Education Secretary Duncan on the TIMSS Results: We’re Being Out-Educated & Out-Competed

If you go over to the U.S. Department of Education website, you will find the Secretary Arne Duncan’s statement on the release of the 2011 TIMSS and PIRLS assessment.  You can read it online here, and I’ve copied it and posted it below.  Highlighted (my own) words describe the essence of Mr. Duncan’s view of American science and mathematics education.

Statement by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the Release of the 2011 TIMSS and PIRLS Assessments

Statement by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the Release of the 2011 TIMSS and PIRLS Assessments

Reading the letter that Mr. Duncan wrote in the context of Ed Johnson’s letter which was published on this blog yesterday, I can only say here that Mr. Duncan continues appears to be out-of-touch with our society, and the way children and youth could be educated, respected, and valued.

The letter that Mr. Johnson wrote was first sent to President Obama.  Yesterday, the letter was sent to Mr. Duncan.  Ed Johnson’s letter  was a reaction to the Newtown shooting of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Mr. Johnson asks us to consider the larger context of our culture, and wonder if the mass shootings that we have seen for more than a decade are related in anyway to the erosion of “civility and democratic ideas” in the service to the common or public good.

He has been an activist for years in Atlanta, and his letter is a powerful statement about how we need to come to grips with the way we are educating our youth.  Competition seems to rule in the way we educate students.  Perhaps we should reconsider this.  Read what happened to Ed Johnson in a school context.

Mr. Johnson describes a transformative moment after being a judge in a Social Science Fair Contest.  Here is what he recalled:

Some years ago I once accepted an invitation to be a judge in a local middle school’s Social Science Fair Contest. Wanting to know what I had gotten myself into, I made it a point to check the 30 or so student entries on display well before the judging got underway. To my surprise, I found each entry’s content noteworthy, in spite of a few grease spots here and there. Each entry stood as “a class act,” I said to a teacher nearby. Pleased, the teacher repeated my comment to other teachers.

Soon after the judging got underway, an odd uneasiness formed in my gut. For some reason I could not state at the time, I was fretting having to contribute to judging one entry “First Place Winner,” one entry “Second Place Winner,” and one entry “Third Place Winner.” The day after the contest the odd uneasiness in the gut gave way to this nagging question: What wisdom was there in deliberately making losers of so many children?

Sometimes we are fortunate to encounter opportunities that allow us to examine our values and the things we do and hold dear. In the face of such opportunities we will either defend our values or, with eyes wide open and ears clicked on, attempt to learn and develop and change for the better.

That day, the Social Science Fair Contest opened my eyes and forced my ears on so that I might experience learning competition among youngsters in a new, revealing way. I suspect it was the unmistakable expressions of dejection on the faces of the contest losers that made me see and hear differently. Even the second and third place winners strained to put on a happy face, which showed me they, too, saw themselves as losers. Moreover, I plainly saw that the “First Place Winner” had attained recognition at the expense of all the other contestants, a God-awful lesson for a child to learn about learning and, perhaps more importantly, to learn to see other human beings as obstacles to personal success.

Overall, I saw the event as that of adults inculcating within children the adults’ win-lose values based seemingly on the belief system that even in school, as in life elsewhere, there must be winners and losers, that a few children deserve to win and most children deserve to lose.

Left wondering how many potential social scientists I had helped derail that day, I reluctantly took responsibility for my part in the competition then asked my inner being for forgiveness. In the end, that day was a day of personal transformation. Consequently, I vowed to advocate against and never again be a party to events that aim to turn kids into losers through arbitrary and capricious competition.

We’ve turned education and learning into a colossal competition that beginning in early childhood, and through competitive testing have wired schools and society to accept a behaviorist-competitive model of learning.  Ed Johnson came to grips with this when he participated in a school social studies fair.  In the context of a competitive fair, there had to be a first, second and third place winner, followed by a long list of losers.  Behaviorist theory suggests that students should be rewarded for the correct answer, or in this case of the “best” social science fair project.  Much of curriculum has been reduced to a common set of statements (behaviors to learn) that trivialize learning.  From childhood through high school students are taught and tested on a set of common standards that are behavioral in nature.

Even though most educators understand cognitive and social psychology, the structure of schooling reinforces (sorry) a behavioral-competitive approach to learning and teaching.

And this is unfortunate

Wired for Empathy and Cooperation

As human beings, our brains are wired for empathy and coöperation.  I written about empathy in teacher education, and how Carl Rogers, decades ago, established empathy as one of the core conditions of facilitating the learning of others.  In nature, coöperation is considered by many naturalists as being as important is not more so than competition in sustainable environments.  

We need to recognize that this is a more enlightened way to learn and teach, a way that at its roots seeks a sacred or humanistic consciousness.  George Lakoff, in his book The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics, explores the differences between progressive and conservative moral philosophies.  Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and professor of linguistics at U.C. Berkeley, and In Lakoff’s theory, our democracy (and thus our education system) was founded by the politics of empathy and responsibility.  Although the role of the government in the context of progressive ideas is equality, freedom, fairness and opportunity, it has taken hundreds of years of social change to move toward this reality.  I have written on this blog on Lakoff’s research and how it can be applied to education and learning.

In Lakoff’s view, the progressive world-view is based on the nurturing parent family. He suggests that nurturing has two key aspects: empathy and responsibility. Lakoff explains that nurturing parents are authoritative but without being authoritarian.

The progressive teacher is an educator that Lakoff would describe as having an educational philosophy similar to progressive political world-view. The progressive teacher is seen as the authority in the classroom, but does not act on authoritarian principles. In a classroom led by a progressive teacher, the teacher is a nurturing parent. Students in the progressive classroom are analogous to children in a nurturing family, and they would be respected, nurtured, and encouraged to communicate with peers and the teacher from day one. The classroom would be viewed as a community of learners, as the family is a community.

Empathy by the teacher, and coöperation among learners would be important hallmarks of the enlightened classroom.  Lakoff speaks to the connection of empathy and coöperation to the “wiring” of our brain.  He writes:

We begin with the biology of empathy. Our mirror neuron circuitry and related pathways are activated when we act or when we see someone else performing the same action. They fire even more strongly when we coördinate actions with others—when we coöperate. Mirror neuron circuitry is connected to the emotional regions of our brains. Our emotions are expressed in our bodies, in our muscles and posture, so that mirror neurons can pick up visual information about the feelings of others….In other words, they give the biological basis of empathy, coöperation, and community. We are born to empathize and coöperate.

As Ed Johnson realized and has eloquently written,

Legislators, Boards of Education, and top school administrators must come to examine their contributions to the nearly imperceptible yet continual demoralization of K-12 school students by way of learning competition. A very real unintended consequence is the near complete destruction of children’s intrinsic motivation for learning in school. To protect themselves, if only in their own eyes, many kids will drop out of school or commit violent acts rather than submit to loser status.

What do you think?  Is the Secretary of Education out of touch with a more enlightened way that schools should be fostering learning for and among students?  Does Ed Johnson describe a more enlightened way to educate youth?




About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.