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chaos theory and the imagination in our classrooms

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Lead from the Start: chaos theory and the imagination in our classrooms

Saturday, October 06, 2007

chaos theory and the imagination in our classrooms

"In a world where everything is connected and the cause/effect relationship is not definitive, one cannot hope to create lasting changes in education through isolated acts. It can only be done through collective action in which each person’s actions point toward the similar goals. It takes collaboration and communication to create a cumulative affect that is lasting and substantial." This is a paraphrase of the perspective presented by the dean of the School of Education, Dr. Beverly Warren, at VCU. I was pleasantly surprised to hear a perspective so close to my own. I really felt like my pursuit of my doctorate at this particular time was the right step.

I think this perspective on educational reform is helpful and human. I get frustrated when discussion about education drifts away from what is best or "works" for students.
Part of discussion in class has revolved around educational research. The “whatworks” clearinghouse was brought up as an example of a mode of educational thought that is currently driving reform. I have looked at the “whatworks” clearinghouse website and found it to be unhelpful. I think the premise that teachers should use what has been proven to work is an important and helpful idea. It makes me nervous though when "best practices" begin to over take the idea of "what works" in your classroom. How do we know that these practices are the "best?" Is the inquiry done? Will there ever be "better than best practices" The entirely relational “pluralistic and unfinished”aspects of teaching, as William James would describe it, make ideas like "the best" approach impossible to find. The Scientifically Based Research approach, though useful, is not necessarily the whole story about particular educational interventions. There is not necessarily discussion of the quality of teaching or teachers that implement the interventions "that work." Perhaps there could be a color coding that would say this will work for a seasoned teacher, that will work for a novice. No. That would require teachers to be included in the equation.

The worst part about the what works clearinghouse is that it doesn't help teachers. Teachers usually don't have a choice about what reading program they use. The program adopted by our school system has "Possibly positive" effects on alphabetics and "possibly negative" effects on comprehension. It is a scripted program implemented in such as way that a teacher can be reprimanded if he or she doesn't follow the script.

As a specialist in early childhood I was interested in the recently completed review of early childhood interventions. In looking at what the website describes as the best program I found this paragraph:

"Absence of conflict of interest"

"Literacy Express was developed in part by Dr. Lonigan, one of the two Principal Investigators for the WWC ECE review, and he has received income from sales of this curriculum. Dr. Lonigan was the primary author on both studies reviewed for this WWC intervention report. He also developed the P-CTOPPP, one of the outcome measures used in this report. Dr. Lonigan was not involved in the coding, reconciliation, or discussion of the included studies. Additionally, he was not involved in writing or reviewing the WWC intervention report. Dr. Kisker, the second Principal Investigator for the review, led all study review and report writing activities for Literacy Express."

If that doesn't sound like an admission of bias I don't know what is. This is the difficulty with selecting the best practice to use in your classroom. A teacher can never be sure why it is the best practice. Is it the best practice because an expert says so, because a possibly biased government website says so, because a practitioner in a similar situation says so, or because I have tried it in my classroom and it "works" for my kids in my situation?

On the other side, just because the situation is pluralistic it does not mean it is unknowable or understandable.

I think the key is that humanity (and education) evolves in a situational though not unrelated fashion (Passivity and powerlessness in educational thought, Bredo, 1997). But, the reason it evolves is because of humanity’s ability adapt, invent, and use it’s imagination to re-frame its situation not because of a single story that will be told until its conclusion and we have found the "BESTEST" practice. This is why the more teachers are allowed to be human and adapt, invent, and use their imagination (and acknowledge the relational and unfinished world) the closer we will get to what is best for the human beings in our classrooms.



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