Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Educational Reform: What's Dumb about Smart? Part III


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 III of my III part series on What's Dumb about Smart.

Educational Reform: What’s Dumb about Smart? Part III
by Rod Rock, Ed.D.
Superintendent, Clarkston Community Schools

Recently, I had lunch with the mother of an autistic child. This mother is one of the biggest advocates for children I have ever met. She is also a terrific supporter of public schools. She and her husband have studied neuroscience. Their child has taken part in national studies on the brain. They use herbal remedies, diets, and medical treatments. They are great parents.

Their child is terrifically smart. She can hear things once and know them forever. She is a good reader. The child is well spoken and is not highly emotional. The child is very self aware and has, since a very young age, been able to articulately discuss and discern how she learns and how learning is challenging for her. She struggles with writing and interacting with other students in large class settings, yet she does very well on tests just by hearing and reading the content. Still, the educational system requires her to write and takes away points from her grade when she does not write.

In a system that focuses on deficits in children, we label this child as disabled and mildly autistic--we determine that this child needs to be fixed. We give this child writing support, we work on her study skills, and we remove her from gym and art classes so that she can spend more time practicing her writing.

In a system that focused instead on strengths, aptitudes, and individual differences in children, we would label this child as logically-mathematical, intra-personally, and linguistically intelligent. We would notice this child’s natural proclivities and strengths and we would use this knowledge to help the child better learn math, science, social studies, art, music, and interpersonal communication skills. We would give this child a computer that would allow her to take notes in a way that made sense for her smarts and we would expect her to demonstrate her knowledge and understandings on tests designed for her (perhaps alone). In these ways, we would assure that any deficits in her learning were not a result of inhibitors related to the unimodal learning environment of the school, classroom, or test, but rather actual gaps in her knowledge. These are the elements of a non-dumb educational system.

In 1983, Harvard professor, Howard Gardner, conceptualized the idea of multiple intelligences. In his research, Gardner "documented the extent to which students possess different kinds of minds and therefore learn, remember, perform, and understand in different ways," (1995, p. 11).

According to Gardner, "We are all able to know the world through language, logical-mathematical analysis, spatial representation, musical thinking, the use of the body to solve problems or to make things, an understanding of other individuals, and an understanding of ourselves. Where individuals differ is in the strength of these intelligences and in the ways in which such intelligences are invoked and combined to carry out different tasks, solve diverse problems, and progress in various domains" (1995, p. 12).

Hear it again: “Students possess different kinds of minds and therefore learn, remember, perform, and understand in different ways.... Where individuals differ is in the strength of [their] intelligences and in the ways in which such intelligences are invoked and combined to carry out different tasks, solve diverse problems, and progress in various domains."

This is really smart! Kids are different. Each child is unique and uniquely smart. It is the job of the educational system, then, to figure out how and to help each child use his/her smarts to be happy and to achieve at the highest levels possible so that he/she may pursue his/her dreams and positively contribute to our world. This is a profound and fundamental change/reform that is inclusive of all children. It is not elitist, it is malleable; it is not exclusive, it is attainable. In so doing, we are not lowering achievement standards, promoting excuses or laziness, or threatening anyone. Instead, we are reforming education. This is non-dumb. This is really smart.

Of course, these ideas are blatantly obvious and make complete sense, right, parents of multiple children? You know from raising your children that, even though they were born of the same parents and reared in the same home, each of them possesses a different set of strengths and can uniquely apply these strengths in carrying out tasks, solving problems, and understanding concepts. Does this mean that one is smarter than the other? Is the scratch golfer smarter than the concert pianist? Is the CPA smarter than the millionaire plumber who hires the CPA to do his bookkeeping?

What Gardner is saying in his research on intelligence, and what we all know to be true, is that there are many ways to be smart and one way is not necessarily more indicative of ability, future performance, or potential contribution. Indeed, it takes all kinds of intelligences (e.g., strengths, aptitudes, skills) to make our world work and to thrive in the worlds of work. Standardized tests, by their very design, measure only a limited number of intelligences, and therefore exclude many children from the realm of the smart. This is really dumb.

It is time to stop talking about intelligence in the singular form and to make it plural. It is time to recognize the strengths and aptitudes that kids bring with them to school, to build upon these, to assess these, and to help children understand how to best use and expand these to make our world work and to thrive in the worlds of work. Humans, unlike dogs, do not learn through suppression, conformity, or omission. Exactly the opposite is true, in fact: humans learn through expression, creativity/individuality, and inclusion.

Once we collectively agree upon an expanded definition of smart, achievement for all children will improve. Not because we dumbed down the standardized tests or discontinued accountability measures, but because we stopped suppressing the natural inclinations and proclivities of many kids and instead included their smarts in our assessments. This will be the beginning, after too many years of marginalization, of real, student-centered, educational reform. I can’t wait, and neither can your child who thankfully and remarkably is exactly unlike anyone else on planet Earth.

As preeminent scholar and author Peter Senge discusses, “Transformational change is about deep, systemic change; and what is most systemic is actually most personal” (2013). It is time to transform education by un-dumbing smart and personalizing learning according to the gifts that children possess. How will proposed legislation or reform make this closer to the truth for every child?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

What Matters Most in Education?: N = 1

In my opinion, government policy, although well intended, is aimed at faux, short-term wins over true, long-term betterment. As an example, we grade schools, then we rank order them, then we label them, then we color code them. Why? Is this based upon science, or politics? What doctrine proves that these policies make schools any better for kids?

When we watch football on TV, we see performances. At the end, there is a clear winner (almost without exception). What we do not see are the thousands of hours--broken down by position, offense and defense, weight rooms  conditioning, youth football, passing camps, junior high, all alone with a dream, playing catch with dad, watching tapes, planning for practice, half-time adjustments, getting cut from the team. The stuff that matters most--effort, trial and error, repetition, one pound stronger, one-tenth of a second faster, diets, sacrifice, sleep, encouragement, skills, drill, break down--we never see. Our only window in is the game--win or lose? Record. Statistics. Performance.

What matters most in schools and in the learning of individuals throughout life isn't an arbitrary label--gifted, disabled, average, focus, reward, red, periwinkle, highly effective. Rather, it is the thousands of hours of effort that few people ever see that in sum total equal who we are as individuals. Our character, our grit, our spirit, our willingness to run one more lap, study one more minute, try when we feel like quitting, belief in our selves, pursuit of a passion.

Our rewards are not arbitrary, notwithstanding of the labels. Our rewards are very real; tangible. They come often in the form of passion, emotions, relationships, and inspiration--given and received.

I want to educate in a smart world, where we collectively do the best we can for every child. This is the antithesis of politics, which most often represent the will of the majority. Individuals, they are the epitome of minority: n = 1. This makes education much more of a case study than generalizable to the masses. In fact, when you think about a child; a life; a human; a story, the only thing that matters is n = 1.

This is my opinion.

Rod Rock

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Educational Reform: What's Dumb about Smart? Part II


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 II of my III part series on What's Dumb about Smart.

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

It is universally agreed upon, mistakenly, that the United States’ educational system is broken. Yet, in all of the discussion, debate, and legislation related to fixing it, rarely do we ever read or hear any suggestion that what is broken is not the system itself, but rather the very concept of achievement and intelligence that the system pursues and promotes. This fundamental flaw makes dumb the educational system’s pursuit of smart.

Reform in the current context means revised governance structures (such as charter schools, virtual schools, and district consolidation); school choice (such as vouchers); one-size-fits-all standardized tests for every student every year, the use of test results to rank schools, teacher evaluation and merit pay, new curricula, and more tests. Since reform discussions began in the US nearly 65 years ago, this list has not changed. Reform is almost exclusively and perpetually about governance structures, standardized tests, curricula, and placing blame.

Essentially, this means that not much ever actually changes in our educational systems. Yes, more laws are put in place. Yes, the money for education goes to different providers. Yes, parents have choices. Yes, curriculum is different. Yes, kids take more tests. And, these reforms are remodels as opposed to true changes. The facade looks different, and how the system measures, acknowledges, and fosters individual differences in children remains static.

The reason: because the reforms never addressed the fundamental element of education--intelligence. From 1947 to 2013, our educational systems have never--despite overwhelming evidence--adjusted what it means to be smart in school. In opposition to prolific begging from universities and the business world regarding the skills today’s kids need, our educational systems remain profoundly focused on a unimodal concept and measurement of intelligence. Education attempts today, harder than ever, to fit more and more students into an accepted, antiquated, singular, and highly prejudicial definition of intelligence. This is really shameful.

There is one curriculum, generally speaking, in your local school. It is expected that students born in the same six to ten months of a calendar year will experience and thrive within this curriculum, and as a result, achieve at a high level on the same standardized test each October or March. When this does not occur, the child, the teacher, the school, and the district are considered to have failed and reform sets in. Yet nothing ever really changes.

This approach makes perfect sense in a factory model of education. It is highly efficient, predictable, portable, manageable, reportable, and reliable. However, it is completely dumb if you are the parent of a child who demonstrates intelligence in a different way. Say your child is an excellent listener and does not enjoy writing or taking notes. In fact, his motor skills are so poor that the process of writing actually distracts him from learning. Since the standardized test is designed for kids who read and write well, as opposed to listen well, there is a very good chance that your child will not do well on this test and that he is currently being reformed. Does this mean he’s dumb?

Suppose your child is a highly active learner. She can go into the woods, build a fire, catch a fish, filter creek water for drinking, and identify plants, but despises sitting in a classroom, facing the front of the room, reading from a textbook, and memorizing facts. Despite your child’s obvious smarts, she is unlikely to do well on the standardized test that takes into account only reading and memory skills. Does this mean that she’s dumb?

In a system where the definition of smart is dumb, the answers to these questions is simply, uniquely, and profoundly, “Yes, your child is dumb.” This is the message that the child receives as he or she is reformed each day. This is the message that the teacher receives as she looks at her students’ standardized test scores. This is the message that the media sends as it compares one school’s effectiveness to another.

So, what is dumb about smart is the way that standardized tests measure it, the ways in which the media reports it, and the ways in which the government uses it to constantly reform the educational system? If we measured a tub of butter in acres instead of ounces and pounds, and then tried to sell it by the pound, we would be very confused. And, if we surveyed land in ounces and pounds and then tried to sell it by the acre, we would have a messed up system. Yet, this is exactly what we do in schools. We measure the intelligence of our students on a unimodal, universal assessment, and then we use the results to try to fix the kid or the school. Only after they graduate do they come to realize how they are smart. We have a messed up system.

We have to stop this nonsense. We must stop assessing to determine who is smart and start assessing to see how each child is smart. The present assessment system is patently unfair to children, teachers, and schools. It marginalizes kids. It tells kids that they are dumb and that they cannot be smart. It connects failure to learning, which is an absolute oxymoron. It’s what is dumb about smart. It is time to change it, fundamentally and universally.
In Part III, I will discuss the elements of a non-dumb educational system.