traditional practices. More recently, during the rise of “no excuses” ideology, younger students and students confronting new learning continue to receive an education done to them, but high-poverty and minority students have also joined their ranks as “no excuses” schools tend to serve these populations by reducing schooling to highly structures test-preparation: work sheets, programmatic textbooks, computer-based diagnostic testing, benchmark testing.

As well, increasingly, standards- and test-based accountability has driven education toward static and reduced curriculum, teachers as mere agents of dispensing that fixed curriculum, and students as passive recipients of what is tested is what is taught. In short, education done to students fails everyone.

Education done for students. The progressive yin to the traditional yang* is education done for students. While the practices that characterize education done for students may be rooted in a kind of maternalism, those practices remain distorted by similar goals found in teaching done to students. A key example of the rise of teaching done for students is the work of Wiggins and McTighe, marketed as understanding by design. Central to this concept are some compelling ideas such as teachers being transparent with students about what learning outcomes are expected, lending credibility to the rubric as a mechanism for guiding student work and promoting the appearance of greater validity and reliability to assigning grades to a wide range of assessments (particularly created responses, performances, and products).

With the end chosen by the teacher in mind (the assessment), lesson planning remains focused on what the students must acquire in order to perform. Rubric-driven instruction and assessment do avoid the “gotcha” problem inherent in traditional teaching, but the rubric fails authentic learning because it, again, reduces learning to compliance.

Within a culture of teaching done for students, teachers are encouraged to take great care, for example, in designing writing prompts, with the argument that a well crafted prompt and carefully constructed rubric insure students will write the essays teachers seek. In that context, however, student agency is ignored and student voice is reduced to an observable and identified (for the student) set of criteria on the scoring rubric.

While teaching done for students again disproportionately impacts negatively young and new learners, impoverished students, English language learners, and minority students (in other words, those students most often marginalized by society and schools), a stark example of the failure of teaching done for students lies with the so-called top students, identified as the good-student trap by Scheele:

We come to college with the unspoken anticipation of all that will be done for us. We expect to be made acceptable, valuable, knowledgeable, and finally professional and employable. By graduation, we presume everything will be dazzlingly clear: We will find our calling, brilliantly catapulting us to a guaranteed successful career. This wish, seldom even conscious, lies deep in our hearts. Yet we believe it will happen….

Most of us learned as early as junior high that we would pass, even excel if we did the work assigned to us by our teachers. We learned to ask whether the test covered all of chapter five or only a part of it, whether the assigned paper should be ten pages long or thirty, whether “extra credit” was two book reports on two books by the same author or two books written in the same period. Remember?

We were learning the Formula.

• Find out what’s expected.
• Do it.
• Wait for a response.

And it worked. We always made the grade. Here’s what that process means: You took tests and wrote papers, got passing grades, and then were automatically promoted from one year to the next. That is not only in elementary, junior, and senior high school, but even in undergraduate and graduate school. You never had to compete for promotions, write résumés, or rehearse yourself or even know anyone for this promotion. It happened automatically. And we got used to it….

So what’s the problem? The problem is the danger. The danger lies in thinking about life as a test that we’ll pass or fail, one or the other, tested and branded by an Authority. So, we slide into feeling afraid we’ll fail even before we do-if we do. Mostly we don’t even fail; we’re just mortally afraid that we’re going to. We get used to labeling ourselves failures even when we’re not failing. If we don’t do as well as we wish, we don’t get a second chance to improve ourselves, or raise our grades. If we do perform well, we think that we got away with something this time. But wait until next time, we think; then they’ll find out what frauds we are. We let this fear ruin our lives. And it does. When we’re afraid, we lose our curiosity and originality, our spirit and our talent-our life.

In the end, education done to students and education done for students fail those students since they both ignore the agency of the learner (and the teacher) and allow outcomes that are arbitrary and symbolic to replace authentic demonstrations of understanding grounded in the wants and needs of the learner.

Education done with students. Historically and currently what remains rare is education done with students, a teaching and learning environment for the teacher-student to guide and support the student-teacher (as Freire argues). Education done with students is couched within democratic and liberatory goals, but also is well supported by decades of educational research.

Education done with students shifts the teaching and learning focus away from outcomes (tests), standards, content, and the teacher by honoring each learner as the primary source for teaching and learning.

Briefly, the diverse and student-based research base on best practice shows that education done with students proves to be effective, but incredibly complex, resisting pre-packaged programs and highly efficient testing formats. In fact, stating that best practice, broadly, means that teachers must be expert at adapting instruction to the demonstrated needs of each student sounds simple, if not simplistic.

A clear example of the power of teaching done with students as well as the essentially complex nature of best practice is to examine the charts provided by Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde at the end of each content-based chapter. Significantly, best practice tends not to discount entirely or solely endorse any practice (the charts contain two columns, headed “increase” and “decrease”); instead, best practice is a collaboration between teacher and student in which the teacher seeks those strategies that the student has demonstrated a need to acquire.

Another powerful aspect of best practice that highlights the need for teaching done with students is the gradual release of responsibility, as Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde explain: “The idea of gradual release is quite simple: in the most effective lessons, there is a stepwise transfer of responsibility from the teacher to the student” (p. 39). In other words, there is nothing whimsical (letting students do whatever they want, whenever) or haphazard about teaching done with students. In fact, it is quite purposeful, simple in its essence, and incredibly complex, messy, and unpredictable in its application (thus, it remains rare in the classroom).

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, just as the current accountability era consumed public education, education done with students gained momentum through the rise of the National Writing Project and workshop-based writing instruction, made popular by Nancie Atwell and others. Atwell’s workshop approach was controversial then, and remains rare in classrooms today. But the essence of the workshop (which Atwell attributed to Giacobbe)—time, ownership, and response—redefined the roles and agency of the teacher and the students, the nature of the curriculum (student choice within teacher guidance), and what assessments were honored (increased focus on authentic projects, such as original essays by students).

For all its promise, however, much of those initial right steps have been co-opted and consumed by traditional (teaching done to students) and progressive (teaching done for students) practices as education remains entirely focused on raising test scores based on standards.

The rush to adopt new standards and the hyperbole about next generation assessments are, then, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Once again, our gaze is poised on the wrong things, a myopic and trivial concern for moving around the same old furniture without regard to the people involved or the iceberg (poverty and social inequity) right there before us certain to prompt yet more cries of crisis.

* Yin and yang are complimentary, not opposites; thus, I use this comparison to support my argument that traditional and progressive approaches to education are essentially the same flawed ideology because they remain trapped inside a single mechanistic paradigm; progressive education appears a bit more child-centered, a bit more kind-hearted, but it isn’t.


17 thoughts on “Education Done To, For, or With Students?”

  1. Can’t thank you enough for this wonderful contribution to understanding the key issues in education. At a time when the Finnish model (education done WITH students) is being adopted by more and more countries it’s a cause of intense frustration and dismay that the USA and the UK remain locked into the 19th Century paradigm of education done TO students.

  2. Reblogged this on 3D Eye and commented:
    This article sums up very effectively, in brilliantly clear, concise and accessible language, the key philosophical issues for consideration in education concerning its aims, pedagogy, paternalism, curriculum, assessment, authority, agency, accountability, responsibility, and the wants and needs of the learner.

    The article’s author, P. L. Thomas, who’s an Associate Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), uses the metaphor of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic to sum up the ideology of those running education in America – a metaphor which we’ve used ourselves in a blog post earlier this year:

    “Best practice is a collaboration between teacher and student in which the teacher seeks those strategies that the student has demonstrated a need to acquire.”

    In this post Prof Thomas references Paulo Freire, whose work as a radical educator and philosopher has been influential worldwide over many decades –

    Paul Thomas’s WordPress blog contains a wealth of articles and information that will inspire and support any educator or parent who shares a passion for learning and for the wellbeing of children, young people and students.

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