Tabula Rasa

NYS 4th grade math assessment
NYS 4th grade math assessment excerpt


Please note bullet two in the above image: “student can erase quickly so that they do not have to suffer the evidence of their mistake.”Or bullet one, “the teacher can respond to a hole in student understanding and skills.” Or perhaps I should refer to bullet three: “students love both the drill and thrill capability…” These bullets are directly excerpted from the New York State common core curriculum. These bullets are in reference to a long and complex math unit for fourth grade mathematics. Bullet two particularly offends my senses because it suggests that the authors of this curricula (who are not educators, but companies/orgs paid to develop PD by the state) believe there is nothing to learn from a different answer, except shame. It’s hard to believe this is on a document that is distributed widely by the New York State Education Department, but it is -in fact the commissioner tweeted about it yesterday.

Commissioner King tweet
Commissioner King tweet

Is that what we want – kids to not remember their mistakes? Teachers to fill holes? Kids to be drilled to be thrilled? Is this what we want for our young people? I certainly don’t. Do we think teachers are technicians or automatons, such that they have to be given scripts in order to achieve the expected results? I certainly don’t.

However, it is clear from the example above that the writers of this curriculum don’t agree that teachers’ and students’ knowledge and voice matter. Teachers are knowledge delivery agents and young people, the receivers. Freire (1968) referred to this as the banking model of education, a model of education that suggests students are empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge. I would argue that the prescriptive curriculum being pushed out by states like New York, under the guise of support, position teachers as empty vessels as well- belying their talent and knowledge by giving them lessons so tightly scripted that in some cases actual phrases are provided for them. For example “student debrief (9 minutes)” or “exit ticket (3 minutes)” or even the emotion to be used (e.g. with excitement!).  Of course part of the ethos of schooling and education today is that teachers aren’t prepared for the new standards and certainly neither are their students. So the solution? – prescriptive curricula that dictates every minute of everyday, in other words inoculating the classroom of teachers’ actual knowledge.

Perhaps this hit home this week because of the reading I’ve been doing for practitioner inquiry, a course that is helping me to broaden my conceptions of knowledge production, teaching and research. Practitioner inquiry encompasses a range of research approaches that differ in epistemological and ethical commitments, but at the center value practitioner’s knowledge and the unique view point they are able to bring through their practice (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009). Practitioner research positions practitioners as valid researchers and their knowledge as significant because they are engaged in a particular space, be it a classroom or a teacher team meeting. Moreover, the knowledge generated by practitioners can be made relevant and useful in these studied spaces (Lytle & Cochran-Smith, 2009). The very idea that practitioners, in this case educators, could contribute to the knowledge base about teaching and learning without being a formal researcher is a departure from much of the social science research field and still remains contentious and often critiqued.

Building on the rich history of practitioner research, is an approach to teaching practice that fully embodies inquiry as an integral part of pedagogy: inquiry as stance. Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2009) describe inquiry as stance by saying:

“…practice (and thus practitioners’ learning) are understood, at their center, to be about inventing and reinventing frameworks for imagining, enacting, and assessing daily work in educational settings.” This notion of practice includes the ways practitioners co-construct curriculum with students by investigating experiences, drawing on cultural and linguistic resources, and integrating textual and other knowledge sources. here, what practitioners chose to do at any given moment is understood to be informed by their more comprehensive and nuanced sense-making about a whole host of things- learners, languages, culture, race, class, gender, literacies, disciplinary content, social issues, power, institutions, neighborhoods, histories, communities, materials, texts, technologies, and pedagogies. Thus in all educational settings, practice, which is deeply contextual, relational and interdisciplinary, is also and always theoretical and interpretive.”  (p. 134)

This is a definition of teaching that opposes the idea or conception of teacher as technician. It defines teaching as an active, reflective, dynamic and multifaceted role that has little to do with knowledge transfer and much to do with creating space for rich dialogue, thinking and participation. In questioning and critiquing and reflecting and being cognizant about how the world shapes (and is shaped by) their work with students and colleagues- practitioners don’t simply act as mediators of isolated knowledge, they co-construct knowledge and act in ways that challenge the norms to which we we have become accustomed. Thus, inquiry as stance, is activist, not simply in service of questioning for the sake of being oppositional but rather to be critical.

This last piece is important. There is strong anti-teacher, anti-educator and anti-student rhetoric that permeates public discourse. Students and teachers are both faulted for lack of performance on standardized measures. The solution of course is to valorize standardization and measure both teachers and students using assessments that are again divorced from their context and histories. There is also, as evidenced by the above curriculum, a weighty distrust of what teachers can do at the district or state level. They are often othered in policy conversations. I’ve lived through that and am never failed to be amazed when people with fewer and fewer years of teaching experience become leaders in educational organizations (like districts) and make major decisions that impact teachers but don’t include their voice.

So when I see this curriculum, I’m again reminded of the uphill battle that remains, in trying to shift the paradigm to valuing educators and students’ voices in a substantial way, so that they aren’t positioned as empty vessels or blank slates, waiting for the next off-the-shelf solution.   Teaching is more than that – much more.



Cochran-Smith, M. & Lytle, S.L. (2009). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research for the next generation. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.