One of the ways in which we think about teaching and learning is to ask what do we want our students to learn. Although this is a great question, the answers that teachers and schools choose often lead to standardized curriculum, with standardized textbooks, assessments and the resulting outcome of rote learning. Why they choose this standardization of education is also wrapped up in the accountability for a common core curriculum. And for all the advantages that standardization conveys—such as lower cost textbooks because everyone is using the same textbook—the disadvantages can be summed up in characteristics of the old way of doing business in the industrial revolution: The factory-model school.
Teaching to the Test
The bottom-line in factory model schools is to turn out students who are educated with the same content and skills. But you can see the disagreements starting when you compare the content and skills in high school math and what students will need when they arrive in the work place. Or take the types of literature that are taught in high school english classes and the disconnect between reading Shakespeare and what they will read and understand in the work place. The standardized testing of these two subjects holds students accountable for memorizing and recalling what could be criticized as irrelevant curriculum. The feeling of some students after they get through this is what is the point, except, to memorize their assigned reading and spit that back on the test.
The Discipline of Learning
All levels of our education system—primary, secondary, and tertiary (roughly K-8, 9-12, 13-16)—hope to forge good thinking in their classrooms. Each classroom is organized around a series of learning goals that are determined by standards inside of disciplines. For example, in the class of English, the standard may be to achieve a spelling goal in the primary level, create a critical essay in the secondary level, or form and defend a thesis at the tertiary level. For the last 1000 years, the height of learning a discipline has taken place at the university or tertiary level, but the other two levels also emulate the discipline of thinking in a subject. It is widely agreed upon that the discipline of learning a subject is not just memorization and recall, but also the ability to think in human ways inside a formal discipline. So when schools reduce the goals of learning to just memorization of content, student thinking is reduced and narrowed. The discipline of learning should lead to more creative and imaginative thought. This is the progress that the discipline of learning can bring to a country.
Creative and Imaginative Thought
The arts are not the only place where creativity is valued. Businesses value workers who can think but there is a catch. Innovation to succeed as a business is almost impossible when the types of thinking that rule the business are not flexible. Bottled water companies cornered their market until Coca Cola and Pepsi realized that soda companies could also sell bottled water. In fact the most successful new companies take current thinking and re-imagine how business could be innovated. They think out of the box of the standardized way that people think about their business. So students should be exposed to the discipline of learning where the outcomes that are valued are not just memorization, but also, memorization that results in new thinking based on what they have memorized. In fact the assessment of that would look like a performance assessment.
When standardized tests get turned into performance assessments, students are asked to take the standardized curriculum and formulate new ways of manipulating the information into new forms of knowledge that promotes student knowledge and skill sets. An example of this is to take the Shakespeare readings compared to the Kings of England and the Presidents of the United States as a means to recommend new policies for running our country. Or another example is to have students apply the math they are learning to the local 911 system to make the response time more efficient. Or for students to go to a museum and propose a museum for their school. The acquisition of knowledge in the old factory-model school can be used as a foundation to springboard student learning into a celebration of creative thought through the demonstration in performance assessment of what students know and can do. Helping students do this would by the use of arts integration in the classroom by using the arts to help students think out of their box. Keen observation elicited by artistic thinking helps narrow thinking become wider and it helps students at risk for achievement to wake up to new possibilities in the curriculum for them to succeed. If more students become successful in performance assessments, more parts of the curriculum will be embraced and better outcomes for all students are a real possibility.