Educational “outcomes” & self-organizing (aka living) systems…

Chris Mercogliano, once a long-time teacher at the Albany Free School, gave a talk entitled “Beyond the Brain and the Mind” at the AERO conference in June.┬áHis basic point was that the traditional model of education is based on science that “is so wrong, it couldn’t be any wronger.” He says psychology wanted to be as scientific as physics (one of the folks on my dissertation committee used to say that psychology had “physics envy”). At the time physics was studying closed mechanistic systems, where every action had a predictable reaction. Even observations could be seen to repeat predictably. I’m just using this as my jumping-off point:

Newton may have said that “every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” but we humans are always referring to the living organisms’ capacity to choose their reaction to even the most stressful actions. We talk about the “fight or flight” response. We comfort one another that maybe at first it’s what happens to you, but in the end, it’s how you respond to a happening that really counts. Maybe even in terms of germs, you can notice that people experience different symptoms when they catch a cold.

So the mechanistic cause-and-effect kind of science was never suited to understand living beings. Therefore I don’t believe that measuring a teacher’s quality mainly by her students’ test scores, or using those to determine how much “value” she adds to a school, has much validity at all. Students will hear, attend to, focus on, interpret what goes on in class each in their own way; they will choose how to react to the teacher’s input. They will seek feedback related to their own questions. They will even interpret standardized tests each in their own way.

And a great deal of what will inform students’ interpretations or ability to use information from a teacher may have been put in place well before the teacher ever met the student. Maybe a newer kind of physics, like chaos theory, could help. Most people are familiar with an idea that a butterfly flapping its wings might cause a hurricane elsewhere in the world. Regardless of whether that’s literally true, I think it means that tiny differences in the initial conditions of a changeable system (such as a living being) can produce large variations in the long-term.

I would like to encourage educational policymakers to consider turning their attention to two other prongs: 1. America has large class disparity that needs to be addressed before school; 2. Sometimes “non-standardized” approaches yield greater creativity and innovation. As I have said before, “standards” should just be minimal competency. Fear of failure creates fear of exploration; failure creates children who could grow up to consider themselves “losers” and therefore never try to offer the gifts they have that a test can’t measure. We might all still be using candles if Thomas Edison had stayed in school and learned to fear failure.