In a recent professional development session with a small group of teachers, our conversation evolved into deeply philosophical questions surrounding the purpose of education. One experienced teacher expressed dissatisfaction in teaching now that so much importance is placed on passing standardized tests because this instruction emphasizes teaching content only necessary to pass the test. Another, fairly new, teacher commented that even her college preparation mostly taught her how to adjust lessons to meet various state and federal academic standards. The teacher sitting next to her immediately replied with, "It just seems like we are not really supposed to teach." The rest of the conversation led into the purpose of teaching and of education.
When I think of learning and teaching, it is more interactive and critical. Based on my collaborations with teachers, this appears to be their mentality as well. So, then, what is the problem? Why does this appear to not be happening? Why are teachers feeling increasing pressures to do their jobs certain ways? To explore these questions, let us think about how the American education system is constructed.
We measure success quantitatively, which means we apply a numerical value to some characteristic. In the United States, we place a great deal of significance on standardized test scores because it provides some kind of foundation to measure success. This is not inherently a bad idea, but we focus too much on reaching numbers rather than the students' overall experience throughout their programs. And, although standardized tests are supposed to assess a student's ability to think through problems, many students still fall short. There is an ever growing amount of academic research pointing to qualitative indicators of success (some aspects of previous student preparation and general happiness of the student, to name only two), but these indicators are not reflected in our nation's education policies.
That is not to belabor policies like No Child Left Behind - there are plenty of written works doing that - but it is an example of bad education policy that was made with potentially good motives (but likely not). Instead of dealing with the real problems this policy closed schools, penalizing teachers, students, their families, and the community overall for factors they may be unable to control. It is these policies that measure success only by student performance on standardized tests, not paying any heed to other factors enhancing or impeding student achievement overall.
With this in mind, it is easy to wonder about the purpose of education. As Albert Einstein reportedly remarked, "... education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think." While many teachers do train their students to think more critically about issues and problems, critical thinking is not specifically listed or referenced in much of our education policies. If the mission of the United States Department of Education really is to "promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access," then it is essential to make critical thinking a more meaningful component of American education. Toward that end it is not necessary to completely overhaul our education system, but it is vital to take a hard look at what we really want to achieve and then create a strategic plan that will help us to meet these goals.
At the end of the professional development session cited above, the teacher participants outlined a general direction they thought would work within the schools of their district. Moving forward, their goals include working together to design grade and culturally relevant lessons that more specifically develop critical thinking skills. The motivation of doing this is two-fold: (1) the teachers help their students to be more productive citizens of American society because critical thinking skills will help them to solve problems and (2) critical thinking should improve student performance and achievement.
Is this a move you are willing to support? Teachers across the country are making strides in changing their education system locally. Let us all do our parts to support teachers as they work diligently to make a real and meaningful difference.