Saturday, November 26, 2005

"Learning specialists" alarmed by academic achievement

What's the problem with schools? You guessed it! Students know too much. At least that's the concern voiced by three "learning specialists" (an education consultant, a professor emeritus at an ed school and a professor at a law school) in a commentary published in EdWeek.

In what sounds like a three stooges routine, the three "learning specialists" are alarmed by what they see as a trend toward academic achievement:

Perhaps now is a good time to ask this question: What are schools supposed to do for our children? As learning specialists, we see an alarming trend: Our education system increasingly is focusing not on developing children’s aptitude for learning—their ability to absorb new information quickly and solve problems creatively—but on their academic achievements—their mastery of particular subjects and skills as proven by performance on standardized tests.
Silly me. I would have thought that academic achievement demonstrates at least an "ability to absorb new information quickly," the purported goal of these specialists.

The authors of the anti-achievement piece do manage to offer "sobering" examples of imperial decline due to memorization and academic achievement. The cause-and-effect scenario painted here does seem a bit fishy to me. I kind of doubt that China went into a tailspin because a few mandarins had the ability memorize Confucian philosophy. Would we as a society suddenly have to live in caves in the unthinkable event that some of our bureaucrats (say, at the board of ed) suddenly had the urge to memorize a few poems by Whitehead and Tennyson?

Snippet from the trio's commentary:

This is a serious concern for our kids and our society. History offers sobering examples of what can happen when standardized achievements are elevated over open-ended abilities.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, imperial China—once the most technologically advanced civilization in the world—fell into decline as power passed into the hands of a mandarin class of bureaucrats selected for their ability to memorize Confucian philosophy. More recently, Japanese authorities have begun dismantling an education system that long relied on a uniform national curriculum and after-hours classes at juku “cram schools.” The Japanese believe this approach has stifled creativity, innovation, and independent thinking, contributing to the stagnation of the Japanese economy.

We worry that America is heading down a similar path. If promoting our children’s achievements becomes our sole focus, both our children and our society will suffer.
The essence of the anti-academic achievement position as far as I can distill it is a false dichotomy between learning academic subject matter on the one hand and "creativity, innovation, and independent thinking" on the other. Educationists worship at at the altar of ignorance in the name of "creativity" but ignorance is not a prerequisite for "creativity".

6 comments:

Instructivist said...

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2005/11/16/12klein.h25.html

Published: November 16, 2005
Commentary

The Achievement Trap
By Barbara Klein, John D. McNeil, & Lynn A. Stout
[]

Perhaps now is a good time to ask this question: What are schools supposed
to do for our children? As learning specialists, we see an alarming trend:
Our education system increasingly is focusing not on developing children’s
aptitude for learning—their ability to absorb new information quickly and
solve problems creatively—but on their academic achievements—their mastery
of particular subjects and skills as proven by performance on standardized
tests.

To see why this is dangerous, let’s think about why we send children to
school in the first place. “Getting an education” once meant helping
children become cultured individuals and thoughtful citizens. In today’s
world of economic anxiety, global competition, and an unraveling social
safety net, many believe education’s main function is to help kids land
high-paying jobs. Yet even if this is our goal, we’re going about it the
wrong way.

Employers in an information economy want a workforce that can read, write,
and do simple mathematics, and our schools should teach these basic skills
to as many children as possible during the K-12 years. But basic skills are
not enough. The modern workplace is a fluid environment where technology,
market conditions, and production processes shift rapidly.

Employers need workers with learningaptitude: the ability to process new
information quickly and solve problems creatively.
Once, our education system focused on aptitude. Now the trend is to
identify students with an aptitude for learning a different way—by
measuring how much they have actually achieved in their K-12 years. The
theory seems to be that we can identify the best learners by identifying
those who have managed to cram the most learning into their short lives.

Our children are caught in an “achievement trap,” an academic arms race
that requires kids to demonstrate their ability to learn by actually
learning more and more facts, at more and more advanced levels, all the
hours of their young days that are not filled by such demonstrable
time-eaters as soccer practice and violin recitals. In the process,
American children are losing the chance to think, dream, explore,
ponder—and play.

The achievement trap leads to at least two serious problems. The first and
most obvious is burnout. A child who attends swim practice from 6 a.m. to 8
a.m., school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., orchestra from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., and
does homework from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. has put in a 14-hour day. We do not
expect most adults to work that long, and we should not ask our children to
do so. Nor should we be surprised by the high dropout rates, anxiety,
depression, and teenage suicides that result when children follow such
schedules.

The second problem is more subtle. It relates not to the quantity of
achievement we demand from our children, but the quality. The achievement
trap demands that our children learn things that can be measured
“objectively,” preferably with an easy-to-grade standardized test.
Standardized testing holds teachers and students “accountable” for
mastering only skills and knowledge that are established and
uncontroversial, asks them to address only questions with a single correct
answer. They are not encouraged or allowed to explore the ambiguous, the
uncertain, the mysterious—the wonders of the world.
History offers sobering examples of what can happen when standardized
achievements are elevated over open-ended abilities.

This emphasis on mastering a standardized, uncontroversial curriculum
drives schools toward an authoritarian, one-size-fits-all approach that
downplays disagreement, inquiry, and imagination. In the process, it
throttles student (and teacher) initiative and creativity. Our system is
killing off exactly the qualities our children need most to appeal to
future employers, who want not just “reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic,” but
innovation, initiative, and flexibility.

Put bluntly, cramming children’s heads with facts and their hours with
organized activities interferes with developing their interest and
initiative. This is a serious concern for our kids and our society. History
offers sobering examples of what can happen when standardized achievements
are elevated over open-ended abilities.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, imperial China—once the most
technologically advanced civilization in the world—fell into decline as
power passed into the hands of a mandarin class of bureaucrats selected for
their ability to memorize Confucian philosophy. More recently, Japanese
authorities have begun dismantling an education system that long relied on
a uniform national curriculum and after-hours classes at juku “cram
schools.” The Japanese believe this approach has stifled creativity,
innovation, and independent thinking, contributing to the stagnation of the
Japanese economy.

We worry that America is heading down a similar path. If promoting our
children’s achievements becomes our sole focus, both our children and our
society will suffer.

Barbara Klein, an education consultant, is the author of the forthcoming
book Saving Your Smart Kids. John D. McNeil is a professor emeritus at the
University of California, Los Angeles, graduate school of education. Lynn
A. Stout is a professor at the UCLA school of law.
Vol. 25, Issue 12, Page 32

Catherine Johnson said...

Isn't this the same thing William Heard Kirkpatrick said 100 years ago?

The world was changing so fast all knowledge would be obsolete before school kids reached the world of work, so they needed to learn how to learn?

I think it is!

Catherine Johnson said...

More recently, Japanese authorities have begun dismantling an education system that long relied on
a uniform national curriculum and after-hours classes at juku “cram schools.”


Could this possibly explain why Japanese math scores have been falling for 20 years?

Quincy said...

These intellectual philistines just don't get it, and it's a very, very simple equation: The more you know the easier it is to learn new things.

I don't get what is so amazingly hard to understand about that.

NYC Teacher said...

The authors obviously know nothing about the economic stagnation in Japan. It was caused by a statist economy that propped up banks with bad loans to companies that ought to have been allowed to go bankrupt.

Guess it's nice to make up facts to fit your cracpot theory.

Dave said...

I half agree with the article.

I would agree that children today are overscheduled and are deprived of creativity and spontaneity because of that. And when it comes to subjects like literature, art, and music, you need room for creativity and appreciation, things unmeasurable in standardized testing.

OTOH, you need to know the basics before you can get there...