Learning, Testing, and the Messes We’ve Created

Posted on May 6, 2013 by Jeff Bloom

Gregory Bateson used to write metalogs that explored the “muddles” we create for ourselves. These metalogs were written as conversations between father and daughter. They examined the nature of a variety of issues involved in the way we understand the world. The first of his metalogs in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, in fact, focused on how things get in a muddle. We always seem to get ourselves in muddles at all levels of scale. We get in personal muddles, then muddles within our closest relationships, all the way up to the grand muddles of global ecological disasters and the degradation of international relations.

However, in this blog entry, I want to explore briefly the muddles we’ve created around learning, testing, and education. For the better part of a century we have talked about learning as if it were some discrete, measurable “thing.” We use tests to measure a person’s intelligence or learning. We see learning as the result of a specific series of steps taken by a teacher or adult to transmit some content to be learned. These ideas are part of what has created our current muddle about education.

During the 17th Century, Rene Descartes turned the world upside-down. In a time, when myths and superstitions reigned as the frameworks for making sense of the world in the west, Descartes, followed shortly thereafter by Isaac Newton, changed the way people saw and made sense of the world. Descartes and Newton introduced the explanatory metaphor of the mechanical clock or machines, in general. They maintained that everything could be understood as a machine. Nature was just a biological machine. Furthermore, we could understand the wholes (the things in our world) by understanding all of their parts. In addition to seeing things as machines with discrete parts, we also came to a point where we assumed that there was one true way of understanding everything. The whole package gave certainty and comfort to the masses. Intriguingly, this scientific revolution permeated all aspects of life with its basic assumptions about reality. Even people who were not informed about science, began to see and work with the world from the sets of assumptions that comprised this mechanistic, reductionist, and positivist worldview. One of these assumptions involves linearity (or lineality). Everything has a simple linear cause and effect. Another global assumption referred to duality or the separation of mind and body (also referred to as Cartesian dualism). The mental world had no connection to the physical world. They were separate phenomena. This dualism also built on the Christian separation of humans and nature. Human beings were seen as separate from the natural world. And, because we could understand the natural world as a mechanical system, we had even more control over how we used the resources of land and water. We could control everything.

The Cartesian (Descartes’) view of the world was a huge transition for western and other cultures over the next 300 years or so. In some ways, it was viewed as an enlightenment. However, over time, this worldview has brought us to the brink of self-destruction on many fronts. Our disregard for the natural world is straining our ability to survive as our population continues to grow and our resources continue to shrink. Our hopes that technology will fix our situation are met with even greater demands on resources. Our whole world seems transfixed by hope and wishful thinking.

Our views of teaching, learning, and education are embedded in such Cartesian assumptions and wishful thinking. We see the whole of education as a linear process. Even the debunked “Tabula Rasa” assumption, where students enter the classroom as blank slates and where teachers transmit knowledge to students, dominates much of the way in which we view education. On the other hand, we know that even the youngest children enter classrooms with a great deal of knowledge. Yet, we continue to assume they enter as blank slates and that we can use step-by-step approaches to “teach” them some discrete knowledge. The approaches to teaching, as passed down from teacher to student, are based on assumptions of mechanism (everything works like a machine), reductionism (where parts are all that are necessary to understand the whole), positivism (where there’s one right answer), and dualism (where the mental world of “learning” is completely separate from emotions, from the body, and from the social world and the environment). We continue to operate as if these assumptions are really descriptive of the way learning occurs.
Although certain rote memory operations may manifest in these linear, fragmented, and disconnected ways, the whole of learning is quite different. Learning is hard-wired into our biological nature. Learning occurs with or without schools. In fact, much of learning (unfortunately) occurs outside of school, where children are playing or getting into trouble. We can’t help but learn. The problem is how do we guide that learning in ways that are going to be useful for a child’s growth, development, and present and future well-being (the specific purposes or goals of schooling is another issue).

Learning is complex. We as a species have always learned so that we can survive and thrive. In fact, all animals learn in order to survive. Bateson even went so far as to suggest that genetic adaptation was a form of learning. However, no matter what level of scale (from the molecular to the social) we examine, learning focuses on our ability to survive and thrive in different contexts. Such learning is not really about retaining discrete bits of disconnected information. Rather, at the very core, learning is about creating multiple frameworks of connected information that serve to explain and help us make sense of our world. Learning provides us with the cognitive and emotional tools to pose and solve problems, to find ways to understand diverse and different physical and social phenomena, to imagine and create, to build and repair, to be empathetic and compassionate, to be reflective, to be responsible and respectful, and to be a participant in whatever communities one is a part. Learning occurs not just in the head, but also occurs in the heart, the body, socially, and in relation to our worlds. Learning is not a static and linear phenomenon. It morphs and changes. Learning involves the meanings we create, which also includes ideas, emotions, values, aesthetics, beliefs, metaphors, imagery, models, humor, and so forth. Learning is not just about “text.” Learning also is about how to be. (Such a view of learning is certainly a major problem for those who maintain that on-line courses are valuable!)

Yet, we continue to view learning as a simple rote memory and computational phenomena. Think about your own experiences. What do you really understand in depth? Can someone really know the extent of your understandings of this area? What areas of your life, of your very being are permeated by these understandings? How do you express your understandings? Can you ever express all of your understandings of this area? These questions are difficult. And, testing doesn’t begin to address possible answers.

Learning can’t be “measured,” because it has no substance. We can measure the dimensions of objects. We can measure density. We can measure sound and light frequencies. We can count numbers of things. We can measure the quantity of water in a container. But, we can’t measure things without substance. We can’t measure emotions. We can’t measure happiness. We can’t measure anger. We can’t measure a relationship between two people. And, we can’t measure learning. However, we can describe emotions, happiness, anger, relationships between two people, and learning. In describing learning and understandings, we can look at some of the ideas or concepts involved. We can examine the nature of the relationships that someone understands. We can look at how complicated the interconnections are between ideas. We can describe the tendencies for how one uses these understandings in dealing with various problems and situations. We can describe the tendencies one has for thinking in depth about these understandings. We can see where some misconceptions come into play and where more accurate understanding are involved. However, we can never understand the complete nature of someone’s learning and understandings. We can just pick up on certain aspects and tendencies. However, these aspects and tendencies are quite apparent to the informed teacher or observer. A teacher knows when a child understands something. A teacher knows when a student is passionate and creative. A teacher knows when a child is having difficulties and where she or he is making silly mistakes.

In the following discussion, I’ll use a metaphor of an iceberg to represent learning and understandings. Within the context of assessment, tests may show little indentations on the above water surface of an iceberg, but they really don’ tell us much more than whether they get answers right or wrong. Many very bright students, second guess test questions, see too many possible correct answers, or see errors in all of the possible test answers. Describing student learning through a wide variety of approaches (e.g., observations, interviews, all sorts of written and visual representation tasks, etc.) allow us to see much more of what lies beneath the extruding surface of the iceberg and some of what extends below the water. However, we can never see the entire iceberg.

So, we are currently in a massive muddle. We want to think that there is a simple solution to the mistaken belief that we are not educating our students very well. Between the irresponsibility of politicians and the media and the greed of publishers and testing companies, we have politicized and corporatized education to the point of a total muddle. We continue to think that test scores mean something significant. We think that we can control teachers and make teaching a linear and predictable process. We think that we can dissect out the parts in ways that will create viable wholes. We continue to think that there is one right answer and one right way to get to that answer. But, none of these ideas hold any viability.

Teachers are incredibly better than they were 100 years ago. I’m not so sure there’s any difference in the quality of teachers between 1960 and now. In discussions with principals, teacher educators, and experienced, expert teachers, the shared feeling is that the vast majority of teachers are competent or better. There are very few duds, but they do exist, as duds exist in all professions. And, there are quite a few teachers who are truly exceptional. At present, teachers certainly know much more about how children learn and think, know more about various techniques and approaches to teaching, and know more about the social and political contexts of their profession than they did 50 years ago. However, Teach For America and similar watered-down approaches to professional development of teachers are diminishing the depth and extent of this knowledge. The Common Core proponents and the entire testing industry are reducing teaching and learning to completely muddled, disconnected, and fragmented pieces of mostly irrelevant and meaningless information. The situation is further muddled by people, who have no background of study, experience, and research in education, making decisions about education. Our secretaries of education have no background in the field. School board members are dominated by people who have no background. Many state superintendents of education have no background. And, of course, as with the old Peter Principle, a number of people who were failed teachers have worked their way up the ranks into positions of leadership.

As in Finland, we could just trust teachers and save money by not testing, At the same time, we could make schools engaging, exciting, and creative places for children to grow, create, and blossom.

Resources and References:

If you’re interested, the following is a short list of some interesting readings that elaborate on some of the ideas discussed in this blog entry. Some are from my own research and others are from the work of some of the major scholars in education and related fields.

  • Bateson, G. (2000). Steps to an ecology of mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Bateson, M. C. (1995). Peripheral visions: Learning along the way. New York: Harper Paperbacks.
  • Berliner, D. C., & Biddle, B. J. (1995). The manufactured crisis. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  • Block, A. A. (1997). I'm only bleeding: Education as the practice of social violence against children. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Bloom, J. W. (1990). Contexts of meaning: Young children’s understanding of biological phenomena. International Journal of Science Education, 12(5), 549-561.
  • Bloom, J. W. (1992). Contexts of meaning and conceptual integration: How children understand and learn. In R. A. Duschl and R. Hamilton (Eds.), Philosophy of science, cognitive science in educational theory and practice (pp. 177-194). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Bloom, J. W. (1992). The development of scientific knowledge in elementary school children: A context of meaning perspective. Science Education, 76(4), 399-413.
  • Bloom, J. W. (1995). Assessing and extending the scope of children’s contexts of meaning: Context maps as a methodological perspective. International Journal of Science Education, 17(2), 167-187.
  • Bloom, J. W. (2001). Discourse, cognition, and chaotic systems: An examination of students’ argument about density. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 10(4), 447-492.
  • Bloom, J. W. (2004). Patterns that connect: Rethinking our approach to learning, teaching, and curriculum. Curriculum and Teaching, 19(1), 5-26.
  • Bloom, J. W. (2005). The application of chaos, complexity, and emergent (meta)patterns to research in teacher education. Proceedings of the 2004 Complexity Science and Educational Research Conference (pp. 155-191), Sep 30–Oct 3 • Chaffey’s Locks, Canada (http://www.complexityandeducation.ca).
  • Bloom, J. W. (2006). Creating a classroom community of young scientists (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
  • Bloom, J. W. (2011). Investigating relationships: Thoughts on the pitfalls and directions. Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education, 8(1), 38—43. (Available at: http://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/complicity/issue/archive)
  • Bloom, J. W. (2011). The really useful elementary science book. New York: Routledge.
  • Bloom, J. W. (2012). Ecology of mind: A Batesonian systems thinking approach to curriculum enactment. Curriculum and Teaching, 27(1), 81—100.
  • Bloom, J. W. (2012). The nature and dynamics of relationships in learning and teaching. In D. J. Loveless & B. Griffith (eds.), The interdependence of teaching and learning. Charlotte, NC: IAP.
  • Bloom, J. W. (2013). An ecology of mind: teaching – learning complex systems. Kybernetes, 42(9/10), 1346–1353. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1108/K-09-2012-0051
  • Bloom, J. W., & Volk, T. (2007). The use of metapatterns for research into complex systems of teaching, learning, and schooling. Part II: Applications. Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education, 4(1), 45—68 (Available at: http://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/complicity/issue/archive).
  • Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  • Bruner, Jerome. (1987). Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Harvard University Press.
  • Bruner, Jerome. (1992). Acts of Meaning: Four Lectures on Mind and Culture. Harvard University Press.
  • Bruner, JS, & Haste, H. (1987). Making sense: The child’s construction of the world. New York: Methuen & Co.
  • Cazden, C. B. (1988). Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Dewey, J. (1997). Experience and education. New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster.
  • Doll, W. E. (2002). Curriculum visions. New York : Peter Lang.
  • Doll, W. E. J., Fleener, M. J., Trueit, D., & St Julien, J. (Eds.). (2005). Chaos, complexity, curriculum, and culture. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Donaldson, M. (1992). Human minds. New York: Allen Lane/Penguin.
  • Donaldson, M. C. (1978). Children’s Minds. New York: Harper Perennial,
  • Donella H. Meadows. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
  • Duckworth, E. (1987). The “Having of Wonderful Ideas” and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Duckworth, E. R. (2001). Tell Me More: Listening to Learners Explain. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Duckworth, E., Easley, J. A., Hawkins, D., & Henriques, A. (1990). Science Education: A Minds-on Approach for the Elementary Years. New York: Routledge.
  • Edwards, D., & Mercer, N. (1987). Common Knowledge: The Development of Understanding in the Classroom. New York: Routledge.
  • Edwards, P. D., & Potter, J. (1992). Discursive Psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Ltd.
  • Egan, K. (1986). Teaching as Story Telling. London, Ontario: University of Western Ontario Press.
  • Egan, K. (1990). Romantic Understanding: The Development of Rationality and Imagination, Ages 8-15. New York: Routledge.
  • Eisner, E. W. (1998). The Kind of Schools We Need. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Eisner, E. W. (2002). The Arts and the Creation of Mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Fleener, M. J. (2002). Curriculum Dynamics. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Gallas, K. (1994). The languages of learning. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Gallas, K. (1995). Talking Their Way into Science. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Gallas, K. (1997). Sometimes I Can Be Anything: Power, Gender, and Identity in a Primary Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Garvey, C. (1984). Children’s Talk. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Gatto, J. (1991). Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers.
  • Hawkins, D. (2002). The informed vision. New York: Algora Publishing.
  • Illeris, K. (2009). Contemporary theories of learning: learning theorists … in their own words. New York: Taylor & Francis.
  • Jarvis, P. S. (2007). Human Learning: An Holistic Approach. New York: Routledge.
  • Johnson, M. (1987). The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.
  • Jones, M., & Jones, B. (2003). The unintended consequences of high-stakes testing. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Kirshner, D., & Whitson, J. A. (1997). Situated cognition. New York: Routledge.
  • Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in practice: Mind, mathematics, and culture in everyday life. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lave, Jean, & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press
  • Marton, F., Booth, S., & Booth, S. A. (1997). Learning and awareness. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Marton, F., & Tsui, A. (2004). Classroom discourse and the space of learning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Maturana, H. R., & G, F. J. V. (1998). The tree of knowledge. Boston: Shambhala.
  • Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Rogoff, B., Turkanis, C. G., & Bartlett, L. (2001). Learning Together: Children and Adults in a School Community. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Singer, D. G., & Singer, J. L. (1992). The house of make-believe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Singer, Dorothy G., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (Eds.). (2006). Play = Learning. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Swope, K. (2000). Failing our kids: Why the testing craze won’t fix our schools. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools Ltd.
  • Tharp, R. G., & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Volk, T., & Bloom, J. W. (2007). The use of metapatterns for research into complex systems of teaching, learning, and schooling. Part I: Metapatterns in nature and culture. Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education, 4(1), 25—43 (Available at: http://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/complicity/issue/archive).


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