What If Great Minds Designed Our Schools?
contributed by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D, American Institute For Learning & Human Development
The long-awaited test results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are in, and although there’s something there for any educator who wants to give their own personal spin to the statistics, overall, the United States has seen no fundamental change in its scores since the program began in 2000.
In addition, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (‘The Nation’s Report Card’), recently released reading and math test scores for fourth and sixth graders and the results have been less than stellar. Showing declines in reading and little progress in math, these results are bound to stimulate calls for new education reforms.
The Miseducation of America
In digesting these results, we should keep in mind the historical context of U.S. efforts to raise achievement levels in our schools. This campaign for school reform arguably dates back to 1983, when the then U.S. Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell, wrote in his seminal report ‘’A Nation at Risk’’ that American schools were being ‘’eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.’’ His paper unleashed what became a concerted attempt over the following thirty-five years to reform American schools.
The leaders in this effort were politicians (particularly state governors), CEOs of large corporations, and educational bureaucrats. They held summits, passed laws (including the infamous No Child Left Behind Act), instituted more ‘rigorous’ requirements for students, and promoted new forms of standardized testing and standards-based curricula. Yet as noted above, American academic achievement levels haven’t changed much, and in some cases have even declined a bit.
In other words, this massive multi-billion-dollar push for improvement in America’s schools has failed in its aims to raise the level of academic achievement in our students.
Moreover, it has made the lives of many of our students more stressful as a result of the pressure to succeed. Doctors are increasingly seeing children in early elementary school suffering from migraine headaches and ulcers, and many physicians see a clear connection to school performance pressure. A third of our adolescents report feeling depressed or overwhelmed because of stress, and their single biggest source of stress is school, according to the American Psychological Association. While policymakers are busy arguing about how to handle future efforts to advance academic achievement levels in our students, I suggest that we stop trying to push for higher test scores and move instead in an entirely new direction based upon a totally different set of educational expectations.
Perhaps it wasn’t all that wise to entrust our nation’s educational welfare to a bunch of politicians, corporate executives, and educational bureaucrats. After all, these particular professions have their own hidden agendas determining education policy. Politicians are hoping to gain votes from their constituents, CEOs are looking to boost their companies’ financial bottom line, and educational bureaucrats are aiming to construct ever more exacting rules, regulations, and routines that are the veritable stuff of their trade. I’d like to suggest, instead, that we listen to another class of individuals who are motivated purely by their desire to envision the best that education has to offer to our schoolchildren.
I’m talking about the great thinkers and creators of our culture.
Schooling By Design: What Einstein Said About Education
Consider, for example, this thought experiment. What if Albert Einstein ran our schools? He’s usually the first person that pops into one’s head when thinking about the world’s smartest individuals and his theories have literally changed the way we view the universe. As it turns out, Einstein had strong opinions about education and how it should be conducted which we could fruitfully apply to future reforms in our schools. (See Learning Lessons from Albert Einstein.)
First of all, if Einstein ran our schools, he most definitely would discourage the current focus on standardized testing and a standards-based curriculum. In an essay entitled ‘’On Education,’’ he wrote: ‘’A community of standardized individuals without personal originality and personal aims would be a poor community without possibilities for development.’’
Elsewhere he stated: ‘’I believe in standardizing automobiles. I do not believe in standardizing human beings. Standardization is a great peril which threatens American culture.’’ Instead, Einstein most likely would place a lot of emphasis in our classrooms on unleashing students’ imagination. It was through his own imagination that he helped to create a totally new way of looking at reality. In high school, for example, he visualized himself racing alongside a beam of light, and in his young adulthood, he imagined what it would feel like to be in a closed elevator in outer space as it began to accelerate (the experience would be equivalent to gravity). These visual-kinesthetic images were the intellectual ‘seeds’ for his special and general theories of relativity.
Another project that Einstein would most probably encourage in the schools is the promotion of students’ curiosity. Quoted in a 1955 Life Magazine article, he said, ‘’The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a sense of holy curiosity.’’ (See also Why Questions Are More Important Than Answers.)
Einstein’s attitude toward curiosity stands in stark contrast to today’s classrooms in the United States where students are required to make progress on hundreds of tasks that are a part of the standards-based approach implemented by the states as part of their educational reform efforts. The Common Core State Standards which are used by 41 states, for example, include such instructional outcomes as being able to ‘’form and use comparative and superlative adjectives and adverbs, and choose between them depending on what is to be modified,’’ in language arts and ‘’solve word problems leading to equations of the form px +q = r, where p, q, and r are specific rational numbers’’ in math.
What Other Great Minds Have Said About Education
There’s not much room in these standards for curiosity. Einstein cautioned us to keep our priorities straight with respect to education when he wrote: ‘’It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good. Otherwise he—with his specialized knowledge—more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person.’’ If in our rush to raise test scores we ignore such guidelines from arguably the world’s smartest person, we do so at our own peril.
Other great contemporary thinkers have likewise spoken out passionately about education, including Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, Jane Goodall, and Rachel Carson. Their educational ideas make no mention of testing, but do involve such qualities as imagination, curiosity, wonder, playfulness, creativity, compassion, love of learning, tolerance, and beauty.
Environmentalist Rachel Carson would emphasize care for nature and developing a sense of wonder. She wrote: ‘’If I had influence with the good fairy . . . I should ask that her gift to each child in the world would be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life . . . ‘’ The Dalai Lama would make social and emotional learning a priority in the schools, saying that ‘’[i]n addition to basic education, we need to encourage warm-heartedness, concern for others and compassion.’’
Martin Luther King Jr. was prescient in his concern for helping students distinguish fact from fiction in the news when he wrote, ‘’To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion is one of the chief aims of education.’’
Primatologist Jane Goodall told an audience of educators at New York University: ‘’Children I think are born with an immense desire to learn. . .. [They] are made to spend too long sitting in class and not enough time going out and learning the way that we learn best, which is by exploring. It’s by touching. It’s by feeling.’’
Making Marvels Happen in Our K12 Classrooms
While recommendations like these might seem for many to be too lofty to serve as a practical foundation for American education, the fact is that there are schools across America that have already been implementing these ideas. Julie Mann, a high school teacher in Long Island City, New York, takes her students on ‘awe’ walks to connect nature with art. Blackwell, Oklahoma second-grade teacher Haley Curfman stimulates the creativity of her students by letting them draw, doodle, and color on a completely white dress that she wears to class.
High school students at Long Beach Unified School District created ‘curiosity cabinets,’ or exhibits containing found objects and other materials that intrigued them. Education expert Molly Barker taught tolerance to primary school students by taking pairs of cast-off shoes and labeling them ‘poor,’ ‘rich,’ ‘boy,’ ‘girl,’ ‘homeless,’ ‘physically disabled,’ ‘old,’ ‘young,’ ‘sick,’ and then asking the kids to literally ‘walk in another person’s shoes.’’ High school seniors in Lima, Ohio work collaboratively to imagine and design figural sculptures using only recycled materials.
It only requires an act of will on the part of education leaders to make the choice to transform our schools into places where students can fully realize their potential as passionate learners. The dismal test results on the PISA and National Assessment of Educational Progress should only serve as a wake-up call to the fact that we are traveling on the wrong road toward excellence and should instead be making a major commitment to the core learning principles subscribed to by our culture’s greatest minds.
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Thomas Armstrong is has been an educator for the past forty-seven years and the author of 19 books including his latest: If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education (Praeger). Visit his website at institute4learning.com and follow him on Twitter @Dr_Armstrong.