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A Promising Pedagogy: Linking Learning and Caring
Article in Academic Exchange Quarterly · May 2011
Cherie A. Mccollough
Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi
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Cherie A. McCollough, Ph.D.
KEYWORD– SCHOLAR 2
A Promising Pedagogy: Linking Learning and Caring
Cherie A. McCollough, Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi, TX
McCollough, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Science Education in the College of Science and
Technology, Department of Life Sciences.
The current era of accountability in education includes testing requirements from legislation such
as No Child Left Behind requiring effective measurement and analysis of student achievement
data. A second emphasis is the recommendation to have student-centered approaches to teaching
and learning. This study reports how teachers have made the standards movement more
compatible by coupling the How Students Learn (Donovan & Bransford, 2005) approach to
science teaching and learning with an ethic of care, creating a Pedagogy of Promise
This study explores efforts by exemplary high-school science teachers who creatively employed
student-centered instruction in their classrooms despite pressure resulting from the completion of
the mandated state standardized science examination - the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and
Skills (TAKS) exam. The mixed-methods study describes how science teachers in low
socioeconomic high schools employed classroom strategies that included the tenets found in the
How Students Learn: History, Mathematics and Science in the Classroom (Donovan &
Bransford, 2005) theoretical framework. This approach to learning and instruction was coupled
with teacher’s practicing an ethic of care that included high expectations, an empathetic attitude,
and respect for their students. Students were more actively engaged in learning, increased their
appreciation for science and were taught to think critically, internalizing scientific concepts
rather than memorizing disconnected, fragmented science content.
Standardization and Accountability
The demand for education standardization and accountability measures has intensified over the
past 30 years. Beginning with the release of A Nation At Risk (National Commission on
Excellence in Education, 1983), a document which equated the alleged “mediocrity” of schools
to “an act of war,” a series of continual attacks has been leveled at the public education system.
In 2001, legislation entitled No Child Left Behind (U.S. Department of Education, 2002)
increased accountability for states, school districts, and schools. Together, the increasing use of
standardization in educational programs and the accountability practices that measure
educational accomplishment through outcomes measures are restructuring public education.
How Students Learn
How Students Learn: History, Mathematics and Science in the Classroom (HSL) (Donovan &
Bransford, 2005) is a synthesis of the findings, conclusions, and opinions of educational
researchers and theorists in the learning sciences and includes four important pillars of learning.
Schools and classrooms in the HSL model must first be learner-centered. Learner-centered
environments include teachers who are aware that learners construct their own meanings with the
beliefs, understandings, and cultural practices they bring to the classroom. Second, knowledgecenteredness gives attention to what is taught, why it is taught, and what skills mastery comprise
the subject matter. Thirdly, HSL defines assessment-centeredness through the use of formative
and summative assessments that are accompanied by frequent feedback. Finally, HSL classrooms
should be community-centered, fostering the development of relationships between the
classroom, school and community as well as providing connections to the outside world in
supporting core learning values.
The HSL classroom model furnishes learning contexts for students to “learn to see” a problem
like an expert, providing multiple opportunities for knowledge revision and examples of
expertise. Students are able to integrate their new knowledge with existing knowledge in a
constructivist process, continually monitoring their learning and problem solving.
Some teachers have moved away from the traditional, prescribed curriculum to a more dynamic,
student-centered curriculum with pedagogy that incorporates HSL four pillars of learning.
Instead of simply progressing through a scope and sequence chart, teachers strive to expose
students to the major features of a subject domain through authentic problem contexts. However,
tensions will inevitably occur as teachers “teach against the grain” (Cochran-Smith, 2001;
Spalding, Klecka, Lin, et al., 2010 ).
Student-Centered Classrooms: Teaching for Understanding
Education literature supports student-centered teaching where students have a choice in learning
what is most relevant and meaningful. Theorists believe people should teach each other using a
process of open dialogue, avoiding memorization of facts only to regurgitate them later, and
experience authentic learning contexts (Darling-Hammond & Friedlaender, 2008).
While teaching for meaning is an engaging idea, it often becomes impractical when applied to
content standards and high-stakes testing. For example, curriculum guides reflect efforts to
increase scores as pressure increases to improve standardized test results (Meier, 2002; PerkinsGough, 2004). The imposition of high-stakes tests for K-12 students often leads to narrow, testdriven curricula that focuses attention on basic skill instruction, excluding critical thinking
(Darling-Hammond & Friedlaender, 2008; Wiliam, 2010).
The Importance of Structures for Caring
According to Noddings “ethic of care” model, caring involves “stepping out of one’s own
personal frame of reference and into the other’s” (Noddings, 1984, p. 24) during teacher-student
encounters. What must happen for real caring to occur is a willingness on the part of the “one
caring” – the teacher – to give primacy to the “cared for” – the student (Noddings, 1984, 2005).
Environments that attend to students as individuals are characterized by respect and caring rather
than by demeaning interactions, threats and sanctions. The more students perceive a caring
attitude from their teacher, the more the students will care about and appreciate the class and the
instructor. This is because caring teachers create more positive learning environments (Teven &
Dozens of studies confirm that motivation, positive behavior, and learning are enhanced by
strategies that support students’ natural drives toward competence, self-esteem, and selfresponsibility. Likewise, reliance on extrinsic rewards and punishments undermines learning and
psychological development because it reduces risk-taking, decreases willingness to complete
challenging work, and stifles the development of motivation and self-discipline. Rather than
making decisions that are based on needs of students, teachers often feel compelled to make
decisions based on concepts covered by the high-stakes tests (Au, 2009; Sloan, 2005). Standardsbased reform is an alienating force placing teachers and students at crossed purposes, looking at
each other over a policy divide. For some teachers this chasm takes the form of weakened
emotional bonds between adults and children. For others, students’ perceptions of their teachers
as caring individuals worthy of their respect is eliminated (Teven, 2007; Valenzuela, 1999).
The study sample includes four high-school science teachers evaluated by the Texas Assessment
of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) standardized 10th grade science exam each year in two low
socio-economic high schools. These teachers were identified as “exemplary” through a series of
surveys and interviews from administrators, parents and students. Data for this mixed-methods
study (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie, 2004) included: (a) teacher and student semi-structured
interviews, (b) audiotapes/videotapes/transcripts of classroom observations, (c) Constructivist
Learning Environment Survey (Johnson & McClure, 2004) completed by teachers and their
students, (d) field notes, and (e) pre/post content tests. Qualitative data analysis and coding was
performed with NVivo software using the HSL (Donovan & Bransford, 2005) framework in a
cross-case study methodology to identify themes and patterns. Quantitative data was statistically
analyzed and a p value ≤ 0.05 was accepted as significant.
Evidence of Learner-Centeredness
The literature refers to student/learner-centered environments as “culturally responsive,”
“culturally appropriate,” “culturally relevant,” and “culturally compatible” (Banks & Banks,
2010; Ladson-Billings, 1995). Teachers who have learner-centered classrooms recognize the
importance of incorporating the conceptual and cultural knowledge that students bring with
them, rather than being subtractive or assimilative and replacing this knowledge with that of the
“culture of power” (Banks & Banks, 2010; Valenzuela, 1999).
Learner-centered environments include teachers who are aware that learners construct their own
meanings and that these begin with student’s beliefs, understandings, personal interests and
cultural practices. Participating teachers teach more than science content and discuss “lifelessons”, stressing the elements of personal responsibility, making the right choices, and “being
the best you can be.” These teachers provide an ethic of caring by personally engaging with their
students (Noddings, 1984; 2005). Research tells us that when students connect with their
teachers in interpersonal ways, student achievement and learning increase (Fisher & Khine,
2006; Fraser, 2007).
Evidence of Knowledge-Centeredness
An emphasis on knowledge-centeredness includes the degree to which instruction begins with
students' current knowledge, skills and developmental level, rather than simply presenting new
facts about the subject matter. Knowledge-centered questions include those that develop ideas,
make comparisons, analyze and synthesize data, and evaluate possible solutions. Curricula that
emphasize an excessively broad range of subjects run the risk of developing disconnected rather
than connected knowledge (Donavan & Bransford, 2005).
Although the impact of externally mandated testing varies, research indicates that school and
classroom practices do change in response to these tests (e.g., Crocco & Costigan, 2007; Sloan,
2005; Valenzuela 1999). Kohn (2000) reports that standardized tests “cannibalize the
curriculum” and discusses the disenfranchisement of teachers when the conceptualization of
instruction and curriculum are separate. Sloan (2005) describes narrowing of curriculum and
telescoping around material that is specifically covered on standardized tests. The teachers in
this study, however, provide scaffolds or structured steps that support the learning process as
students apply their knowledge to authentic tasks. Lectures are rich in detail, analogies are
frequently used, and students are able to grasp difficult concepts through instruction. Because
learning is an active process, teachers acknowledge students’ attempts to make sense of their
experiences and help them confront misconceptions.
Evidence of Assessment-Centeredness
Research strongly demonstrates that skilled use of feedback to students is a powerful means of
improving learning outcomes (Darling-Hammond & Friedlaender, 2008; Donovan & Bransford,
2005). Participating teachers provide opportunities for revision and encourage students to revise
their work. Feedback is motivational as teachers do not promote a spirit of competitiveness.
When adults communicate high expectations, encourage challenging activities, praise specific
accomplishments, and provide helpful feedback, students demonstrate more confidence in their
achievements. While research reports that teachers are tempted with incentives to focus
excessive amounts of time on “test-preparation” activities (Nichols & Berliner, 2007), these
teachers continued to use assessment instruments that require student incorporation of problemsolving skills and calculations. Participating teachers manage teaching-to-the-test tensions by
being flexible and when necessary, remaining autonomous as they instruct and assess according
to their students’ needs, not district mandates. Students corroborated this point by reporting in
interviews that the teachers seldom, if ever, mention the TAKS science test, yet all study sample
students successfully passed the exam.
The importance of collaboration in classroom is well documented by research and practice. All
participating teachers encourage collaborative environments when implementing laboratory
activities, completing assignments, working on project-based activities, and at other times.
Classrooms had a continuous low-level hum of student conversation, including during lecture.
Communication between parent and teacher is crucial as schools need to develop ways to link
classroom learning to other aspects of students' lives. Engendering parent support for the core
learning principles and parent involvement in the learning process is of the utmost importance in
this process. All teachers have open communication with their students’ parents including
sending e-mails, inviting them to the school, making telephone calls, and frequent parent
conferences. Students repeatedly mentioned their appreciation of the time teachers took to
establish these relationships during interviews.
Evidence of Caring Teachers
Caring is a foundational pillar for effective instruction. Teachers who care are demanding but
facilitative, supportive, accessible, kind, adaptable and optimistic (Gay, 2000). These teachers
are “warm demanders” (Kleinfeld, 1975) who create classroom climates of emotional warmth,
consistently and clearly demand high-quality academic performance, spend time establishing
interpersonal relationships between themselves and their students, and communicate with
students through nonverbal cues such as smiles, teasing, and establishing a “kinesthetic feeling
of closeness” (1975, p. 322). Academic demands are complemented with emotional support and
facilitative instruction, using coaching and cajoling rather than a dictatorial style of teaching.
Accountable for Learning
If teachers expect students to be high or low achievers, they will act in ways that cause this to
happen. Caring teachers are therefore distinguished by their high performance expectations,
advocacy and empowerment of students, as well as by their use of pedagogical practices that
facilitate school success. These teachers demonstrate the ethic of caring as an essential element
to instructional effectiveness, not merely a theoretical underpinning. When combined with
pedagogical competence, caring becomes a powerful ideological and praxis pillar of culturally
responsive pedagogy for students.
Employing a Closed-Door Policy
All teachers involved in the study value classroom autonomy, “closing the door” and teaching in
a way best suited for their particular students even when administration dictates otherwise. The
tendency to simplify instruction by fragmenting knowledge, the desire to suppress controversy
by omitting potentially volatile topics, the temptation to mystify subjects to hide what a teacher
does not know and/or does not believe students could understand without effort – such strategies
are not practiced in these classrooms. These teachers resist resorting to non-student centered
practices and instead push their students to think critically, thus “going against the grain” and
creating their own Pedagogy of Promise (McCollough, 2005).
Teachers struggle with a daily dilemma as they try to “select teaching and assessment strategies
that support the development of student understanding and nurture a community of science
learners” (National Academy of Sciences, 1996, p.30) while responding to content coverage
demands of state and federal testing programs. The teachers in this study responded to both
pressures by employing a variety of formative and summative techniques to assess understanding
while teaching with relevant and authentic, problem-based curriculum that utilized culturally
relevant teaching strategies. They taught their science content deeply and in a connected fashion
within a classroom that was both collaborative and inclusive of parents in creating a community
of learners. These teachers also exhibited a caring, supportive, accessible and empathetic persona
to their students who appreciated the respect they given and returned that respect by being
cooperative and responding in a positive manner to the academic challenges they were given. In
short, by successfully blending the four pillars in How Students Learn with a caring demeanor,
these teachers seldom addressed, either in the classroom or as a personal concern, the dilemma of
“teaching to the test”. They knew, and results continued to support the fact that their students
would be successful in passing this standardized exam. More importantly, their students both
engaged in and enjoyed science in these classrooms. Interviews consistently revealed how much
the students felt they learned, how supported they felt during the process of learning, and how
they would remember these teachers as their trusted mentors and advisors. These teachers
resisted resorting to non-student centered practices and instead push their students to think
critically, thus “going against the grain” and creating their own Pedagogy of Promise
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