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Bruno: How Teachers Should Think About Relay GSE

0789207133-789227A couple of weeks back Valerie Strauss posted a piece by Carol Corbett Burris criticizing the charter-focused Relay Graduate School of Education. Despite being based almost entirely on a single video that Relay was promoting to demonstrate "rigorous classroom discussion", Burris levels some fairly sweeping attacks against the school's philosophy of "filling the pail" rather than "lighting a fire". (The video can still be seen here, but has been relabled as demonstrating "a culture of support" in the classroom.)

Robert Pondiscio says what needs to be said about how pernicious the "filling the pail" metaphor is in education. As he says, those sorts of educational "homilies" are cuddly, but ultimately vacuous, ways of thinking about teaching.

Also interesting to me, though, is that many of Burris' objections to Relay-style teaching are basically aesthetic. Consider her reaction to the way students are expected to behave when one of their classmates is asked a question:

Students engage in the bizarre behavior of wiggling their fingers to send ‘energy’ to a young man, Omari, put on the spot by the teacher. Students’ fingers point to their temple and they wiggle hands in the air to send signals.

It is a little weird to watch the kids do that, but so what? A lot of school lunch food around the world strikes me as a little "bizarre", but that says more about me and what I'm used to than it does about whether students in other countries are well fed.

As a matter of fact, as a teacher I can totally understand why we might want to have kids do something like what we see in the Relay video. It's notoriously difficult to get a whole classroom of students to engage in a discussion at the same time. If wiggling their fingers a little bit makes them more likely to listen to another student's answer and to think about the answer themselves, who cares if it looks a little strange?

Most of Burris' criticism of the Relay GSE read this way: as aesthetic judgements - statements about what Burris personally likes - being treated as if they settle moral or pedagogical questions. My experience is that this is all too common in education debates, which are often about what people happen to prefer as much as they are about what's actually likely to produce the best results.

Back in May Daniel Willingham tried to settle the question of whether teaching is an art or a science. He concludes that teaching, like architecture, is really both: it should respect what we've established scientifically, but it also has a lot of room for individuals' professional judgement. Teachers should know the science so that they can accommodate it with their personal preferences.

Unfortunately, I think Burris' criticisms of the Relay GSE illustrate how easy it is for us to mistake our personal preferences for scientific judgements. The real issue, then, isn't the correct proportions of art and science in teaching; I doubt many people would ever disagree with Willingham's conclusion on that question.

Rather, the thorny issue is whether teachers (and other educators) are able to correctly distinguish the art from the science. When we can't tell the difference between the two, it's almost impossible to have a productive conversation about teaching or education. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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I would enjoy the opportunity to respond thoroughly, but in a few words, Mr. Bruno, my objections were not based on my personal preference but rather on research. There was no wait time (also called think time) in the lesson. If you want to read the research on wait time and how it increases learning see the work of Madeline Hunter and Mary Budd Rowe. The fill in the blank questions are at the lowest level of questioning taxonomy, (see the work of Benjamin Bloom as well as the research of D.R. Krathwohl et al.) In order to understand why wiggling fingers and the behavior of the teacher would decrease active student participation which is essential for learning, I refer you again to the research of Madeline Hunter. When the teacher cuts the student off from speaking, I do not think either you nor I need to find research in order to know that is not a good idea. You are correct--teaching is both an art and a science. The lesson was short on both. Apparently Relay realized it as well. They changed the name of lesson thus now making it not accessible to those who read the column. I hope that my concerns have been helpful to Relay as they continue the very important work of training teachers. regards, Carol Corbett Burris, Ed.D. principal of South Side HS

Carol -

Thank you for the response. I agree completely about the importance of wait time, but will also note that wait time is, in fact, present in the video, particularly at the very beginning. The wait time is narrated - arguably, though not obviously, a bad idea - but it is there.

Similarly, while some of the questions asked were "fill in the blank", such questions are really prerequisites for higher-order questions. Moreover, this video actually does include a mix of high level and low level questions; remember that the whole premise of the scene is that students should be making inferences about character traits and supporting their inferences with evidence, tasks that are by most reckonings open-ended and higher-order. So I don't see what should trouble us about the fact that a mix of questions exists in this lesson fragment, or that the teacher drops the rigor of the questions a bit after seeing students struggle with the higher-level questions.

I would be very interested in any specific citation you could provide from Hunter that speaks directly to the finger-wagging issue. I'm familiar with much of the research on the challenges of whole-class discussions, and based on that it seems plausible to me that the finger-wagging would increase engagement overall. If there is research that suggests otherwise, I'd be interested in reading it. Note, however, that this is a very different discussion than your initial criticism, which was that it looks "bizarre".

And finally, I want to emphasize again that I think sweeping judgments about the Relay GSE or this particular teacher are completely unjustified on the basis of this very brief segment of video. And not only is it short, but - careless labeling notwithstanding - it was chosen explicitly to illustrate a few very specific things, most of which are not the things you are evaluating it for.

And not only do I think these claims are unjustified, I also think they're unfair. As a teacher I would very much not want to have my work evaluated in such harsh, sweeping terms based on such limited information, and I suspect most teachers would feel the same way. It seems to me that the same or similar concerns should caution us here, as well.

I think we are doomed to disagree. Wait time for that age group is 5 to 8 seconds, and that was not in the lesson. Must students have knowledge before engaging in high level questions? Yes. But even at the level of knowledge you can ask open ended questions. Fill in the blank is not a pre-requisite question type for higher level thinking.
I made it clear in the column that I was not faulting the teacher, but rather the methodology that she was asked to show. This is not a classroom teacher teaching a lesson for an observation, Paul. It is not an evaluation during which a teacher would receive encouragement. This is an instructional video publicly placed by an organization as an example of exemplary teaching that shows rigorous discussion. My concerns with Relay go well beyond that video. As noted in the column, "Masters degrees are earned by online video and reading modules, attending discussion groups and by the uncertified teacher’s students’ test scores. If the test scores are not up to snuff, the teacher does not earn her degree. There are no classes in educational theory or history, nor any indication that the candidate must complete a masters thesis requiring research and reflection. It is cookie-cutter training grounded in one vision of instruction — the charter school vision". That statement was made based on watching several videos, reading their website, reviewing materials from Match, their Boston spin off program and looking at the course offerings.
Finally, did Madeline speak directly to having students wiggle their fingers to send energy to another student? No. I doubt that she ever saw such unusual student behavior. But I knew her well enough to know that she would not consider that to be a high quality covert or overt form of active participation. If you send me your email address, I will be happy to forward you her work on active participation.
Schools of Education are under attack and Relay is suggested as a better alternative. As one who dearly loves public education, even with all of its shortcomings, I feel the obligation to remain vigilant on topics such as alternative teacher education, online learning, charters etc. When alternatives work well, they have my praise. However, for educators to stand by and not examine the quality of new alternatives would be irresponsible. cb

" no classes in educational theory or history, nor any indication that the candidate must complete a masters thesis requiring research and reflection."

There is zero evidence -- ZERO -- that such classes or theses help teachers become better at teaching.

"He concludes that teaching, like architecture, is really both: it should respect what we've established scientifically, but it also has a lot of room for individuals' professional judgement."

Boy oh boy, talk about the pot calling the kettle black in relation to someone's opinion masquerading as fact, holy frijoles.

There has been absolutely nothing established "scientifically" when it comes to teaching and learning. Please explain how this may be so, otherwise your committing the same logical error that you accuse others of.

Interesting dialogue. I'll refrain from entering the debate, but I would like to point out one factual inaccuracy in Dr. Burris' last post: the teacher training program at Match is not a "spin off" of Relay. There's no formal affiliation or partnership between the two programs.

Ravitch is linking here and saying that Bruno works for Relay. Is she right, or is she making stuff up again?

I have no affiliation with Relay. In fact, I hadn't even heard of them before Burris' piece. Not sure why she'd assume that.

I'm not recommending finger waggling (or opposing it). But I'd like to comment that there have been criticisms, for years, of Direct Instruction because it uses call-and-response as a technique for whole-class instruction. Critics are amazingly dismissive of this technique, and compare it to training kids to jump through hoops. But in large portions of the world, for centuries, this has been an effective educational pratice. And to this day it's used as a way of focusing attention and creating engagement in all kinds of settings in the US -- churches, athletic events, musical performance, even commodities trading. Why is that progressive educators refuse to even consider that this technique has a role to play?

@BB - I'm with you there. Choral responding is one traditional technique that has been unfairly and incorrectly (in my view) slandered as insufficiently "student-centered" despite substantial theoretical and empirical support. I think guided notes fall in that category, too. Conveniently, here's an article that briefly discusses both!


They're not the be-all-and-end-all, but they seem like legit teaching strategies.

I think many of the objections, again, boil down to complaints about aesthetics that get confused for arguments about cognitive psychology.

“It is a little weird to watch the kids do that, but so what? A lot of school lunch food around the world strikes me as a little "bizarre", but that says more about me and what I'm used to than it does about whether students in other countries are well fed.” Agreed completely. The fact that the author made that comparison is very disheartening in the first place. Cultural differences aren’t important when it comes to quality of education. Just because something is different doesn’t make it bad. Thinking that way is exactly what gets us into the problems we face with other countries currently, the gaps that education should be seeking to bridge.

While it is understandable that the "finger wiggling" is an attempt at engaging the entire class in the discussion through physical activity and a kind of "sight focus" on the student who was marked to answer the question, there is no real evidence that all the other students were paying attention to the actual content of the question or were engaging in thought processes that can lead them to answer the question themselves. Isn't it possible that students could invariably "fake it" by just participating in the act of wiggling fingers without having the responsibility to follow the discussion?

Madeline Hunter's use of signaling (overt and covert), as an example, engages not only the students on an individual level, but also on an intellectual one. The student act is meaningful to the learning of each individual. Students must make decisions based on thinking and then demonstrate their learning. They are all responsible for the thinking process and decision making about the answer.

However, anyone can wiggle fingers and have no idea what is being discussed. How else do you check for understanding (outside of formal assessments) without putting individual students on the spot? Informal assessment is best when it engages all students as thinkers, not just as by-standers. It also creates a real ownership of the learning by all students thus keeping the focus level of the class.

Having one student in charge of answering the question (and for several minutes of the lesson) can create stress for the student. Also, by putting the focus on one student, many students will disengage from the teacher and, in turn, the lesson. This video also speaks to the concept of pacing the lesson--I would have been completely disengaged with the amount of time it took to solicit an answer and the constant re-phrasing of the question from the teacher. It certainly would have frustrated some students and allowed others to wander away from the lesson.

Granted, signaling would be difficult here without careful planning, but the teacher could set up some sort of system of answering this question for the whole class, whether giving them choices or having them write their version of the answer on a notecard, etc. If the student is required to know the answer, the student will follow the discussion even if one student's answer is sampled. Wiggling fingers shows nothing about what the other students are actually thinking in regard to the content.

If you are going to take the time to showcase your school in any video, why would you choose an expository level of questioning as an example? It was admirable that you showed a student struggling for what might appear to some as a straight-forward content-related answer, but I would have utilized the media to show how every student is engaged and responsible for thinking during the lessons.

There are far too many teacher-related tasks, skills, and nuances that are acquired over time by master teachers. Perhaps if you'd like to show the real value of your program, you would video a lesson of a master teacher instead of what appears to the trained educator as a "gimmick," albeit one with good intentions.

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