Students differ: time to move beyond one-dimensional concept of achievement

This Commentary, in the StarTribune June 9 has now been circulated pretty widely around the country. It's drawn a good deal of favorable response. Clearly it has also distressed some people.

Raising uncomfortable questions does upset people. When action seems urgent, when people think they see the problem and think the goal is clear, they do get impatient with those who call the conventional wisdom into question.

But good decisions come only out of full discussion. Especially in a time of rapid change it is important to ask if we're thinking clearly about the problem, about the goal and about the method for reaching the goal -- especially when the standard-enlightened view is not proving conspicuously successful.

Certainly in our current discussion about learning it is strange to be . . .

  • . . . discussing 'the achievement gap' without defining 'achievement'. Granted that academics -- English and math -- are important, is achievement one-dimensional? Is there no other kind of achievement? If so, then should judgments about student and school success be made on-balance?
  • . . . talking about 'closing the gap' without defining 'gap' and without explaining the concept of 'closing' it. (Why not call it the difference between 'proficient' and current-performance?)

It is relevant questions like these that are not being asked. Or asked enough.

Another question not-being-asked is whether aptitudes matter. Few things are more striking than the absence from the education policy discussion of any discussion of aptitudes. (Go ahead: Raise that question in the discussion!)

Aptitudes are real -- as work over the years by the Ball Foundation has shown. And differ. Some are verbal/conceptual/abstract; some are spatial/visual/tactile.

I remember John Goodlad, the distinguished professor of education most recently at the University of Washington, author of A Place Called School, talking at the University of Minnesota College of Education about his two sons. One could understand a clock if you simply explained to him how a clock worked. The other understood only when he took the clock apart and saw, felt, how it worked.

Both were smart. Their aptitudes were different. They achieved in different ways.

A problem, the Ball Foundation saw over the years, is that education, school, tends to attract adults whose aptitudes are verbal/abstract/conceptual, and that they sometimes define that aptitude as 'smart' and feel those whose aptitudes are spatial/tactile/visual are not-smart. This is a subtle discrimination seldom discussed.

Little by little opinion does seem to be shifting toward broadening the definition of achievement. The so-called "21st-century skills' appear in the bills now under discussion in Congress for revising the basic national education law. The National Research Council, it develops, has been working for five or six years on ways to define and assess these skills: critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, communications. Even among those promoting schools designed to generate high scores on state assessments there is now a visibly growing support for adding other dimensions of achievement.

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Again: Good policy comes out of good thinking, good discussion. So please do have a look at... think about... this Commentary. Tell us what you think are the answers to the questions it raises. That's what will move this discussion ahead.

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