Thursday, February 24, 2011

Why are frameworks important in education?

Almost two years ago GVSU selected me for the first joint appointment between the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) and the College of Education (COE). As you might imagine, I was anxious about the appointment – anxious in both senses of the word. I was excited to explore everything this new opportunity had to offer, but there was also a lot of anxiety about a change in circumstances. In particular, I was worried about teaching new courses focusing strictly on education instead of math education.

Organizing and Managing Classroom Environments (ED 310) was one of those new courses. My COE colleagues gave me a lot of support, but I remained nervous. At this same time, ArtPrize came to Grand Rapids and a group of artists put a giant peace sign made of rocks in the Grand River just outside the building where I was teaching. I came to see this symbol as a reminder that I had nothing to be nervous about. I had the support and experience necessary to be successful.

Unfortunately, my learners in ED 310 remained stressed out. They were in their first teaching practicum and finding it difficult to organize and manage their classrooms. I explained the need for a firm foundation that I equated with a succinct teaching philosophy. This resulted in a workshop called “The Six-word Teaching Philosophy” based on an NPR story I heard about six-word memoirs.

Like all effective workshop teachers, I began with a model. My Six-word Teaching Philosophy is “Engagement that fosters capacity and agency.” The ED 310 learners found the activity interesting but not necessarily helpful. They needed something more concrete. So I explained how a teaching philosophy represents a framework and used the peace sign in the river as an analogy.

My presentation went something like this:
This fall, GR hosted ArtPrize. Works of art sprung up all over the downtown area and some were invisible unless you looked at them from the right perspective. Such was the case with a peace sign just north of the Fulton Street Bridge. I failed to see it when I was walking on the Blue Bridge, but from the 6th floor of the Eberhard Center it became visible. This reminds me of the need for perspective when creating our classroom management plans. We design our plans based on a theoretical vision – a framework.

As September turned to October, the river began to rise and I noticed something interesting about the peace sign. While the water around it was turbulent, inside the peace sign was calm. I began thinking about how a well-constructed and enacted management plan based on a firm framework can maintain serenity within a classroom setting.

Later in October, after several consecutive days of rainfall, it appeared that the peace sign was gone. As I walked over the Fulton Street Bridge, however, I noticed it beneath the surface. Again, I see this as a metaphor for teaching. When I am overwhelmed, it may seem that things are not going according to plan. In reality, the problem may not be the plan but the very nature of teaching. Given time the waters of standardized testing, parent-teacher conferences, whatever… will subside and the framework remains.

Sure enough, in November the river began to lower and the peace sign once again became visible. An interesting phenomenon accompanied this change; the peace sign was actually causing turbulence. This reminds me how setting boundaries and expectations can sometime ruffle feathers of pupils, peers, and parents – especially if they are different from what is typical. The trick is to determine what is flack and what are legitimate concerns needing attention.

Here, a learner interrupted my presentation. She saw the last picture differently. “I think of it as creating ripples. Maybe having an impact on learners and colleagues.”

I thought for a moment, smiled, and said, “It’s important to connect frameworks to our own vision in order to make them useful.” I thanked the learner, said I would add her idea to my metaphor and then went on with the presentation. What I said after didn’t matter. The point was made.

I don’t know for sure if the presentation made a difference in their anxiety level. After all, teaching is a stressful career. The learners began to use the metaphor, however, and some included their own version in their final project. What’s important is that they saw the power of frameworks in instructional decision-making. Whether we are talking The Teaching-Learning Cycle, Understanding by Design, Conditions for Learning, or the Gradual Release of Responsibility, we need a framework in order to organize and examine our practice.

One might think that the story ends here. Then you can call this the epilogue. When I returned to the COE in the following Fall, I noticed that the peace sign had taken a beating. I wondered how this fit into my metaphor. I decided that it meant that our teaching experiences (tests, administration, professional development, …) take a toll on a teaching philosophy. And that it may periodically need updating.

Amazingly, within a few days, artists were out putting it back together. This was a reminder that we often need the support of others to keep our practice fresh. I have found that community at GVSU and with my new professional learning network on Twitter.

That is why my Twitter icon is the peace sign in winter. I hope to keep updating it (the icon and my philosophy) as seasons progress. And I hope you find peace in your practice.


  1. This is a great metaphor! The frameworks you mention scaffold each other an make a very solid foundation!

  2. I meant ... and make a very solid foundation!