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Reclaiming the language [guest post]

Have you ever taken part in a conversation about progressive education or school reform and left the dialogue wondering if you were even talking about the same topic? Often I’m left wondering how this can happen. How can two people talk about the same topic with very similar vocabulary, and yet be having two separate conversations at once?

It would be convenient if we could simply differentiate the discussion via politics; however, it would also be inaccurate. There’s a reason why Rep. John Kline (R-MN) recently remarked with chilling accuracy that the Obama-Duncan education game plan is “straight from the traditional Republican playbook.” The larger point to be taken here is that it doesn’t matter whether you are speaking with a liberal, a conservative, a Democrat, a Republican, reading the Washington Post or Newsweek – when it comes to education, most of them are indistinguishable from Fox News.

So how do we differentiate between the authentic and the rhetoric? In his article The Case Against ‘Tougher Standards’, Alfie Kohn states, “Today, it is almost impossible to distinguish Democrats from Republicans on this set of issues — only those with some understanding of how children learn from those who haven’t a clue.” So who has a clue?

To sort out who does and who doesn’t, I think we need to understand how one Washington DC activist put it, “It’s gotten to the point where I’m almost embarrassed to be associated with the word ‘reform'”. There is nothing inherently wrong with school reform – but there is something amiss with the way the word has come to be defined. Words like achievement, data, 21st century skills and accountability have been bastardized by those who haven’t a clue about real learning.

A real discussion about 21st Century education would require us to understand how wrong we got it in the 20th Century. Some might say that there is a war going on in schools between behaviourism and constructivism and the kids are losing while others have written “One cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the twentieth century unless one realizes that Edward K. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost.”

If we really want to have an authentic discussion about 21st Century education and data-driven accountability then we better reclaim the language.

ACCOUNTABILITY: in it’s current context, accountability is simply a code word meaning more control for people outside the classroom over those who are inside the classroom. Ever wonder why we can’t get school reform right? I won’t profess to have the definitive answer, but I have a feeling it has something to do with the fact that education is being run by people who have no practical experience or professional training in how children learn. What’s worse is that these clueless dictators have the audacity to enforce their ignorance through manipulative legislation, and when those who know better speak up, they are beat down by the accountability club.

So how do we reclaim the word accountability? We need to redefine it. John Spencer, a teacher from Arizona, says “accountability should mean that when you wander off too far, there is a group of people calling you back and saying, ‘Look, you belong here. You are important to us.'” For those who claim we need accountability in its current form, I encourage them to look to Finland who don’t even have a word in their language for accountability, so they use responsibility – the difference being much more than simple semantics.

DATA: Number crunching, data mongers see children as data-in-waiting. Their bodies are simply transportation devices for their number two pencils. And yet, one test isn’t even enough for these spreadsheet junkies, so they feed their mania for reducing everything to numbers by having tests that prepare kids to take a benchmark test before they take the test. Sadly, the worst teachers don’t teach to the test any more, they test to the test. The problem here is that if their goals are simply higher test scores (raise achievement) then their methods are not going to be worth much. In other words, even if we achieved all the test scores the policy makers could ever want, we would end up providing the kids with nothing they really need. Things go very, very wrong when a teacher knows more about how to raise a kid’s test score than how to raise a kid.

If we want to reclaim data, and we do need to, we need to stress that real learning is found in children not data. The best teachers never need tests to gather information about children’s learning nor do they need grades to share that information with others. They know that there is no substitute for what a teacher can see with their own eyes when observing and interacting with students while they are learning, and any attempt to reduce something as magnificently messy as real learning will only ever conceal more than it will reveal. I might go so far as to say that the best educators in the 21st Century understand that “measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning” except that this has been true in every century. Anyone using data must understand that what we see largely depends on what we look for and there’s a huge difference between valuing what we measure and measuring what we value – but again, this is true regardless of the date on the calendar.

21st CENTURY SKILLS: Unfortunately, most people who speak about 21st Century Skills actually think that something changed because the date on the calendar advanced. They also (mis)assume that we are in some competitive race for the finish line – except there’s no competition and there’s no finish line. Education reform built on the foundation of competition is a house of cards just waiting to be toppled over.

If we really care about getting school reform right in the 21st Century, then we have to go back to two men from the previous century who have framed how we think of truly progressive education – John Dewey and Jean Piaget.

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Dewey’s message focused on democracy as a way of life, not just a form of government, and that “thinking is something that emerges from our shared experiences and activities.” Piaget taught us that “even very young children play an active role in making sense of things, ‘constructing’ reality rather than just acquiring knowledge.

If we take the work of Dewey and Piaget seriously, we have to acknowledge that the best kind of education we can provide our children has nothing to do with the date on the calendar and more to do with understanding how children learn.

In the end, I have one question about the 21st Century: will the politicians and policy makers figure out what Dewey and Piaget figured out in the 20th Century, and will they listen to the modern day education experts such as Linda Darling-Hammond, Deborah Meier, Alfie Kohn, Yong Zhao and Constance Kamii before we get to the 22nd?


Joe Bower teaches in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada and is the author of for the love of learning.


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