Thursday, October 22, 2009

Educational social science and statistical analysis vs. teaching as art

Over the last 50 years, with the dominance of standardized testing, and the rise of statistics as the primary means of proving scientific relevance, education has suffered. The early educational theorists, Comenius, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel were pushed aside, marginalized and widely considered irrelevant. What importance were they, when we had standardized testing to measure and enforce performance? Schools were to be run like factories. Now that we know that doesn't work, schools are to be run like Walmart and teachers will function as checkout clerks, following a script and passing out receipts for the transfer of information. We seem to be running about two centuries behind the 19th when Froebel invented kindergarten and counseled, "Live for your children," which is a particularly poignant expression from a man who had lost his mother at an early age and whose father had no time for him, leaving him to learn alone in the forest.

In Elliot Eisner's The Arts and the Creation of Mind, the author discusses the types of research needed for a renewal of education. Eisner points out the hazards of research too heavily dependent on statistical analysis. When I presented papers at conferences in Sweden and Finland, it was interesting to me that so many of the papers were on such dry subjects in their quest to find something measurable to meet the criteria of survey method and statistical analysis. When we try to make art into science, both suffer and are trivialized as a result.

The most important thing to remember is that the most important qualities in education are the ones least possible to effectively measure. They can be observed in quality teaching, they can be observed as enthusiasm for learning and they can be witnessed in later life as children develop meaningful lives. When early educators observed students in the classroom, and then wrote about their experiences and shared them with others to be tested and observed, was that not also scientific and valid? Actually it was until we became so fixated on standardized testing and statistical analysis. Some educators discovered so much meaning in Friedrich Froebel that they made kindergartens like his throughout the world, providing the opportunity to directly test and find success in his method.

There is a very important reason to consider teaching to be more art than science. To understand it as art challenges teachers in ways that economic incentives, testing and standards will never. The following is Elliot Eisner's 13th point in summary of his aforementioned book:
The possibilities for growth in and through the arts cease only when we do. The ultimate aim of education is to enable individuals to become the architects of their own education and through that process to continually reinvent themselves.
This applies to teachers as well as students, and the art of teaching is without limits, particularly when teachers are empowered to arise as artists in their work. There are always improvements to be made, and it is that artistic quest for improvement, refinement, and quality that one seeks in one's work as an artist whether the material at hand is clay, wood, or a young mind. So, for the sake of our children and the future of our civilization, and the security of our old age, let's put testing and statistics in their proper place and return to the art of teaching. Comenius anyone?

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