Embodied learning

How to prevent another disastrous reformation of the American public education system

Theo Dawson

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Reform is in the air! It seems like the American educational pendulum is beginning to swing from a primary focus on academic content to an increased focus on skill. Critical thinking, social skills, grit, mindset, and other trending skills and competencies are already being taught alongside math, history, literature, and physics.

There is a problem with the way these skills tend to be taught. Take, for example, critical thinking. American schools began offering critical thinking programs in earnest around the turn of the century and continue to do so. I know this because virtually all of the thousands of college students who have taken Lectica’s LRJA (Lectical Reflective Judgment Assessment) during the last 15 years have used identical critical thinking terminology when asked how they would go about evaluating contradictory information. Importantly, although they knew the language of critical thinking, few of these students demonstrated useful critical thinking skills. In other words, they clearly knew something about what they were supposed to do as critical thinkers, but did not, on the whole, demonstrate that they knew how to do it. (This keeps me up at night, especially when the test-takers are preparing for high-risk or high-responsibility occupations.)

During Covid, when so many spoke of “conducting my own research,” our Lectical Analysts were not terribly surprised. We knew from scoring LRJAs that most Americans had probably been taught rules for conducting research in K-12 or college critical thinking programs. They probably assumed that passing their critical thinking tests meant they were competent researchers.

Today, there is a great deal of talk about reforming the U.S. educational system by putting more emphasis on skills. The decades-old skills vs. content debate has increased awareness of the importance of skills, so more skills are being plugged into existing curricula. Just like critical thinking.

This is concerning because these skills, like critical thinking skills, are primarily taught as constructs—processes with correct steps and practices. Students are tested for their (1) knowledge of the steps and (2) definitions of the practices. Teaching skills in this way—for correctness—is emblematic of an educational system stuck in correctness.

Because the current educational system leans heavily toward correctness, it has great difficulty accommodating skills. This leads us to the first of five fundamental recommendations for avoiding another disastrous reformation of the American educational system:

  1. Do not imagine that the current system can be improved by simply tinkering with it. It is built upon an outdated and dangerous—for humanity—model of knowledge and learning that prioritizes correctness over competence.
  2. Begin any discussion of educational reform by asking what we are educating for—what kind of world, what kind of political system, what kind of economy, what kind of citizens, what kind of lives?
  3. Consider what’s coming. Humans are meaning-makers who thrive best when there is something attainable to strive for. We also do better when we have an earned sense of competence, healthy relationships, and the opportunity to engage in meaningful activities. As societies, we should build educational systems that equip students with the skills, knowledge, capabilities, values, and dispositions they will need to find satisfaction and meaning in their world—our warming Crispr AI world.
  4. Don’t bother trying to predetermine which specific knowledge will be most useful to students. We are living in a time of change and challenge. Historical sources of employment and income are rapidly morphing or disappearing. We cannot know which specific knowledge will be most useful in the future. Consequently, we’re likely to be better off if we focus on supporting the development of competent humans with robust, healthy, and agile minds and the skills required to learn and adapt continually during their lifetimes.
  5. Get real about human potential and limitations. We are not all the same. It is unethical to pretend that we are. We are born with different minds & bodies. We have different interests & talents. We learn at different rates. The designers of our current public education system tried to level the educational playing field by ensuring that all American children would learn the same content at the same pace. Unfortunately, a truly level playing field is impossible under these conditions. In fact, our current national and state standards systematically disadvantage every student who is unable to learn effectively at the required pace. (According to Harvard professor Dr. Kurt Fischer, that would be about 80% of students. Our research suggests this percentage may be higher. To level the playing field, we must allow every child to grow optimally at per own pace.

Thinking through the first 5 recommendations in light of my own understanding of learning and development leads me to 13 more specific recommendations.

  1. Stop using age as a primary grouping variable. There is a 5–7 year developmental difference between students of the same age in any given classroom. Interest and capability are more important than age.
  2. Stop pretending that tests of correctness are tests of competence. They are not. This matters not only because metrics drive instruction, but also because metrics focused on correctness create the illusion that the people who pass them are competent when they are not.
  3. Never, never, never treat skills or emergent capacities as directly teachable constructs. If there is a capacity you’d like to cultivate, don’t teach about it. Instead, create the conditions for its development.
  4. Ensure that learners spend most of their learning time operating on knowledge & ideas—i.e., putting them to work. Our mental networks develop more robustly when we operate on knowledge than they do when we memorize it. Much more robustly.
  5. Expose children to all areas of knowledge & work. Do not valorize some occupations over others. College is NOT appropriate for everyone. In fact, since most college learning is now focused on correctness, most college learning isn’t much good for anyone.
  6. Let learners make choices. All areas of knowledge and work afford opportunities for developing fundamental skills for life and citizenship. Set up the educational system to leverage those opportunities.
  7. Don’t valorize some skills over others. Valorize the range, scope, and quality of skills instead.
  8. Cultivate learners’ interpersonal skills by nurturing skills for cooperative learning and play, within and across age groups, throughout schooling.
  9. Ensure that every child learns in per own “Goldilocks Zone,” where the level of challenge is “just right.” This, by itself, will yield citizens who are happier and more trustful of our institutions.
  10. Ensure that all learners have opportunities to work and play with others who share their interests & capabilities—not all of the time, but often enough that students who are outliers have a genuine opportunity to benefit from peer relationships.
  11. Don’t wait for change from the top. Start working with tools and creating environments that make it easy for existing educators to alter their current approach—to go from teaching about stuff to cultivating competence.
  12. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Study existing examples of educational programs that successfully create conditions for optimal development. (Montessori Schools, Rainbow Community School, and other schools with integrated competence-focused curricula). Leverage existing tools designed to support optimal learning, like Lectical Assessments and micro-VCoLing.
  13. Go ahead and create a system based on existing high-quality programs, but leave room for variation and ongoing (safe) experimentation. All systems in a rapidly changing world should be designed to evolve in response to novelty and change.

Postscript: The rationale for each one of the points I’ve made here requires at least one chapter in a fat book. Without abundant evidence and argument, I don’t expect readers to accept these proclamations. So, think of this as the outline for a book. And look out for summaries of the chapters in future posts.

ViP info | ViP rationale

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Theo Dawson

Award-winning educator, scholar, & consultant, Dr. Theo Dawson, discusses a wide range of topics related to learning and development.