Sunday, April 06, 2008

What are the goals of a K-12 education?

As a teacher and as a school board member, I am forever forced to think about No Child Left Behind. As just about everyone is familiar with by now, this is the federal law that requires schools and their students to perform well on standardized tests. In my mind, and almost every other teacher and educator I know, this is a terrible way to gauge the education students are receiving, but that is another long story. For now, I am intrigued by a book of essays I have started reading called, "What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated?" The essays are collected by Alfie Kohn.

I think the main point being made is that educators are not asking the right questions today about what we are doing and teaching in K-12 school systems. This is in large part because of NCLB and the mandates we are forced to follow and the goals that are set for schools (again, those goals are to get kids to score well on the exams). But the title of the book asks one of the questions we should be asking. Another question is: What are the goals of a K-12 education, as well as what should be the goals of a K-12 education? Is the point of mandatory schooling to promote and effect the continuation of a democracy? Is it to prepare students for college? For the workplace? Is it to build independent learners and thinkers? Is it to develop good problem solvers? Is it to develop students who can recall a series of facts about a given topic? Or should we develop good, decent, multicultural individuals who can fit into our melting pot society? Are the goals some combination of all of the above, and if so, what gets the most emphasis? In the end, who decides what the goals are and how a school goes about working with kids to meet those goals? Should it be federally mandated, as in NCLB, or purely local? Should the education one gets in urban districts the same as one should get in rural, southern farming districts?

It gets very complicated very quickly. This is the type of topic that will forever be debated, and almost certainly will never have a consensus answer. But it seems the entire country is up in arms about the state of American schools and the K-12 education system, and that reform is necessary. But what I am saying here is I don't hear these types of questions being asked. The conversation is always built around procedures of how to make the status quo work better. I am convinced standardized tests are not the answer to our education issues.

Here is something to leave with. Should a "good education" focus on the specific content of specific areas of study, or should content be used as a means of getting students to develop what Deborah Meier calls the five "habits of mind?" These are 1) the value of raising questions about evidence (how do we know what we know?), 2) recognizing the point of view (whose perspective does this represent?), 3) how is material connected to other material (how is this related to that?), 4) supposition (how might things have been otherwise?), and what I always try to emphasize, 5) relevance (why is this important to my life?).

In the end, how much specific content does a typical student remember, since most is never used in their life? How well do I remember how to diagram complicated sentences, or remember specific dates from events that occurred centuries ago? Does that mean my early education was a failure? Not at all, nor should we suddenly expect today's students to remember everything that is brought up in class by is the higher-level thinking and problem solving skills that make a difference in life. It is knowing where and how to find information. It is knowing the right questions to ask when you don't know something. It is finding connections between theory and reality, and recognizing how to draw logical conclusions based on supporting evidence. It is about being able to use some limited information and building off of it, and perhaps making predictions that are sound in judgment. It is about finding good information from the growing, endless stream of nonsense that is on the Internet, by checking it with multiple sources.

But today's standardized tests largely focus on the specific content and recall of one's memory. It is driving teachers away from the life skills that really ultimately matter for individuals, so they can adapt to a changing world and workplace. It is taking the fun out of learning, which is now, out of necessity, a lifelong process if one wants to stay with the pack. We need to start asking the deeper questions that break away from content, and get to the meat of what will make a long-term difference for our children in this new, technical, globalized world. And for what it's worth, for some, this will not mean prepping for college.

I hope to get comments from anyone who would like to share...


mark said...

hey Dr. Von,

Nice post.

Several of the habits of mind relate to cultivating skeptical empiricism, a good thing in my view. There is far too much intellectual passivity in our culture, coupled with information overload, the tendency in students and adults is to accept what they are told or read all too uncritically. On, when confronted with some incongruity, they do not understand how to take the next steps to unravel the puzzle ( or, to discern puzzles from mysteries, but that is another topic). Much systemic improvement would occur from looking at the principles behind what used to be called "liberal education" and implementing them into the curriculum.

Analytical reductionism and skepticism is not enough though. To become thinkers who generate insights and ask questions, students need to be fluid with synthesis, with extrapolation and interpolation, to reframe perspectives and think creatively.

All of this requires students to metacognitively understand their own thinking processes and realize that different modes of thought represent tools with advantages and disadvantages and that's ok to switch tools when approaching problems. Especially novel ones.

Our school system is not structured to do that well and NCLB puts enormous pressure to prevent schools from doing so, even if the willingness was there.

As a sidebar, how many new teachers come out from Colleges of Education with their freshly minted BA/BS knowing *any* of this? It would be nice if universities took the time to teach prospective teachers some first-rate epistemology in their Ed. classes instead of the specious, out of date, non-peer reviewed, touchy-feely, crap and dog-and-pony-show hoop jumping busywork that passes for graduation requirements.

But I understate :)

deichmans said...

Dr. Von,

Excellent post! I agree that we all need to consider the why of our primary education systems (note the deliberate plural).

Pope Benedict recently said "Faith without reason leads to fanaticism." I think this is a very apt point, especially when you consider the consequences of a system pegged to standardized test scores.

It would be useful to survey the nations with successful economies and their approach to education. Do cultures that promote rote memorization fare better than those that promote interpretation and horizontal thinking? (My modest understanding of Arab culture is that they fall in the former category: the honorific "al-Sharif" is bestowed on those who have recited the entire Quran from memory.)

I for one am a strong proponent of innovation and creativity, and I strive to encourage and nurture those abilities in my own kids. Despite NCLB and Otis-Lennon and TCAPs and SATs. :-)

David said...

Hey Doc V,

Execellent post.

My school system is currently being "reorganized". Which seems to me giving everyone pink slips, rehiring all the people fired, and claiming that change has been made for the better. Absolutely none of the key issues you mentioned are thoughtfuly adressed, though the staff certainly is reminded how fragile their careers are.

The major issue as I see it is that we lack a consensus of the goals of education. My varied, and mostly mind-numbing college ed courses talked at length about how there are goals, but never talked about what they were or how we prioritize them.

Consider different families: My parents believed that knowledge and learning for their own sake are the most important truth and goal of life. Alternatively, my good friends parents taught him that one should attend college so that you can get a good job and be financially stable and sustain your family. These are both completely reasonable premises but the consequenses of each are completely different. If the goal is to learn enough work then apprenticeships would be a much more effective form of education. If the former families goals are shared than rigor and experimentation are a must.

Certainly worth noting is that both my friend and I are successful (as we see it) and happy. So what IS that goal of education? Success? as measured by whom? Happiness? Is education nessecary for that for all people? There is a lack of agreement about what we are trying to accomplish on a very base level, which prevents us from having a real conversation about change.

As I see it we will never have a nation, much less world wide agreement on our long term goals therefore, to set create national standards like NCLB will never satisfy.

Sadly, the bell has rung and I have to teach a low level math class how to pass a state test in four weeks, so I must cut this off. I hope this conversation continues, as it should.