"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Making Pancake Brains

A nice opinion piece from the Seattle Times by Jesuit educator, Kent Hickey:

IN a very funny scene from Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life," a pompous hospital administrator describes how ingeniously he has outfitted a delivery room. (He is especially proud of his favorite machine, the one that goes PING!) Only reluctantly does he look upon the actual procedure taking place: "What are you doing this morning?" A doctor explains that it is a birth. "And what sort of thing is that?"

Our classrooms are starting to look like that delivery room. Increasingly, we are ignoring the miracle of learning deep reading, thoughtful writing, analysis and reflection, and focusing our attention only on its trappings: inclusion on some lists (best of), exclusion from others (failing schools), and using technology as window dressing instead of as a tool to help learners.

Education? And what sort of thing is that? So enamored with the machine that goes PING!, we forget about the patient giving birth.

The drift toward superficiality is broader than misusing technology, but let's start there. Nicholas Carr's recent article, "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?," describes a mind (his own) that is becoming less capable of prolonged and complex thought because of constant quick searches, skimming and e-mail exchanges.

Unfortunately, this is also the way our children's brains are being shaped in many schools. Technology is often used more as a toy than a tool. Seating kids in front of computers and keeping them busy with activities provides the appearance of learning, but that doesn't mean it's happening. Our kids are developing what Carr describes as "pancake" brains — wide with experience, but shallow. The mind once trained for deliberative, critical thought is being replaced by a spasmodic, twitching kin.

Our nation's infatuation with standardized testing also contributes to superficial education practices. Quantitative measurements can be helpful to learners and educators, but the pendulum has swung too far. The end result of a good education is not so easily reduced to test results. And the overemphasis on testing hasn't induced educational bureaucracies to innovate, only to retrench and adopt better survival skills.

One such skill is teaching to state-mandated year-end tests. Too much is at stake with a "failing school" designation dangling overhead. What these tests really measure, therefore, is how well students are primed for a test, not how well they think. That is learning of a sort, but is the really good standardized test-taker the kind of thinker we need in the voting booth and workplace?

And what happens if test scores remain low? The solution has been to reduce expectations so that more will reach the (now lowered) bar. One national study of test results, for example, showed that scores were up in critical thinking but, strangely, tests lacked questions that actually required critical thought. Huh?

Finally, Advanced Placement (AP) courses provide an increasingly popular way to improve one's appearance. AP was created to give academically prepared upperclassmen the opportunity to master college-level work. It has devolved into something quite different. A high school's quality is now often measured simply by virtue of the raw number of AP courses offered, not the quality of instruction or what is learned by the students. So, if your school pines for inclusion on Newsweek's Top 100, you had better get those numbers up!

The results are predictable. More-brazen schools have been known to simply relabel courses as AP or insert an AP course where it doesn't fit. Lake Wobegon schools, aware that their parents require evidence that their children are above average, are more subtle.

A high school in Seattle, for example, recently decided that all sophomores would take AP Human Geography so that "all children can achieve to a higher standard." Assuming that these 15-year-olds don't magically morph into college-level students after freshman year, one of two things is happening: This course is college-level in name only or what passes for college rigor has greatly diminished. (I am reminded of a Midwestern school that touted its academic excellence by requiring its students to read the "Odyssey" in third grade. Wasn't even a pop-up edition.)

But these trends didn't develop in a vacuum. Our schools reflect society more than they shape it. Columnist Sarah Churchwell recently wrote, "We live in a culture of face value, a superficial world of skim-reading, snap-judgments, and thin-slicing, in which perception is all ... " We shouldn't be surprised, then, that our schools have embraced our cultural love affair with form over substance. They're meeting our expectations.

Kent Hickey is president of Seattle Preparatory School, a Catholic, Jesuit school founded in 1891.

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