Institutions have many strengths. For one thing, they’ve been around awhile. For another, they are usually tied to our values and even reinforce them. But an institution can become “institutionalized” which we equate with stagnation and even decay. Making changes in an institution, even when they are clearly needed, can therefore be extremely difficult.
Public education is an institution whose mission is to provide a free appropriate education for its students (FAPE). It’s not really free, since taxpayers are the funding source. Appropriate is a sticky word, since what is suitable for one child might not be for another. Well-educated, experienced and highly qualified people don’t even agree about what appropriate really means as it applies to education, and as a result, much of what your child may experience in school is dictated not by what is appropriate but instead by what has become law or fashion, or perhaps by which experts guide the programming.
It’s hard to measure the success of education, since the short-term “profits” of grades, graduation and college admission don’t tell the whole story about future success in work, and the “stockholders” have relatively little influence on the direction of the “company.”
Measuring the effects of educational research is notoriously tricky since there are so many confounds (things you cannot really control for) and it is considered unethical to withhold an intervention that you think would really work from a control population, and you aren’t exactly going to be trying something that you think won’t work. Kids are growing up all the while so their development alone may be influencing the effect of an intervention. Even in the same community students live in different homes, have different families with different values, and have different habits such as watching lots of TV, eating junk food or reading for pleasure.
Beyond that, education varies widely from community to community, from state to state, hence the intent of books like the Cultural Literacy series which promotes consistent content, and legislation like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) which prescribes consistent minimum standards of achievement. There are many other initiatives and laws, some that affect public schools nationwide, and others that are specific to a particular community.
Take high school graduation requirements as an example. Some schools require a student to take and pass two years of math, and others require three to get the diploma. Some states require an exit exam while others do not. Tests like the SAT attempt to show prospective colleges what students have learned no matter where they have gone to school. Today, proponents of standardization often cite wide variations in what schools offer or require as the most important factor underlying the outcomes of American public education.
You have likely read or heard somewhere that the goal of education is to produce lifelong learners. In an age of globalization, outsourcing and job creation and elimination, this is quite a task. The changes we make to education today may take years to manifest in the world of adult workers. So what makes us think that what we are doing now to reform education will have the outcomes we are seeking in the future?
Choosing Learning Outcomes
Let’s ask some different questions apart from whether students can perform the tasks of standardized testing. If we are basically using a competencies approach rather than a more “whole person” strengths approach, is this actually adversely affecting some of the outcomes we are seeking from education? Are there assumptions abut learning and working that might be generating approaches with limited effectiveness over time, even though they might result in schools meeting their AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) goals?
The accountability that both taxpayer and taxing authorities want—proof that education is working—may be encouraging us to spread America’s democratic jelly quite thinly on its multi-grain bread. How then do we support multiple ways to achievement?
In Howard Gardner’s latest book, Five Minds for the Future, he identifies the abilities that he believes will be most valuable in the working world of the future. These are the Disciplinary, Synthesizing, Creating, Respectful, and Ethical minds. Briefly, these are “minds” which will thoroughly know and be an expert in at least one academic discipline; will be able to synthesize information by critically blending knowledge from different disciplines; will be able to use this for both solving and formulating new problems, solutions, and questions; will work well with a diverse group of colleagues, supervisors and employees; and will do all of this with the highest levels of responsibility and integrity.
The Creating, Respectful and Ethical minds will require a far more integrated approach to education than is currently available to most students. They are, however, considered essential strengths in the globalized, diverse and unpredictable work environment of the future. Without an education which supports the whole child, though, only knowledge competencies and perhaps at higher levels, synthesis, are likely outcomes.
Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein propose a solution to this in Sparks of Genius. They suggest the following:
- Invention used as a universal part of acquiring disciplinary knowledge
- Intuition and imagination directly taught and explored through multisensory approaches
- Arts education on par with sciences, and used as an integrating tool
- Curriculum integration across all disciplines with a common language that bridges cultures and subject matter and, perhaps most importantly,
- Educating imaginative generalists—Students with all-purpose skills, adaptable minds, and inventive approaches.
In current career parlance, students would become “slashes,” a term that looks like what a person does: “She is a mathematician /artist/ dancer/writer/coach” would be an example. Adult workers are already doing this multi-role work since the livelihoods of some employees have necessarily morphed to meet the needs of companies and of individuals. Notice that physical and artistic pursuits are counted among this person’s work.
A current education initiative which is addressing this is extending the school day (not the same as optional afterschool programs) so that an integrated curriculum, including the arts, will be the common experience of all students; including physical activity such as sports, games, play, and yoga to educate, energize and engage the body as well as the mind; providing time for individual instruction and connection; and bringing back recess. In ten communities from central and eastern Massachusetts where this has been tried, elementary and middle school teachers, kids and parents seem to like it. Is it effective as well as pleasant?
Applied Positive Education
A challenge before educators and positive psychologists may be this: How can the schools of the present address the needs of the future? The answer may be simpler than we think. We can build fabulous facilities, train, hire and set qualifications for highly qualified school educators and the curriculum they teach, and then pay higher salaries. But in the end, effective schools may be as much about creating happy schools as they are about enforcing standards. Maybe everyone does not need to learn the same thing.
Broadening and Building in the Schools: APP Supports Learning
According to Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues, unlike negative emotions which call up specific actions, e.g.: fear-flight or attack, the positive emotions are more broadening, e.g.: contentment-savoring. The social, intellectual and psychological resources that positive emotions build are durable, too. People who experience positive emotion show thought patterns that are flexible, creative, open to new information, and they more readily integrate the new and old. Their cognitive performance is improved, too. I hope you are saying, “Ah, ha!”
Howard Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future and Root-Bernstein’s Sparks of Genius identify the kinds of minds and thinking approaches we need and that education must seek to support. Does the integration of positive psychology research applied to education theory and practical teaching strategies hold the secret to improving education? It’s worth finding out!
Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown. (Added later)
Gardner, H. (2009). Five Minds for the Future. Harvard Business School Press.
Root-Bernstein, M. & Root-Bernstein, R. (2001). Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People. Mariner Books.