October 10, 2010

Education, not Training!

Steve Nelson writes in today's Valley News (Vt. & NH):

WAITING FOR SUPERMAN, indeed! Based on the response to the new documentary film of the same name by Davis Guggenheim, it's going to be a very long wait for an educational system that genuinely serves America's children. The political and public frenzy over the troubled state of American education is driving a "reform" movement that is arguably as irrational as stockpiling nuclear weapons as a means of bringing peace to Earth.

Guggenheim's film mischaracterizes the decline in American education and misplaces blame. It offers a broad, gratuitous indictment of teachers and teachers unions. While some teachers are great and some significantly less than great, this is nothing new. Teachers are by and large as well qualified and dedicated as they were a generation ago. If education has dramatically changed for the worse, teachers are not the variable. Race, class and rapid cultural and social shifts are the more germane variables.

In addition to misidentifying the root causes of educational ills, the film goes on to celebrate the tough-love, often militaristic, data-driven practices that are supposed to make education better. These practices are guaranteed to make it worse. Watching the parade of celebrities, political leaders and sycophants lionizing media darlings such as D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee is depressing for those of us who love children.

I regularly ask parents what qualities they hope to see nourished in their children. The responses are always the same: creativity, confidence, integrity, a sense of humor, compassion, originality, honesty, imagination, critical thinking skills and so on.

If the purpose of education is to develop such things, the practices in most schools today, particularly in the schools held up as shining exemplars in Waiting for Superman, will do much the opposite. In these schools, as children march in uniformed lockstep to the next regimented bit of curriculum, their little hearts, minds and souls are being bleached into sad, bland conformity. The illusion of achievement, as symbolized by the minor, self-prophetic improvement in test scores, feeds the frenzy and the vicious (often literally vicious) cycle continues. There is no time for passion or compassion, a sense of humor is a liability, and imagination is an unnecessary distraction. Thinking critically is a risk no child dare take. Children in these schools are being trained, not educated.

This is no mere philosophical quibble.

Current trends in education - increasingly early academic work, test preparation and tests - are waging psychological and even biological warfare on America's children.

Children's cognitive abilities, especially reading, develop along highly varied timelines - roughly analogous to the wide range of ages that children begin to walk. There is no reason to expect that all 7-year-old children will be able to do the same things in the same way, yet our system is designed as though they should. Our treatment of many late readers, for example, is as abusive and senseless as it would be to scream at your one-year-old for not standing up and running on her first birthday.

As the eminent psychologist Jerome Bruner once told me, the most damaging aspect of contemporary educational practice is the pressure for children to do too much, too soon. As a result of these practices, some children are branded for life as substandard, simply because they aren't yet up to "expectations." Others, who may be able to manage the work, are conditioned to see learning primarily as the process of giving the powerful adults (parents or teachers) the answers they're looking for.

The "losers" in such schools are disenchanted and brokenhearted. The "winners" are, in increasing numbers, unimaginative, dully conformist in thought and behavior, and neurotic. They can chant slogans about success and declare the ambitions they hope will please adults, but they have diminished capacity to love ideas, to take risks, to recognize or make something beautiful or to question authority.

The biological damage may be more profound. Advances in neurobiology and cognitive science make clear the im portance of rich and varied sensory stimulation for brain development. Children must sing, talk, paint, run, build fabulous towers, smell flowers, bounce balls, hear beautiful music and touch everything in sight. The complex and powerful neural pathways that constitute a well-educated person have their roots in all these natural and joyful experiences.

Why then would a supposedly "rigorous" school dispose of physical education, diminish art and music classes, while telling children to sit still and endure daily drills in computation and phonics? There is mounting evidence that the rote practices that produce the temporary illusion of progress are actually inhibiting the biological and emotional development required for authentic academic achievement.

Might this be why politicians and economists who brag about improved fourth-grade scores are often mystified by stagnant (or worse) eighth-grade scores? Could it be that the very practices that raise scores in the short term are guaranteed to fail in the long run? (Sound like Wall Street?)

Neuroscientists, psychologists and thoughtful educators around America know these things, but too many of the decisions about education are being made by politicians and metrics-driven "experts" who know very little about children. I'm sure the intent behind Waiting for Superman was good, but the result seems to be renewed enthusiasm for a very misguided approach to learning.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school. He can be reached through e-mail at steve.nelson@calhoun.org. His column appears in the Valley News every other Sunday.