Friday, August 31, 2012

Great Expectations

Eric Cooper and Veronica McDermott //Aug. 29, 2012 // 4:55 Pm
When it comes to education philosophy, famed novelist Charles Dickens proved that the past really is prologue.

Nearly 160 years ago, long before such terms as "adequate yearly progress" and "teaching to the test" entered our lives, Dickens created authority figures in his novel "Hard Times" who never met a fact they didn't like. In one memorable example, a young girl who "fancies" horses offers to draw the animal when she can't define it. Mr. M'Choakumchild, a government officer, becomes apoplectic.

"You are not to do anything of the kind," he declares. "Fact, fact, fact. You are to be in all things regulated and governed by fact." 

If it sounds familiar, it should. Dickens' fictional classroom has come to life for many students across this country. Relentless focus on passing tests has quashed the more fanciful and deliberative aspects of learning and grounded what could have been flights of imagination, creativity and playfulness. Dickens' fictional school may have been "regulated and governed by facts," but today's schools - especially urban schools with large numbers of underperforming students - are regulated and governed by tests

Dickens' students might have acquiesced to this intellectual suffocation with a curtsy and a polite "Yes, sir." Today's students tend to react with one of two extremes.  Some jump through the academic and assessment hoops for the sole sake of getting a good grade or scoring well on an exam. They don't learn to love the pursuit of knowledge or recognize that learning from mistakes can be the most powerful lesson of all. Other students lose interest and drop out. All too many of them become fuel for the school-to-prison pipeline: Approximately two-thirds of the nation's inmates are high school dropouts.

The latter is especially common for schoolchildren of color and those challenged by poverty. They know society expects them to fail. These "stereotype threats" cause them to lose confidence and fulfill the prophecy. Some students, especially African Americans, go so far as to internalize the perception that they are not as smart as their white classmates. They all have the ability to succeed, of course. But fear causes the part of the brain that regulates emotion, behavior and motivation, to release the stress-inducing hormone cortisol. If this happens consistently, memory and the ability to think are impaired.

We've observed this test-taking fear in schools across the country and for many years. One of us has even seen it in his own children. One child can break down in tears at the thought of taking tests, while the other literally becomes intellectually paralyzed during an exam.  

And fear of being stereotyped is color-blind. All children - white, brown, black, Asian and Native American - can suffer from it, according to Claude Steele, a social scientist and I. James Quillen Dean for the School of Education at Stanford University. As an example, he cites his studies showing that because of a stereotype that blacks are more athletic, white university students performed more poorly than their black peers when the white students were told they would require athletic ability to score well on a written test about golf. Additionally, Steele found, merely mentioning to women that they are inferior to men negatively affected their performance on a math test.  

Changing belief systems and reducing the threat of stereotype is a challenge all teachers and principals must meet. Fortunately, it is within reach.

Affirmation exercises can be used before tests and as part of regular classroom instruction to remind students of their larger sense of competence and their greater worth to society. These help students relax, freeing up mental resources and improving performance. 

Teachers also need to consider the signals they send. All children have the intellectual capacity to contribute in class, but some worry they will come off as "stupid" if they give an incorrect answer. Educators need to find a way to embrace wrong answers; helping the students to learn from their mistakes, and guiding students toward discovering the correct ones.

With every new school year, hope is renewed for America's students and faith is reinvigorated for educators who know they have the power to build strong relationships with students and shape young lives. A further key is encouraging students to embrace subject matter as an exploration, using knowledge acquisition to create confident learners.
And that's a fact.

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