Forum: Teach to the brain

The 9/11 commission report should send an alarm to educators, too, says Gary J. Niels: The development of imagination must be our core mission

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A new school year is upon us and I am wondering whether world affairs will cause us to reassess our educational priorities.

Gary J. Niels is head of Winchester Thurston School, a K-12 independent day school with campuses in Shadyside and Hampton.

I am not talking about a different emphasis in geography or civics class. I am talking about the dramatic news from the 9/11 commission that it was, in part, "lack of imagination" that caused government and security officials to fail to discern the imminent security threat that resulted in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

If it was imagination that could have saved thousands of Americans -- and I therefore assume that imagination could save us from further future horrific attacks -- we ought to re-evaluate our educational directions. I am not confident that our educational systems are placing much of a premium on graduating imaginative citizens.

A convergence of three forces is sapping the vitality from our educational system:

Utilitarian responses to failing schools, such as the No Child Left Behind legislation.

Reliance of colleges and universities on standardized assessment measures.

The view of education as an avenue toward a career, rather than a process to develop the intellect, ethics sense and civic engagement.

It is not just the 9/11 commission that recognizes the importance of imagination. Over the centuries wise thinkers pay homage to it. Blaise Pascal, one of the world's greatest mathematical and scientific geniuses, said, "Imagination disposes of everything; it creates beauty, justice and happiness, which are everything in the world."

More recently, groundbreaking work on brain functioning by Harvard researcher Howard Gardner has shed further light on the vitality and centrality of imagination and its close intellectual relatives. In his book "Creating Minds," Gardner says, "In science, mathematics and the arts, there is widespread recognition of the significant place occupied by intuition, unconscious promptings, inexplicable insights and the sudden awareness of relationships. Scientific discovery and artistic creations are hardly the result solely of rational considerations."

Yet, it seems that rational considerations are solely what we value and worse yet, rational considerations expressed in the form of standardized assessment. Educational systems are moving to standardized tests as the only recognized form of measuring intellectual growth and achievement. Maxine Greene, the brilliant philosopher and aesthete at Columbia University, has noted that "without the release of the imagination, human beings may be trapped in literalism, in blind factuality." That's what a continual emphasis on getting the right answers does to our students.

Greene isn't the only learning expert who challenges us to expand our educational approaches beyond the rating and ranking of tests. Other educators are crying out for schools to focus on processes that foster intellectual development. Paul Houston, past president of the American Association of School Administrators has said, "Only on 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?' can people rise to the top by rote memorization and answers to multiple-choice questions. The FINAL ANSWER to improving education is more than memorizing facts for a multiple-choice test. Children today need critical thinking skills, creativity, perseverance and integrity -- qualities not measured on a standardized test."

The most vivid demonstration of this wholesale movement towards the standardized test as a measurement of student and school achievement is the No Child Left Behind legislation. Lock-step education certainly does not provide much hope of fostering imagination in our students. Moreover, even politicians question the value of measuring intellectual achievement by standardized tests alone. The late Sen. Paul Wellstone once said that "Making students accountable for test scores works well on a bumper sticker and it allows many politicians to look good by saying that they will not tolerate failure. But it represents a hollow promise."

As an educator, I can appreciate the need for a national standardized measurement instrument, such as the SAT and the Advanced Placement tests, since virtually all secondary schools have varying methods of weighing and calculating grades. However, what should be one form of measuring a student's progress has become the central mantra of the educational system. American colleges and universities respond to record numbers of applications that overwhelm their admission offices, by relying heavily on test scores to make their decisions.

Secondary school students know that the critical keys to college admission are their SAT scores along with a transcript crammed with as many coverage-focused AP courses as possible. Heidi Hayes Jacobs, an education professor at Columbia University, has reminded us of what Daniel Goleman's landmark book "Emotional Intelligence" demonstrated conclusively: "It's not just the ability to remember things and feed them back on tests that determines how well you're going to do in life. It's the ability to solve problems and reflect and to, in fact, think critically."

Unfortunately, in college admission requirements, nowadays curriculum, pedagogy and textbooks are aligning themselves to standardized test preparation. Compounding this situation is that parents and students are increasingly focused on college admission as an educational goal--as opposed to college (and life) preparation.

In the independent school world, I have watched for 25 years as student and parental worries about college admission have caused a major paradigm shift from what was once an interest in intellectual development and learning to a focus on test preparation and scores. This notion of education primarily as a vehicle for college placement for preparing for a career or job represents a utilitarian view of education that I believe is ultimately unhealthy.

Of course fostering graduates who are capable of using the imagination to analyze data, assess information and draw inferences in order to protect ourselves from future threat is not the only reason to reconsider our educational emphasis. Evidence indicates that "students who have been given the opportunity for early engagement in activities such as drawing, playing an instrument, singing and learning to read music often perform better across the board and feel more positively about themselves and school," says Stephanie Perrin in a recent article in Independent School magazine.

Perrin, the head of Walnut Hill School in Massachusetts, goes on to report an incident in which a high school senior who was preparing to study music university was asked what he learned in high school. "I have learned math, science, literature and music. I have learned about hope and hate and love and distance. I have learned about time and compassion and wisdom and secrets. I have learned what tomorrow could be and what yesterday was. I have learned how to cry and smile at the same time. I have learned about life and the possibilities it holds. I have learned to look people in the eye and tell them I love them. I have learned how to pray. I have learned how to be sick without my mother."

This answer not only demonstrates that he is a bright and insightful person, but also that he attended a school that still valued the imagination.

Here in Pittsburgh, the words of a recent graduate of my school capture beautifully the essence of what education should be. This student wrote:

"After these well-spent years of a rigorous education program with exceptional teachers and accelerated programs, are we now, as graduates, able to objectively look at ourselves and say that we are knowledgeable? If we can quote Chaucer, differentiate an equation, decipher Plato, calculate the earth's mass, or convert an equation to moles, are we the better for it? Have these things truly affected our character? Can we look back at our time here ... and say that it was Thoreau that really had that great of an impact on us? Or was it something else? I can truly say that over the past four years I have been affected by Newton, by Plato, and even by Thoreau, but they didn't give me knowledge, they gave me facts. As a wise man once said, 'facts you can read in a book' and I have, and I appreciate them, but it's not what made me grow, what made we want to change, what made me knowledgeable. Knowledge for me and the knowledge that (our school) has taught me is a knowledge of myself. How to craft a thesis, how to develop an argument, how to become familiar with my strengths and weakness, are all a part of this knowledge but as I say goodbye here today the one portion of that knowledge of which I am truly grateful is how to consider myself credible."

I take comfort in the potential of students such as these two, who I believe are equipped with not only information and knowledge, but also the higher level attributes central to imagination.

It is my hope that more of our students were entering college and life with this educational ethos. Our world would not just be a safer place, but a better one.


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