The Road to Hell?
If the proverbial inter-planetary visitor observed educational policymakers around the world, she would soon infer their single preoccupation: “How to raise scores on international comparisons like the TIMMS or the PISA tests.” This mentality also dominates the United States. A focus on standardized tests, how to raise scores, and what consequences follow there from, has become a national, as well as an international, obsession.
That “road to hell” is paved with good intentions. Concern with performance grew out of a consensus that American youth were not getting properly educated. Since the 1980s, leaders from across the political spectrum have joined forces to focus sharply on test performance.
I don’t question their motivation. Policymakers were concerned with the mediocre education in most inner-city schools, the lack of preparation (and sometimes motivation) of teachers, and job applicants who lack skills and a sense of responsibility.
And yet, the consequences of this testing mania have been mixed at best. Impressive, widespread improvement has not occurred. Scores may improve on familiar items but rarely on measures that are differently conceived. Classes focus on preparation for high stake tests, while less attention is paid to the arts, history, current events, humanities—indeed, anything untested. Educators with discrepant philosophies or approaches abandon the public sector, or education altogether. Teaching is becoming de-professionalized; students construe education as a winner-take-all tournament, rather than the opening of the mind and the imagination.
It need not be that way. No country need conceive itself in a “league table” competition. And certainly the richest and most successful can chart its own course;
Inter-Planetary Visitor: What form might that course take?
Start from the kinds of human beings that we desire. We want adults of character: persons who care about their family, their neighbors, the larger society, the planet—good workers and good citizens. Perhaps at one time, these ethical, moral, and character issues could be addressed at home, on the street, in religious settings, in the media. But no more. If schools do not develop individuals of admirable character, the society won’t have them.
We want individuals who love learning, want to learn in (and outside of) school and will continue to learn throughout their lives. The current system stifles more than it stimulates. Young people gravitate toward learning when the older persons around them love learning and invite the youth to join them. In an age of exciting media and sundry other temptations, we adults have to be their heroes, their role models, their inspiration.
Finally, what to learn? Here I differ most sharply from those who favor fixed curricula, with lists of so-called important facts. Given the ubiquity of digital information sources, there is no need to prescribe materials. Once basic literacies have been achieved, it’s most important to master the major ways of thinking: historical, mathematical, scientific and artistic. Armed with these tools and suitable motivation, learners can achieve disciplined, synthesizing, and creative minds.
Lest one think that a misguided course is restricted to education, consider the current American quagmire in health care. Too many of our citizens, and too many of our leaders, are blind to what is expected in other societies—affordable health care for all. Much of our population lacks compassion for fellow citizens and for the ills to be faced by future citizens.
Faced with such thoughts, I take heart from Winston Churchill, who once observed, “The American people always do the right thing—after they have tried every other alternative.”#
Howard Gardner teaches psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His most recent book is “Five Minds for the Future.”
© Howard Gardner 2009