Sunday, March 22, 2009

Culture of Reflection

Our society is increasingly dependant upon producing a generation of thinkers to solve the evolving problems that face our world. During the Industrial Age, the United States built itself into a superpower by depending on hard workers willing to put in long hours. However, the global economy of the world coupled with the environmental and geopolitical intrigues that plague the citizens of our planet now requires that our people work smarter not just harder. To meet this challenge, our educational system must adjust to providing our students the tools necessary to adapt to any given situation with the capability of resolving those problems in an increasingly competitive market.
The job market our student’s are entering into today has evolved significantly from the era when cities and regions of the country competed for the manufacturing and intellectual base. Other countries, with much lower labor costs, have been siphoning off the industrial base of the United States for decades. As a result, jobs that used to pay good wages for hard labor have diminished at an alarming rate. Joining this alarming attack on the economic status of American citizens has been the growth in outsourcing white-collar jobs to nations such as India. For a nation’s educational system which still reflects the needs of the Industrial Revolution, we are lagging far behind the needs of the Technological Revolution. Failing to significantly address those needs will result in the drastic reduction in standards of living for our nation’s citizens and the influence of the United States in world affairs. The substandard performance of our nation’s students has been documented routinely for years. Yet, because our standard of living has remained relatively high little true reform of the educational system has ever taken place. It is a situation similar to the man who hears that the dam up the river has a leak but he lives so far downstream that he doesn’t see the need to do anything drastic. When the man notices the river elevating, he thinks to himself that someone ought to be doing something about this problem before it becomes to serious. Later he notices that the water is higher and moving faster but it isn’t near his property yet. He tells his neighbor that he really should get somebody to fix that dam before something bad happens. The next morning he is awakened to discover him and his family being washed away by the rushing water escaping from the collapsed dam. The United States is facing the rising level of problems facing this nation in much the same way as that man. The reality is that assumptions and good intentions may cause us to react too late and doom our children and our grandchildren to a significantly inferior social and economic existence in the near future. Upon reflection, one must realize that what we are doing is not working. The problems are not just with our math and science scores. The knowledge of the social sciences has been neglected and in some cases relegated to superficial margins in much of the educational reform debate. Margit McGuire states, “If educators continue to narrow the curriculum, reading and mathematics test scores may rise, but at what cost? If our young people, particularly children in poverty, do not understand or value our democracy and their role in such a society and do not believe that they can make a difference, why does school matter? If they drop out of school because they don’t value what school has to offer, how will we raise the level of achievement for all students and close the persistent inequities of the achievement gap?”
The need is great. As reported in the Washington Post the scores of our 15-year-olds from the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment were greatly behind most of the other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In science, they ranked 16th out of 30 and in math were 24th out of 30. For a country competing in the heart of the technological age, those are not good areas to be behind in with your competition. However, it is not just in the areas of math and science that our youths are failing to develop to their potential. Our Founding Fathers developed a political system dependent upon our citizens being informed enough to make the critical decisions necessary to govern them. In area after area, our own people fail to comprehend the principles of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. High school students fail miserably when asked to locate the nations of the world on a map and do even worse when asked to name their capitals. Adults rarely score much higher when challenged to locate regions or nations of importance to our country’s foreign policy.
At a time when our economy is clearly in transition, it is imperative that our educational system be developing critical thinkers who will be armed with the tools necessary to not only compete in the global economy but who will also be prepared to shoulder the responsibility of guarding the civil liberties afforded to all Americans by the Constitution and our form of government. As Harold Evans noted, “Americans best understand the paradox that if anything is to be preserved it must change. It is the possibility of reasoned change that gives life to democracy.” Lisa Delphit postulates that young people who live in poverty frequently view the work they do in school as meaningless to their life in the real world. In order to motivate them to learn their classroom experiences must have personal meaning. Therefore, the time has come when all Americans must step back and reevaluate what we are doing with a critical eye to determine if it is the best approach. But we must be careful not to change simply for the sake of change. Without a doubt, the time to build a culture of reflection is now.

Education is not a passive experience. H.F. Shinn
Have you ever wondered what happens when the United States finally gets to the point where we manufacture none of the goods we buy because the Chinese can do it so much cheaper?

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Education and the Influence of Intelligence
The importance of an education and its influence on the intelligence of an individual is of great interest to all educators. Much has been made of the statement, “All students can learn.” Yet, for the field of education a fundamental question that must be answered is “What are the factors that influence the learning of an individual?” Most of us believe that given the right circumstances that all children can learn. However, not all educators are in agreement over the equivalent nature of learning for all students. One does not have to look beyond the day’s headlines to recognize that the world our students are coming of age in is rapidly changing and the methods we use to prepare them must incorporate a wide range of important skills. The same is true for our nation’s emergency responders. Dr. Art Costa points out, it is imperative that the skills with which we arm our children become part of their routine approach to learning. Comparison to Coaching and an athleteThe relationship between intelligence and education is very close to that of an athlete and their coach. An athlete comes into the world with a variety of physical talents and capabilities that they develop as their life progresses. Even without a coach engaged in their life, they will have the capacity to run, jump, and lift great weights. Where a coach makes a difference is in developing technique and skills, improving concentration, and helping the athlete to develop a positive mental attitude. No matter how great the coach is in doing their part of the relationship, they cannot turn Ozzy Osborne into Michael Jordan or Walter Mitty into Walter Payton. Still, every coach should strive to help their athlete get better in the game. Success will be judged more by the improvement than the standard set by someone else. The relationship is not dissimilar for a student and a teacher. Not all people are born with the same talents, abilities, or defects. John Locke presented the idea that at birth, we are born with a “blank slate” for a mind on which our life experiences writes its story. The more we are exposed to, the more we know. The more we reflect on something, the more we understand. As a result, Locke believed that if presented information in the right format, people would learn. Devoid of exposure to the information would result in an individual being ignorant of it. Locke did not believe that people were born with ideas but must be in such a position to be exposed to it and to have time to reflect upon it to fully grasp its meaning. Others disagreed with Locke. Those today, who compare people who have book smarts but do not possess common sense ascribe to the philosophy Locke rails against.Multiple Intelligences
Mark K. Smith does not fully endorse the concept of multiple intelligences proposed by Howard Gardner but does believe there is enough data available to suggest that those who subscribe to the MI approach have had success in reaching students in various areas through non-traditional methods. As mentioned earlier, we are not all born with the same talents, skills, or attributes. These varied differences lead athletes to choose sports in which they can compete and causes others to drop out of competitive sports because they are not successful. This phenomenon is not restricted to the playing fields but can be easily observed in the fields of music, art, and literature. Thus, it is reasonable to expect the same with intelligence and in the field of education. Linda and Bruce Campbell suggest that “Strengths exist within everyone that all teachers can nurture and develop.” They further go on to state that “…meaningful restructuring first takes place within the minds of teachers and their beliefs about the nature and possibilities of their students. From there, all else follows.” This is a positive affirmation of the idea that all students can learn if only their teachers approach them in the right manner using the right techniques. However, it is in the same vein as assuming that all soccer players can kick a ball 70 yards into a 24’ x 8’ goal if given the right instruction and the right support. Upon reflection, the validity of such a notion is quickly dispelled. All soccer players could demonstrate improvement with their strength and accuracy over a given period of time and via the proper instruction but not all could attain the same high standards. In learning any given material and based upon the noted differences in our abilities, the perspective of multiple intelligences coupled with the sociological realities of being human more closely predicts our success in gaining knowledge and developing insight. Those in the emergency services learn early in their training about the concept of triage. It is the separating of patients into different categories in order to provide the best available treatment for the patients with the resources at hand. Patricia Wolfe, says that, “In the past, people considered the brain a ‘black box,’ a mystery that defied comprehension. We could observe what went into it and what came out, but we had no understanding of the internal operations.” If we accept the concept of an educational triage, a system in which students are divided into categories of need based upon their performance and attitudes, then the concept promoted by Wolfe begins to have merit. Not all individuals, regardless of the effort and methods used, can be saved from themselves. For reasons beyond anyone’s control, there are those who will chart an unstoppable course of self-destruction. Beyond these individuals, Wolfe proposes that the key to unlocking the secrets within the “black box” is the understanding of multiple intelligences. Will Rogers is often credited with saying that all people are dumb just on different subjects. One could say the correlation to that is that all people are smart just on different subjects. Some people demonstrate strength with linguistic intelligence: sensitivity to the meaning and order of words. Others are more gifted with intrapersonal intelligence: an understanding of one's own emotions. Each of these people is intelligent in their own right and with the right attitude and the right instruction could not only develop new skills but could improve their existing ones as well.
Another factor that affects student performance is that of teacher presentation. There is a wide variety of music, books, movies, and television shows available to entertain us because we all are different. These differences in the entertainment world are similar to the differences between teachers in their classrooms. Educators are not comprised of the same styles, talents, and approaches when it comes to performing their craft. As a result, not every teacher is perfectly suited to teach every student. Conversely, not every student is geared to learn from every teacher. This simple observation is frequently overlooked or misunderstood by administrators and politicians alike. Great emphasis is often placed on having teachers covering the same material to do so in the same manner. This approach is purported to be done in the interest of the children and to insure that all are receiving an equal education. As Silver points out, “Depth of learning comes as students’ process and think more intently about the content from various perspectives and in many lights.” Not, as some would suggest, by requiring all instructors to teach all learners as if they learn in the same manner.
In conclusion, all people possess a range of intelligence on various issues but there is not a universal level of intelligence that all can achieve given hard work and gifted instruction. Sometimes, for a variety of sociological reasons, some people will simply reject all means of assistance and will spiral toward failure regardless of our best efforts and intentions. For those who do put forth an effort, there will always be a range of success based upon their innate capacity to perform. If educators recognize that it is not a realistic goal to push all people to achieve at the same level on all tasks but commit to advancing those in their charge as far from where they are when they come into their influence as possible, then our system will become much more successful at producing a well-educated public capable of accomplishing great things. A system that is set up to push all people to obtain a single standard of success is a system doomed to failure. A system established to help all students learn to the best of their ability will always be successful. Just like the coach with their athletes, it is our job as educators to help each student live up to their potential.