In an August 31 post to (THE WASHINGTON POST) “The Answer Sheet,” on the alleged “Common Core,” educator Marion Brady peripherally raised a telling question: How is “academic rigor” defined de facto by present public K-12 reform, versus how it should be defined to support US public K-12 education?
Brady’s post zeroed in on the corporately-influenced notion that rigor demands indiscriminate toughness, a no excuses view of classroom achievement, throw the baby out with the bathwater if necessary to bring those recalcitrant to slothful students to heel, and bring those squishy teachers to a military state of readiness to test, drill, retest, repeat, or perish. Heil to the testing bottom line, the only real metric that matters; as this treatment unfolds the slavish commitment to a single destructive metric will become an icon of our reformers.
His list of assumed qualities of rigor as demanded of present reform went on, terminating with the heroic notion that the ultimate goal is tightening those curricular screws to transplant by whatever it takes, memory mastery of our elegant understanding of all things relegated to the status of K-12 knowledge – the alleged “Common Core” – except that understanding is not terribly elegant at all and riddled with our society’s manifest lack of replicable knowledge.
True confession: In a prior career many of the above caveats and processes were personally advocated and practiced; but applied to turning out mechanical and electronic products, to providing customer service for “stuff,” even to some of the more mechanical business and product development functions. That form of quality assurance is now almost universally applied in our advanced economy to the production of every physical product, assembly, program, nanoparticle, food, and even live animals. Did they work where human performance and creativity were what drove organizational success, organizational learning, and success in a higher education environment? To put it mildly, not so much. To put it not mildly at all, those protocols as applicable to human performance allegedly went out with the adoption of virtually every contemporary concept of professional management and emerging neural science. They don’t even work as reliable mediators of human performance in military environments. They are not, sustainably, learning.
So why is this demagoguery and a naive view of metrics being virtually crammed down the throats of public K-12’s students and real educators, locally applied by school administration acting out of ignorance about learning, or wallowing in dogmatism, or hypocritically ignoring rigor they may actually comprehend if they were educated outside of most schools of education?
What should educational and intellectual rigor feature? The concept is multidimensional and still more qualitative than quantifiable. Rigor of explanation applied to some body of observations, information, theories, hypotheses, behaviors, and then measurement with increasing structure or precision of quantification, needs to embrace the subject matter itself, attributes of the one purporting knowledge, the methods of discovering, cataloging and verifying knowledge, and recognition that much of what we know is probably wrong and will continue so into this century. No one has created an index of knowledge change, but should. The rate of turnover in our alleged understanding of phenomena is high, and in most places still doesn’t possess enough specificity to deduce a trajectory for closing in on perfect and replicable explanation.
Some determinants of intellectual rigor:
- Humility; awareness that virtually everything we think we know is still subject to modification, even our concepts of matter and gravity and time. Confidence but being circumspect about what we know; more importantly, acknowledging what we don't know with the integrity to try to erase the deficits.
- Curiosity; the innate or developed capacity to question even when evidence seems irrefutable; fascination with rather than fear of the unknown.
- The capacity to hold simultaneously opposing views about any phenomenon, or its reciprocal, the capacity to reject dogmatism in holding beliefs.
- Possession of the presently essential tools of explanation – scientific method, probabilistic explanation, experimental reasoning, a systems view of complexity, grasp of historical method, a language (contemporarily math) that enables generally unambiguous expression of propositions, and the psychological and cultural motivation to search beyond easy answers. In our present civilization that implies the application of the misplaced “toughness” of corporate reform, to by one model, the Edisonian capacity to experiment until you reach answers. In another model of exploration, that toughness alludes to having the courage and dedication to pursue a course of answers even in the face of reference group denial or ridicule.
- Being able to admit error, that wrong conclusions and choices are not surrogates for loss of personal self-worth or esteem, and the tenacity to continue to seek answers when they aren’t a lay down or easily produced.
- The notion of intellectual sovereignty, that one’s views and propositions can come from one’s own intellectual processes, and need not be seeded or approved to justify pursuit. There is a corollary, that simultaneously, rigor is defined in the capacity to acknowledge that one’s own ideas may be flawed, and that a group’s or others’ ideas may offer better solutions.
- The concept of “getting off easy” meanders through the rhetoric of present K-12 reform, implying one has to assume that we need to see the sweat (or fear) poring from both students and teachers as verification of learning accomplishment? We need to see failure as the intervening variable that connotes success. As wiser heads than the corporate reform movement have asserted, failure handled as learning leads to another and more sophisticated level of learning. In parallel, one of the properties of true cognitive accomplishment is ultimately the ease with which ideas can emerge where one understands a phenomenon. In another time the concept of master and apprentice, and the complex process that saw the former emerge from the latter, may have been a better model of learning than the entire cobbled up and dystopian version of present reform; testing, VAM, penalty, compete or disappear, further relying on a naïve version of the concept that markets can work directly with any precision in mediating human accomplishment.
- Terminally, recognition that the state of our civilization currently makes the language of metrics the gold standard for testing proof of propositions and observations along with that measurement keyed to experimental modeling or replication. While this sounds like an endorsement of standardized tests it is not. The metrics implied here represent a level of sophistication of modeling that currently has no counterpart in testing K-12 memory of knowledge subassemblies or disconnected parts, or even simplistic application of alleged knowledge bits. As the most recent brain research has demonstrated, findings about how neural processes occur refute the idea that they are simply analogues of digital modeling. Unfortunately, our reform movement rather than employing creativity and even present neural science to devise genuine tests of higher order thinking, and problem solving expertise, has blundered through an egregious application of testing logic corrupted by corporate control arrogance and profit-seeking.
The so-called corporate reform movement is a disgusting and distorted replicate or progeny of now equally distorted American school of business thinking and protocols. What was once a viable learning environment for many of America’s decision makers, has become a tracked, intellectually distorted academic enterprise competing with America’s current schools of education for irrelevance. At some point last century, America’s schools of business, putting endowments and narrowly conceived business sycophancy ahead of good academic reasoning, narrowed their intellectual perspective, and pronounced shareholder value as the only relevant metric for corporate performance, helping to set in motion the corrupt organizational model American financial institutions and many corporations have become.
It is massively ironic, that the slice of corporate America driving and funding alleged K-12 reform has demonstrated the most vacuous rigor imaginable – adopting an almost (tragically) laughable model for reforming our K-12 public schools and now poking around US higher education – while intrinsically demonstrating in their own governance lack of the very rigor so self-righteously pronounced as their goal for US public K-12.