Thursday, July 31, 2014

"Joy And Enthusiasm Are Absolutely Essential"

For the past couple of years, I've been hearing from parents of former students about the stress their children have experienced due to developmentally inappropriate and educationally suspect high stakes standardized testing and curriculum expectations. This is a new phenomenon so I attribute it to the fact that the Dickensian corporate education "reform" movement has finally come to Seattle. We're talking about children I knew as happy, engaged, enthusiastic learners in preschool who have been reduced to tears and anxiety about not measuring up in kindergarten and first grade. For years, I've been hearing this from teachers and parents from other parts of the US, but now it's hitting home.

These for-profit guys are elbowing their way into public education under banners of "rigor" and "accountability." These are hollow marketing words designed to convince the electorate to let Bill Gates and the rest of his Randian followers to, as he says, "unleash powerful market forces" on our children. These are the same powerful market forces that have left millions of Americans without health care, encouraged bankers to behave as criminals, decimated the environment, and created a very wealthy few, while wrecking havoc on our once thriving middle class. Powerful market forces, at least the sort worshiped at the alter of neoliberalism, always create more losers than winners. 

This is what they promised to bring to our schools and, indeed, they are succeeding, albeit against a growing background of protest from parents, teachers, and students.

At the forefront of their sales pitch is this idea that they are hard-headed businessmen who will undo the namby-pamby feel good emotionalism of us well-intended, but misguided teachers. Apparently, we are  just a little too soft-headed and soft-hearted to really comprehend what it takes to make children winners in this Darwinian world, so they didn't bother consulting with us and now they're dismissing our concerns, often by throwing up their hands and saying, Not our fault: you're just doing it wrong.

They shout "Rigor!" at every turn -- they must have really market-tested that word because both the politicians and business guys use it whenever they speak on education. And we need to hold teachers "accountable" for holding those little noses to the grindstone, another well-worn buzzword. Rigor and accountability, that's how powerful market forces work, after all.

But it's not how learning works.

Of course, teachers know that this a horrible way to teach children anything. Anxious, crying children can learn little other than that the world is, by turns, cruel and tedious. We know that no child can learn under the kind of drill-and-kill rote-based assembly line these market-based ideologues envision for our children. And scientists know this too:

The realities of standardized tests and increasingly structured . . . curriculum continue to build classroom stress levels. Neuroimaging research reveals the disturbances in the brain's learning circuits and neurotransmitters that accompany stressful learning environments. The neuroscientific research about learning has revealed the negative impact of stress and anxiety and the qualitative improvement of the brain circuitry involved in memory and executive function that accompanies positive motivation and engagement . . . superior learning takes place when classroom experiences are relevant to students' lives, interest and experiences.

That superior learning environment is exactly what a play-based curriculum provides: classroom experiences that are relevant to student's lives, interest and experiences. Whereas the product the corporate guys are selling does the opposite:

This is the actual neuroimaging visualization of what has been called the affective filter . . . This term describes an emotional state of stress in students during which they are not responsive to learning and storing new information. What is now evident on brain scans during times of stress is objective physical evidence of this affective filter. With such evidence-based research, the affective filter theories cannot be disparaged as "feel-good education" or an "excuse to coddle students" -- if students are stressed out, the information cannot get in. This is a matter of science.

I, and others, have repeatedly challenged US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and the rest of these self-proclaimed reformers to present any evidence at all to support their assertions, but they haven't taken it up because such data or research or science simply does not exist.

The science is clearly on the side of classrooms designed around the sort of self-directed learning found in play-based and inquiry-based classrooms.

Joy and enthusiasm are absolutely essential for learning to happen -- literally, scientifically, as a matter of fact and research. Shouldn't it be our challenge and opportunity to design learning that embraces these ingredients?

(Personal note: I will be traveling for the next couple of days, so if it goes quiet around here it's because I've not had the opportunity to post. If this happens, please know I'll be back in short order.) 

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