When a teacher teaches in a lonely forest

Here is a provocative essay by Peter Smagorinsky of UGA:

By Peter Smagorinsky

If a tree falls in a lonely forest, and no living creature is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

If good teaching takes place in a classroom, and no assessment is there to record it, does it make an impression?

Most of us have heard some version of the first of these two questions. Folks have pondered such mysteries for centuries, perhaps beginning when the Irish philosopher George Berkeley wrote A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1710.

The question, however, has never made sense to me, at least if reality matters in philosophical debates. Trees are teeming with life, often more so when they’re dead than when alive. And unless the tree is out completely in the open, which is unlikely in even the loneliest of forests, there’s a whole lot of life going on all around it, much of it with ears. A tree that falls in a real forest without anything hearing it defies everything that science has unearthed about ecosystems.

I’m also troubled by the idea that the only life that matters is that which is visible to the human eye, or in this case, audible to the human ear. There’s too much life underground in any ecosystem for the tree’s falling not to make a thunderous, visceral impression. Soil is one of the most species-rich habitats on Earth. To accept the premises of the question about trees, forests, and sounds, you have to assume that in this lonely forest, there’s no life underground, in which case the tree would die. Then maybe we’d hear it fall, along with all the bugs, birds, and other creatures living in it.

The question about trees falling in forests oversimplifies a very complex set of relationships in order to raise a philosophical question that I might find interesting if I thought that trees were not part of larger, interweaving systems of forces, actions, and senses. This point brings me to the second question posed above, which is my extrapolation of the original to 21st century U.S. education, especially the assessment mandates that accompany No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top. I should note that even conservatives are running from these programs, placing the blame on Ted Kennedy and determining post hoc that they are liberal policies, even as they use test score data to help dismantle public schools.

My reformulation of the philosophical question as an educational conundrum replaces trees with teaching and forests with classrooms in the Age of Accountability. In this world, good teaching can only register on specific occasions, those on which an assessment is conducted. There are quite a few of these assessments in Arne Duncan’s America, although not quite enough to prevent teaching and learning from taking place at times. Unfortunately for teachers, these occasions don’t matter in their annual evaluations.

What else might be happening that does not involve answering multiple-choice questions, but that might be indicative of high quality teaching? Perhaps an English teacher will be teaching students how to think about complex problems as part of instruction on how to write about them, and teaching kids how to phrase their ideas according to conventions that advance their ability to express them convincingly. History teachers might raise questions about the consequences of different economic structures or geographic formations and have students discuss their ideas as they formulate their own interpretations of human events. Health classes might involve discussions of real behaviors engaged in by teens and how to construct healthier, happier lives in the face of temptations and influences to take health risks.

Such classrooms are teeming with life, rather than being barren landscapes where trees can fall unheard, or where the only sound heard is that of #2 pencils filling in bubbles, or the sound of edupreneurs rushing to invest in the pencil industry, which will fell quite a few more trees and fill the air with the sounds of cash registers ringing.

I think that kids will benefit more from other sounds than someone else making money off their labor, or pencils furiously at work answering someone else’s multiple choice questions. I like noisy classrooms where students are busy at work talking about interesting, important, open-ended problems inspired by their engagement with a provocative curriculum. Such classrooms provide the site for important personal, intellectual, and academic growth through multifaceted and multisensory experiences.

Questions in such environments, like difficult questions they will face outside school, have more than one possible answer. Learning is challenging and worth doing, and assessment is open-ended and authentic. It’s what we go to school for, both teachers and students: those occasions when engaging with ideas produces moments of realization and understanding, when school assessment is an extension of genuine interest in meaningful discussions and compositions, when deep engagement makes time go by quickly and richly.

On those days, the tree does indeed fall in the forest. A classroom full of kids is there to be part of it and have it recorded in their memories for many years. In most such cases, their senses are engaged in their learning—they are up and about, doing things, negotiating ideas with others, measuring their success in terms of their purposes for working, speaking and listening. But there is no assessment near by to hear it, at least one that has value in the quest for superficial accountability.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get School blog

29 comments Add your comment

Entitlement Society

September 10th, 2012
8:48 am

“the quest for superficial accountability” – in a good school this quest is not “superficial.” Parents and administrators know a good teacher through good communication, the class blog, class projects and presentations, periodic calls home to the parents just to check-in, well written feedback on assignments, productive parent-teacher conferences, offering additional after or before school writing or math clubs to stimulate interest in a subject area, offering non-school sponsored outings to enhance the subject matter being learned, attending the children’s sporting events or dance recitals, recommending appropriate book titles to support and enhance the current unit and then being available to discuss the books, etc, etc. These things are present in good schools, expected by parents and administration, and taken account in the review process.


September 10th, 2012
8:52 am

“I like noisy classrooms where students are busy at work talking about interesting, important, open-ended problems inspired by their engagement with a provocative curriculum.”

When I think about my “favorite” year in school, I remember an elementary school classroom. It was 1976. We spent a good portion of the year celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the United States. We were immersed in Colonial America and the Revolutionary war. Every day after lunch, our teacher set aside 30 minutes to read aloud “Johnny Tremain”. We wrote our own play and performed it for our parents. We made our own costumes, we researched colonial recipes and prepared refreshments for our parents. We made a braided rug and other colonial crafts.

I loved that year. That is the year I discovered reading for pleasure. I remember having the chicken pox and being so upset that I was missing school.

Looking back, I realize my teacher had total curricular and instructional freedom and created an amazing school year for a group of third graders.

NCLB took all of that away for public schools.

William Casey

September 10th, 2012
8:54 am

All reality exists in the mind. “Objective reality” outside the mind is an illusion. If you have a problem with that, consult Plato.

Dunwoody Mom

September 10th, 2012
8:59 am

I like noisy classrooms where students are busy at work talking about interesting, important, open-ended problems inspired by their engagement with a provocative curriculum

So, so agree. The best classroom “teaching” is listening and feeding off the teacher-led, but student-driven discussion of the issues. I had a Social Studies teacher in HS that was the master at this and I learned so much from that class.


September 10th, 2012
9:19 am

When you are directed to follow the standards which are becoming more scripted and told to keep the pace, and told that your room is to noisy and that control chaos is not allowed, told to go over the standards every day, told to place them on the board for all to see, told to consistently relate to them, told that the IEP is secondary to the students, told that if they do not get it, its your fault–then the forest is in a drought, all the brown leaves are fallen. It use to be do what is right and give 110% now we are rewarded by the powers to be to give 20%–just do what is directly given–the standards, we do not have to deviate, to explore, to create imaginations. The politicians make the laws then when they don’t work–its the teachers fault–we are told by people that have little research, that never been in the classroom to do all of these things. Our administrators are only looking for their self interest and we teachers get it from the left, the right, the media, the parents–don’t worry, I am slowly learning to play the game of doing what is told not what is right.


September 10th, 2012
9:27 am

“I like noisy classrooms where students are busy at work talking about interesting, important, open-ended problems inspired by their engagement with a provocative curriculum”

Exactly. But…..put 25-35 kids in a classroom (this includes 3-5 who are “disruptive”, a few who didn’t do the reading last night, etc.), and how can a teacher at even a top school allow a true class discussion. This is one of the reasons I sent my son to private high school this year. His classes average 10 students. They can have discussions. They can take quizzes at the beginning of class and get the results before the end of that class and reinforce the material. They can weave in current events. They can go faster through one area of the course when everyone gets it quickly, and then slow down for the next one if necessary. And these kids know one another. And they help one another. And there are not 2,000 of them crammed into a building. I could go on and on…but you get the picture. Have a great week.

Dunwoody Mom

September 10th, 2012
9:37 am

Exactly. But…..put 25-35 kids in a classroom (this includes 3-5 who are “disruptive”, a few who didn’t do the reading last night, etc.), and how can a teacher at even a top school allow a true class discussion

Granted, it is a “different day” in education, in my day, 30+ students in a classroom was the norm and our teachers were still able to do an amazing job.

Entitlement Society

September 10th, 2012
9:38 am

d2 just described exactly why my children are not in government schools. How sad for both teachers and students to have such limitations placed upon them… My question to teachers is why do you stay in such an environment that obviously you do not enjoy and feel that is wrong for the students? Why do you not seek a teaching position in a non-government school where you have the freedom to lead a “noisy” classroom filled with “controlled chaos,” where deviations are allowed to explore tangents in depths as curiousities may seek, where hands-on projects encourage independent thinking, discussions seek debate, and you are not held hostage to multiple choice questions? The world needs good teachers like you. Why waste your time in a system that you, yourselves, have said is not serving the students’ best interests?

yo teach

September 10th, 2012
9:47 am

@teacher&mom, and Dunwoody Mom — I remember classes like those as well. Too bad it is becoming difficult to have those style classes now.

@Entitlement Society – I agree with you, too. Too bad it is almost impossible to do all of the things you have listed in modern public schools. There simply isn’t enough time (if you wish to have a life of your own).

@d2 — I feel as if everyone is trying to protect themselves at this point. The forest is in a drought, and everyone (admin down to teachers) knows it. It feels very dog eat dog. We use to do what is right and give 110%. Now, as you said, we are required to give what they tell us we can give, and explain every action. Teacher observations of progress are no longer good enough–we have to be able to show proof for every improvement in a classroom. We have to do what they want us to do. Every teacher knows that strict adherence to the standards makes no sense–especially when you look at the language of the standards. The students are supposed to know and understand each standard. Too bad the standards were written in academic-edu-speak that barely makes sense to anyone.

yo teach

September 10th, 2012
9:56 am

@Entitlement Society – I wish it was as easy as quitting and finding a job at a private school–it’s not. There are a lot of factors (i.e., the economy, the surplus of teachers) that make finding a job, public or private, extremely difficult. A lot of private schools, especially smaller ones, don’t offer a living wage. I personally can’t survive on 25k a year. If I could find something that paid the same is public, and offered a (non-religious) teaching experience, I would leave in a second.

10:10 am

September 10th, 2012
10:11 am

Well, of course, the ultimate assessment of local schools would be made by parents empowered to use both objective and subjective data to decide which school is actually best for their own child’s unique situation.

Mr. Smagorinsky, who in past debates has acknowledged that his own children have attended private schools, seems on shaky ground in yet again suggesting that standard assessment data such as test scores are of little or no value.

And that other parents (along with taxpayers?) should perhaps ignore such data.


September 10th, 2012
10:23 am

Why does everyone associate noisy classrooms with good teaching? Often they are a deterrent to learning and distract the real learners and those ( like me) who need quiet to learn. That being said..

In the 1970’s, I taught in a school where group work was required. But the students were very different then. I could have six groups going on and hear almost no noise because the kids knew how to be quiet enough to control the noise. I did not teach them this; they knew it because they were used to this. Today kids have no clue how to control their noise, so it is just noise– not learning noise. I always get complaints that students can’t learn in my class because it is so quiet. Noise is the norm today– and I do not mean learning noise. Some times learning must be silent or very quiet — and most kids today can’t do that. Their entire lives are based on noise.

Atlanta Mom

September 10th, 2012
10:28 am

I too remember classrooms of 30-35, generally well behaved students. But I surely don’t remember all those students participating in discussions. Generally there might have been ten. The rest of the students sat back, not saying anything, either because they hadn’t done the assignments, or didn’t get called on by the teacher because their ideas were different from the norm, or whatever.


September 10th, 2012
10:42 am

To Entitlement: you are SO very, VERY right. Around my neighborhood, we certainly don’t need a set of numbers in a teacher review form to know who the good teachers at our school are. EVERYONE knows who the good/excellent teachers are, who are mediocre, and who need to be avoided at all costs.

And it is EXACTLY as you said: we know who the good ones are based on past experiences, on their blog, the projected the kids did posted on their classroom walls and in the hallway, on communication with the parents, etc.

I think it is HILARIOUS when our school send that form at the end of the year that in theory “matches” your child to their teacher for the following year. And how they caution not to go by “what you heard in the neighborhood”. Ha ha ha. We parents talk and we know DAMN well which are the good teachers. And I have very very very rarely (actually never) had neighborhood “gossip” be wrong about a teacher.


September 10th, 2012
11:40 am

Peter Spamsmoreyousee strikes again.

Perhaps your next rant should start with,

“If a child is promoted to sixth grade and counts on his/her fingers and cannot read or write beyond a second grade level, does anyone involved with this child’s elementary education really care?

I can’t hear you????

Are you making a noise???

Oh yes, The Sounds Of Silence,,,,,

Just as the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, intelligence is not knowing the answer but instead knowing where to find the answer. Having read the assignment and shouting out the answer in class is not a sign of intelligence though many mistake such behavior for being gifted.

Peter Smagorinsky

September 10th, 2012
12:22 pm

10:10 has a very selective memory. I have noted in the past that both of my kids attended BOTH private and public schools over the course of their 12 years of education. Please don’t distort my acknowledgements of my own parental decisions to suit your distorted picture of whatever it is you imagine me to be.

Peter Smagorinsky

September 10th, 2012
12:24 pm

sloboffthestreet, sign your real name and then I’ll listen to your noise.


September 10th, 2012
1:11 pm

@ William Casey, September 10th, 8:54 am.

Or Immanuel Kant.

I love teaching. I hate what it is becoming...

September 10th, 2012
7:14 pm

@Entitlement Society “Why do you not seek a teaching position in a non-government school where you have the freedom to lead a “noisy” classroom filled with “controlled chaos,” where deviations are allowed to explore tangents in depths as curiousities may seek, where hands-on projects encourage independent thinking, discussions seek debate, and you are not held hostage to multiple choice questions? ”

Well, personally because I still believe that ALL children, even the ones in government run schools, deserve a good education, and because I am still doing my golly gosh darn best provide it… and thankfully, my administration believes it too. Is it getting harder? You bet. Am I frustrated? You bet. Am I ready to throw in the towel? You bet – on a daily basis. But then, we have a great class discussion, or some child’s face lights up as the light bulb goes off, or I manage to sneak a few minutes of tangential exploration of a topic that excites them, and I see them flourish – and I think, “If I don’t stay and do this, who will? Who will give them the chance?”

See, I have been at this long enough, that I remember that there *is* another way to teach beyond scripted lessons and pacing guides – but I fear for the future, when all of us old school educators are gone, and no one is there to show the younger teachers that they CAN still be creative and find ways around the obstacles – when everyone is trapped regurgitating the same canned lessons.

What a sad day that will be.

10:10 am

September 10th, 2012
7:39 pm

@Peter Smagorinsky: Okay, why not enlighten us as to just how many years you’ve opted to have your own children educated OUTSIDE the public school systems you champion?


September 10th, 2012
8:37 pm

“If good teaching takes place in a classroom, and no assessment is there to record it, does it make an impression?”

Conversely, if crappy teaching takes place in a classroom, and no assessment is there to record it, does it affect the learning process?

So, what are you saying – that we shouldn’t assess the teacher?

Rrrriiiigggghhhtttt. That’s worked out so well for us, hasn’t it? And as @Slob alluded to, having high schoolers performing on an elementary grade level is such a joy to see.

Ron F.

September 10th, 2012
8:55 pm

@I love teaching 7:14- I could NOT have said it any better myself!! While those moments become fewer (especially considering the scathing “informal” observations many are getting), there are thankfully enough of them to keep me going back. I just hope to keep finding a few of those moment in the years to come. Retirement at 25 years is actually beginning to sound like a good idea this year…

Dr. Monica Henson

September 10th, 2012
10:25 pm

The fallacy behind the essay, which is beautifully written and has many great points, is that a public school classroom EITHER is “teeming with life,” or it’s a “barren desert.” This premise supports the idea that accountability cannot coexist with engaging, exciting, excellent instruction.

To answer the question “if good teaching takes place in a classroom, and no assessment is there to record it, does it make an impression?” I would argue that yes, it certainly does. Everyone knows who the truly great teachers are in any school, the ones that every parents wants their child to be with, the ones whose classrooms every child wants to be in. Kids talk, parents talk, communities buzz.


September 11th, 2012
3:19 am

America is far too engrossed in justifying useless testing in the classroom. In all honesty, a great teacher would never have to test a student. A great teacher observes his or her students so diligently that they know the level of achievement of the student through close observation of non-testing behaviors and accomplishments of the student. Does the student have the answers and clear input into classroom discussions? The great teacher knows. Teaching trivia to a student and testing it over and over does accomplish one thing. It shows whether a child can memorize. Note that I am not saying “understand.” Current demands for multiple choice testing is killing the brains of our average students. America is in free-fall in relation to our educational systems. There are far too many Self-promoting idealogs in the system who have somehow convinced the establishment that testing is the only way to determine learning.

What has caused this? There are too many people pulling the strings in education who have no ability to motivate young people. Theories and inspirational, unfounded, changes to the way teachers teach do not effect student learning. The only thing that does directly translate to increased performance is motivation. There is NO motivation in testing. Testing has never been the answer to enhanced education, and it never will be.

We, as teachers, just as the teachers in Chicago have done, must demand our rights to work in our classrooms using our own strengths. Some motivate by testing, some by encouragement, some by discussions, some by debates, some by aloud reading, etc., etc., etc. No students are the same. On the other hand no teachers are the same. In life we must deal with the diversity of those we encounter. Cookie-cutter education controlled by bureaucracy will FAIL. Mark my word. It is already happening.

Peter Smagorinsky

September 11th, 2012
5:18 am

@10:10, why not enlighten us as to your real name, instead of taking the cowardly approach of being an anonymous critic demanding that others reveal the details of their lives?

yo teach

September 11th, 2012
9:50 am

@Smagorinsky — Why are you so worried about this person’s true identity? What difference does it make? Welcome to the internet! No one is required to disclose their true identities. You seem very sensitive to their question. Remember, you always have the option of not answering.

I have read your “By Design” books, etc., and I was taught in grad school by one of your disciples. This internet trolling of yours doesn’t reflect kindly on you. Get thicker skin like a real teacher. If you are going to put an article on the internet based on a weak metaphor, you need to expect criticism from the anonymous masses.


September 11th, 2012
10:00 pm

Dr. Henson: I was the teacher you mention (”Everyone knows who the truly great teachers are in any school, the ones that every parents wants their child to be with, the ones whose classrooms every child wants to be in. Kids talk, parents talk, communities buzz.”) Students would enjoy my class for a year, then tell their younger siblings, cousins, etc., about me. Parents requested their children be placed in my class. I even got second-generation students, children of children I’d taught years before. But thanks to the new “standards” and the demand that they be taught a certain way (word walls, standards posted, constant references to them, etc.), I didn’t fit the mold any more. The last two years of my career were spent doing the best job I could while my principal dug up ways to get rid of me – ways that worked, I might add, or would have had I not chosen to retire. Good teaching was taking place in my room. It wasn’t the teaching the “powers that be” wanted, but it was good teaching.

Dr. Monica Henson

September 12th, 2012
11:03 am

ColonelJack, I was that teacher, too. When the new standards came along in my state (Massaschusetts, at the time), I did everything I could to learn as much about them as possible. I resisted the onslaught of canned test prep materials that started pouring in via marketing campaigns. I did have to learn how to use a rubric for essay grading, which at first was completely foreign to me. I’d never heard of a word wall, but it made sense once I read up on it. I was also in the process of going through National Board Certification, so I made learning about how to teach to the new Curriculum Frameworks part of my self-study.

The bottom line is, I was able to adapt my teaching in a way that enabled me to teach to the STANDARDS and not “to the test.” I talked to my principal and my superintendent and got permission to run my classroom in the way that research was telling me would make my kids successful in many ways, not just on the state tests. They were willing to give me one year and see how it went.

My students (Title I, urban working class, heterogeneously grouped 8th graders, 50 languages spoken in our district, class size averaged between 30 and 35) ended tied for the highest scores in the state on the MCAS ELA test with a neighboring suburban district that was almost 100% white and high socioeconomic status that bused all their special ed kids to another district. We continued for the next year to score at the top, then I went on to the district high school to become their ELA department chair.

It took me a lot of soul-searching and reading and research to identify what I needed to do. I was at a point in my career where I really wanted to stay in public education and I recognized that I had to adapt or get out. I have had several friends and colleagues, some of whom who were further along in their careers than I, who made the decision to go ahead and switch careers or retire.

The new definition of “good teaching” has to include the ability to move students toward proficiency on state standards. We are employees of the state, and we cannot ignore the state requirements. I feel terrible for teachers who are trapped in schools with shortsighted administrators who don’t themselves understand what good teaching really is and who force teachers into soul-killing pacing guides and kill-and-drill instruction. It sounds like that might have been the case in your situation. Thank you for your many years of educating students. It’s clear that you had a true passion for what you did.

Red Ruffinsore

September 16th, 2012
12:07 am