Arnold Greenberg, founder of Miquon Upper School in Philadelphia, Deep Run School of Homesteading, and Liberty School – A Democratic Learning Community, lives in an off-the-grid cabin in East Blue Hill, Maine. He wrote this essay, “Towards a Different Standard: Counting What Can’t Be Counted,” which I wanted to share with readers of Cooperative Catalyst. Enjoy.
Here we go again with yet another set of academic standards under the title Race to the Top—an attempt to replace the great aspirations of No Child Left Behind. Now, we have brand new recommendations for what all students should master in English and Math as they move from elementary through high school and graduate ready, it is hoped, to succeed in college and flourish in their futures.
English and math experts consulted last year by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief School Officers went to a great deal of trouble producing the new standards. The English section, for instance, is six hundred pages long and attempts to define what all students are expected to know and be able to do. The Obama administration is taking a “tough love” approach, firing principals and teachers in schools that do not meet the standards and also encouraging states to compete for a piece of the four billion dollar federal pie if they adopt the new standards. The goal is to end up with national rather than widely different state standards, and ultimately to enable our young people to compete with other countries, most of which have national standards and outscore the U.S. on international tests.
Unfortunately, there is little substantial difference between Race to the Top and NCLB. It’s more of the same dressed up with a fresh coat of paint and reminds me of Einstein’s famous definition of insanity: doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Einstein also said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” The purpose of this essay is to explore what “counts” in education but can’t be counted, as well as possible ways to measure those aspects of becoming educated that I believe are more significant than what we now measure—especially as we experience the world of the 21st Century.
Our current approach to education hasn’t changed in over two hundred years. It was designed to meet the needs of the Industrial Age and was based largely on techniques developed in Prussia when its work and military forces required a compliant citizenry. Known as “psycho-physics,” the Prussian model involved breaking knowledge into segments that are interrupted by a horn or bell before moving on to another subject, thereby making students dependent on the teacher. It was an effective way to stamp out factory workers and to sort young people into different levels of employment—executives, managers, and common laborers—but now it is woefully obsolete.
While the emphasis in our schools has been on preparing young people to be productive members of society, there is evidence that many people learned the necessary skills without going to school. The list of self-educated people who went on to be successful is extensive—Lincoln and Edison to name only two. What qualities and characteristics enabled them not only to learn the essential skills, but also to be creative, determined people who lived significant, productive lives?
My concern here is the emphasis our schools place on measuring what is easily measured at the expense of developing those qualities that many self-educated people learn outside of school. And since measuring everything that schools do seems to be so important, is there a way to measure the qualities that I will call a “different standard?” Can we learn to count what can’t be counted?
Before looking more closely at those questions, it is important to have a deeper awareness of the unique qualities of each child because they are ignored and smothered by our approach to learning. We are missing a major component in understanding individuality and why our schools are thwarting the true potential of so many young people unless we consider the following statement by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know. It is chosen and foreordained and he only holds the key to its secret.” Unfortunately, the utilitarian nature of our schools ignores that “secret” aspect of individuality and instead the goal is homogenization.
Another statement of Emerson’s that resonates with me is, “The purpose of education is to teach how to live, not how to make a living.” Clearly, this is the antithesis of our current approach to education, with its overarching emphasis on what all students should know in order to be prepared for college or the workplace.
To achieve schools able to meet the utilitarian goals of society, a systematic approach was created by a team of university presidents, who, beginning in 1892, devised the Carnegie Unit—a system of breaking down knowledge into lessons that if dispensed for a certain number of minutes each day, five days a week, could, by the end of the year, produce the desired results. All subjects could be presented in this way and after twelve years, students would be ready to graduate. On paper this “scientific” approach was neat, clean, and measurable. However, it ignored many variables.
Two of the variables are the teacher and the individuality of the students, both of which are impossible to control. Lip service is given to respecting individuality but in reality, the student is also a “unit” whose uniqueness does not count. Some students are successful under this practice and learn what is expected, possibly at the expense of their talent, intelligence, and creativity. Others refuse to learn and either became discipline problems or passively go through the motions of learning enough to get by. Others learn by pursuing their interests and passions outside of school. Today, according to the Gates Foundation, an estimated 3500 students drop out every day—a figure that does not include those who drop out mentally but are still enrolled. The fact is only a small percentage of students graduate from high school prepared to do college work and less than half of students who go to college complete their education—some for financial reasons but most because they are not prepared.
It is important to see our approach to educating our children in the context of our times. As any one who has read Tom Friedman’s, The World is Flat or seen Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” knows that things are radically different today than they were even ten years ago. Our children and the “yet to be born” are inheriting a world and way of living that is becoming unrecognizable. The awesome power and potential of the Internet is transforming how we communicate and collaborate, while at the same time we are on a collision course with destructive environmental issues the results of which are impossible to calculate. If our schools are expected to prepare young people for the world of the twenty-first century, how do schools meet that challenge?
In order to prepare our young people for the coming decades, we must consider the research on how the brain works. Children are naturally powerful learners and acquire a great deal of knowledge and skills through playing, observing, asking questions, and experiencing the world around them. They learn by doing and solving problems, figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and pursuing what is relevant to them in the moment. It’s amazing to watch children learning so spontaneously and proficiently while mostly having fun.
Our schools, however, take an approach opposite to the way children learn prior to going to school. Suddenly learning becomes equated with following instructions, and too often the natural joy of learning is replaced by a prescribed curriculum whereby the teacher dispenses information to be reproduced on a test. This approach isn’t questioned by parents because that’s the way they were taught too. Only now, barraged by the media, the Internet, and increasing numbers of adult-structured extracurricular activities, young people today have very little time to call their own.
It’s interesting that the original meaning of the word school is schola, which in Greek means “leisure”—the leisure for discourse, pursuing interests, and play. Everyone acknowledges that our schools are not working and are resistant to change. Bailing out our banks and Wall Street without really changing how they do business and expecting different results is a form of Einstein’s insanity. Pouring more money into our schools and coming up with a new revision of standards is another. It hasn’t worked in the past and it will not work in the future.
Why are our schools so stuck? The reasons are many, but a major one according to Seymour Sarason in The Culture of Schools and the Problem of Change is the hierarchal structure whereby curriculum mandates and policies are created by corporations, universities, and government and passed down to Departments of Education, then to superintendents and principals, and finally to teachers who have little or no autonomy. No Child Left Behind was the most recent example. It has stifled creative change, destroyed morale, and proven to be largely ineffective, and there is no reason to believe Race to the Top will be any different with its added threat of principals and teachers losing their jobs if their students do not meet the new standards.
So what is the alternative? I believe there needs to be a paradigm shift in education before we can create schools based on how children actually learn and that address 21st-century realities. The shift I am proposing centers on a problem-based curriculum in which the goal is to develop the ability to articulate important questions about issues of concern and to learn how to find solutions. “Let the questions be the curriculum,” Socrates once advocated. He “taught” by asking questions to which he did not know the answers, and he said he owed his wisdom to his willingness to let his questions guide him. Here I think it is illuminating to note the relationship between the words “quest” and “question.” For Socrates, it is the quest for knowledge that is important. A good question is a quest and can be the beginning of important journeys into the unknown.
A problem-based approach to learning is as natural as breathing. It could dramatically change how schools are structured and how teachers teach, and ultimately enable students to develop the abilities that really “count.” Problem-based learning is built on the assumption that the most effective learning takes place when students are using their knowledge to solve real life problems that concern them. It encourages them to work either individually or collaboratively on problems that are relevant to their lives in order to create and propose solutions as opposed to the traditional approach of reproducing information. Through analysis, strategizing, and the gathering of data and information, student learning is deepened because it is being used to solve real problems. Imagine students exploring the causes for global warming and proposing solutions or analyzing our current food distribution system that has a billion people hungry and suggesting how these problems can be remedied.
In a problem based curriculum, the three Rs are replaced by the four Cs: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. The emphasis is on is how, not what to learn, and the structure of the school day is no longer divided into units of time and separate subject matter disciplines. The classroom is no longer rows of desks with the teacher at the front “teaching.” And the children are no longer passive recipients of information, but are active problem solvers. They are learning how to look at the root causes of a problem, gather data through research, and collaborate on a possible solution. When they are finished, they present the results of their quest to their learning community, prepared to defend their solutions as part of a critical dialogue. Getting feedback and evaluating themselves is an important part of the learning process.
The role of the teacher changes from dispenser of information to model, guide, facilitator, and more experienced learner. I like to think of the teacher as a consenting partner in the learning process and of the relationship between teacher and student as a loving, collegial friendship, as opposed to the authoritarian style that is now the norm.
What are the different standards that can be achieved with a problem-based curriculum? Here are a few that I believe are most valuable: the ability to determine and articulate a significant question, to collaborate and communicate clearly orally and in writing, to become an independent, self-directed learner able to sustain motivation, to use time wisely, and to be a joyful, spirited citizen of his or her community and the world. I am convinced that the students who learn in a problem-based curriculum will do as well or better on the new Race to the Top standardized tests of academic performance without “teaching to the test.”
All of this brings us back to the question, is it possible to “count” what can’t be counted? Schools currently depend on multiple choice tests to measure performance, but I believe a different method is necessary, one that is based on observation and students’ self-perceptions. This approach to “measuring” would attempt to evaluate growth in certain areas over a period of time. Comparing a student’s self-evaluation with the observations of the teacher would be one way to measure what formerly was not measured.
Significant progress has been made in attempting to measure the qualities that are developed in a problem-based curriculum by Mark Van Ryzin, a doctoral candidate in Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota. In what he calls the “Hope Study,” he surveyed students on issues such as their relationships with peers and teachers, their perception of the impact of learning environment on them, and how they feel about their progress and their futures. He placed their responses in the categories autonomy, belongingness, and hope, and he discovered it is possible over a period of time to see how a student’s self-perceptions have evolved. By focusing on students’ self-perceptions, perhaps we will be able to determine how successful a problem-based approach is to improving students’ performance as well as their attitude toward their futures—that is, are they happier and more hopeful?
In Mary C. Clark’s seminal book, In Search of Human Nature, a vast study of various cultures, she determines that there are three “propensities” essential to human happiness —autonomy, bonding, and meaning. This is similar to what the “Hope Study” attempts to measure. Autonomy is a sense of self, feeling one’s individually is respected and in Emerson’s words, one’s “fore-ordained” uniqueness is allowed to flourish. Bonding is the sense of belonging to a family and community. Meaning refers to having a sense of purpose; that one’s life is of value to one’s community.
Comparing the growth in these areas as students transition from a traditional to a problem-based approach with the results of standardized tests of academic achievement would provide significant information that could encourage more schools to adopt a problem based approach and radically change how schools look and operate. It is likely that students from problem-based schools will do as well or better on the “Race to the Top” tests; however, we would also be measuring what formerly was not “counted but count.”
A paradigm shift in how we structure our schools, and how we engage young people intellectually, emotionally, and imaginatively in ways that develop their ability to be collaborators and creative problem solvers can achieve different standards that can truly make a difference. The shift to a different standard will develop those all-important qualities that previously could not be counted, skills and attitudes that will go a long way toward creating a better world.