Revamping education – it’s the thought that counts

Revamping education – it’s the thought that counts

Disregarding the implications of research in learning styles and preferences, educators continue to obsess on a narrow sub-set of psychological functions – to the detriment of other mental operations that are every bit as vital.

Since Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon came up with the concept of intelligence quotient (IQ) as a predictor of academic achievement over a century ago, educators have been committed to enhancing verbal and/or mathematical abilities along with classifying students as delayed, average, or advanced primarily based on those particular skill areas.

One hundred years ago we knew practically nothing about the human genome; the internal combustion engine was in its infancy, Jules Verne’s classic, From Earth to the Moon, was considered fantasy, and cognitive science was essentially non-existent.

Just as there have been remarkable improvements in biology, engineering, and aeronautics since the 1900s, we have acquired a much better understanding of the way human beings think and learn – although the advances in developmental theory are not nearly as apparent in education as the theoretical advancements in those other fields.

After World War II Reuven Feuerstein demonstrated that intelligence is not – as was commonly accepted then and frequently assumed now – a global asset that is fixed, but a configuration of multiple functional perceptions that contribute to varied aspects of cognition arching through itemized recall to free association. More remarkably, he, along with his colleagues, amassed evidence that these various structural skills can be modified in significant ways with mediated teaching techniques.

In spite of Feurestein’s research, “ability” testing à la Binet-Simon is still used as one criterion for identifying a possible intellectual delay and, tellingly, in many states as the strongest evidence of eligibility for a gifted class assignment.

Robert Sternberg’s triarchic theory of intelligence conceptualizes the learning apparatus as consisting of an interlocking trinity of tools: analytical, creative, and practical. But the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) emphasize analysis while virtually excluding the other two attributes. “The Common Core focuses on developing the critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills students will need to be successful,” reads one explanation from the CCSS Initiative.

Similarly, over 30 years ago Howard Gardner identified multiple types of intelligence beyond logical-mathematical and linguistic (including spatial, musical, interpersonal, bodily-kinesthetic, to name a few) while the standards address only English-language arts and math.

A recent study for the National Bureau of Economic Research on the effectiveness of gifted education has demonstrated once again the practical pitfalls of narrowing our scope for potentiality.

David Card and Laura Giuliano compared the outcomes of three distinct groups enrolled in accelerated programs: “non-disadvantaged students with IQ scores ≥130; subsidized lunch participants and English language learners with IQ scores ≥116; and students who miss the IQ thresholds but scored highest among their school/grade cohort in state-wide achievement tests in the previous year.”

Those that sustained the most benefit were not the participants assessed as more capable but the ones that had been high achievers prior to placement, with the highest gains “concentrated among lower income and black and Hispanic students.” The researchers concluded, “Our findings suggest that a separate classroom environment is more effective for students selected on past achievement – particularly disadvantaged students who are often excluded from gifted and talented programs.”

This research supports the concept of “academic tenacity” or “grit,” which, briefly, may be defined as the mindset that prompts then sustains scholastic success. The President and CEO of EDUCAUSE, Diana G. Oblinger, has observed that “Grit, it seems, may be as essential as intelligence.” That trait, though, like the myriad intellectual attributes noted by Feuerstein, Sternberg, Gardner and others, is hardly acknowledged in the curricula and certainly unmeasured in testing.

With Common Core, standards-based assessment, increased accountability, reconsideration of teacher training methods and apps for everything from positive reinforcement to parent communication, American education appears to be undergoing sustentative change. However, it is possible – actually, highly probable, based on cognitive theory and supporting studies – we are only tinkering with the periphery while leaving the foundational components untouched because we are mired in static, tenuously substantiated philosophical underpinnings. 

At the inaugural opening of the National Council on Measurement in Education two years ago, John Q. Easton, director of the Institute of Education Sciences, portrayed the status of reform this way:

“I hypothesize that the effective teachers....are indeed boosting their students’ achievement, but they are also boosting other important skills, traits, or attributes that aren’t measured….I am betting that they could be psychological constructs like grit, perseverance, self-control, engagement, emotional intelligence, social emotional learning, or sense of mastery….These are things that I believe are highly valuable and that both we in the measurement and research community and our partners in schools and districts should be more mindful of. The test score accountability movement has pushed aside many of these so-called ‘non-cognitive’ or ‘soft’ skills and they belong back on the front burner.”

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