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?

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