October 6th, 2010

Learning Through Experiences, Not Test Scores

As a teacher of high school students and a leader of the network Accomplished California Teachers, I know how much we rely on parents and community members to support our work.  I don’t mean support  strictly in a financial sense, though obviously that’s an essential part of the issue.  But beyond the allocation of dollars, we need to the allocation of good will, the validation of our work and our institutions.  We must earn the confidence of the community, and where we succeed, we need that confidence on display, broadcast loud and clear.  I’m excited to be working with Educacy, as a teacher and a parent.  I’m hopeful that we are joining together as advocates who value public education in California, who appreciate its successes, and who will fight to strengthen the system in times of need because we know that a high quality public education for all is the best path to a peaceful and secure future for all Californians.

If you think back to your childhood and your schooling, what do you recall most vividly?  What experiences had the greatest impact in shaping the person you became?  I’ll bet that whether you’re recalling positives or negatives, you’re thinking about how someone made you feel, or something you learned to do for yourself.  Feelings of intense shame and bursting pride are likely to stick with us.  Opportunities to build something or perform something, opportunities where we could have failed but ended up a success – these are the lasting lessons of our younger years, recalled with ease even when all the facts and formulas and grades have faded from memory.

If you are a parent, what stands out most vividly about supporting your child in school?  I’ll bet that whether you’re recalling positives or negatives, once again, you’re thinking about how you or your children felt, or what they learned to do.  That’s the way we operate.  Grades and test scores are ephemeral, while that which touches our humanity remains with us, sometimes for years, and with startling clarity.

So how did we get here, to this juncture in education history?  Why are we measuring our children, our students, our teachers and schools with numbers when we talk about education in the public arena?  In the present era, we have access to previously unthinkable amounts of data and information.  We push aside our most powerful experiences and forget our own learning.  We choose instead to gather the data, revere the research, and make a fetish of percentiles and indices.  Acronyms assume meanings, labels take on lives of their own, and we give them power by speaking their names over and over.

The Latin root of “education” is “educare” – which means “to pull out, extract.”  As a teacher, that etymological lesson is a reminder to seek what is inside my students.  I build a safe and stimulating environment to coax out of them the willingness to take a risk, the energy to care, the personal drive to learn, to make meaning from everything around them and derive knowledge that can only come from within them.  The test of this education doesn’t come at the end of the year; it comes every day thereafter, when we see what students can do with whatever has been “pulled out” of them.

Some observers suggest that this philosophy is fine for certain students, privileged and successful, while other students are so deficient in basic skills that we must address that problem first. By subscribing to the “empty vessel” theory, they see education backwards, and argue that teaching is about putting something in – facts and formulas, “value-added” – rather than pulling something out.  By being in touch with our own best and worst educational experiences, we remind ourselves what it meant to us when schools and teachers helped something new and wonderful emerge, and what it meant to be bottled up or shut down by people or systems that failed us.

Let’s join together to bring about a new phase of education debate and advocacy, one defined by a shared vision about the purposes of education, rather than splitting ourselves into factions, exaggerating our differences and gravitating towards ideological encampments.  In fact, it is the lack of a unified vision about educational goals that many of us feel hampers the debate and stalls much needed broad systemic reforms.  When we don’t agree about why we’re educating students, we see our discussions devolve into arguments over means and methods without a mission.

To articulate this mission and achieve it, we need the whole community of parents and students, educators and researchers, business and citizens.  We need to maintain a vision of our best selves and our students’ best futures, talk about who we are, who we will be, and what we will do.  We need to listen to each other with appreciation, and trust each other enough to ask and answer questions that refine everyone’s thinking.  To paraphrase John Dewey, we must care enough to provide for every child the education we most valued for ourselves, and want for our children.  Let’s hold ourselves, our educators, community members and policy makers to that standard, and good results will follow.

Fore more information on InterACT, please visit our website:  http://accomplishedcaliforniateachers.wordpress.com

From the Teachers
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