A Portrait of Dennie Palmer Wolf - ASCD
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October 1, 1994

A Portrait of Dennie Palmer Wolf

Dennie Palmer Wolf's career has taken her from teaching in a two-room schoolhouse to groundbreaking research on portfolios and alternative assessments.

As an educator, Dennie Palmer Wolf has traveled many paths. Throughout her career, Wolf has argued for the strong and necessary place of the arts and humanities in human development and education and has been a powerful advocate for equity, diversity, and different ways of knowing. Today she is the director of PACE (Performance Assessment Collaboratives for Education), a multi-year project in diversified approaches to assessment, and a senior research associate at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has published widely in the fields of developmental psychology, linguistics, and education.

Wolf's passion for exploring different ways of knowing was nurtured early in life. Raised by progressive, inquisitive parents, Wolf acknowledges their role in her development as well as the fact that her “life has been by accident, fortunate.”

Her mother, an active member of the San Francisco community, took Dennie to meetings of the charitable organizations to which she belonged and to the many places she went to collect or solicit donations. Her father, a neurologist, turned to nontraditional ways of looking at health problems midway in his career, including “visualization and acupuncture.” Growing up in such an active, stimulating environment, it's not surprising that Wolf herself developed a keen sense of curiosity and an openness, which have led her to explore many avenues throughout her career.

Inventing a Personal Teaching Style

Education seemed a logical field for Dennie to consider, one that would nurture her varied interests and her desire for lifelong learning. She entered Swarthmore College, and in 1968 married and left to teach on an emergency certificate in the island community of North Haven, Maine. For two years, she and her husband were the entire faculty at Thoroughfare School, a two-room elementary schoolhouse for 48 students. “I had to invent my way toward teaching,” explained Wolf. She also learned the importance of honoring the mores and expectations of the community.

For example, before Thanksgiving break her first year at the school, Wolf neglected to have her students take the pre-primer book home with them. How could she have known about the local ritual of parents and children reading the book together “between turkey and pumpkin pie”? As a result of this innocent lapse in tradition, Wolf was roundly criticized at a town meeting. Grass-roots planning and appreciation of local customs are now hallmarks of her work.

From Maine, Wolf went to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she earned a master's degree in education in 1971 from Harvard University. Deciding that education would be her career, she moved to West Branch, Iowa, to accept a teaching position at the Scattergood School. The Quaker boarding school for adolescents was part farm, part academic school, and part artist's workshop. Her experiences there instilled in Wolf the idea that a “school could be much more than just academic training.” While math and English were important, she added, “part of your standing in that community” had to do with the stands you took on social and political issues, as well as “how you did on `pig chore.'”

Exploring the Heart of Learning

Late in 1972, Wolf returned to Cambridge to pursue her doctorate. Two years later, she began her work with Howard Gardner at Project Zero, which views the arts and humanities as a crucial way of knowing. There she met people “who thought that editing a poem had as much to say about cognition as did solving a mathematics problem.”

Wolf embarked on a collaborative longitudinal study of nine children, the sort of unconventional research one could practice at Project Zero in the 1970s. She and her colleagues saw these children every week, observing them as they learned how to draw, how to sing, and so on. Her interest in the “diversity of learning,” which had begun in Maine and had been nurtured in Iowa, now deepened in Cambridge. The notion that children may have 10 or 60 or even 100 legitimate expressive languages is, of course, “step one on the path to flexible assessment,” said Wolf. She began to know with certainty that “when kids cross the threshold of school, those languages suddenly narrow tremendously” as does “the range of things we ask them to do.”

Throughout her career, Wolf often included her son and daughter—now in their 20s—in her work, almost as collaborators. As they were growing up, she frequently asked them to help confirm what she was learning from other children. “They were very generous with me.... I was forever asking them questions,” she said, adding “how amazing the powerful intergenerational transfer is.”

In the mid-1980s, Wolf became a co-director for ARTS PROPEL in Pittsburgh, an effort to root both curriculum and wide-ranging assessment in the humanities. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, this five-year project focused on the visual arts, music, and creative writing. Wolf and others—including Lyle Davison, a musician, and Paul LeMahieu, a tests and measurements expert—undertook a serious study of the kinds of evidence that mature artists and writers amass when working on projects for a sustained period of time.

What Wolf and the other researchers learned was that sustained student performance was the “beating heart of learning”—exhibitions that embodied complex, quirky, and comprehensive knowledge. Experienced, practicing artists were brought into schools as models of what it was like to work on a project for a sustained period of time, “particularly around the issues of the visual arts, music, and creative writing.” They began to attempt to convince people that a single test told less about a student's accomplishments than did a series of exhibitions or performances. As Wolf put it, “It's what a student does from September 15 to June 15 that matters.”

During the same time, Wolf also worked with some remarkable schools in Italy. In Reggio-Emilia, she visited schools for preschoolers and early elementary children where gesturing, drawing, mapping, and other ways of knowing were accepted as legitimate forms of self-expression. Education there exemplified what Wolf called “the deep belief that teachers must be thinkers” and that diversity must be respected in how students learn and how that learning is reflected. In one project, 4-year-olds built an amusement park for birds after getting ideas by visiting fountains around the city and interviewing the waterworks staff. Wolf's 10-year relationship with teachers and researchers in Reggio-Emilia is now a deeply collaborative and confirming part of her work.

Working Closely with Teachers

Dennie Palmer Wolf's work with ARTS PROPEL in Pittsburgh led to her current effort, PACE. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, PACE is a major portfolio project in urban middle schools in such places as Pittsburgh and Rochester, which have diverse student bodies. Wolf and others involved in the project work with teachers to develop worthwhile curriculum and assessments.

As always, the work is complex and ever-changing, so Wolf and her colleagues must constantly rethink what they are doing. But their efforts are also intense and rewarding. The project involves collaboration, revision, and other processes leading toward what she calls “content with muscle.”

The urban schools participating in PACE continually struggle to find unique ways in which portfolios can establish standards for students as well as demonstrate to the public how good work is achieved. The basic lesson thus far, explained Wolf, is that it is never possible to say a student is not smart; it is possible to say a youngster is smart in a different way or has insufficient support.

Currently, Wolf is collaborating with the College Board and a national field of scholars to develop rigorous standards, compelling curriculums, and worthy modes of assessment in the arts and humanities. The project, PACESETTER, is a second thrust of Wolf's work with PACE. The standards of Advanced Placement courses, remarked Wolf, “have tough content, but a flexible spinal cord in a common curriculum.” PACESETTER is trying to develop five courses—English, mathematics, integrated science, world history, and Spanish—that will marry assessment and curriculum and be available to all students, not just those who are college bound. The national group of teachers working on this project, Wolf said, have “high standards, big ideas, and assessments that are wise and affordable.”

The math course will be piloted next year and English, the year after that. The English curriculum will include what Wolf called “voices of modern culture.” Texts will include books, of course, but also film, journalism, and other serious voices of literary expression. The final requirement is a profile of performance, based largely on a student's succession of accomplishments. A student might give an oral report, do a painting, write a paper, or, more likely, use several different, legitimate and substantive expressions of his or her knowledge. This is the most demanding feature of the new curriculum and one that underlines the seamlessness of curriculum and assessment.

While efforts such as these have been discussed for several years, Wolf puts the ideas into practice. “This place is about realization,” she explained. “What does it take to make these lofty declarations about all students and high standards have meat-and-potatoes reality?”

Asking Questions, Seeking Answers

Wolf continually assesses her own work by raising questions. Concerning equity, for example, she asks, “How do you fashion tasks or performance standards so that kids with limited English proficiency can show you what they know?” About curriculum integration, she ponders, “How do you get the math standards to speak to the literary standards?” About the humanities, the other half of the curriculum, Wolf asks, “Where are the foreign languages or world history?” Then, of course, a perennial question is, “What is good work?”

Wolf is also curious about how to link schools and cultural institutions. In Kentucky, for example, teachers are trying to locate models of achievement, “living treasures”—such as a fine potter, an expert cabinetmaker, or a gifted writer. Rather than “starting backwards with outcomes,” made up by educators, Wolf wants to celebrate excellence in local culture and work with teachers and students to understand what makes good work.

Tightly linked to her work as a researcher-practitioner is an effort, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, in which she works with Robert Emde, a psychoanalyst, to make sense of life stories and to teach children how to tell narratives. Through story, we define ourselves and learn the values of our culture. The more aware you are of your own life's “portfolio,” the better you can nurture your personal achievement. Clearly, a portfolio is the story of your productivity and how that valuable effort can be sustained. Philosophically, a mature portfolio, Wolf remarked, raises the issue of “how you become an adult who can empathize with others' histories.”

In the end, it is the deeply egalitarian force in Wolf that pervades her thoughts about assessment and portfolios. This implies, Wolf explained, that any assessment include a “range of ways of being good at a subject, whether it be mathematics or writing.” She summed up the case for using portfolios, rather than traditional forms of assessment, this way: “In a culture that distributes wealth and privilege so unevenly and yet still calls itself a democracy, schools have a responsibility to help kids create an autobiography of themselves that is coherent, that shows growth, and that has possibility in it.”

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