Picking the Wrong Education Destination

We can think of education like a journey, embarked upon before one enters kindergarten and continuing long after one leaves the K-12 system. One constant question we need to investigate is, “Does our K-12 system help students along the journey, or does it force them off the path?” In other words, we need to know what the goal of our education system is.

Education Week's “Living in Dialogue” blog has a piece by Karl Wheatley, a professor at Cleveland State University, that explores this question in the context of a debate about direct instruction versus more student-initiated learning. He offers up substantial research in favor of a student-centric approach, but also offers insight into why it sometimes gets disregarded.

He frames it in terms of two doors:

Door #1: If our goal is to accelerate short-term learning of predetermined and easily tested academic knowledge and skills (regardless of broad and long-term effects), then direct instruction would be judged to be clearly more effective.

Door #2: However, what if we want what works best in the long run for the range of goals we value most for children, including real-world competence in subject matter plus creativity, love of learning, initiative, problem-solving, independence, critical thinking, citizenship, good decision-making, communication skills, leadership, and to be caring, happy, and healthy? If we really want this, then education with substantial child-initiated and jointly-planned learning is clearly superior.

He goes on to demonstrate that, while direct instruction is more often correlated with short-term test score gains, those gains disappear over time while the long-term benefits of child-initiated/jointly-planned learning endure. This starts in the early years and continues on into adulthood.

This points to a serious problem: The primary measure used to evaluate most attempts to improve education is growth in test scores. Wheatley's argument suggests that this is actively harmful. We end up short-changing students in hard-to-measure but important “big picture” areas so that we can see test scores go up. If the test scores only show illusory gains, however, we need to push that much harder to decrease their importance not just in evaluating teachers, but in evaluating all things education-related.

It seems that much of the current education reform movement has picked the wrong door. A better route for our children lies behind Door #2. Now we just need to get our policymakers to act on this.

Posted in Education

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