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What's a Picture Worth?

A workgroup that I've been part of has been engaged in conversations about what good teaching and learning "looks like." More than once someone has said "You know it when you see it." And I agree; but at the same time, I've also been reading a lot of documents on teacher quality, school reform, and instructional models. I've noticed that most of them feature lots of big pictures of teachers teaching and children engaged in learning.

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In the picture above you will see the impact of a small group instructional format in a religious institution on the language development of toddlers. Victor, who is not quite two years old and whose parents have Limited English Proficiency, is demonstrating his understanding of the phonetic functions of the alphabet and how those symbols can be combined to structure words when sequenced. Notice he has spelled out "by." Only moments earlier, another boy from a LEP home was working cooperatively with him to organize the letters--a clear indicator of the power of Vogotsky's theory of group learning. One can conclude that small single-sex classes in religious institutions can positively influence the acquisition of highly advanced English language skills for toddlers where English is not the primary language of the home.

Well, maybe......

Or maybe......

It was my week to work in the toddler room during worship service. And maybe the box of alphabet magnets that were supposed to be put away for the weekday preschool were on a low shelf. And maybe, while I was cleaning up the spilled apple juice, Charlie managed to push a chair over to the bookcase and pull them down. And maybe, when he threw one at Amy, it hit the cabinet and stuck. And maybe, while my back was turned, all four of my little cuties started sticking magnets on the cabinet. And maybe, by the time I found my camera in my purse to record this instructional moment, three of them decided that the Sesame Street Pop-up Box was more fun.

Was Victor experimenting with language acquisition? It's possible. Or, was Victor developing fine motor skills as he lined up the letters? That could be it as well. But earlier, we had been hooking the Playskool Circus Train cars together, so maybe he was transferring the idea of sequencing, which is a reading readiness skill. All of those are possible and all are valid learning experiences. The problem is that Victor really can't tell us what he was learning because he only has a few words in any language. Of course, the advantage to this is that we can interpret Victor's manipulation of alphabet magnets as any kind of learning that serves our purposes.

Madison Avenue long ago figured out that puppies and babies help sell anything from toilet paper to tires. Sunday, the Washington Post Magazine put out its Education Review, which was primarily an advertising brochure for area private schools. It offers advice on how to win at the admissions game. It includes lots of school ads, of course, and almost every school's sales pitch included pictures of students.

Images of children are a particularly compelling tool to market an education program, product or agenda. Younger children tend to be more compelling. Subjects should be diverse, clean, alert, and dressed presentably. This is particularly important to attend to when photographing adolescent learners, because their personal clothing choices may otherwise alienate some viewers. The solid colors and unified color scheme of uniforms really helps. Sunlight streaming into the classroom is a nice touch, but "outdoor lab" settings are especially eye-catching. Action shots help "tell a compelling story." Good shots include students in small groups around tables,, working at computers, using scientific equipment (goggles look even more scientific), or students working intently at their desks. If the sales pitch centers on "academic," "rigorous," or "challenging" studies, the kids look serious and intent. If the school prides itself on "creative," "innovative," and "supportive" learning, everyone has a sunny smile and may be part of a big group hug.

A picture can be worth a thousand words. And sometimes a picture can be a seductive distraction. Because when it comes to good teaching and meaningful learning, if we "know it when we see it," how much does what we expect or want to see have to do with what we perceive?

"What good teaching looks like" is a huge issue in both determining student learning outcomes and evaluating teachers. It's going to take more than pictures. And it's going to take more than a "walk through" and it's going to take more than a test that creates a "snapshot" of student performance.

What does good teaching "look like?" How can we capture that? How can we verify it? How do you know it when you see it? What exactly do you see?


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