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March 1, 1993
Vol. 50
No. 6

In Vino, Veritas

One Friday afternoon, two bottles mysteriously appeared in the teachers' lounge of our elementary school. Over the next two hours some colleagues and I drank most of the contents and liberated our psyches. Though most in the group were products of the 1960s, children of the '50s and '70s became our sisters and brothers. We all enjoyed sitting in a circle, sipping the wine, munching bean sprouts and granola bars. As we sang songs like “Give Peace a Chance” and “We Shall Overcome,” we decided that we were survivors.
We have survived programmed materials, Evelyn Woods, tachistoscopes, behavioral objectives, foreign language labs, modality testing, neurological patterning, reality therapy, transactional analysis, Madeline Hunter, the Initial Teaching Alphabet, discovery learning in science, new math, effective school programs, open schools, ungraded schools, behavior modification, diagnostic-prescriptive teaching, mastery learning, private contracting, merit pay, master teachers, magnet schools, mini-courses, team teaching, and many other educational “innovations” and “innovators.”
Our discussion that afternoon was sparked by the latest epistle from the district's reading coordinator, who instructed us to have students “read and write authentic texts to accomplish genuine purposes.” We didn't disagree with her statement; actually, we applauded it. In fact, we've applauded the same idea for years.
When we received our teaching certifications in the 1960s, we made everything relevant to the needs and interests of students. In the early 1970s we enthusiastically supported the use of the language experience approach, and in the late 1970s we stressed individualized reading programs, which encouraged self-selection and self-pacing. In the 1980s, we applauded whole-language advocates who told us that rigid skills sequences were the devil's favorite tool, since they failed to show that language was greater than the sum of its parts. We even liked the association of weaving, webbing, and authentic learning with holistic education. The terms sound so natural: no chemical additives, machine stamping, processed sugar, or polyester!
As we enjoyed our wine, we decided we would continue to applaud whenever administrators, professors, and other self-proclaimed experts in the '90s tried to identify what good teachers have always been doing in their classrooms. But we also had some questions.
Why aren't teachers given credit for finding credible solutions? Why don't educational commentators presume that teachers are already doing good things, or at least are doing the best they can?
Educational commentators have suddenly discovered authentic assessment, cooperative learning, a national curriculum, and brain compatible learning. What do they think teachers have been doing all these years?
We are already pretty good at evaluating communications for genuine purposes. The reason that we haven't relied more on authentic assessment is that the district has mandated standardized tests and because it is difficult to compare different types of assignments (for example, haiku and a science experiment). Sometimes we simply don't have time for authentic assessment. One 5th grade teacher in our group knew it was going to take two to four days to read and respond to the papers of her 35 students on just one important assignment.
We do form cooperative groups on occasion, with great forethought given to group membership and to the task. We always have. We used to think it was an important part of helping people learn how to respect one another, especially so they could be better citizens in a democratic society (remember civic education?). Like drugs and free love in the 1960s, however, cooperative groups don't solve all problems. Their effectiveness has been idealized by parents and educators trying to find simple solutions to complex problems.
We read of efforts to develop a national curriculum. Our first inclination was to argue that such a program would ignore our local culture and needs, but a few more sips of the wondrous grape made us realize that a national curriculum already exists. Mr. President, save a lot of taxpayers' money. Have your experts examine popular textbooks (typically developed to meet the requirements of populous states that buy in bulk); standardized achievement tests (such as the Stanford Achievement Tests, Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, or California Achievement Tests); district curriculum guides (found under film projectors and wherever dust is collected); and advanced placement tests used by college admissions officers. A national curriculum may already exist. Take any 25 districts for an initial sample; we doubt you'll find any dramatic differences.
Brain-compatible learning came into the conversation because we had been informed that we would be “inserviced” on the topic within the month. (“Inserviced” is such a vulgar term, implying that we will be treated as if we were cars.) We'd been told we would learn the importance of providing meaningful experiences in an enriched classroom environment that includes an integrated curriculum, thematic approaches, cooperative learning, trust, choice, and little threat to self-esteem. Golly, what will they discover next?
We must have ignored the brain all these years! We must have been confused! Yes, to get right to the bottom of things, we'll admit that we thought the tush (derriere, posterior, fanny, gluteus maximus) was the seat of all learning. We thought the left cheek was primarily responsible for language and the right cheek was primarily responsible for mathematical functioning. We believed, as brain researchers do, that the tush relied on previous experience and was uncomfortable when things went differently than expected. When the tush was inhibited, like the brain, it downshifted from higher functioning to more primitive activity.
Would we have been misled if we honestly believed that thinking was done in the tush? No. We still would have created rich classroom environments to provide meaningful experiences. Would the present state of knowledge about the brain influence us to do things differently? No. Though we believe people learn well when they are in favorable environments, it is not because researchers have proven direct causal relationships between physical, electrical, and chemical changes in the brain and instructional techniques. The knowledge that is available about such links does not warrant the conclusions being drawn by educational commentators.
Reformers are insensitive to realistic classroom contexts when they describe their magical, mystical silver bullets. Reformers write about what they think we should be doing in our classrooms, but they don't know Mustafa or Qua or John or Sophi or Maria or Tamarinda. They don't know about the personality of my class or the culture of the school. They don't know about our facilities and resources. They don't know about our community.
All teachers ask is that others respect our contributions. Recognize that there is much that can be learned from the world of practice and treat us like professionals who can help determine when and where it is appropriate to apply research recommendations. Help us refine what we teach to children as they pass from elementary to junior to senior high school. Provide the facilities and resources that are needed to do the job. And sit with us as sisters, brothers, and fellow survivors on Friday afternoons and help us finish the wine. After all, a wine is a terrible thing to waste.

Gary A. Negin has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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