Creating a New Metaphor in Education Reform

The Denver Post recently lamented the fact that far too many Colorado high school graduates need remedial classes when they attend college. The numbers are indeed abysmal. The blame, as usual, falls on teachers and schools. Parents, students, and government officials always seem to avoid taking any responsibility. That discussion is for another day, however. As an educator with 36 years teaching experience, I would like to focus on something else: the lack of a relevant metaphor in the debate. The current metaphor, the one that has driven the testing craze and has failed to fix education, is based on the banking concept of education. It is personified by Hirsch’s core knowledge books (“What every [fill in the blank] grader needs to know”). These types of curriculum and books see students as depositories for information. Students are piggy banks. They sit in class waiting to be filled with knowledge. Then we give them standardized tests to see what was deposited. This approach has failed miserably.

I am not suggesting that I have the answer for fixing education. However, I do know what we educators do not know, and I understand what we need to know before we can have an education system that works for all children. To figure these things out, we need a new metaphor. Freire, Silko, et al. have suggested a relationship metaphor, but this squishy concept doesn’t really encompass the neuroscience of learning. We need a new metaphor because human communication thrives on metaphors. These devices drive our thinking, debates, and understanding. I therefore propose an analogy for education reform that might give the discussion a useful direction — not a metaphor, per se, but rather, an analogy that might lead to the creation of a new metaphor that will drive successful education reform.

Here is my analogy: Education is in the same place that medicine was in the 1700s and 1800s.

Think about being a doctor at that time. Maybe you had heard of germ theory but your medical school trained you in the use of leeches, knives, and swift amputations. Your bag did not contain scientific instruments to scientifically measure your patient’s condition but rather jars, saws, and sharp instruments. You knew about the humors and the four elements. You knew little if anything about sterilization, antiseptics, or vaccination. Spontaneous generation, not evolution, ruled the thinking of the day. Epidemics of cholera, small pox, typhus, and diphtheria killed thousands on a regular basis. One of the great ironies of American history is that George Washington, who was the first general to vaccinate his army against disease, was killed by his own physicians who bled him to death in an attempt to cure his pneumonia. These were the best doctors of the day who were thoroughly trained in standard medical practice of the age and they killed their most important patient.

Even those doctors who knew about Lister’s, Jenner’s, and Pasteur’s work had trouble implementing the ideas. Political will had to be developed and inertia had to be overcome. Water sanitation systems had to be built. Indoor plumbing had to be installed. Food handling practices had to be developed and implemented. Mass inoculation programs had to be mandated and carried out. And even with these successes, it took the discovery of antibiotics, the immune system, and DNA to really give medicine the upper hand in the fight against disease.

Today, medicine is still in trouble, but now the problem is more political than anything else. Indiscriminate use of antibiotics and disinfectants has given us new, more virulent disease organisms (evolution rears its ugly head). Muslim fundamentalists oppose vaccination programs that could eradicate polio. Christian fundamentalists oppose the teaching of evolutionary science, which is the foundation of all biology, including microbiology. A former Playboy Playmate has convinced thousands of parents to forego vaccinating their children based on falsified and inaccurate data. These are all political and social problems that must be addressed accordingly. Science doesn’t have the answers. It has already taught us what causes diseases and how to stop them. All we have to do is act upon that knowledge.

So how does this analogy fit into education? Successful education reform requires both political will and the scientific knowledge of how kids learn. Now, here’s where it gets tricky and where the analogy is most useful. Many educators, politicians, and parents think they know how kids learn. Colleges have been teaching learning theories for decades. But the truth is this: We have no idea how some activity in the real world makes a change in the child’s brain called “learning.”

In the past, people didn’t know about bacteria or viruses and how to prevent their spread. Today we do not know how learning physically takes place. Just like most people thought that imbalance of the humors or sin led to disease, we have lots of useless ideas about how kids learn. Don’t get me wrong. Some best practices do exist, ones that have worked with many students. Montessori, Piaget, Skinner, Dewey, James, and others have proposed ideas that have shown utility and success. But we are just now beginning to understand how the human brain works and how it learns. Until we truly understand how learning occurs on the cellular and possibly even molecular level, we will not know how to set up schools and classrooms that work for all children.

Does this mean all attempts at educational reform are useless? Of course not. We do know some things right now about human brain development and learning. But as Hippocrates said over 2,000 years ago, we must first do the patient no harm. Today, we are harming our children plenty. Constant testing, lack of play, paper and pencil activities instead of hands-on material, religious agendas, and political ideology are all having a negative effect on the education of our kids.

We can scientifically prove what Maria Montessori argued a century ago: “A child’s work is play.” Proper preschool education creates lifelong educational success. But just like those who argued that germs that were too small to see could not possibly kill animals like humans, cows, or elephants, ideologues misuse or misinterpret data to argue against universal preschool education. It’s ridiculous. These reactionary (let’s go back to the good old days when mom stayed home and raised the kids) critics complain about our students’ inability to compete with Asian and European countries academically. But they fail to recognize that the successful students of these countries attend high-quality preschools. Most European countries offer free preschools with highly trained and highly paid teachers. Students in Asia who attend university started in good preschools paid for by their parents. Their academic success is not an accident. Scientists can now map positive changes that take place in the brain when kids are exposed to good preschool education instead of daycare. We know preschool works. Why don’t we use it?

Some would argue it’s too expensive or that the government shouldn’t be involved. I disagree. Society as a whole would benefit tremendously from universal preschool. But even if we can’t afford or muster the political will to fund preschools, we could force parents to do it. Make them pay for it. Instead of giving tax breaks for warehousing kids in daycare centers, only give tax breaks for real preschools. Take the tax write-off away from parents whose child shows up for kindergarten unprepared to learn. Even better, take away tax breaks for parents whose students fail a grade or drop out of school. Yes, that’s harsh. Yes, people will come up with lots of objections to the idea (What about Special Needs and Special Ed kids for example… but these are solvable problems, not roadblocks). The cost of preschool would then be borne by parents rather than society. Marketplace forces would ensure quality education so parents wouldn’t lose their tax deduction. Both Conservatives and Liberals should be able to get behind this idea.

Too controversial? Then how about school start times? Science shows us clearly that teen brains need eight hours of sleep to allow learning to transfer from short-term to long-term memory. Teenage biology also makes them go to bed late and want to sleep in late as well. Young children’s brains are wired to be up early in the morning and take a nap. So what do we do? Send little ones to school later in the day and teenagers earlier. Usually, this is done in the name of extracurricular activities, but it makes no sense in terms of what we know about kids and their brains and their sleep patterns. Why let athletics dictate school schedules?

You, as reader, might take umbrage at the specifics of my suggestions for educational reform. The details or what ideas we should get behind are not important as I only offered them as examples. Instead, think about my earlier claim. Education today is like medicine 200 years ago. We know that learning takes place when we create the right environment and activities to make the physical changes in the brain that constitute learning. We know there are different kinds and ways of learning. We need to focus on doing what science tells us is the right way to develop human brains. We need to stop guessing and grasping at whatever social / political flavor of the month reform idea is popular. We need a whole lot more science and a whole lot less rhetoric if we ever intend to really fix our schools. For that, we need a new metaphor.