All organisms have biological limitations, but we humans are very curious about what we can’t do. We thus developed many technologies to compensate for our biological limitations. For example, wheels extend our legs, and medications extend our body’s recuperative capabilities.
The unprecedented advances in science and technology that characterized the second half of the 20th century helped to foster the belief that we can understand and solve any biological problem. The discovery of DNA and the development of huge clunky computers at mid-century led by the end of the century to the human genome and powerful portable computers—from biological genes to technological genius, as it were. The 21st century promises to escalate such scientific and technological advances.
The focus on predictive precision that’s characteristic of science and technology also affected educational beliefs. Folks began to think that if we can walk on the moon, eradicate most infectious diseases, and develop the complex Internet, we ought to be able to adequately and efficiently educate all K-12 students. It’s difficult to argue with the abstract goal that no child should be left behind during this remarkable period in human history.
The standards and assessment programs that currently dominate educational policy and practice are predicated on the technological belief that it’s possible to quantify and assess all important elements of learning and curriculum, and that it’s appropriate to censure schools that don’t reach mandated standards.
Two intriguing, thoughtprovoking books shift the discussion away from this current emphasis on quantitative efficiency—and suggest potential solutions to the current widespread professional frustration. Transformation is a central concept of both books, and both seek transformative solutions from within a realistically finite biology rather than a supposedly infinite technology.
Stephanie Pace Marshall is a pioneer in the field of educational transformation. She has worked at all educational levels, and is the founding president of the highly selective Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA), listed among the very elite U.S. public secondary schools in the May 8, 2006, Newsweek magazine.
One might thus expect her book, The Power to Transform: Leadership that Brings Learning and Schooling to Life (2006), to focus on how to make formal education even more rigid and rigorous.
Not so. This path-breaking book challenges the very nature of our current assumptions, and turns the design and organization of formal education on its head. It argues that our current narrow focus on reforming and restructuring schools and our unexamined acceptance of “false proxies for learning” have not positively transformed schools or the nature, quality, and creativity of students’ thinking and learning processes.
Rather, it argues that our current system has unintentionally stifled and devalued the natural learning and creativity that students crave.
Marshall asserts that the fundamental purpose of education is to transform minds–to “liberate the goodness and creative genius of students” by immersing them in learning environments and experiences that develop “integral habits of mind.” This focus would enhance the knowledge, skills, and predispositions that students need in order to think in interdependent and connected ways, and so to solve the complex webbed challenges our society now confronts.
To develop this integrative quality of thinking, Marshall argues that we must reconceive and redesign schools in order to create learning communities that truly mirror the holistic, interdependent, creative, and self-organizing processes of learning–and of life itself. Marshall describes such learning communities as grounded in: meaning, not memory; engagement, not transmission; inquiry, not compliance; exploration, not acquisition; personalization, not uniformity; interdependence, not individualism; collaboration, not competition; and trust, not fear.
Her assertions are supported by what we know about adolescence and its transformation of our frontal lobe capabilities. Our frontal lobes provide us with the capacity for curiosity and creativity that characterize our species at its best. The least important thing that adolescents need is the answers to questions they didn’t ask. The most important thing they need is a curriculum and mentoring focused on helping them to identify and solve problems they personally consider important.
One bittersweet story put everything into context for me. An elementary school principal annually led a joyful parade of his school’s students through the neighborhood to celebrate all the books they had read during the year. It was joyful, genuine, and authentic learning at its best. But the parades have now stopped, and Marshall expresses dismay that we may have finally reached the point at which schools have so much mandated and prescribed information to cover and test that educators now feel they simply have no time left for parades.
Daniel Janik has doctorates in both medicine and education/linguistics. His experience as a physician who treated the immediate and long-range effects of trauma eventually led him into education, and especially into language acquisition. It may seem a strange career path, but it wasn’t.
Janik defines trauma as any body and/or brain violation that results in unwanted loss of personal control. Trauma, in any guise (such as unwanted stress, anxiety, and fear) is a powerful single-event learning medium. It also has a disturbing side effect. The sensations, feelings, and thoughts that occur during traumatic events are associated with the event and thus also learned. Further, it’s not even necessary to directly experience trauma to learn from it, since simply observing the effects on others can result in powerful learning and its attendant side effects.
Janik wondered about the extent to which traditional classroom teaching that stresses imposed efficiency and mastery invokes the emotional side effects of trauma. The result is his intriguing book, Unlock the Genius Within: Neurobiological Trauma, Teaching, and Transformative Learning (2005). In it, he describes the principal and side effects of traumatic learning as they occur in the classroom, the neurobiological mechanisms underlying them, and the resulting collective inhibition of curiosity.
Janik then focuses on a second type of learning: curiosity-based, discovery-driven, mentor-assisted, transformative learning—essentially the process of self-discovery that occurs when we allow ourselves to explore. Janik argues persuasively that it’s possible to learn effectively without the use of traumatic teaching elements or techniques. In effect, it shifts activities from Platonic learning (in which an imposed curriculum controls events) to Socratic learning (in which a rich informative environment supplies the impetus for student-controlled discovery, learning, and critical thinking). In such a situation, the learning emphasis subtly shifts from recalling data and information to acquiring and applying knowledge and wisdom.
He tested his beliefs in a college level English as a Second Language Program. Having to learn a new language as an adult would qualify as traumatic experience for most folks, and partially so because the teacher usually controls the elements that students must master in order to pass the course. Transforming a course in academic English into an exploratory experience controlled by the students was a daunting challenge, but the results were spectacular, especially relative to student acceptance of the course and gains in their TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores.
John Dewey began the 20th century with a proposal to transform the culture of education. One hundred years later a secondary school administrator and a trauma physician are proposing a biological transformation of current educational policy and practice. And their transformations work! Will wonders never cease? Marshall and Janik have written two thoughtful, thoughtprovoking books for 21st century educators.