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Volume 17, Number 2
March/April 2001

Turning Obstacles into Opportunity

A series of studies show how thoughtful, well-connected learning gets stifled—and what to do about it


Administrators and teachers across the country are trying hard to help their students learn more and score higher on high-stakes tests. But why are some schools and districts achieving much more than others? This question was the focus of a series of research projects conducted over a five-year period by the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement (CELA). The studies focused on teachers' professional lives, state and district policy, and reading and writing instruction.

The CELA studies have found that more successful schools and districts have coherent programs that offer students connected, thought-provoking learning experiences at all grade levels. This, of course, merely reaffirms what most educators already know. Perhaps more importantly, however, the studies also highlight the three behaviors or attitudes that present the biggest obstacles to making this learning model a reality.

Teaching to Tests

An obstacle emerges in schools and districts where test formats and test answers become ends unto themselves. On the other hand, where educators use high-stakes tests and the standards-based movement to reach greater goals, student learning is enhanced. Here, test preparation becomes an opportunity for professional collaboration, inquiry, and growth as teachers and administrators work together to ensure that students do not merely perform well on the tests but also in their schoolwork and their lives. One way this occurs is when teachers and administrators themselves take the tests with an eye toward understanding the underlying knowledge or skills that will "pay off," not only in good test performance but also in situations beyond the test.

In one state where students were required to do persuasive writing on their 11th-grade test, two groups of schools followed very different approaches. One group's administrators mandated that persuasive writing be assigned and practiced for much of the students' junior year. Teachers duplicated old test assignments and developed or purchased new prompts that followed the wording and format of the test. Teachers in another group of schools focused on students learning the various purposes for writing—including but not limited to persuasion—and the ways in which those purposes affect organization, syntax, and word choice.

During the first few years, students in both groups of schools benefited from preparation, but those in the second group scored somewhat higher. In the fourth year, the state changed the testing prompt, and students were asked to do a different type of writing. The first group's scores plummeted, while the other's remained high. The students whose teachers focused on the concept of purpose in writing, not just on test preparation, were better prepared to understand and meet the demands of newly encountered writing tasks.

Using Narrow Definitions of Learning

Another obstacle is the tendency to overemphasize "the right answer." When teachers treat answers as the primary or even sole evidence of learning, lessons end once students have given these answers. Students become conditioned to guess what the teacher wants, and even when they get an answer right they aren't sure why. On the other hand, student learning is enhanced when deeper learning of concepts is the goal. Students have the opportunity to grapple with what they are studying—together, alone, on email, in the library—and reach a deeper and more connected understanding of new ideas. In the higher performing schools in our studies, even the lowest performing students are taught to think and discuss and write about new ideas in ways that clarify their understanding and make them better learners.

In CELA, we've called this a focus on "generative learning." As a matter of course, students are expected to go beyond giving definitions and learn to explain, analyze, critique, research, and interpret. The following example illustrates the concept of generative learning in practice. After one class read Karen Cushman's The Midwife's Apprentice, the teacher assessed students' understanding of the novel through class discussions and writing assignments about the book's content, theme, and style. Next, she asked the students to research the life and social patterns of the Renaissance. They gave oral and written reports comparing what they had learned with the conditions depicted in The Midwife's Apprentice and analyzed how the novel's plot reflected the times. Students then worked in groups to answer questions such as "How did her social environment affect the title character?" and "How might her life have been different if she lived in our time?" Later they chose among several other stories to examine how characters' roles are often a function of their times and to identify some features that transcend time. Using this generative approach, students learned to make connections among such seemingly disparate elements as literature, history, and contemporary life.

Viewing Diversity as a Problem

A third obstacle is the attitude among some teachers that student diversity—whether personal, cultural, physical, or experiential—is a hindrance to effective teaching and learning. Student learning is actually enhanced when teachers consider diversity an intellectually interesting opportunity and use it as a way to enrich the classroom experience. Students hear a variety of perspectives and learn to weigh other points of view while rethinking their own ideas, interpretations, and ways of doing things. This involves embracing and building on the variety of cultural and experiential differences that all students bring to their learning.

In higher performing schools, homogeneity is seen as a disadvantage, as setting limits to what students will discuss and think about. Teachers in higher performing schools try to help their students see diversity in their own backgrounds, interests, and histories and to use diverse perspectives to their own and others' advantage, even in classes where the students seem to be very similar. They help their students look beyond as well as within their classrooms, cultures, and generations to enrich their knowledge about the topics at hand.

For example, one classroom we studied included two students with profound hearing loss contributions to class discussions through a sign-language interpreter. These students brought unique and important perspectives to the class. They tested their classmates' preconceptions—and had their own ideas challenged as well.

In another classroom, this one composed largely of English-language learners from a variety of countries, students were asked to choose stories from home (fictional or retold from real life) and to write them in English, preserving the original linguistic structure as closely as possible. These stories were used as a way to help the students focus on content, language and structure. Their teacher encouraged them to look for similarities and differences among the stories and used these as points of discussion.

Overall, these studies indicate that effective learning occurs in schools where close attention is paid to what gets taught and how and where teachers have opportunities to collaborate on effective strategies. Proactive schools can turn the seemingly restrictive standards-based movement into an opportunity to advance the kinds of learning described above.

Judith A. Langer is the director of the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement (CELA) at the University at Albany, State University of New York. For reports describing CELA'S studies and findings, visit their website.

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