Blog 64. New rigor in education?

New research in education actually looks not only at test scores, but uses technologies of videos and eyeball-detection hardware to compile data on when kids pay attention and how learning takes place. But there are also other, more political, movements to reform public education. For example, new requirements proposed in my (former) state of New Mexico would require rigid adherence to standard curriculum, with continual tests for students and accountability for teachers.

That accountability sounds good, but may actually be contrary to education. For example, one scheme would have the teacher’s lesson plan posted on the door so that the supervisor could drop in at 10:25 to check if the action in progress corresponded to the plan for that hour. That reduces the supervisor’s task from making judgements to making paperwork. Practically, it prevents the personal interaction of a teacher with the students’ immediate needs and varying responses. Furthermore, if a teacher is graded and promoted according to the students’ test scores, the teacher is forced to teach according to the tests, not according to knowledge or discovery or curiosity. That form of accountability makes students memorize and good teachers quit.

One educator gave this advice,* “Place a student from a home that values education in a class with a teacher who loves his subject and enjoys teaching, and learning takes place.” I suspect those conditions are both necessary and sufficient for success in the classroom.

To guide reform in education, first ask: What is the purpose of education? If it is to teach a particular job skill, remember that elementary schooling usually provides broad living skills, while the job is learned by experience—on the job. Even medical doctors learn through the hands-on experience called “residency” or “internship.”

Should public school be a factory, stamping out square people to fit established square social roles while performing repetitive tasks in routine jobs? Or is the purpose to enable people to be adaptable, thereby leading individual, creative, and hopefully satisfying lives? That’s asking questions about ideals, but any reform of education is an imposition of ideals. If people need to be controlled by top-down authority, the school needs rigid controls. If people are to be free, innovative, and exploratory, the children simply need good homes and unconstrained teachers—although that might allow chaos. The best educational philosophy might be a little of both ideals.

How do we find the middle ground between overcontrol and chaos? Perhaps schools should focus more on learning, less on accountability.

One finding of the new research is that students who first try an exploratory activity and then receive a lecture on science learned more than those who had the lecture first. I maintain that learning, for individuals or corporations, is a process of discovery. Discovery does not necessarily mean “new.” You are learning even when your discovery occurs inside an old encyclopedia.

I saw discovery in action when I was a noontime mentor in a progressive grade school. The students were so enthralled with their projects that each one abandoned recess in an attempt to get my attention to his or her project. In building race cars, they were actually learning to budget time and materials. By individually writing articles for their newspaper, including real news with maps and figures, they were learning English—but by practice, not by memorizing.

My wife took our dogs to a school where children with reading difficulties were reading to dogs. The kids, who felt shy or embarrassed in the classroom, felt confident while reading to the dogs. One mother was amazed at the progress of her deaf daughter. However, accountability motivates management: the reading program was canceled for budgetary priorities.

The news media report education in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Our society is fascinated with science because science produces technology. However, I suggest that technological production should not be the overwhelming objective. A student must learn to evaluate the world around himself. As an editorial in Scientific American said, “If humankind has invented a better tool than science to help us learn about the world (and universe) around us, I haven’t heard of it.” By learning basic science, the student will not come to feel powerless in a technical society that is scientifically illiterate.

So what’s the point?

Management of education should focus on the learning process, not on accounting by test scores. Life is a continuing test in a course for which you have not passed the other prerequisite courses. Tomorrow will be different from today.   Learn to be flexible, adaptive, creative.


*R. Ballantyne in Scientific American, December 2014, p. 8.

2 thoughts on “Blog 64. New rigor in education?

  1. Georgie Searles ·

    Right on, Don! As a former teacher and science museum educator, I loved inquiry based learning and the ways it motivated kids. I would not want to be a teacher in the current testing atmosphere. One of my education professors taught that in education there are no magic answers and yet we always think we have them. We get excited about one approach and go whole hog for it, then, when it doesn’t solve all our problems, the pendulum swings in another direction. I keep hoping that the days of testing as the solution will soon end.

    • Thanks for your affirmative comment, Georgie. An atmosphere of continual testing is one thing, a bad thing. An occasional creative test as a learning tool is a good thing. I once had a professor whose tests were always open-book, open-anything. However, it didn’t do you much good to bring a pile of books and notes to the test, which always explored your understanding of the material by posing problems slightly outside whatever you had done in the homework, requiring application of the breadth of what you had learned. If you understood all of the material, you did well. If you didn’t understand some part of it, the test let you discover what you didn’t understand!

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