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September 1, 2005

Back to Whole

Progressive educators gave us a vision of the whole child. Where has that vision gone, now that we need it most?

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Perspectives on school reform are saturated by an array of values regarding what's educationally important. It takes no special astuteness to recognize that the dominating values currently guiding our reform efforts focus heavily on boosting test scores and standardizing outcomes. Standardization takes place as states define expectations and, as they say, hold schools and those who work in them accountable for results. The idea is that if we have clear outcomes defined in terms of measurable standards, we will know, with as much certainty as education can muster, how well we are doing educationally.

In one sense, the logic of this view is impeccable. In order to know whether you have arrived, you need to know the destination. In order to judge the effectiveness of a school system, you need to be able not only to measure its performance against a criterion but also to compare this performance with that of other schools and school districts. Comparisons make it possible to establish rank. We Americans are very much interested in our position in a distribution. Doing well means, in practical terms, doing better than one's neighbors.

This model of school improvement—a means-ends model—has a highly rational ring. Define your goals, specify the means to achieve them, implement the means, and then evaluate to determine whether or not you've succeeded. If not, reconceptualize the means, reimplement them, and engage in another round of evaluation to determine the extent to which you've achieved your goals the second time around. Goals are to remain constant; means can vary.

There are, of course, many limitations to this orientation to school improvement. In the first place, means do not always follow goals—goals can also follow means. New goals may emerge during the process of implementing means. As we go through a process, we often discover opportunities that we could not or did not anticipate before we took action. Our aims, when we are at our best, are flexibly purposive.

Being flexibly purposive means that we are open to new opportunities that we did not foresee. One consequence of our preoccupation with standards is that it freezes our conception of what we want to accomplish in our schools. Rigor gets redefined and becomes associated with rigor mortis.

Our Narrowed Vision

There are other consequences of our current reform efforts and the emphasis on boosting test scores. Such an approach has narrowed the curriculum and blinkered our vision of what the progressive educators—those educators influenced by John Dewey's philosophy of education—used to call the “whole child.”

Can a child be anything but whole? In one sense, the answer to that question is no. Children respond to educational situations not only intellectually, but emotionally and socially as well. To neglect the social and emotional aspects of their development, to focus all our attention on measured academic performance, is to blind us to these youngsters' need to live a satisfying life.

This narrowed perspective promotes a technical orientation to teaching rather than an organic or humanistic one. When we are producing baked beans, ideally we can standardize the cooking and canning processes. We want predictable procedures that provide no surprises and yield the same quality, can after can, as the product comes off the assembly line. That model works well on products that have little variability: Beans are beans are beans. In such cases, uniformity is a virtue.

Children, however, are not cans of beans. They differ in temperament, aptitude, intellect, social competence, and emotional vulnerability. Each child is a unique case. Of course, all children are alike in some ways. And every child resembles certain children more than others. All these characterizations are correct. Yet when schools get obsessed with ensuring predictable results, they tend to treat children in uniform and standardized ways. Such an approach is more suited to canning beans than to cultivating productive idiosyncrasy.

How did we get such a narrow view of our education aims? One reason is historical. The industrial revolution invented a way of thinking about productivity that is still with us. The idea of using systematic control to achieve high levels of predictability—which I call technical rationality—stands as a regulative ideal for those embracing the approach to reform that seems so pervasive today.

A second reason driving technically rational approaches to school reform is that they make comparative analysis possible. If various school districts employ the same curriculum, have the same standards, and use the same evaluation practices and testing programs, then it is possible, in principle, to secure comparative data regarding student performance in each of the districts. The competitive culture that we have in the United States seems to support such a vision. In their drive to look good, schools focus their efforts not on what is best for the student but on what will boost test scores. As a result, cheating increases, the curriculum narrows, and the reward system undermines any intrinsic satisfaction that students might secure from their work in school. Our anxiety, or at least uncertainty, about the educational effectiveness of our schools leads us to monitor and measure without recognizing the collateral damage we create in the process.

The technical rationality that I claim pervades our schools is not simply a function of a single kind of operation—high-stakes testing, for example. Rather, it is a function of the general ethos that a technically minded orientation to education creates. We place a high premium on effectiveness and efficiency. We want to get where we want to go with the least effort possible and, to boot, we would like that movement toward predetermined outcomes to be uniform in character.

But school improvement—in terms of the way we structure schools, the assumptions we make about grade assignment, the means we use to assess performance, our preoccupation with what works (as though one could determine what works outside the context in which it is going to be applied)—is not merely a technical problem. It's a cultural problem in the sense that it deals with the character of social life within the institution. The dilemma that we face is how to create a more holistic environment in schools when the society at large undervalues such an approach. Can schools reflect “softer” values that substantially differ from the dominant cultural view? Given the fact that academic performance is key to social and economic mobility, can we expect people to take risks to enliven school life in non-academic areas when they fear it might compromise their children's academic performance?

One influential model for school organization and mission is rooted in the establishment of the first graded school in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1859. The premise of the model was to organize children according to age and to establish a body of content to teach at each age level, and then to promote students to the next grade on the basis of their achievement. The efficient school would have uniform consequences, and eventually cohorts of students would successfully complete their studies at the secondary school level and receive their diplomas. Such an organizational framework, however, does little to support the pursuit of cognitive surprise, the creation of intrinsic forms of motivation, the development of imagination, or the ability to define and resolve one's problems.

Measurement Mania

Our schools, teachers, and students might be a lot better off if schools embraced the idea that education means learning what to do when you don't know what to do. At present, the same limitations constrain both teachers and students. Students receive from teachers the tasks that they are to engage in, and teachers receive from the school district the syllabi that they are to use in teaching particular subjects. Uniformity and efficiency become hallmarks of the process. Never mind that efficiency is a virtue largely applied to things we don't like to do. We like to take the garbage out efficiently, but we do not like to eat a wonderful meal efficiently; in fact, we are perturbed when waiters are too efficient. But for U.S. schools, the speed of reaching the destination is considered a virtue: The brighter students are the fast students.

When you embrace such a criterion as an index of education quality, you normally seek a means for determining the rate and amount of learning. This is where measurement comes in. Measurement technologies do not simply rest passively in the hands of school administrators and teachers—they influence what students will learn and how teachers will teach. Test preparation is a glowing example of taking time and attention away from intrinsically meaningful activities to focus instead on whatever it takes to get a higher score on a standardized achievement test or on some other measurable outcome.

The term measurable is crucial here because what we measure, we focus on. Measurement technology, rather than our education aspirations, increasingly defines what students will be required to learn in their classrooms. The tail is wagging the dog.

A Vision Revived

Progressive educators reminded us that we should pay attention to the whole child. It sounds like a quaint phrase, but when we compare the ethos of the vibrant progressive elementary school classroom with the routines that our students are now too often subjected to, the significance of attending to the whole child—emotionally, socially, and physically as well as academically—makes a great deal of sense. The progressives provided us with a vision that we have abandoned, but that we need now more than ever.

Just what does it mean to care for the whole child? The term is partly metaphorical, but its implications are clear. First, it means that those of us in education try to recognize the distinctive talents that individual children possess and to create an environment that actualizes those potentialities. We are not in the business of canning beans. We are interested in helping children become who they are. Sir Herbert Read, an English philosopher, poet, and pacifist, once commented that two principles can guide education: helping children become who they are and helping children become who they are not. 1 In fascist societies, the state molds the child into an image that it has designed. In democracies, we try to establish conditions that allow for a significant degree of positive self-actualization. Read's distinctions are useful today as we think about defining the mission of schools. Our interest should extend to talent.

Second, teachers need to take into consideration the various ways in which students respond to what teachers plan. The aim is not simply to focus on the narrowly cognitive, but to see how students respond emotionally, imaginatively, and socially to the plans that they and their teachers formulate. This will not be an easy task, but it is closer to the heart of education than the kind of compliance that usually takes place as young children try to satisfy their teachers and as adolescents try to circumvent expectations.

Third, assessment should try to provide a more complete picture of the developing child. Put most simply, we need to be concerned about more than the measurable. Not everything that matters is measurable, and not everything that is measurable matters. In any case, you don't fatten cattle by putting them on a scale—you have to pay attention to their diet. We need forms of assessment that help us better understand how to nourish the children we teach.

Fourth, the social and emotional life of the child needs to be as much a priority as measured academic achievement—perhaps an even greater priority. No test score is an adequate indicator of quality education. In fact, an increase in test scores can signal a decrease in the quality of education. It depends on the price paid for the increase.

One of the generally neglected resources that promote the development of the whole child is the arts. The arts make it possible in vivid ways to eliminate a distinction between cognition and emotion. For example, creating images requires, on the one hand, a feel for the expressive character of the image and, on the other, forms of thinking that use feelings to make rational choices along the way. In this relationship between feeling and thinking, the two dimensions become unified in a single, inseparable process.

Artistic forms of cognition in all kinds of activity, including scientific activities, represent the most complete form of integration that humans are likely to achieve. Schools can promote such opportunities by ensuring that the arts are included in the curriculum and that they have the kind of pedagogical support that enables students to take advantage of their educational possibilities.

The Child Made Whole

The overall mission of the school best serves the young when it reflects a holistic orientation to education. In the human organism, there is no such thing as an independent part; all parts are interconnected. We need to recognize those connections when we teach, when we design education environments, when we provide incentives, and when we grade students. Attention to such complex matters will not simplify our tasks as teachers, but it will bring education closer to the heart of what really matters.

What really matters in the end is reflected in our politics. Schools are political institutions, and the process of education itself is a political undertaking because it reveals in its practice a conception of human nature, a view of the human mind, an image of what the young can become, and a vision that can guide us as we try to invent the future. Nothing is more complex and subtle, and nothing is more important. I hope we have the courage and skill to craft a vision of education that reflects the wholeness that is an ineluctable part of every child's nature. What better gift could we give to the 50 million students who populate our schools?

Aims of Education - Back to Whole

Aims of Education

The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.

—Jean Piaget

End Notes

1 Read, H. (1943). Education through art. New York: Pantheon Books.

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