BOOK EXCERPT: “Complexity Theory and the Reorganization of Public Schools” An Excerpt from Teaching Without Testing: Assessing the Complexity of Children’s Literacy Learning

Teaching without Testing: Assessing the Complexity of Children’s Literacy Learning by Denny Taylor, edited by Bobbie Kabuto, is the third book in Garn Press Women Scholars Series is now available on Amazon ($13.95).

Book: Teaching Without Testing
Author: Denny Taylor
Editor: Bobbie Kabuto
Garn Press (174 pp.)
Paperback $13.95 | Purchase: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Waterstones
ISBN: 978-1-942146-56-8

EXCERPT: “Complexity Theory and the Reorganization of Public Schools”

The Biographic Literacy Profiles Project began with a single child for whom small errors in teaching and testing, followed by repeated retesting had such a catastrophic effect that the school failed – afflicted by what Ed Barnwell refers to as “an institutional inability” to respond to the child’s educational needs (Taylor, 1988). The first biographic profile was written for this child, and although the school that he attended did not take the descriptions of his observable literacy behaviors into consideration or use the information as a basis for his instruction in reading and writing, a group of teachers from another school became interested in the profile and asked if it would be possible for them to write literacy profiles for their first grade children. One school participated in the early, tentative steps, which eventually led to the development and implementation of the research project in six other schools. At the present time 47 teachers and administrators and approximately 1,000 children are participating in the project, and so I can write that although we were unable to change the system for a single child, a single child is changing the system. This is important, for at a time when so many of us are overwhelmed by the mass testing of children, which is mandated through Federal laws and State regulations, this young child has taught us that “individual activity is not doomed to insignificance” (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984).

Essentially, the Project is about this child and the many other individual children who have taught us to seriously question the notion of “objective” reality by helping us “make visible” the complexity of symbolic activity in their everyday lives. We have learned that “scientific paradigms can exercise a strong influence on prevailing thought” (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984), and that the dominant societal and political educational ideology is driven by traditional hopes for progress and predictability that might not be in the best interests of children. Based both upon my own research experience and upon my participation in the Project, I would argue that we are irrevocably altering the lives of young children when we impose upon them our traditional aberrant theories and educational practices. Somewhere along the way we have forgotten that “the playground of contingency is immeasurable” (Gould, 1989), and that in the lives of young children we must learn to look at the ordinary and mundane events if we are to see the remarkably rich and subtle complexity of their symbolic behavior.

In Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks writes, “It is all too easy to take language, one’s own language, for granted – one may need to encounter another language, or rather another mode of language, in order to be astonished, to be pushed to wonder, again” (1989, p. ix). This is the purpose of our study. We are trying to push beyond our own training in the “objective” reality of the present educational system in order to be astonished by the irreducible plurality of functions and forms of language that children use in their everyday lives and, especially for us as teachers, in classroom settings. As we push each other to recognize the wonderful complexity and uniqueness of the symbol-weaving behaviors of children, we are also trying to build the professional expertise and specialized knowledge that will enable us to work with every child in ways that ensure “individual activity is not doomed to insignificance” within the classrooms and schools in which we teach. We have learned that to make such a shift in thinking is a slow process, and that we ourselves must engage in the situationally specific problem-solving activity of learning to teach from the perspective of the child. There are no “step-by-step” or “classroom-tested strategies” (as is suggested by a flyer for a writing program that I have just received in the mail) – just teachers and administrators dedicated to professionalism and with in-depth knowledge of the specific social, symbolic, technical, and material resources, the complexly patterned contingencies, that are constitutive of children’s literacy learning in classroom settings.

Within this reflexive framework:

  1. Teachers are encouraged to explore their own literacy configurations and to share the ways in which they use print in their everyday lives with the children that they teach.
  2. Teachers are supported as they work to recognize their own expertise, and their professional opinions are supported when decisions are being made about the education of the children that they teach.
  3. Teachers are provided with opportunities to increase their understanding of the ways in which children reconstruct the functions, uses, and forms of written language.
  4. Teachers work together to explore their own literacy configurations, to share their expertise, to help each other develop new understandings, to share viewpoints on specific issues, and to work together on the construction of biographic literacy profiles for the children that they teach.
  5. Principals participate with teachers in the development of organizational structures which support the focus upon teaching, learning, and schooling from the perspective of the learner.
  6. Principals provide opportunities for teachers to receive on-going support in their classrooms, at Project meetings, and in summer institutes.
  7. Principals provide opportunities for parents to meet with teachers to learn about the project and to explore the way in which their children are learning about literacy as they learn to use literacy.
  8. Principals themselves are actively involved in the construction of one or more biographic profiles, so that they have personal understanding of the practical significance of this approach to instructional assessment.

It is this collaboration – of teachers and principals – that has made the Project possible. Credit also needs to go to the local school districts for their financial support of the Project for, although the State Department of Education gave their approval, no money has been given to the schools and only limited funds have been made available for two three-day summer institutes and for six seminars to disseminate information about the project throughout the State.

Perhaps it may seem inappropriate to comment on this lack of support within the context of the presentation of the theoretical framework and practical significance of the project. But from the perspective of many of the teachers it is important, for they spend their own time on the Project and participants have often stated that much more could be accomplished if monies were made available. We can only hope that eventually as more emphasis is placed upon the reorganization of schools, financial support will be provided at both the state and federal levels. In the meantime, it is important to emphasize that, although State Department support has been limited, Helen Schotanus, the only consultant at the Department with the assignment of early childhood education and reading, has played a major role in the Project. She has organized meetings and supported us in many different ways and in such an unobtrusive fashion that I think we sometimes take her for granted. But it is Helen who works, side-by- side with us, and so often reminds us that “a child’s first experience in school should not be in a testing situation.”

About Teaching without Testing: Assessing the Complexity of Children’s Literacy Learning

Teaching without Testing: Assessing the Complexity of Children’s Literacy Learning by Denny Taylor, edited by Bobbie Kabuto, is the second book in the Garn Press’ Women Scholars Series. This book revisits Taylor’s seminal and influential work based on her Biographic Literacy Profiles Project. Teaching without Testing: Assessing the Complexity of Children’s Literacy Learning is a timely book that challenges the scientific assumptions of standardized testing in developing effective instruction to meet the literate lives of all students.  

Through detailed observations of student learning, Taylor encourages readers to consider alternative ways of assessing children’s reading and writing based on observable literacy behaviors. Supporting a humanistic perspective to the education of children, Taylor argues that standardized and diagnostic methods of assessment and teaching, based on test-driven, cooperate-led accountability practices, have detrimental affects on children and result in the de-professionalization of teachers.

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