By JON MADIAN
Ignoring the Science
No institution has been more resistant to reform than schools. Everyone has a list of reform inhibitors. Ironically, the most recent inhibitor is Accountability Testing aligned with the Common Core. Begun with the intention of providing equity, this very costly effort is failing and causing real damage to existing and successful progressive curriculum reform efforts.
This was predictable. Creating an accountability culture measured by standardized tests ignores the science of learning, management, and the elephant in the room — that we currently offer a very poor curriculum, certainly in terms of student engagement. We doubled down on top-down expectations and test-aligned content while doing little to better design and align learning experiences to students’ interests and needs.
The most essential Common Core is Self-Knowledge. The current Common Core is dominated by shallowly taught academics in pursuit of test scores. We need to realize that Common Core academic success is only possible when learner Self-Knowledge is seen as a significant driver of overall achievement.
Characterizing Current Teaching and Learning
Most people’s memories of school, accounts from their children, or grandchildren, or a visit to neighborhood schools, quickly confirms that too few people are having fun teaching, or learning. Homogenized facts are covered, not explored and discovered. Textbooks are read and direct, didactic instruction is delivered. All this is designed to pass the tests.
Thus, we have an academically and socially shallow curriculum that is delivered in unrelated bits and pieces rather than as an integrated whole in which key ideas connect in interesting and personally engaging ways.
In the current mainstream teaching and learning process, vital human needs are ignored. Questioning, social interactions, exploring compelling ideas, being inspired by nature, finding a meaningful sense of purpose, along with opportunities for self-expression and sharing — all of these are sadly absent.
Considering the Self-Knowledge Common Core
A good deal of the failure of many of our schools is caused by the current academic driven Common Core curriculum that has the unintended consequence of delivering a fact focused, narrow and academically shallow curriculum — a mile wide and an inch deep. Our students study to fill in blanks for tests, not to fulfill their curiosity, much less to solve personal, societal, economic, or ecological problems.
The result of our efforts does not provide better habitat for wildlife or better drinking water for our neighbors. While memorizing the dates of wars, state capitals, and the names of presidents, we gain no insight into what motivates bullying, greed, or war. Even if we graduate, we are unprepared to manage and improve our society, natural resources, or ourselves.
A textbook type of direct delivery, which is now migrating onto computer delivery systems, is popular because it is straightforward and measurable. It even enables administrators to decide the “return on investment” for various curriculum delivery programs.
However, this approach overlooks the science of learning that tells us there is an even more fundamental Common Core than the one we are currently focused on. That is a Common Core focused on an integrated approach to Self-Knowledge. Self-Knowledge can be thought of as the in-common Common Core of humanity. We all struggle to be happy and fulfilled, to know ourselves, to manage ourselves well in different contexts. All of us must learn to manage our fears, to live through our pain, to reach higher.
Perhaps the main reason we ignore Self-Knowledge is that we have not developed an agreed on pedagogy or method to help students achieve self-awareness. Recent practices like Mindfulness and Personalized Learning are providing new foundations. While Self-Knowledge can be modeled and theories can be mapped or diagrammed, it cannot be delivered and memorized like a fact. It is a process. You can’t administer this with a textbook or computer program and then test for a student’s progress in gaining self-knowledge. Return on investment is hard to quantify.
School reform has generally always ignored the in-common features of human nature and the diversity of human needs, (though there were earlier versions of the Common Core in the 1990’s that included Personal Development and Social Responsibility as priorities). We’ve delivered learning in a paradigm of memorize to test in which a student’s personal development was seldom an end in itself. Instead, students were the means to measurable outcomes. We must admit that we simply underestimated the role of Self-Knowledge in developing intelligence, cooperation, adaptation, and other so called 21st Century Skills.
Creating a Meaningful School Reform Process
When flight required more power and efficiency, combustion engines with hundreds of moving parts were replaced by simpler systems — jet engines with few moving parts. Today’s schools have far too many moving parts (objectives linked to measurable outcomes) to enable us to focus on, much less to reach the human heart and thus ignite a passion for school, learning, and a fulfilling life.
To change this while ensuring that education scales for tens of millions of students in widely varying cultures and contexts, we need to take advantage of our 21st century science about learning itself. We need to understand STEAM not as another subject to be covered, but as a call for creative discovery inspired by explorations through science and the arts and, when appropriate, organized by technology. To do this work, we need to add a new dimension to our schools. We need to create Learning and Design Communities in which our schools become laboratories and studios for research and development. This work is already underway, here and there on the educational landscape. But it is far from being the mainstream focus. This is where we are and this is where we must go now, quickly.
Jon Madian is a regular contributor to Community Works Journal. He founded Humanities Software with his wife, Karen Jostad, in 1983 — sold to Renaissance Learning in 1999. Jon also founded the Artist-in-Residence Reading Project in the Inner City of Los Angeles (1976–1979). Foundation, state, and federal grants capitalized R&D to create one of the first learner-centered, computer-assisted curriculum design programs. A consultant for Apple, IBM, Capstone, and Microsoft and for schools and curriculum publishers, Jon is also a psychologist and children’s book author. He helped developed over 100 reading and writing software programs and has written extensively on technology, curriculum, and school reform.
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