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To Solve Education Crisis We Must Refute Faulty Assumptions

Among the biggest challenges we face in “educational reform” are the many faulty assumptions that underlie our efforts to fix the problems we perceive in schools. Because we fail to deeply assess and evaluate these underlying assumptions, we continue to misunderstand the problems, propose answers to the wrong problems, or address only a portion of a much larger overall challenge.  

What are some of the common educational assumptions to which I’m referring? Here are a few:

Assumption 1: The goal of schooling should be to graduate students who are verbally, mathematically and technologically literate and who are able to compete in the global economy.

Assumption 2: To best achieve the above goal, we must evaluate students using standardized, multiple choice tests.

Assumption 3: Schools are not the place to teach or discuss values.

There are many more such assumptions that need unpacking, but for the sake of this essay, I’ll simply address these three by attempting to reframe each with questions (and the beginnings of answers) that might lead us toward different approaches to solving educational challenges in the 21st century.  

To address the first assumption, it’s important to ask some questions that might lead us to rethink our goals for schooling. Given the world we live in today – which is approaching 7 billion people (1 billion of whom are undernourished and lacking ready access to clean water); where species are becoming extinct at alarming rates dramatically reducing biodiversity; where over 25 million live enslaved; in which looming peak oil threatens to make the current recession seem like boom times; where climate change is leading to rising seas, desertification, flooding, environmental refugees, crop failures, and more; where nuclear weapons still proliferate; and where a trillion animals are brutalized every year for food in unsustainable and inhumane ways – it’s critical to seriously and carefully consider what knowledge and skills youth most need to acquire for their, and all our futures. In the face of the challenges listed above (and many others left out of this list), is literacy and the capacity to compete in the global economy a big enough goal for schooling?  

At the Institute for Humane Education (IHE), we don’t think so, and the first question that we address in our teacher training programs is, “What is schooling for?” This is where we must begin before developing any reforms, curricula, schools, lesson plans, initiatives, teaching strategies, or policies. At IHE we believe that we need to graduate a generation with the knowledge, tools, and motivation to become conscientious choicemakers and engaged changemakers for a healthy, just, and peaceful world for all, but whether one adopts our goal or another, this core question is essential, yet it rarely comes up in discussions about school reform. By largely accepting without debate the assumption that the goal of schooling is verbal, mathematical and scientific literacy to compete in the global economy, we have failed in the primary task for addressing any reform: to determine the most pressing, appropriate, and meaningful goal. 

Because we as a society have failed to think critically about Assumption 1, we have fallen into the trap of accepting Assumption 2. If, however, we embrace a larger goal for schooling, such as graduating a generation of solutionaries with the ability to solve pressing global challenges through whatever careers they pursue, then standardized, multiple choice bubble tests become obsolete because they fail to evaluate the knowledge and skills graduates must acquire to be such solutionaries.  

Assessment is a critical component of educational reform, but we are currently assessing the acquisition of only a small and very basic portion of what students must learn to be contributing, compassionate, and successful citizens in the 21st century. We are, in essence, dumbing down curricula, sacrificing the juicy, crucial lessons in critical and creative thinking – ones that if offered skillfully would actually lead more effectively and efficiently to the acquisition of the basics because the foundational tools of reading, writing and computing would be essential for the exciting and inspiring work that comes with thinking and problem-solving around relevant, meaningful issues of our time.  

There are many tools for assessing the acquisition of critical and creativing thinking skills – perhaps the most important skills our children can hone in school – but as long as we are focused on the animated cartoon image of teachers pouring facts and figures into children’s heads (promoted in the documentary film Waiting for Superman) as the goal of education, we will fail to develop solid assessments for critical knowledge. How can we know, for example, if students are gaining facility at critical and creative thinking and problem solving? What projects, tasks or ideas might they launch or generate to demonstrate their abilities and knowledge? These are the questions we need to ask in order to reframe Assumption 2 and assess the right skills in the right ways. I am not suggesting that we don’t need to assess whether students are learning to read, write, and compute, but these skills can be evaluated through means that also assess critical and creative thinking and problem-solving. These are the core capacities needed for a generation of solutionaries. 

I included Assumption 3 in this essay because as a humane educator – someone who teaches about the interconnected issues of human rights, environmental preservation, and animal protection – I am occassionally accused of wanting to impose “values” upon students. Twice in my 25 year career as a humane educator in which I've taught approximately 100,000 students, I have been barred from schools, largely because of a fear of such “values education.”  

Humane education is certainly steeped in values. The word humane literally means “having what are considered the best qualities of human beings.” But rather than impose these “best qualities” on students, I have chosen to ask my audiences what they consider to be the best qualities of human beings. Over and over, their lists include such qualities as compassion, kindness, courage, honesty, generosity, integrity, perseverance, and wisdom. Not once has a student, of any age or background, said cruelty, violence, myopia, or greed. There is no need to impose values in order to explore in school what it means to live according to the best qualities of human beings. What is crucial, and what can be do so effectively in schools, is to create space for exploring how to live according to these common values. Telling students what they should and shouldn’t believe or do, is not education, but rather indoctrination. 

Living in a globalized world as we do, what does it mean to live with kindness, respect, and compassion toward others who produce our food and clothes and products; or toward the environment; or toward other species? Those are key questions for learning about the challenges of our time; for studying economics, history, politics, psychology, science, technology, social studies, anthropology, agriculture, engineering, architecture, and so many other subjects; for exploring how to put values into practice in far-reaching ways; for acquiring the skill to be a problem-solver in a complex world. Seen in this way, Assumption 3 might be reframed into something like this: How can we determine core values and individual expressions of these values in school and explore how to put them into practice in a globalized world still replete with injustice, cruelty, and short-sightedness in order to evolve into a more just, compassionate, and wise society? 

By asking new questions about schooling – What should it be for? How can we carefully and accurately assess if our students are gaining the knowledge and skills they need? How can our children learn to put their deepest values into practice through their lives and future work? – we can reframe some of the faulty assumptions that are currently guiding our educational reform initiatives and begin to properly address the great need for transformation in schooling.

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