Professor Warren Blumenfeld on why we must reform education in the United States.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) this year compared 34 of the wealthiest nations’ overall educational rankings, and it placed the United States 17th in reading, 21st in science, and 26th in math. These rankings are even lower than similar OCED comparisons just three years ago.
As concerning as these findings appear, I find even more troubling are the ways U.S. educators, through national policies, determine student educational outcomes based on our ineffective, counterproductive, and motivation-killing obsession with standardized high stakes testing – policies often not employed, at least not to the same degree, in many of the other countries around the globe, including many of those ranked higher than the U.S.
I would ask, then:
What effects has our age of “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top,” and “Common Core Curriculum,” an age of standardization, increased and rapid corporatization, privatization, globalization, and deregulation of the business, banking, and corporate sectors had on learning?
I have never forgotten one essential point my Educational Psychology professor related to my class back at San José State University when I was working toward my Secondary Education Teacher’s Certification. His point crystallized for me the intent of true and meaningful learning. My professor explained that the term “education” derives from two Latin roots: “e,” meaning “out of” or “from,” and “ducere,” meaning “to lead” or “to draw.”
“Education,” he said, “is the process of drawing knowledge out of the student or leading the student toward knowledge, rather than putting or depositing information into what some educator’s perceive as the student’s waiting and docile mind” — what I later learned from what the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Reglus Neves Freire termed as “the banking system of education.”
I believe that for genuine learning to occur, for it to be transformational, it must be student centered — grounded on the shared experiences of the learners — and composed of at least two essential elements or domains: the “affective” (feelings) and the “cognitive” (informational). I design and implement my classes on a dialogic approach within a social justice framework in which students and educators cooperate in the process, whereby all are simultaneously the teacher and the learner. Educational psychologist Lev Vygotsky referred to this process as Obuchenie.
Standardized curriculum and testing were initially intended to gauge students’ progress, but have, unfortunately, metastasized into benchmarks for student advancement through the levels of education, for teacher accountability, as well as criteria for school funding from the government. The new Common Core Standards curriculum policies, rather than improving the educational outcomes of our students, have the potential of merely reinforcing and extending the failed so-called “neoliberal” policies of the past as evidenced by “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top.”
The educational buzz word (or, rather, buzz acronym) is now STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math). Actually, since the time of Sputnik forward, we hear from the White House, to the school house, to the houses of industry that for us to achieve and maintain personal and national security, we must emphasize and rigorously promote STEM education in our schools and jobs in our economy.
As we understand in plant biology that stems cannot take root and grow unless planted in a fertile nutrient-abundant soil, likewise I submit that STEM fields cannot take root and grow within our society unless planted in an enriched foundation of the social sciences, humanities, the arts, and all in the context and development of creativity and critical thinking skills.
According to the so-called “Allocation Theory” of education, schooling has turned into a status competition, which confers success on some and failure on others. Our schools have morphed into assembly-line factories transforming students into workers, and then sorting these workers into jobs commanded by industry and business. In so doing, educational institutions legitimize and maintain the social order (read as the status quo). Schools arrange individuals to fill certain roles or positions in commerce, which are not always based on the individuals’ talents or interests.
I recently asked the students in my Educational Psychology class to answer the following question by raising their hand: “How many of you have a parent or guardian who wakes up in the morning thinking to themselves, ‘I have a great job I love, and I’m looking forward to going to work?” Of the approximately 100 students in class that day, exactly seven raised their hands.
I usually still answer that question in the affirmative. I cannot think of any other profession where one reads and discusses ideas with others and (sort of) gets paid for it. I love the opportunities for learning and engagement that I have as a professor. However, I see how “education” as currently constituted contradicts its own initial methodologies and purposes by focusing primarily on testing and on grades in the service of the educational consumer landing a job, which ultimately benefits the corporate sector.
Of course, gaining the knowledge and skills to land a good job is important and valuable for the individual and for our society. However, somewhere along the way, we have diminished in many of our students the joy of learning for learning sake, the ability to think creatively and critically, and to learn for the sake of understanding themselves and the world around them.
Where has the love of learning for the sake of learning gone in many of our students? Oh, we see a brilliant flame of learning in young people, but typically by the age of seven, or eight, or nine, we notice that in many youth, this once dazzling blaze seems to wane. By middle and then senior high, the fire often flickers. Often when students enter university, for some, time has since past for us to assist them in rekindling any remaining embers. For others, though, I believe it is never too late to reignite that spark that can ultimately shine brightly once again.
I submit that we need to emphasize pedagogical paradigms other than the standardized testing currently holding the attention of our policy makers, but certainly not that of our students. We need to assist students in maintaining and enhancing their readiness for learning rather than merely their readiness for testing. We must emphasize collectivism over simple individualism, collaboration over separatism, cooperation over competition, intrinsic incentives over behavioral rewards and punishments, pedagogical practices meaningful for education and learning rather than education situated on gold stars, tokens, pretty stickers, grades, and test scores.
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