Sunday, February 5, 2012


Quickly, without consulting Google, define “learning” in a few words.

If you find the question disconcerting, provoking the protest that it isn’t that simple, consider; the answer is not being able to regurgitate the memorized responses to 30 or more out of 50 multiple choice questions based on reductionist fragments of information or simplistic relationships taken out of context.  This is now supposed to be the learning coin of the K-12 realm, driving firing teachers, killing schools, and prepping the nation’s children to make better decisions.

Defining Learning and the Problem

Here is a definition expanded combining multiple sources:  “Learning is acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information.”  But “…if we are to say that learning has taken place, experience should have been used in some way.  Conditioning may result in a change in behavior but the change may not involve drawing upon experience to generate new knowledge…or ways in which people 'understand, or experience, or conceptualize the world around them’…”

If that seems to complicate the issue, courtesy of Wikipedia, consider what happens when the single concept, learning, is dissected to find a practical way to study and apply the process or its products.  Learning can be:
  • Simple non-associative learning
  • Habituation
  • Sensitization
  • Associative learning
  • Classical conditioning
  • Imprinting
  • Observational learning
  • Play
  • Enculturation
  • Episodic learning
  • Multimedia learning
  • E-learning and augmented learning
  • Rote learning
  • Meaningful learning
  • Informal learning
  • Formal learning
  • Non-formal learning
  • Non-formal learning and combined approaches
  • Tangential learning
  • Dialogic learning
  • Team learning
  •  Organizational learning

The above are behavioral concepts in their own right, to distinguish them from the evolving disciplines of neural biology and psychology, exploring the brain chemistry and physiology of learning.  Somewhere down the road there may emerge hybrid concepts of learning representing the marriage of the above conceptual schemes with neural processes.  Recent research reported indicates that using brain activity sensing technology, unspoken words and thoughts can be predicted, in an elemental way mind reading.

In sum, learning has been described as both product and process; the hypothesis here is that it is both – a process, for resolving extant meaning and creating new meaning, that is the product of a series of processes.  The fairly obvious sequel is a bald question:  Just how and why has K-12 reform – that should embody all of the above nuances of learning and more – been reduced to sledgehammer administration of the most simplistic form of testing alleged to now be the lingua franca of US learning? 

Answering the question may be as complex as understanding real learning, but it may reflect our society’s attention span that makes the life cycle of some insects appear glacial, or the profound decades-long silence of a failing institution – our alleged higher education schools of education, or the historical quest for power by US teachers’ unions, or corporate greed by those who have lobbied to become the oligopoly supplying standardized testing, or the extremism – both liberal and conservative – that values ideology over the true education of the nation’s children, or the corruption of in-school values that has overtaken a nation that bet on “local control of K-12 education."

What constitutes real K-12 "reform?"  Is it the simple-minded notion that annually firing the bottom 5-10 percent of teachers will raise the level of all standardized test scores, or the equally simple-minded assumption that standardized tests equal learning, or that the difference between good and not so good schools is a product of using a "to do" list?

Small wonder that the intellectually lazy are in constant search of that magic “silver bullet” that will transform a half-century of public K-12 diminution of learning.  The next couple thousand words or so hardly offer a fix for the gnarly puzzle that our nation has now allowed, or abetted, but there are some normative processes that in an ideal world could improve K-12 in the trenches, by engaging solutions that bridge trenches.

Processes Versus Institutions

The subsequent ideas veer away from changes in K-12 structure, already made complex and volatile because of the promotion of charter schools.  That changing mix of America's K-12 schools is destined to be an issue, for the concept of a charter, tapping public education tax funds, bypassing teachers' unions, with diverse oversight opens the door to profits over education and values that are not transparent.  But the thrust here is learning productivity.

Ideas below involve models for institutional cooperation, but otherwise focus on understanding what happens in US classrooms.  Following is the proposed trinity of needed K-12 knowledge and strategy change:  Characterization of schools; discovering what excels; measuring outcomes.  The fourth factor or capstone is the assumed engine of K-12 teacher/teaching delivery, our MIA university schools of education.

Characterization of Schools

We know less about the structure and operations of roughly 100,000 K-12 schools than we know from the US decennial census the particulars of the demographic makeup of our smallest incorporated communities.  The reasons candidly are twofold.

First, local control has been misinterpreted to mean local imperialism. Across the US there are K-12 systems that will lie and even refuse to honor state open records acts to deflect stakeholder and even parental attempts to figure out what their children are being taught, how, by whom, or how they are being indoctrinated.  Schools’ locked doors appear increasingly in place less to assuage paranoia about physical security than to keep what goes on inside, inside or censored.

Part of this has been influenced by how K-12 funding has changed, with states’ reduction in school funding, pushing the funding burden onto local property and income tax levies. Schools are loathe to share any information that might be grist for taxpayer revolts over perpetual levies, or that might contradict the elaborate consultancy and hype efforts to reel in levies by any means possible.  This is the dirty little secret that has become habitual among local school boards that lack the knowledge or integrity to think beyond the simplest dimensions of systems they are supposed to oversee.

Another part is defensive, or hubris, the belief that only the educationally anointed are capable of prescribing how K-12 education should be executed and what it should contain.  This, in turn, is the product of the attitudes inculcated in US schools of education, the belief that control, of the classroom, and of all of the mechanisms of learning need to be manipulated by a system. Loss of that absolute control has been perversely depicted as diminishing performance, rather that seen as a means of creating a learning community and collaborative educational problem solving.  Indeed, it is arguable that education for K-12 education is at least a quarter century behind any contemporary view of how organizations and organizational behavior have evolved.

The first proposal is based on the belief that organizational transparency trumps secrecy. It is that there be a national census of US K-12 schools, gathering comprehensive data about systems' constituents, administrators, teachers, students, vendors, as well as about all operations of a school.  That spans funding, budgeting, compensation, training of resources, teaching processes, curricula, technology, class contents and rubrics, testing results; in short, based on a taxonomy of school variables to be developed, a comprehensive look, at least once as a baseline, at all US K-12 schools using the same measurements.

Whether the census should be periodic is an open question.  The key point is that we possess no uniform baseline for projecting change from any initiatives superimposed on America's K-12 schools.  The task is not only practical with state consent, but the scale is hardly daunting; the census of fewer than the roughly one tenth of one percent of the entities covered in the US population census.

Results would enable large scale data mining that should have been the precursor to the untested and naive testing that has permeated NCLB.  At core, the database would serve as a platform for genuine research on school performance, enabling findings to be associated with descriptive or classification parameters and extrapolated to comparable school sub-populations.

Discovering What Excels

Accustomed to the research philosophies practiced over many decades in both the academic and business research arenas, the dearth of defensible and projectable research from education on what actually functions in creating learning in the classroom and beyond was both unexpected and pejorative of the K-12 educational community.  Searching over two decades of writing about classroom strategies and tactics, it was deflating to see how few properly designed and randomized experiments have actually been reported to assess the relative effectiveness of competing teaching/learning methods.  This is in a profession that has eschewed content, and bet the store on methods deduced from last century’s, and even the prior century’s academic deduction.  Education in the US has followed the historical lead of legitimate education scholars, but their imaginary depictions of neural processes and learning can now be replaced by neural science.

The second proposal is for a national level, but locally executed year or more of aggressive K-12 classroom experiments to test what passes as accepted classroom method based on deductive reasoning of over a half century, to test defender-challenger methods in the classroom to achieve better learning performance, to test how integrated digital technologies perform in the classroom or enhance learning outside the classroom, and to test means to assess teacher performance via better protocols than the bizarre “value-added based on standardized testing” (or VAM) prescriptions being demanded by "corporate reform" advocates.

Needed to implement something like the above is more conceptual taxonomic work on learning method options going beyond, for example, Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Examples include the “flipped classroom” being tried across the US but without the experimental controls to reach projectable conclusions.  Another ad hoc experiment lacking controls is reported elimination of seat-time staging, highly creative, but lacking research controls.  One of the few systematic experiments reported in any detail in a search for recent K-12 trials was a trial with 9-12 learning using debate versus extensive in-class writing; the debate model proved more effective in subsequent testing, but the trial proper was a naïve test-control design, lacking random assignment, or any other control for competing explanatory factors.

From the point of view of technical capability, there are no barriers to replacing the simple-minded assumptions of NCLB testing with valid learning assessments.  Practically, there are.  Unfortunately, a first one is the paucity of research competence of most K-12 administrators and teachers that has undoubtedly contributed to the superimposition of present testing.

Other barriers include the prequel to the above, K-12 educator basic awareness of the need for putting methods to test – a school’s culture – and the pragmatic issue of developing classroom and student subjects for testing.  The latter spans both the need for test options that do not put students at risk of being in deficient learning settings as controls or used as placebos, and having group test opportunities.

A solution to the above would mean a transition from the common “we are an island” mentalities of local systems.  That could be overcome by building voluntary collaborative testing consortia around either area or regional systems, or via a clearing-house among systems throughout the US.  The point is creating multiple but comparable classroom settings and groups (a raison d’etre for the proposed census) that could be the basis for randomly assigned alternative learning treatments using identical and agreed protocols.  This envisions a level of collaborative learning that has not historically characterized US public education, but as public education is being methodically attacked and shunted aside by a combination of ideology, ignorance, and charters, the present might be a propitious time to float the strategy.

Measuring Outcomes

This is not an anti-testing screed; of course we need ways to assess genuine learning outcomes!  On the contrary the argument is that more testing is likely needed, but 180 degrees from the present “corporate reform” tests driving NCLB, RttT, and now Waivers, an onerous Duncan and USDOE fraud.  A much earlier SQUINTS surveyed the intricacies of K-12 testing, not repeated here.  The core of the present argument is that, one, a level of magnitude more meaningful K-12 testing is needed, and two, the process needs to return to an earlier time when the logic of that testing was not punitive, but diagnostic, and what is now given the fancier designation, formative assessment.

We also need creative longitudinal work to measure the strategic effects of a stream of learning.  We don’t need the recent media-hyped academic and macro fishing expedition for attribution to teachers of decade or more downstream effects compared to historical standardized tests and cross-sectional data, politically spun, and sans “competing explanations” from the scientist’s tool kit, no matter how novel the design. 

Among many other measures of what constitutes good instruction, there needs to be recognition of those learning outcomes in personal performance assessments.  But even simple common sense, and even if the reader just emerged from hibernation, the present proposed mechanics of assessing all teachers based on the primitive tests of a few seat time classes, and selective subjects, stands out as either demagoguery of the first order, or stupidity.  Are these advocates of that form of testing drinking the same Kool-Aid as Arne Duncan, or also positioning their futures to join one of the corporate test oligopoly?

Texas is not normally perceived as a fountain of K-12 education wisdom, however, its Republican education chief recently provided a scathing assessment of present K-12 standardized testing overkill; worth accessing.

Harvard education psychology professor Howard Gardner, author of the concept of “multiple intelligences,” over two decades ago demonstrated alternative testing protocols that could tap real learning and differentiate types of learning.  In the interim, developments in the testing actually employed in K-12 stagnated, and even prior to the drum beat of NCLB.  But also in the interim, neural science, digital gaming and simulation, and even AI (artificial intelligence) have suggested sophisticated platforms and evidence-based methods for testing learning.

Central to improving testing for K-12, and its urgency are multiple premises.  One is differentiating information from knowledge:  While lacking full agreement among scientists and philosophers, there is general consensus that information and data are not knowledge, and that they become knowledge only when assimilated by the learner and merged with conceptual schemes and models that give them applicable meaning.  Another is that “information” in our societies is allegedly doubling roughly every 18 months.  Using testing of recalled information or data, rather than evaluation of knowledge created and capable of recall to think critically, is analogous to sampling and quantifying some molecules from your steak to assess its sizzle and gastronomic result.  Sure, they are related, but the number doesn’t have a lot of flavor.

There is virtually nothing that stands in the way of developing better measures of learning, both formative, and summative when needed, except the dogmatism that has permeated public K-12 choices, and reflected in its own practice, the dearth of what that genre is supposed to be imparting to the nation’s children and adolescents, the capacity to think, solve problems, and create.

The Fourth Factor – Delivering Teachers

Laying a foundation for this last proposal is not as complex as it appears – simply take a hard look at what is being peddled by “Teach for America,” and the teacher recruiting program of the USDOE recently outsourced and gifted to Microsoft.  Their messages:  Look to US schools of education for future teachers?  “Fuhgeddaboudit.”

Some charters are doing just that, based on the USDOE’s and Mr. Obama’s cuddling up to those programs and the belief that the US is better off simply bypassing a century of university education for K-12 education.  That may in fact seem legitimate contemporarily, based on US schools of education literally going to ground for several decades:  Creating little; perpetuating liberal digressions from learning; practicing dogmatism; taking no responsibility for the disaster of public K-12 they have created by failing to either do usable research on learning, or modify entrance requirements, or modify their curricula to reflect the critiques of teaching methods accumulating for decades.

The only, and modest defense of the cowardice and parochialism demonstrated by most of the nation’s schools of education is that to reform them means also addressing reform of the nation’s universities.  That is a major constraint and story for another day, but a balanced review of books critiquing US colleges and universities, by Stanley Grafton, Princeton professor of history, is enlightening reading and linked here

“Another day” for K-12, however, is sooner than one might wish. It is asserted that by the end of the decade the US will likely lose from retirement almost 30 percent of its K-12 teachers; more if the “value-added” slaughter of teachers is permitted to widen.   Given the disincentives to enter the profession, and the "opportunity" to face assault from many directions, that deficit in teachers will be filled…how?

This last proposal reflects both the TFA strategy, but also preservation of our university schools of education.  It proposes:  Eliminate all undergraduate degree work in education, offering only a masters degree for teacher tracks; require for admission to that program satisfactory BA or BS work in a content field that is aligned with the teaching goal; require that masters in education to be certified to teach in any US K-12 program; differentiate the required bachelors level work to specify the fields acceptable for teacher tracks into K-5 or other early education, versus 7-8 and 9-12; mention only, because systems are already in place, mentoring of new teachers by master teachers; and reform the EdD for those seeking K-12 administrative certification to require at least half of that work in public administration or business administration, beefing-up dissertation requirements to reflect contemporary K-12 needs.

Finally, require K-12 administrators to serve in a graduated internship program before certification for a principal’s or superintendent’s assignment is allowed, and be periodically re-certified by formal hearing and performance review.  An argument for this is that those accountable for the K-12 education of the nation's children should be subject to at least as rigorous regular assessment and updating as your local building inspector, contemporary auto mechanic, or IT vendor.

Reform Roadblocks

Postscripts, because these reforms constitute other chapters, are:  One, changing the game for oversight of our K-12 schools; two, US curricular reform; and three, reform of the US Department of Education (USDOE).


School oversight presents two faces, influenced by Pollyanna syndrome and a venal reform tactic.  Local school boards, stridently demanding local control, are frequently clueless how to employ it.  They are also virtually never mentioned in the present reform ground game of beating up America’s public K-12 teachers.  Yet they may do more damage to US K-12 education than a host of other factors.  The oversight is arguably intentional by the "corporate reform" movement; avoid offending anyone that can’t be sanctioned by a system but might have the clout to challenge “corporate reform.” How the US/states might balance achieving competent oversight, versus tradeoffs to local control of its systems, may be an even greater challenge than fishing Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee out of the national public K-12 stew.

The second face of need for K-12 oversight change is reflected in the recent British finding that about one-quarter of its equivalent school administration should be given the boot.  The US proportion may be even higher because of the confused modes of K-12 system bureaucrat accountability, versus Britain's use of a "school inspector system" that produces regular review or visitation by intellectually competent and ethical inspectors.  Discounting failed school board control, US practice relies on politically motivated state departments and boards of education, or county superintendent positions that are frequently disguised unemployment for discredited or double-dipping former system administrators.  A fix might be employing the British experience -- but still respecting state control of education -- a state-by-state system of school inspectors or visitors, protected from political or educational bureaucratic self-interest, chosen by a state's supreme court, and reporting to a state's inspector general.

K-12 Curricula

Curricular reform is also central to K-12 reform, but it is also a threat to the present standardized testing mantra because it might open the door to debates about what constitutes learning.  Additionally, the issue is major, with the areas of knowledge representative of real K-12 education scattered across myriad professional bodies, some competing for influence, as well as fierce resistance to national standards for what is to be universally learned if it can even be determined.

However, the notion that knowledge in Texas, is different from knowledge in Ohio, is different from knowledge in Colorado, is different from knowledge in London, is different from knowledge in Finland, etc., etc., beggars common sense.  Those Finnish neurons have little tags that say, can’t be used anywhere else in the world?  State parochialism or political/religious extremism that tries to assert that argument is simply seeking to ideologically block learning that has irrefutable roots in science, or it is code for attacking some federalism that needs to be elected to restore American educational excellence in not just the nation, but in “a world that is flat.”  A very large topic, for another day.


Former President Reagan was disappointed his blue ribbon commission (ANAR) didn't recommend abolishing it; most of the present extreme political right wing and some presidential candidates want to either abolish it or burn it down; and even those slightly left of the latter position want to de-fund it.

But in fact, USDOE reform is not terribly complicated, given that in its trenches and invisible cubicles there is competent and dedicated educational expertise producing solid research on what actually works in K-12: Generate a K-12 neuron infusion for Mr. Obama, and timely dismissal of Arne Duncan as US Secretary of Education, while there is still a chance of preserving American K-12 public education and learning that doesn't metaphorically mimic playing with intellectual LEGOs.

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