A Cut Above “Cookie-Cutter” Education: Part 3

Randy W Green, PhD

 “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

Mark Twain

So…. by now, you have come to understand the implicit message of education today: left-brain development, in which you learn to absorb and process ordered bits of information about math, science, language arts and social studies is important; right-brain experiences—singing, dancing, art and other expressions of creativity is not nearly as important.  And the smartest students develop and use their left-brains effectively while holding their bodies as still as possible for extended periods of time.  This message continues on into the future.  For example, those who have fed their brains with information better than others get to manage companies; those who are not as smart, who used their bodies more than their brains, have to work with their hands for a living.

Recall, the emphasis of schooling is standardization: everybody needs to learn the same things at the same time and the decision about what to learn and how this will occur is made, across grades, by somebody else; what your child wishes to learn is virtually irrelevant.  Even then, learning isn’t considered “learning” until you can prove you have learned.  And this is accomplished through standardized testing, which generates numbers or scores that are often graded on a “curve”…

The plane banked into final approach as the pilot prepared a landing in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  I could see the runway ahead.  Suddenly, the engines revved up—whoosh! —And the nose of the plane pointed skyward again.  The pilot sheepishly announced, “Sorry, folks, we were coming in a little fast.  Umm… we’re going to come around and try this again.”  In that moment, I began to consider the nature of jet pilot education.  Is it like most forms of education-- standardized?  Do they curve the grades?  Lets suppose this pilot earned a B-average.  On take offs, he could have been absolutely magnificent!  A-plus grade.  Right and left turns, not far behind.  A-minus.  But on landings, he was a little shaky: D.  Overall though, he passed with a B average, so that’s pretty good, right?  As we approached the landing strip once again, I wondered if there was anyone on board who got an A in “landings.”

Most education is “norm-referenced.”  You are compared to other students.  Sure, the intention is for students to “get” the information being taught.  But when they don’t, what are you going to do-- fail everybody?  So grades are curved.  Then there is “criterion-referenced” education.  Someone’s performance is compared to a standard of excellence, a criterion with observable variables.  A pilot needs to be able to master specific skills to be licensed, obviously.  Grades are not curved.  To achieve a criterion of acceptable performance someone needs to do something; and that necessitates tapping into a certain measure of self-knowledge.  Self-knowledge is an awareness that occurs when someone successfully integrates his brain with his body to act as a singularity, responding equally to information retrieved from his thoughts and conversations, as well as from his senses.  Recall that mind-body awareness is a characteristic often found among elite performers.  Who would you want on your basketball team, a person who had memorized a book about the history of great point guards, and who knew the exact dimensions of a court, or someone who had never read that book, but who had played different basketball positions for years? 

A shift in our education needs to occur in which the needs and desires of the children take precedence over those of corporate America, politics and educational bureaucracies.  The most salient evidence of such a shift would be movement away from “testing” as a way of proving knowledge and greater emphasis on helping children develop their native abilities—those that reflect who they most are when they are operating at their “best.”  

In the nineteen hundreds, Gatto states, better than 95% of Americans were literate.  They were reading classics from their “primers”, among other things.  And many learned to read from within their family units.  There were no “standardized tests”; there was no government or private industry pressure to produce an assemblage of workers in different capacities.  People had a greater mind-body awareness leading to self-knowledge.  And they were very often self-taught. 

Self-knowledge, as Gatto describes it emerges when children have the time and freedom to explore their environment and learn through what he refers to as “independent study.”  There are models of education that approach this idea already, but they are considered radical and in the minority… unfortunately.  Independent study time doesn’t mean that kids do nothing during class but stare into space.  It could mean, upon being assigned a book to read, generating their own questions they would choose to answer, rather than questions in the back of the book; it could mean forming groups and re-enacting a particular event from history, a trial, perhaps; it could mean hands-on exploration that can lead to self-discovery. For example take a math concept called, central tendency: “the larger the sample size the smaller the variability of an event contained within it.”  Rather than having students simply memorize that sentence and then testing them, what if you were to present students with a hundred pennies, tell them to select any five and count how many were minted since the year, 2000.  Then re-select ten, then twenty and so forth and notice what happens to the outcome.  See? Mind and body awareness!

Shifts in education away from teaching-to-the-test that instead include students’ independent study time to induce concepts and discover relationships among variables for themselves will foster curiosity, motivation, creativity and a sense of belonging in the world today, rather than the indifference and withdrawal that is characteristic of today’s students caught in a system of which they want no part; a system from which they feel… apart.