Indeed, for the twentieth-century it was sufficient to provide a basic education for the majority of the population, thus preparing them for a low-skilled workforce that still offered access to the American dream and a middle-class lifestyle. For the twenty-first century citizen and workforce, that goal is no longer sufficient.
– Timothy B. Jones & David C. Barrett, Harnessing the Dynamics of Public Education
What do children need to learn to succeed in life and in career? What knowledge and skills must they possess to be contributing members of society? What tools do they need to build a life that is fulfilling to them and beneficial to their community? These are the questions that should drive the What of education. In many ways they are very simple, basic questions. Yet, they are also very complex. And, who answers these questions? Who decides what students need to learn?
If we go back to the two basic goals for learning, survival and curiosity, then the What naturally follows. What do students need to know to survive (and thrive) in the modern world? And, beyond that, what knowledge and skills will pique their curiosity to search for more?
Shattering Tradition to Maintain Continuity with the Past
A religious studies professor I had as an undergraduate student taught that in order to stay connected with the original intent of religious practices and traditions, followers had to transform such traditions as society evolved. In other words, following tradition for tradition’s sake missed the point. As human’s knowledge and understanding evolves so too must their customs and traditions. Paradoxically, transforming these traditions to integrate with such new understanding is the only way to stay truly connected with the original teachings. This is a powerful concept and one that has stayed with me over the years.
This concept not only applies to religion, but it is very pertinent to education as well. As I wrote in 2016:
“In order to achieve the original purpose of education in the 21st century context, it is no longer business as usual…. For modern society that survival goal is primarily to generate a citizen who contributes to society and the workforce. Survival for the 21st century is entirely different than at any other point in history. The knowledge and skills we have handed down for the last two centuries are no longer sufficient. 21st century education must nurture both of these learning goals in a balanced manner. Past education was more focused on the 1st goal, survival. Modern education will need to continue to meet the survival goal for education while integrating and fostering a deeper understanding of the abstract; a love of learning for its own sake. The educational system of the past really only needed to advance the 1st goal for the majority and could reserve the second goal for the elite few. This is no longer the case.” (p. 28)
The Reality vs. The Rhetoric
Ironically, the purported goal of high-stakes accountability is to promote college and career readiness for all students. The reality of its implementation largely has the opposite effect, however. The punitive nature of such “accountability” systems diminishes true learning and creates a triage mentality at schools. Moreover, the What that is being measured does not feel relevant or meaningful for the teachers and the Why the need to learn it (to pass a test) does not produce meaningful learning either. It’s in essence, a very negative double-bind. “I don’t care about what you are teaching me and I don’t care why either, but you will force me to anyway through coercion and punishment.”
Not only is the proscribed What of education – decided in large part by bureaucrats and special interest groups, not educators or (heaven forbid) students or parents – not meaningful or relevant to students, but it is also a moving target for teachers and administrators. State assessments change constantly and with the changing assessment comes changing standards and objectives. It’s nearly impossible for schools, teachers, and students to measure progress and feel success. For example, South Carolina has changed its state assessment and corresponding curriculum standards at least 3 times in the past 5 years. Even worse, 3 years ago the state didn’t even decide what assessment students would take that year until December. Sit with that for a minute. Teachers, educators, and students had been working hard for a full semester without knowing their target. Then, halfway through the school year they learn how all their hard work will be measured come April (and, by the way, it was an entirely different model and standard that they had been preparing for). The What of learning wasn’t even revealed until the school year was half over.
With such changing measures comes moving targets which serve to hamper both the professional growth of teachers and the education growth of students. Comparing current results with past results is nearly an exercise in futility. Tracking progress is nearly impossible for teachers, let alone parents. Additionally, with these ever changing assessments come complex scale scores that are so convoluted it seems their purpose is to obfuscate, not inform. I have a doctorate degree in education and it takes me a while to figure just what these reports mean. How then can these be helpful for parents and students?
A Better What
Drawn To Discover’s mission is to manifest creativity and self-confidence through our interactive lessons. Our What is fine motor skills, creativity, critical thinking, handwriting, art, visual literacy, reading and writing. In reality, much of the true purpose of school is less about learning content and more about learning how to learn. School is also valuable for teaching children social skills and navigating society’s expectations like meeting deadlines, following rules, etc. This is why grades are a better predictor of future success than test scores. Learning is about more than content mastery it is also about context mastery. State assessments can play an important role in this puzzle, they just shouldn’t play the entire role.
Mom’s Pot Roast
There is a modern parable that is a great illustration of how doing something for tradition’s sake can miss the point entirely. The story of mom’s pot roast is a great example of the need to shatter tradition to maintain continuity with the past. There are many variations of this story. The following is a good example modified from Self Defined Leadership. It’s time we stopped doing things in education simply because that’s how they’ve always been done. It’s time to get creative! It’s time to discover a new possibility for our children!
A young woman is preparing a pot roast while her partner looks on. She cuts off both ends of the roast, prepares it and puts it in the pan.
“Why do you cut off the ends?” her partner asks.
“I don’t know”, she replies. “My mother always did it that way and I learned how to cook it from her”.
Her partner’s question made her curious about her pot roast preparation. During her next visit home, she asked her mother, “How do you cook a pot roast?”
Her mother proceeded to explain and added, “You cut off both ends, prepare it and put it in the pot and then in the oven.”
“Why do you cut off the ends?” the daughter asked.
Baffled, the mother offered, “That’s how my mother did it and I learned it from her!”
Determined to learn more, when the woman next visited her grandmother she asked, “Grandma, how do you cook a pot roast?”
The grandmother slowly answered, thinking between sentences. “Well, you prepare it with spices, cut off both ends and put it in the pot”.
The woman asked, “But why do you cut off the ends?”
The grandmother’s eyes sparkled as she remembered. “Well, the roasts were always bigger than the pot that we had back then, so I had to cut off the ends to make it fit.”