“Neuroscience will save us from testing.”

What's the next level?

Most forums on the future of education reform policy are about as interesting and real as a pubic embalming.

In a nice exception to the rule, at the Tufts University Public Education Reform Symposium this past Saturday, sponsored by Tufts Democrats and the Forum for Education and Democracy, some really good, I-think-we’re-kicking-this-up-to-the-next-level talk happened, at least for me sitting at the back of the room in my kufi taking in the scene.  I enjoyed the fact that so many young folks were gathered together on a Saturday afternoon, attentively and engagingly hot to talk about ed reform, and willing to give it and bring it to Alan Safran of the MATCH School and Richard Stutman, of the Boston Teachers Union, in the nicest and politest way possible.

First, the incomparably wise and hard-thinking “grandmother” (I like that paradigm challenge) of contemporary Progressive education, Debbie Meier, gave us some thoughts on the ways in which contemporary national educational policy has “nothing to do with the lives of children.”  Amen.  Yet most of us in the audience were already true believers on that score. (Okay, maybe not Alan Safran.)

Next came Larry Myatt, of Northeastern University and founder of the Fenway School in Boston, who really knocked my socks off with some super-convergent, I-think-this-shit-is-kind-of-coming together talk about where we are in the discourse right now on education reform.  Larry said, finding himself uncharacteristically agreeing with Chester Finn, that basically, the old talk about CHARTER SCHOOLS, TESTING, AND NATIONAL STANDARDS is dead.  After flogging these ideas since the early 1980s, living with NCLB and every other crazy-ass piece of policy we are now trying to tinker our way out of, these are old ideas that have run their course.  Amen on that one, too.  (Yo, tweet that to EdWeek, okay?)

Where are we now?

Larry mentioned that “every educator now is dealing with the problem of motivation, that kids just don’t find school engaging.”  I couldn’t agree more.  I give presentations on that all the time: how to get kids who are fundamentally bored and alienated by the hardshell world of school to engage. Sometimes I feel like a fraud, because given the current infrastructure and understandings of learning in school, I’m not really sure we can get kids to deeply engage.  (See this great post about why school resembles prison, from Peter Gray.)  So what do we need to look at now, what’s promising in terms of finding our way to new visions of schools?

Again, I want to note the convergences here between Classroom 2.0-ers, alternative schoolers and homeschoolers, and old time radical school critics who called for a lot of these moves back in the 1960s.

  • Personalization of learning. (Please see all previous posts, about how our new digital tools make this possible.)  Yet our sector must use these tools, in their own lives, and with their students…Oh yeah!
  • Crushing the “architecture of school.” Do we need classrooms?  Does school have to occupy a physical space?  What do we do with kids with two working parents if we don’t send them to school?  (There’s a good discussion of this over at Will Richardson’s blog.) I think this one is a biggie.  Where do we “locate” learning and what forms of social community, face to face, do we need.  How much adult coaching is required, and at what developmental levels?  (This is me now, not Larry)
  • The cognitive revolution of the last two decades will free us from testing.

Larry said he’s going to make a bumpersticker that says, “Neuroscience will save us from testing.”  I’m following that car.  He mentioned what we all know:  that looking at fMRIs of kids’ brains when they are doing low-level recall and memorization tasks, as opposed to engaging with art, music, improv, tell us what we finally need to know.  Only a few parts of the brain are lit up with the former, a lot of the brain is alive with the latter.  I too think this is incredibly promising.  In our literalized, we-need-to-see-that-this-isn’t-working in a “real science” way in our sector, if we can demonstrate inadequacy of our current accountability methods, maybe we will stop wasting kids time a little less egregiously than we do now?

Finally Tony Pierantozzi, superintendent of the Sommerville school district, gave a great 4 point summary of what Race To the Top, and offered a personal anecdote about the ways in which research and practioner knowledge ought to drive policy, not the other way around.

I came away with a title for my new book, “The Inside Is More Interesting Than The Outside: Re-Imagining School In An Age of Information Abundance.” But more important, a better sense of why educators are so discouraged right now.  They’re competing with a linked up and enticing new world every student is in, except in school, they receive little support for learning and exploring these worlds in their professional lives, and their work is being “measured” by what most know to be flatly diminishing, nonsensical standardized measures over which they have little real control. Who wouldn’t be just a tad discouraged?

We fear freedom?

For me, breaking up that hardshell environment of schools and moving to greater personalization are promising first steps out of the box.

But how do we encourage folks to break down the walls that imprison them?


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