Pass or Fail: Don’t Dumb Down Learning

In this multi-part series, I provide a dissection of the phenomenon of retention and social promotion. Also, I describe the many different methods that would improve student instruction in classrooms and eliminate the need for retention and social promotion if combined effectively.

While reading this series, periodically ask yourself this question: Why are educators, parents and the American public complicit in a practice that does demonstrable harm to children and the competitive future of the country?

When I talk about getting every kid from one grade to the next on schedule, I’m not talking about making anything easier for kids. If anything, our standards should continue to rise as our pedagogy improves.

So how do educators combine high standards with ensuring student achievement?

Establishing viable educational standards must include the development of a solid, valuable curriculum. One study that assessed students in Chicago classrooms showed an average of one-year learning gain when students were routinely given challenging assignments compared to those in Chicago classrooms where the intellectual quality of the assignments was low. For the same group, test results were also higher than national norms among those who received challenging assignments.

The intellectually stimulating assignments also appeared to lead to children posting learning gains 20 percent greater than the national average. Where assignments were less challenging in Chicago classrooms, students gained 25 percent less than the national average in reading and 22 percent less in mathematics.

Considering this example, the development of consistent standards should also involve the development of consistently challenging standards so that children of all abilities are encouraged to learn and inspired to learn.

The report by the Northern Central Regional Educational Laboratory also emphasizes that skilled teachers are crucial to intensifying learning; that these teachers were, in the Chicago classrooms studied, providing authentic instruction and meaningful assignments while holding high expectations for all students.

As a strategy, the provision of challenging assignments to students also helped to adopt habits of disciplined study, and to elicit higher-order thinking skills and their connection to the “real world.” Successful teachers allowed substantial time for discussion and idea sharing among students. Teachers also employed several learning models to create “active learning” and an “active learning environment.”

The environment helped to support a shift in the relationship among teachers, students, and knowledge. The active environments required collaboration and communication and encouraged more analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of information than traditional classrooms. One of the key effects was that students were forced to take ownership of their learning. It encouraged students to develop their learning and develop strategies for learning.

These approaches should be incorporated into an educational policy as well. Indeed, based on the identified benefits, it should be standard for schools to work to design instruction within “active environments,” emphasizing depth of learning rather than breadth of learning.

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