Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Educational Reform - Unchaining Change: What's Dumb about Smart, Part I


Following up on my August 10 Detroit Free Press Letter to the Editor, Feedback: Schools put too much emphasis on tests (http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2013308100015), here is Part I of my 2+ part series on What's Dumb about Smart.

Educational Reform - Unchaining Change:
What’s Dumb about Smart? Part I
by Rod Rock, Ed.D.
Superintendent, Clarkston Community Schools, Clarkston, Michigan

One of the most used and overused words in the English language is change. It was the word of the 2008 Presidential election. It is the focus of thousands of books and lectures. It is a constant topic of study. What is change? What’s worth changing in education? Which changes will truly affect student achievement?

When I think of changes in education, I think of the chains of education. It seems to me that alterations in the fundamental functions and concepts of education are chained to a stake in the ground, like the elephant at the circus. If the elephant decided she wanted to escape the length of that chain, she could easily do so, yet her mind tells her that she cannot. Similarly, education is chained perilously to a stake in the ground that says that there is only one form of intelligence; only one way to measure student achievement; and only one way to improve student achievement. Certainly, if our educational systems collectively decided that this perplexing chain is flawed and only exists in our minds, we could snap it and truly change our systems to make them inclusive of all children.

So, what is change? Preeminent scholar and author, Peter Senge, declared that “Transformational change is about deep, systemic change; and what is most systemic is actually most personal” (2013). Deep, systemic, and personal. These concepts are rarely unchained in educational change. Certainly, change infrequently goes deep. Less frequently, change affects entire systems before the next change comes along. And only in exceptional cases do we unchain education to a point where changes truly affect children on a personal level.

So what might unchaining change look and feel like? Howard Gardner (2004) stated that “the phenomenon of changing minds is one of the least examined and least understood of familiar human experiences” (p. 1). Gardner “reserves the phrase ‘changing minds’ for the situation where individuals or groups abandon the way in which they have customarily thought about an issue of importance and henceforth conceive of it in a new way” (p. 2). Like the elephant chained to the stake in the ground, Gardner declared that “the key to changing a mind is to produce a shift in the individual’s ‘mental representations’--the particular way in which a person perceives, codes, retains, and accesses information” (p. 5).

Here then we have conceptualized the unchaining of change --deep, systemic, personal, abandon the old ways of thinking and knowing, and fundamentally alter mental representations. These are not the terms or phrases of America’s traditional educational reform agendas or Michigan’s proposed teacher evaluation processes, due the chains of history, politics, groupthink, and unquestioned assumptions. It is time to unchain change!
What’s worth changing in education? Back to Gardner:

I define an intelligence as a biopsychological potential to process specific forms of information in certain kinds of ways. Human beings have evolved diverse information-processing capacities--I term these ‘intelligences’--that allow them to solve problems or to fashion products. To be considered ‘intelligent,’ these products and solutions must be valued in at least one culture or community.... Individuals are not equally ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’ under all circumstances; rather they have different intelligences that may be variously cherished or disregarded under different circumstances.... I argue that intelligence is pluralistic; it includes fashioning products as well as solving problems, and it is defined neither on an a priori basis, nor on test performances, but rather on the basis of what happens to be valued at a particular historical time in a particular cultural context.

The perpetual, perturbational chain of our educational systems is thus the unquestioned, unimodal mental representation of intelligence. This mental representation frames intelligence as something that a written, annual test can measure. It does not ask test takers to solve problems or fashion products. It asks test takers to process specific forms of information in only one way--identify the correct answer. Our assessment systems see all individuals as equally smart or dumb, as suggested in the reporting of results, the scales, and the responses to results. Without question, intelligence in our educational system is based on test performance. Most troubling, the singular definition of intelligence is biased and exclusive, and therefore marginalizes too many students. Indeed beyond school, most cultures and communities see this limited definition of intelligence as inaccurate and insufficient.

In order to unchain educational change--to make it deep, systemic, personal, based upon modern ways of thinking, and to fundamentally alter mental representations, our systems must change--and unchain--the definition of intelligence, help every child discover how he/she is intelligent, and then expand these intelligences to make our world work and to allow every graduate to thrive in the worlds of work. This must become the reform agenda of the 21st Century. If teacher evaluation processes and other reforms do not include these changes, we should not expect achievement--which is currently based upon a flawed and singular concept of intelligence--to improve.

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