Obsession with development, learning, and teaching

Posted on May 13, 2013 
Filed under Discussions, Learning and Development, Teaching

I posted this on Education Week Bridging Differences Blog where Deborah Meier is in dialogue with Michael Petrilli from the Fordham Foundation:

Mike Petrilli makes a provocative summarizing comment in his blog post that I’ve been mulling over: “Rich parents are obsessed with their children’s social and intellectual development.” I wonder if he would agree that we need schools where teachers are expected (and supported) to be similarly obsessed.

A concern with development should always trump a focus on learning. Adults need to take a more developmental long-view – asking where are we going and how might we get there? – rather than have only a short-term concern with what’s being learned in the moment. And as a Vygotskian perspective stresses, adults always need to be looking for what particular children and groups are capable of, not just what individuals have already shown they can do. Testing, especially high-stakes summative testing aligned with predetermined bite-sided curriculum, is so insidious because its dehumanizing mechanistic demands is continually undermining those teachers who are committed to children’s social and academic achievements in ways that will support their development into better people and smarter learners.

No one can develop socially unless they are able to interact socially. Ask any parent of a toddler! And families – or classrooms – don’t magically become socially supportive learning communities. They require adults who care enough about children to engage with them in genuine dialogue (not evaluative quizzing) about life, literature, and content (not textbooks masquerading as such). What sort of a country are we hoping to create if we don’t practice social democracy in the very places where children – and adults – can learn to become better citizens? Schools like Mission Hill are beacons for developing democracy where people together embrace the struggle to learn to be more democratic. Members of Congress could learn a lot from a field trip there.

Which brings me to standards. The founding fathers would agree that even the best pre-determined “standards” – the Constitution and its amendments – can never guarantee outcomes. Common Core State Standards are no different. We may critique standards for what’s good – and not so good – about them. We could start with the fact that democratic standards aren’t included in the Common Core. However, just as we can’t teach children to develop socially by telling them what to do, we can’t teach them to grow intellectually by imposing academic standards on them – and believing that repeated testing will somehow make development happen.

People’s intellectual development only really takes off when they become obsessed with what they are learning. It’s sad to have to note that that is as true for children as it is for adults. Effective parents – rich, poor, or middle-class – like effective teachers, know that teaching, trips, or tutoring makes little difference until children take charge of their own learning. And that can happen with preschoolers and dinosaurs as much as with teachers – or Think Tank executives – and education. How many parents or executives would be obsessed with becoming better at their challenging jobs if they had to live under the shadow of testing surveillance tied to imposed standards?
If teachers, principals, and school districts were rewarded for creating learning environments where children can develop socially and intellectually then all that money wasted on testing could be spent on professional development by, with, and for teachers obsessed with education and democratic outcomes.

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