Education for Democracy: Restoring Optimism

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NOTE: This essay is the fifth and final installment in a series focused on education reform. Federal, state and local governments currently are contemplating policy and funding changes for education at all levels. These essays are intended to provide some context for these discussions.

A mythology has grown up around international standardized test scores for math and reading.  It’s an appealing historic narrative for Americans – one laced with nostalgia for the “halcyon days” of education. A time when we were number one in the world in education as measured by student performance on these tests. The problem – it’s not true.

Diane Ravitch in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, notes the following:

“When the first international assessments were administered in the mid-1960s, our students ranked at or near the bottom of those nations tested. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, American students were often in the bottom quartile or near the international average, never first in the international rankings.”

It appears our rhetoric regarding the international standing of the United States in education begins with a flawed premise.

So what are we trying to achieve? Is performance on tests that exclude subjects like history, science, and the arts sufficiently broad and definitive to be the best measure of our education?  Does the organizational design of the school system have a causal effect on student learning outcomes? Will market competition lead to more effective teaching and better schools?

As I have been thinking about my own vision for education, I find myself running counter to conventional wisdom. For me, education is not transactional; it’s relational. It’s not efficient; but it can be highly effective. Most of all, it’s not simple; it’s incredibly complex.

When I begin with these core ideas, I find my categories for understanding and interpreting educational settings begin to change. First, student learning and development begins with a gift of time. Our global society has for millennia valued the relationship between teacher and student. It’s not a transaction. It can’t be effective when it is blindly and rigidly confined. A rich educational setting enables a teacher to be in relationship with students. One student is not the same as another. Each classroom has a unique culture and group dynamic. One year is not the same as the next. Every teacher has a unique personality. It takes immense time and energy to plan learning activities, implement approaches effectively, assess progress, and make adjustments. This requires teachers to be students of their own practice, to grow from experience, and to develop new methods for facilitating learning. Teaching is a profession of great value to society, and something amazing happens when we create the time and space for teaching and learning in a relational context. What I want most for our students is the opportunity to spend time with dedicated and well-prepared teachers.

Second, the content of learning is of the utmost importance. Basic skills in math and reading are indeed essential. Yet when we reduce the expanding body of knowledge to such a limited range of academic interests, we rob the future of inspired and innovative citizens. Learning is about nurturing curiosity. As questions emerge, interest grows and the motivation for learning increases.

Ravitch offers this articulation of the desired content for learning:

“Certainly we want them to be able to read and write and be numerate. Those are the basic skills on which all other learning builds. But that is not enough. We want to prepare them for a useful life. We want them to be able to think for themselves when they are out in the world on their own. We want them to have good character and to make sound decisions about their life, their work, and their health. We want them to face life’s joys and travails with courage and humor.  We hope that they will be kind and compassionate in their dealings with others. We want them to have a sense of justice and fairness. We want them to understand our nation and our world and the challenges we face. We want them to be active, responsible citizens prepared to think issues through carefully, to listen to differing views, and to reach decisions rationally. We want them to learn science and mathematics so they understand the problems of modern life and participate in finding solutions. We want them to enjoy the rich artistic and cultural heritage of our society and other societies.”

Third, effective learning involves living in community. There is something very powerful about interdependence. I see this in many students today. They live openly among their friends. They learn and work in teams. They value a shared vocabulary and common experience. Whether in virtual or face-to-face settings, students are building relational environments that are highly interdependent and interconnected.

Those of us who grew up in earlier times often misinterpret what is happening among our students in their use of technology. We tend to think of this as a dichotomy of two worlds: the virtual and the real. Students don’t see things this way. For them it’s all one experience – fully integrated communication through many channels, all of which are valid and effective.

A learning community is much the same. Those of us who are not native to this evolving digital world find it strange. Most of us are just trying to adapt and stay current. Our students, by contrast, have grown-up in this setting and find it to be completely natural. Accordingly, students draw their learning from many sources, but in a setting that is far more social and interactive. I remember as a youngster often hearing my teachers say, “Do your own work.” Today’s students cannot relate to this. Individual study carrels in libraries are being replaced by tables in cafes. Team learning and group projects are far more common. We write by revision as assignments are often iterative and process oriented.

If learning in a relational context requires extended time, rich content, and a sense of community, it is no wonder that education reform efforts have consistently failed. It’s time to renew our commitment as educators who will embrace an amazingly diverse generation of students, in highly contextual learning environments, with the aim of developing great citizens. Education for democracy should be our aim as teachers, administrators, parents, and students. Let’s rally together to create learning environments that will inspire and restore optimism.

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3 responses to “Education for Democracy: Restoring Optimism”

  1. Ed Ver Hoef says:

    I did my undergrad work (physics & math double major) at Central, graduating in 1954. Enrollment at that time was about 325 but much of that was girls getting their two-year teaching certificates so my 3rd and 4th year classes were quite small (typically 1 – 10 students). A few years later I went on for my MS at De Paul University in Chicago where the classes were much larger even though it was night school. The contrasts were incredible! There was an intensity on the part of the students that wasn’t there in my undergrad work. I think that was because everybody was there of their own choice, i.e., a desire to acquire or strengthen skills and knowledge particularly applicable to their chosen career as opposed to meeting a graduation requirement. I saw a clear correlation with what I was learning and my everyday work experience. The other side of that coin is that there was not much of a sense of belonging or comraderie among the students as in undergrad school. Most of the students were in their mid thirty’s and had a family. Also the faculty-student ratio was less favorable than for almost any class I took at Central. Class sizes (even in night school) were typically in the thirty’s.

    In my working career, once I started interviewing job candidates, I noticed a significant difference between those with technological degrees and liberal arts degrees. It was obvious as soon as one reads the resume of someone with a technology degree. Typically, while they were quite knowledgeable in their specific field, their vocabulary and grammar were abominable. Their vocabulary was quite limited and contained many made-up words. (There’s gotta be a word like this!) In general their writing skills were atrocious. I don’t mean to have a superiority attitude but communication skills in business, especially in writing, are critical!

    • Don Huffman says:

      Ed,
      I think you are on target regarding the communication skills which most liberal arts graduates exhibit. I’ve had several business executives in Iowa tell me that Central College grads clearly show a level of communication skills above that of other college/university grads which they have hired. That is an excellent reputation to have.
      And, when I was on my post-doc at Columbia Univ. in New York, I was aware that their undergrads -supposedly a select group- were much less capable in communication skills than most of the students I had seen at Central in the late 1950s.
      It is only one factor in professional success and/or graduate studies, but it is noticeable and continues to be importantg.

    • Don Huffman says:

      Ed,
      I think you are on target regarding the communication skills which most liberal arts graduates exhibit. I’ve had several business executives in Iowa tell me that Central College grads clearly show a level of communication skills above that of other college/university grads which they have hired. That is an excellent reputation to have.
      And, when I was on my post-doc at Columbia Univ. in New York, I was aware that their undergrads -supposedly a select group- were much less capable in communication skills than most of the students I had seen at Central in the late 1950s.
      It is only one factor in professional success and/or graduate studies, but it is noticeable and continues to be important.