Friday, September 11, 2009

Rethinking Learning

Sam Chaltain
Forum for Education and Democracy, National Director

Today, as young people across the country head back to school, the rest of us would be wise to heed the words of our former president by asking ourselves, our neighbors and our elected officials a simple question:

“Is our children learning?”

The answer, of course, may depend largely on where you live. But what troubles me more than that basic lack of fairness is that our entire public education system isn’t even being asked to measure whether or not young people are learning – only whether they are demonstrating progress on basic-skills standardized tests in 3rd and 8th grade reading and math.

As everyone knows, learning involves more than basic skills and regurgitating information. It requires higher-order skills and the capacity to digest, make sense of, and apply what we’ve been taught.


Why, then, are we allowing well-intentioned policymakers to unintentionally discourage schools from doing those essential things? Why are we judging whether schools are successes or failures based solely on these insufficient numbers? And why are we tolerating a national culture of testing, when we all know from personal experience that what we need is a national culture of learning?

We can do better.

We can have schools in every neighborhood that teach children both basic- and higher-order skills, that allow creativity and innovation to flourish, and that lead all children to discover how to fully and effectively participate in our economy and democracy.

Before that can happen, however, we need to start having a different conversation. We need to restore the focus of public education reform to its rightful place – on learning, and on the core conditions that best support it.

To help bring about this subtle shift of thinking, a coalition of individuals, education advocates, civil rights leaders and philanthropic organizations has launched the Rethink Learning Now campaign with a simple goal – to ask people to reflect on what they already know to be true about powerful learning, to share those personal stories, and then to use that collective wisdom to help the country better understand what a healthy, high-functioning learning environment actually looks like.

Already, the campaign has collected a diverse set of stories – from citizens to Senators to the Secretary of Education himself – and begun outlining a core set of essential conditions for schools to cultivate.

- Angela V. from Texas wrote about her junior year of high school, when a new teacher demanded more of her than she knew she was capable of. “My family, church, and community imbued me with a strong, positive sense of self,” she writes. “Where I was lacking, however, was with respect to my academic self-esteem.”

- Jamal F. from California shared memories of long afternoon walks as a young boy with his grandfather. “We cannot think that we need to replicate in public schools the level of understanding and the personal connection between a boy and his grandfather,” he offers. “But we can identify conditions that made this learning experience meaningful and attempt to foster them in our schools.”

- And Arne D. from Chicago – yes, that Arne D. from Chicago – talked about spending time in his mother’s after school tutoring program on the South Side of Chicago. “Everyone was challenged to do their best, every single day,” he wrote. “It was the ultimate in high expectations, both for individuals and the group as a whole.”

In the weeks and months ahead, thousands of other people across the country will share their own stories. As the number of stories grows over time, we’ll all see, in real-time, which attributes appear most often across such a diverse set of experiences. And as that list takes shape, we’ll all be better equipped to hold ourselves, our lawmakers and our local communities more accountable to implementing policies that are based more clearly on what young people need in order to thrive – and stay – in school, and not just on what is easiest to quantitatively measure.

Editor’s Note: Sam Chaltain is the National Director of the Forum for Education and Democracy, a DC-based education “action tank.” His next book, “American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community,” will be released in October 2009.
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