Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Our Use of Education Standards Limits Learning: We Negate the Anomalous by Being Ready

A child following a hunch... (Reilly 2010)
"We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery." - Marcelo Gleiser, 2014

Building a public education system on the belief in knowledge-certainty represents a seismic error--one we continue to make and remake. Even as we know more than we can say, our knowledge is largely (in)formed by our guesses, our hunches, our theory-making and unmaking. We ought to celebrate these stances, not shun them. Tentative theory making represents a main purpose of education and yet, against the narrow world of educational standards the room necessary to think, err, reconsider, fail better is largely absent for the individual learner. We are driven by a logic that says school learning is knowable and testable. We fail to see such logic as damning. In favor of logic, we have forgotten mystery.

Douglas Hofstadter in his foreword to Gödel's Proof recognized this when he wrote, "We now understand that the human mind is fundamentally not a logic engine but an analogy engine, a guessing engine, an esthetics-driven engine, a self-correcting engine." Where in schools do we embrace this understanding of knowing or of our beautiful limitations? How are teachers and children penalized in this high-stakes narrow world of testing and evaluation for embracing such notions?

I would argue that much of what is privileged today in public school education has been built upon a construct of a stable universe, where the borders between teachers and students are permanent, and whereby the signs, signifiers, and signified are linear and stable—resulting in the belief that there are raw materials like stones and timber that can be collected and distributed in order to enact specific commodities called knowledge. Knowledge in this schema is not to be constructed, but rather discovered from a set of knowable and predetermined things.  Further, the stability between effect and cause is seen as constant. 

Consider that "Newton’s first law of motion states, objects at rest stay that way—as do objects in motion—until an outside force inflicts itself.  The cause-effect relationship implied here is an apt metaphor for the modernist concept of teaching and learning: One precedes and causes the other. Teaching becomes didactic, directing; not aiding, helping, stimulating, or challenging natural, self-organizing processes. Machines do not self organize, compensate, grow” (Doll, 63-64). The logic supporting a belief in standards with specified outcomes as measured by high stakes testing can be tied to a Newtonian understanding of knowledge as discovery. In such schema, the builder, as corporate knowledge-holder and the inhabitants, as teachers and students are bodiless entities who can be improved and acted upon by the introduction of different stones and timber. 

We are endlessly substitutable. 

A child following a hunch ... (Reilly, 2013)
“Gaps, breaks, punctures are not only absent from the curriculum, they are seen only in negative terms.  Time itself is seen exclusively in cumulative terms, as a co-relation with what is learned: the longer the time, the more learning accumulated.  Time is not seen as an active ingredient, necessary for developing the creative possibilities inherent in any situation” (Doll, 37).

It is these disruptures that we ought to be courting, rather then the smooth face of certainty. Kurt Gödel's theorems about incompleteness might well inform our reform efforts. Through Gödel’s two incompleteness theorems we can recognize the fallacy of the standards-testing movement we are buried beneath and the freedoms we sacrifice to remain buried. Gödel theorized (1931/1992) that no set of finite axioms could represent absolute truth because an undecidability exists in closed systems. Within such systems, the logic necessary to negate a particular axiom is not present within the system. To know a contextual “truth” requires a metalanguage.  And yet, in public education we are forced to trust the 'truth' produced about our children's knowledge via a closed set.  The same corporations that name what must be 'learned' have design what will be tested and how.  Then the results of these tests that only the test makers and test takers are allowed to see are used to report how students and their teachers faired. Yes, against the judgment of nearly the entire psychometric and education researcher communities (Newton, Darling-Hammond, Haertel, & Thomas, 2010) we use these narrow results to measure the effectiveness of teachers.

from here 
PARCC has indicated that we can now use their closed system that they purport to be a truthful representation of children's learning to gauge how well our child did against other children from "PARCC states."

Do you see how closed this system is?  By purporting to be able to provide you with a comparative view of your child's performance vs. those in Arkansas or Colorado the assertion that these scores actually report some academic truth of importance is assumed.

But what do these tests measure? They measure only what is common, never what is singular or anomalous. And this is a problem.

Children following a hunch... (Reilly, 2012)


Gilles Deleuze notes, "[beneath the general operation of laws, however, there always remains the play of singularities" (1994, p. 25). It is this play of singularities that we must attend to. This is where hunches, guesses, trial and error rises. Yet, there is little room for such musing is the input-output world of standards and testing. Our inability to occasion the anomalous, to celebrate its presence in the utterances of our children and of their teachers--speaks to our lack of vision and commitment to unfettered learning. Allegiance to one set of educational standards and the tests they produce leads us to directly ignore anomalies.

Instead of having open-ended outcomes in eduction where we do not worry about pre-naming what a child will learn, but rather use our energies and talents to co-name with the child what he or she is theorizing, we have a list of things all learners must know and do.

A list is cheap. A list can only be common.

Check 'em off is infinitely less complex than a map one makes. We ought not to sell out our children this way. The talents of students and teachers are being squandered, repressed and ignored in favor of having everyone produce like answers to closed tests. Now, what career or college readiness does that speak to?

A child following a hunch... (Reilly, 2014)


We know tentatively.

Where in the new models of educational reform is guessing represented? Where in these reforms is self-correction privileged? Where do we allow learners, or their teachers, to follow a hunch?  In what ways do we embrace aestheticism? Are the arts nothing more than fodder for reading materials so that we can teach directly the skills outlined in the Standards?

Multiple ways of (un)knowing are largely missing from the certainty that 'the new generation' of educational standards represents.

We are teaching you and testing you on what you most need to know are the largest of lies we tell our children and we do so daily. We have been fabricating truths about the completeness of knowing since at least Sputnik and in these new times of the Common Core we continue to lie. We know this completeness myth as educational standards--the narrow interpretation of what some now say learners need to know in order to be college and career ready. I find it improbable that a nation could even believe such fantasies, let alone act on them.

Who are these soothsayers who know what it means to be ready?

But, what if being ready is itself the largest of myths? What if being ready represents our attempts to stay complexity and to substitute a poor version of knowing? What if being ready lessens the scope and depth of learning? What if catering to being ready actually undermines learning?

We only need to read the introduction to the ELA Common Core State Standards to notice the belief in a finite world of knowing that privileges being ready:
The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do (p. 6, 2010).

Imagine the arrogance that such knowing was even possible, let alone desirable. Can Standards represent what needs to be known?  By whom? For what purpose? Is it even rational to suggest such a list that can be reproduced is worth our interest? Yet, our schools are limited by and driven to ensure that all students know emphatically a closed set of nameable reading, writing and mathematical skills that can be measured cheaply and profitably for corporations. Driven by the limitations of our allegiance to high stakes testing, we measure what is convenient--what can be cheaply known by the masses--negating the anomalous, missing the singularity. We then say that these results represent a truth about the value of what children know and can do and the quality of work their teachers have done.

It is this closed system of standards, student testing, and teacher evaluation that we must disassemble and do so quickly.


Deleuze, G. (1994). Difference and repetition. (P. Patton, Trans.). New York Columbia
University Press.

Doll, William E. Jr. (1993). A postmodernperspective on curriculum. New York: Teachers College Press.

Gleiser, Marcelo (2014). The island of knowledge: The limits of science and the search for meaning. New York: Basic Books.

Newton, Xiaoxia A., Darling-Hammond, Linda, Haertel, Edward,  & Thomas, Ewart. (2010). Value-Added Modeling of teacher effectiveness: An exploration of stability across models and contextsEducational Policy Analysis Archives, 18(23)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.