Dr. Judith M. Newman



Interwoven conversations

(The following is an example of a conversation between me and some published authors and the participants in a class.)

Let me begin with a brief discussion of the three pieces I asked you to read before we met, and explore the connections I see among them.

The Cook piece on negotiating the curriculum was a significant read the first time I read it because it named what it was I was trying to do in developing a constructivist curriculum—that is, the tensions involved in taking my lead from students and at the same time creating some kind of overarching structure had some form i could now think about. Actually, the phrase "negotiating the curriculum" was Garth Boomer's and this piece by Jon Cook is in a book which Garth edited. Cook was part of a collaborative that Boomer drew together to explore these ideas.

What caught my attention in the Duckworth piece was her insistance that we must keep the learning situation complex. That argument flies in the face of all traditional views about instruction—where an enormous amount of effort goes into making things simple. Duckworth's contention resonated with what I'd come to understand about language learning—a child learns oral language from the complexity of what goes on. In fact, a lot about oral language can't be learned except from the complexity. Take for example the pronouns "I/me" and "you". The only way a child can make sense of that is to figure it out for him or herself — nobody can ever refer to anybody else as "I/me" and must always refer to someone else as "you". The child must discover how to reverse these ideas. So I say: "I will help you." And the child must understand that from his position "I" means the other person and "you" means him or herself. I actually have a tape of a child in the process of learning this. His mother says to him "I'll help you " and he replies "You no need any." meaning "I don't need help." He refers to himself in this instance as "you". Duckworth is contending it's the same is true for most other learning—that real understanding comes from sorting out the complexity. That led me to think about what that meant for my teaching. Notice how I've been keeping the situation complex and letting you find ways of making sense for yourself.

Darling-Hammond's piece articulated nicely the dichotomy between transmission and constructivist ideas and the political ramifications of each position. I read this at a time when I was attempting to sort out some of the political questions for myself. My own piece developed from experiences working with teachers like yourself and discovering that if we talked about the conflicts between belief and action which the goings-on in classrooms revealed people could think about changing how they taught. Together, the three pieces resonated—raising the political necessity of thinking about negotiating curriculum, critical incidents being a way of monitoring what was going on so that it is possible to continue building an experience with students.

Now to this evening's articles. Barnes challenges the belief that it's possible to see teaching as the transmission of "objective knowledge." He contends that all knowledge involves some kind of action on the part of the learner—another constructivist argument.

Bissix introduces the notion of teaching as learning, as research. The element she leaves out is the role of surprise which I believe is central to engaging in teaching as inquiry—otherwise how could you know that something had occurred that was noteworthy?

The flip side of teacher as learner is Bruner's arguments about needing to have a model of learning that is open-ended. The view of learners which a teacher holds whether implicit or explicit necessarily affects instruction.

The Dewey chapter is interesting because it sets up a description of what he later referred to as "transaction"—making the case that each 'experience' changes us and that experiences are not static—what we know/believe affect our interpretations of those experiences. He introduces the two principles of continuity and interaction (in later writings "transaction") which, for me, represent the tension between the structure generated by the teacher and the negotiation which necessarily goes on between teacher and students so that students are shaping their own learning yet within some realistic confines.

These ideas taken together serve as a rationale for Brent Wilson's contention that computer technology could provide the means for creating learning communities.

The question is: how do you see these ideas playing out in our classroom?