Sunday, October 14, 2012

Teaching President Obama the Conditions for Learning

Dear President Obama,

I am done pleading with you.  I am writing due to my great respect for Diane Ravitch, who has requested that everyone write to you by October 17th.  I am going to use this opportunity to teach you something, as it appears your administration is very uneducated regarding real teaching and real learning.  I want to share the Conditions for Learning by Brian Cambourne. Teachers know and implement CFL in their classrooms on a daily basis – that is, they attempt to implement CFL in their classrooms, yet it is increasingly difficult under the crushing Race to the Top policies your administration has implemented with the zealous support of billionaires and a sell-out mainstream media.

As I share it, I would like you to visualize a child, named Josh, who is living in poverty. He is fictitious but he is based on many children I have taught. Imagine a child unclean, wearing the same shirt many days in a row, often hungry, sneakers with holes and a gently used winter jacket, thanks to a community donation. This child shares a home with many relatives. Sometimes he has a couch to sleep on, sometimes the floor. There are no screens in the windows and the bugs fly in and out freely in the hot humid heat of the South. The one constant in his life should have been school. Yet, his conditions for learning are very difficult to meet due to high stakes testing, teacher evaluation tied to the test, the common core NATIONAL standards and the lack of resources in his school which has been labeled for turnaround under RTTT.

So let’s look at the Conditions for Learning as it relates to literacy and Josh’s learning experience.

The first condition is IMMERSION. Under this condition this learner should be immersed in texts of all kinds. Yet, his school has no funding for a library or a librarian. There are very few texts of any kind in his home. At school, Josh is fed tests, not texts.

The second condition is DEMONSTRATION.  The learner should be receiving “many demonstrations of how texts are constructed and used.” While the teachers attempt to do this, their hands are tied due to the fear of their school being closed, therefore the demonstrations this learner does receive are typically connected to the test and are typically based on low level learning. Demonstrations are intensely focused on skill/drill rather than providing the learner with the opportunity to problem solve using text and their prior knowledge of text. Common core NATIONAL standards actually suggest that children do not consider or think about their prior knowledge.

The third is EXPECTATION.  Brian Cambourne writes, “Expectations of those to whom learners are bonded are powerful coercers of behavior. ‘We achieve what we expect to achieve; we fail if we expect to fail; we are more likely to engage with demonstrations of those whom we regard as significant and who hold high expectations for us.” Under Race to the Top Josh has been the unlucky recipient of a Teach for America teacher. This teacher has received about six weeks training. The spread of TFAs is encouraged under your administration and 50 million dollars was given to TFA to continue spreading inexperienced teachers to our neediest schools.  Josh is African-American. His new teacher from TFA is white, has a degree in political science and lived out East. Josh is not bonding with this teacher. He is wise to this game and realizes this teacher has no understanding of his culture, his community, nor does this teacher intend to stay. Josh is accustomed to constant and disruptive change and does not trust easily. He did have strong relationships with many of his former teachers but they were fired when TFA was brought into his school. Josh knows he is being prepared for a test; he does not feel that his teacher has high expectations for him, but rather he feels he is doing what is necessary to keep his school from closing. He knows his teacher’s expectation is that he must do well on this test.  It is not about learning, it is about gaming the test so that his community is not destroyed.

The fourth condition is RESPONSIBILTY.  Cambourne states, “Learners need to make their own decisions about when, how, and what ‘bits’ to learn in any learning task.  Learners who lose the ability to make decisions are ‘depowered.’”  Simply put, Josh is powerless. He makes no decisions about his learning. There is no art, PE, music or recess so he has very little creative or free outlet in which he might pick and choose how to express himself. His writing is typically focused on writing prompts geared to increase his score on the state test, therefore the idea of choosing topics is out the window. He reads what he is told to read and has limited opportunity to choose independent reading material because there is no library.  He is not involved in any decisions regarding his learning; he is simply laboring for Pearson.

The fifth condition is USE. Josh should have an opportunity and time to “use, employ, and practice” his “developing control in functional, realistic, non-artificial ways.” This is a pipe dream under Race to the Top. As an educator, it is my job to support learners in becoming lifelong learners and citizens who can problem solve and allow our democracy to thrive. Yet – under Race to the Top, teachers are told to be sure students are career and college ready. It seems that students are career and college ready if they are able to perform well on a standardized state test – which ultimately focuses on low level skills. The policies surrounding high stakes testing do not allow for real USE. Teachers faced with the fear of losing their jobs, specifically in schools such as Josh’s school, are no longer allowed to give Josh opportunities to problem solve and dig deep. Rather, Josh will be required to create formulaic writing responses and his brain will be filled with facts that he can regurgitate on the test. Josh actually wants to be an auto mechanic and he currently sees no connection between school and his future. There is no authentic use of learning, it is all artificial. Real life or USE cannot be contained within a bubble sheet.

The sixth condition is APPROXIMATION.  Cambourne states, “Learners must be free to approximate the desired model – ‘mistakes’ are essential for learning to occur.” Under Race to the Top mistakes result in being held back a grade, teachers being fired, schools being closed and handed over to profiteers, and children being rearranged and redistributed like a deck of cards at the whim of those who typically know nothing about teaching and learning.  Josh knows that his mistakes hold consequences for his community. He knows that the state test is not simply a test, it is a test that can topple his community. He does not feel he has time or room to make mistakes.

The seventh condition is RESPONSE.  Cambourne states, “Learners must receive ‘feedback’ from exchanges with more knowledgeable ‘others.’ Response must be relevant, appropriate, timely, readily available, non-threatening, with no strings attached.”  Well, first, we know that his teacher is not knowledgeable as his teacher has only 6 weeks training.  We know that there is no relevance to any learning that is focused on high stakes test preparation.  In addition, state test scores are definitely not released in a timely fashion, yet even if they were, the results are useless – unless you want to know Josh’s zip code which I would have been happy to share for free.  Finally, receiving feedback or responses via high stakes testing can be highly threatening, resulting in Josh’s inability to sleep the night before a test, vomiting in the bathroom on test day and having such great fear during the test time that he often freezes up on questions in which he actually knows the answer. Because the test is ultimately designed for white affluent children, Josh is already at a loss due to the many biases found within his test booklet. He feels threatened because he indeed is being threatened. The feedback must have no strings attached – that is impossible under RTTT policies.

Finally, I want to share the condition of ENGAGEMENT. Engaging in one’s learning is crucial – for Josh it will be the game breaker – he may drop out of school without engagement. If all the previous conditions above are met, engagement is much more likely to occur. Engagement occurs if Josh feels like he is a “potential ‘doer’ or ‘performer’ ” of the demonstrations he is seeing. He has to believe that engaging in these demonstrations will actually further the purpose of his life. And, Josh should be able to engage and “try to emulate without fear of physical or psychological hurt if” his attempt isn’t completely correct. Racing to the Top makes engagement incredibly difficult and impossible for many children living in high poverty areas.

Racing to the Top results in physical and psychological hurt for children as schools are closed, opposing gangs are placed in the same building, as children are held back due to test scores, as children are drugged in order to be alert during the mundane and repetitive nature of skill/drill, and as children are deserted when experienced teachers are fired and replaced by corporate reformers who have no empathy.

You see, President Obama, as an educator I know very well what conditions are necessary for learning to occur in my classroom. I do not believe any of your policies promote the Conditions for Learning. Rather, your policies fly in the face of everything a learner needs.

President Obama, you do not really see students such as Josh. If you did, the empathy you would feel (and I still have hope that you can feel empathy) would cause you to change your policies. Yet, in order to privatize public education, it is important NOT to have empathy for these children. These children must remain a number so that the real pain and torture of RTTT is not known to the general public.

Whether you win or not matters very little in regard to what happens with our public school system. So, I will continue to do what I do best – I will continue to share what experienced teachers know.  I will continue to share the truths about corporate education reform. Teachers must resist and rebuild all at once in order to repair the damage that is occurring daily and will continue to occur until the profiteers have squeezed every last dollar out of our public schools.  I will do my best to support teachers in implementing the Conditions for Learning and I will do everything I can to oppose RTTT policies by continuing to ask all parents and students to opt out of the lynch pin – the state test – which holds this façade together.

I am headed back to the front line next week, after being away from teaching for six years. As an educational activist I will continue my work on the outside, but it is time for me to head back in and help to resist, rebuild and protect the children of this country. I fear if I do not, there will soon be few true educators left. Race to the Top is simultaneously destroying public education and the teaching profession. As President, perhaps you can learn something from the Conditions for Learning, should you win a second term.  I, however, will be voting for Jill Stein.


Peggy Robertson
A Teacher with a Professional Conscience

For more on the Conditions for Learning see The Whole Story by Brian Cambourne.


  1. I cut my teaching teeth on Cambourne many years ago, and his work still informs my practice each and every day. I have taught many Joshes over the years. Thank you for this true and heartbreaking letter.

  2. Thanks for a great letter. Pediatric nurses like me see the unfair conditions for learning that cause of our education problems. A recent study on the effect of stress (poverty) on a child's "memory abilities" again confirms this.

  3. I've shared this with all my education students. Thank you, Peg.