Friday, September 23, 2011

What do we really expect from our educational systems?

What do we really expect from our educational systems?

Three different kinds of things have led me to this question, which I have asked myself many times before. First, there is the ongoing national debate about performance of American students in public schools coupled with a general lack of real concern and support for improving the situation. Second, there are ongoing debates, mostly of a petty and one-sided nature, among faculty in higher education programs concerned with teacher preparation and educational research. Third, there is an ongoing effort by a very forward thinking and dedicated group of people in a Georgia school district with regard to seriously improving learning and instruction throughout that district by focusing on personalized learning and data and research driven approaches. Based on my own work in other school districts, I find this school district surprisingly focused on real and tangible improvements in learning and instruction apart from arbitrary and superficial emphasis on adequate yearly progress and performance on standardized tests, which are used in a punitive manner rather than in a formative manner to improve student learning. With regard to university programs involving teacher training and education, there seems to be ongoing emphasis on advocacy, minimal focus on educational research that is meaningful and generalizable, and an entrenchment of existing programs that makes innovation and progressive change much too difficult. With regard to the national debates about education in America, I can only say that I am embarrassed when I visit other countries that clearly have national support for education and which are far more innovative and progressive in their efforts to educate their children and citizens.

The question I am now asking myself is one I have thought about before, as have many others: What do we want and expect from our educational systems? There are many different kinds of answers to this question, and they vary significantly with regard to implications for teaching and learning. One answer is that we want our children to have basic knowledge and skills in core areas such as reading, writing, and mathematics. That kind of answer tends to lend itself to a focus on testing and to particular kinds of outcomes research aimed at student performance on tests. Other things could be emphasized in such a response, however, including questions about what it means to be literate, what kinds of mathematical knowledge and skills are important, how literacy is connected with critical thinking, and so on. However, those other potential areas of emphasis are considered secondary or even inconsequential in comparison with what so many regard as the bottom line – can our children read, write, and do math (add, subtract, multiply and divide).

A somewhat more sophisticated and nuanced (albeit vague) answer to the question is that we want our children to be effective problem solvers and contributors to a productive society – i.e., we want to prepare students for life in the global economy of the 21st century. Those who advocate this kind of answer can find support at a national level and in many scholarly publications. There are funding agencies at the national, state, and local level that also support this kind of response, although many still maintain that performance-based evidence on standardized tests provides good evidence of achieving these kinds of goals. I wonder if holding both positions (emphasis on testing and emphasis on 21st century skills) is fundamentally a sound position. I am not sure if those two kinds of responses are genuinely compatible and consistent, however.

Nonetheless, there is another kind of answer to the question (and probably many more that have not yet occurred to me) – namely, what we really want is to live in a healthy and enriching environment among neighbors and fellow citizens who respect each other and treat others fairly and with dignity. I guess I should say that is what I would like – others certainly may have different visions. In any case, if something like that is how we would like to live, then it would seem reasonable to aim education at such goals. This kind of answer then places values as the primary consideration in educating our children and citizens – above specific knowledge and skills. Of course knowledge and skills are required in order to be a responsible citizen in the sense suggested here, but the ability to solve a system of two simultaneous equations with two unknowns or to write a coherent and grammatically correct thesis statement for an expository document are perhaps not essential to learning how to treat others with dignity and equity.

What knowledge and skills are required to be or become a responsible citizen who respects and deals fairly with others? Certainly beliefs about oneself and one’s place in society are involved in developing such knowledge. If one believes that one’s own desires and needs are more important than anyone else’s desires and needs, then how is such a person likely to develop?

Or, to ask a related but somewhat different question, why is it that so many in America are concerned with their own success and disinterested in others’ lack of success (poverty, unemployment, lack of medical coverage, etc.)? Why do so many American corporations seem focused on their own profits in spite of what happens to their employees and the environment? Why is there so much theft and violence in American society?

We can educate people to deal with violence. We can teach martial arts to our children. Can we educate our children to be non-violent? Can our society do that on a large and sustained basis? Violence in some societies is quite rare compared with America. How are those societies different? Of course some are worse, and it is probably worthwhile to look at differences there as well – we certainly do not want our society to further deteriorate and disintegrate into opposing factions filled with rancor and hatred. We do seem headed in that direction, though, which I suppose is one reason I am wondering what we really want and need in terms of educating Americans.

I do not want everyone or even a majority to agree with me or think like me. I would, however, want an overwhelming majority of my fellow citizens to be able to think clearly, coherently and critically. This involves being able to (a) determine what kinds of evidence are required to support particular conclusions and positions, (b) find and evaluate that evidence, (c) identify and make explicit the assumptions involved in this process, (d) determine the likely consequences of accepting a particular conclusion or position, and (e) reflect on the quality of one’s thinking and confidence in supporting a particular conclusion or position.

In short, I want my fellow citizens to become skeptical inquirers. A skeptic is someone who is not [yet] convinced and who is actively engaged in a search to find out – that is the original meaning of being a skeptic – being a searcher. Inquiry skills can be associated with a skeptical attitude, and it seems to me that we should emphasize those skills in our public schools. Reading and writing will come along as supporting skills rather than as primary skills. A similar argument could be developed with regard to mathematics. Certainly knowledge of statistics and specific statistical skills are needed to evaluate many different kinds of evidence.

Well, I realize this is a rather radical position, although not altogether unlike that proposed by John Dewey in Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1916). I suppose I am old fashioned in that case. It is radical in the sense that it suggests dropping primary emphasis on basic skills and focusing on something else. It is radical in the sense that it suggests that 21st century problem solving skills are not primary. Rather this kind of answer to the question says that what matters most are values – shared values – not the values of one or another religious group, but practical, social values to which everyone can relate and which will benefit all.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti is “waiting for a rebirth of wonder and … for someone to really discover America” (From A Coney Island of the Mind, 1958). Perhaps that poem expresses part of what I am trying to say. Meanwhile, I am waiting for the rebirth of skepticism and inquiry. It is my belief that we know much less than we are generally inclined to believe. To be engaged in an inquiry process, one must acknowledge at some level that one does not know but would like to learn more.

Mike Spector