EduSpeak: Nonlinguistic Processing

Students choreograph their concepts of the immune system into a dance study.

Robert Marzano, the “Art and Science of Teaching” education guru, has a short article hidden in the back of the May, 2010 issue of Educational Leadership, the ASCD monthly journal. The title of the article is, “Representing Knowledge Nonlinguistically,” and the main thrust of the piece is that this type of processing “can have a positive effect on student achievement and provide diversity in the way that students process new information.”

He goes on to list “Five Points to Keep in Mind:”

  1. Nonlinguistic representations come in many forms.
  2. Nonlinguistic representations must identify crucial information.
  3. Students should explain their nonlinguistic interpretations.
  4. Nonlinguistic representations can take a lot of time.
  5. Students should revise their representations when necessary.

As my fellow teaching artists might say at this point, “Duh!” This is how arts integration works, all the time. Hellooooo?!?

Boiled down, “nonlinguistic representations,” as Marzano uses the term, means creating some vehicle other than written text to contain and express knowledge. His examples are “graphic organizers, sketches, pictographs…, concept maps, dramatizations, flow charts, and computerized simulations, to name a few.” Why he doesn’t name dances, paintings, scripts, and musical compositions is a mystery. It would have helped lead him to the central idea he seems to be missing: it is the creative process, resulting in some sort of creative product, that allows students to order and make sense of their learning and to communicate their understanding to others.

Marzano, as perceptive and influential as he may be, is wearing the same blinders that most educators must put on in today’s climate of focus on “student achievement” (read: test scores). He cites one of his own studies to show a 17 percentile-point gain in test scores for students whose teachers use “nonlinguistic strategies” over those whose teachers rely on more “traditional” methods. This in itself is an impressive bit of evidence that current accepted, “traditional” teaching strategies miss the boat more often than not.

But this discussion will continue to be relegated to the back pages of professional journals until we start thinking of teaching and learning in new ways. That entire issue of Educational Leadership is devoted to a discussion of “The Key to Changing the Teaching Profession.” The journal looks at teacher preparation (college-level education curricula), merit pay, and other suggestions for supporting good teaching while rooting out ineffective or counterproductive practice.

However, the measures for evaluation of teacher effectiveness continue to revolve around “student achievement,” which means that we are focusing on once-a-year test scores to make judgments about a year-long process of teaching and learning. It is wrong and harmful to reward or punish teachers for something that is fundamentally out of their control, and it distracts us from instituting new and meaningful ways of evaluating teacher success.

The main difficulty is our American longing for the quick and the easy. We’d love to have some kind of national yardstick that we could apply to any school and any classroom to see how “good” they are. But, just as with assessing student understanding, there is no such fair and accurate system of measurement. Evaluating teacher effectiveness requires actual humans in the actual classrooms, using checklists and rubrics to assess the teaching and learning environment. Those same humans also have to look at the methods the teacher is using to assess student learning, and they need to compare and contrast the achievements of the teacher’s current students with those of past years, to look for patterns that will indicate the strengths and weaknesses of the individual teacher.

Typically, this is the domain of the building principal, who is charged with the responsibility of evaluating staff on an ongoing and annual basis. Collecting standardized information about teaching practice from principals, we can then employ our critical thinking skills to evaluate schools, districts, and larger systems based on a wider and deeper set of information.

This, of course, means we would have to abolish the current system of “grading” schools based on their once-a-year high-stakes test scores. We have already seen how that system punishes success by applying a “one size fits none” standard to individual schools without regard for context, parent and student satisfaction, and a host of other relevant but ignored information.

Marzano does arts integration and the field of education a disservice when he says, “Nonlinguistic representations are one of many powerful techniques available to classroom teachers,” effectively burying this incredibly important strategy among the myriad teaching and learning strategies jostling for overburdened teachers’ attention. You’d think that any strategy that brought a 17 percent gain in test scores would earn more attention, especially from someone so well-respected in the field.

When you add in the power of aesthetic choices and the response to and discussion of artistic products that demonstrate student understanding, the real question becomes, “Why is it taking so long for educators to see what is right in front of their eyes?”

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About rbdancer

Randy has been a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and Workshop Leader since 1995. During 35 years as a teaching artist, he has led over 300 in-depth workshops, courses, and seminars for teachers and teaching artists, traveling to 37 states in the process. As a choreographer and professional dancer, Randy has danced and produced dance concerts in some of the country's most storied theaters. Randy now lives with his wife in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
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One Response to EduSpeak: Nonlinguistic Processing

  1. Evie says:

    Ok, that’s just ridiculous. Nonlinguistic representations? And not a one of them having to do with the arts? Why are people so insistent on this idea that the arts are useless? Argh!
    I truly believe that because I came from a family that values creativity and critical thinking and learning and exploring and playing and dancing as avenues of learning that I live a much fuller, happier, and balanced life.

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