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Beware of Movements

James Alexander, Ph.D.
Asst. Prof. of Elem. Educ.
Kentucky Wesleyan College


A middle grades science teacher was describing a recent planning meeting.  Someone mentioned an activity they had done in the past, which was highly successful and much enjoyed by students. However, it was decided that the activity could not be done because it did not reflect the content of THE TEST.

I was introducing a new student teacher to the cooperating teacher. Both were concerned about expectations for student teaching.  I explained that we liked to see a few well thought out thematic units.  The cooperating teacher agreed that that would be nice, but that THE TEST left little room for such “frills.”

THE TEST has become the conservative’s answer as to how to “fix” the educational system. That is a frightening thought. A clergyperson wrote the following to me:  "I personally have an aversion to THE TEST!  When I was rector of the parish, I officiated at the funeral of 9 year old who blew his brains out, because of the TEST!  The last words anyone heard him speak were to his teacher as he left school, "I hope I did well on the test."  He got off the bus went into the house and got a shot gun and mortally wounded himself.  He had been anxious about the test all week.  Who wouldn't be with teachers telling young children that the whole school, salaries, etc. depends on the TEST?
James, I am still angry about the loss of his life some 11 years later.  I keep his picture on my bookshelf in the office.

Diane Ravitch’s popular book, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform, is a cry against what she sees as wishy-washy, touchy-feely nonsense and a beckoning to, what she sees as higher standards, traditional approaches, and accountability.  Ravitch especially warns us to beware of anything resembling a movement.  She views most (non-conservative) movements as “warmed over” liberalism in disguise.

The book is clearly written from a conservative, “Back to Basics” perspective.  And it is here that the problem lies.  Ravitch merely pits her conservative philosophy (she has become a real darling of the conservatives) against the philosophy of others.  And, philosophy is pretty difficult to prove, since it deals with opinion and values.  Educational movements come and go.  However, we are now on the verge of something entirely different — if we will only recognize it for it truly is.  Not a movement, but a revolution.  It is a revolution based on science that has great promise of offering true lasting reform.

This revolution is a revolution based on how people learn.  This revolution is coming from the field of neuroscience, based on standard scientific procedures and biology.  Although all of the educational implications of new scientific discoveries are not clear, they are becoming increasingly more so.  Within the last several years it has been discovered actual physical changes take place in the brains of organisms placed in enriched environments.  Environments where children are free to explore and discover knowledge are far superior to hours of worksheets, lectures, and useless rote knowledge.

New knowledge is emerging on the importance of biology and environment that help us understand the roots of violence and aggression in our society and schools and the effect of these influences on children.  The implications of such concepts as relaxed alertness and the effects of fear and anxiety—such as associated with THE TEST-- are becoming increasingly clear.  Even formerly mysterious processes such as personal identity, motivation, and memory are yielding to investigation.

We now know the importance of a print-rich, experience rich environment for preschoolers.  Windows of opportunity abound for various connections to be made and learning to occur, but these windows get increasing harder to open if they are missed.  School environments must be structured for enrichment, and children must be encouraged to investigate.

It turns out that emotions may be the key to the whole educational endeavor.  Emotional stress “hijacks” the higher order thinking processes.  Even bearing in mind there is a very great deal about neurological functioning and emotions that scientist have yet to uncover, much practical advice concerning the learning climate has been implied by research.  Research in the social sciences and cognitive psychology has produced an entire literature concerning “best practice.”  Best practice has been described by Marzano (2001) and others and is the fruit of meta-analyses of studies with conclusions so definite that they are undeniable.

All of this information has been accumulating for years.  But the conservatives simply seem to ignore it and recommend THE TEST.  We need a new field that might be called “neuro-education” that spends its effort in exploring the learning process as opposed to devoting countless hours creating and revising core content and perfecting THE TEST.  As an education professor who must deal with state structures that promote THE TEST, I assure the reader that there is a certain fear involved in even mentioning another way.  It appears now that the philosophy of THE TEST has won the day. Teachers, and many of them good ones, are afraid to speak out.  It is not a popular position to “buck the system that holds all of the cards.  So, they sigh, remember their love for children, and go about trying to be true to themselves and their students and live in the face of the pressure of THE TEST.