SPP: The first thing that drew us to you and to your book is as I mentioned we did this to learn more about a lot of topics, because we were curious and felt like some of the things we may not have been exposed to. Whether it be in the formal school system or just in life I know you talk a lot about just in general what it means to be educated and the value of intelligence and an education.
So it’s a perfect fit for us and we kind of wanted to get your take on what does it mean to be educated and why people should be active in their own learning and expansion of their mind.
Dr. Rose: So this question about what it means to be educated, I mean what we’re going to here is the way we in our society defined what it means to be an educated person. I have thought a lot about that. It seems to me that some of the qualities that indicate that somebody is educated. Let me just say right now you can get this education in a lot of different kinds of ways. I mean certainly formal schooling is one of them, but there’s lots of other ways too. I mean through certain kinds of work, through apprenticeships, through particular kinds of relationships through other public or private institutions, libraries, churches, and all that.
So what I’m going to say does not only come from schooling, although schools are the primary cultural institution that we have to help people develop these qualities. So some of the qualities that seem to me of an educated person are certainly that they’re numerate and literate, that is that they can read, they can read critically, they can sort through information, which I think is a huge thing these days with a massive flow of information that we have across the internet. They don’t have to be mathematical wizards but they should have some sense of mathematics or arithmetic of the way that kind of thinking works. Because we’re thrown numbers all the time right. This statistic says this and this says that. It would be great if we had some degree of ability to kind of sort our way through all these claims that are based on numbers.
It also seems to me that to be educated means that you know how to learn so that if you confront something new you’re able to use maybe some of those literacy and numeracy skills to help yourself figure out what this is to know what sources to go to, to be able to figure out what sources are reliable and which ones aren’t. It seems to me also to be educated someone needs to have a basic sense of history and our own history and our own political history and intellectual history. It’s the Jeffersonian ideal to have a functioning democracy you need an educated citizenry and that means educated at least to a degree in one’s history and economics and politics.
I also think to be educated means you’re able to think thinks through and solve problems with other people. I mean it’s terrific if you stay in a cave your whole life and that’s what you want to do. But let’s face it most of us live our lives out in the world and in this world, the social world, civic, religious, and we’re always confronted with things we need to think through. They’re not always problems in the complicated sense of the word but they’re things that we need to work out together. To be able to do that and think things through with others I think is another powerful indicator of what it means to be educated. So those are just some thoughts off the top of my head about the way I would define an educated person.
SPP: Dr. Rose, you actually touched on a couple of points that I had with a question for you. You brought up the internet and with having the internet at our disposal, that vast wealth of knowledge out there, it makes me wonder why we do concentrate so much on memorization for kids going through school. Random facts, history dates, the periodic table, things that not everybody grasps very easily, and then they are tested on it. Do you think that the emphasis should be more on creativity and the problem solving that you brought up and then collaboration through teams of that sort, things that would have real world application?
Dr. Rose: Yeah that’s a terrific question. To take a historical look at that for a moment, a lot of traditional cultures, and in fact in our own educational system all the way through the 19th into the early 20th century memorization was a primary mode of instruction, kind of memorizing things and then reciting in class. So if you think we do a lot of that now if you’d been around 100 years ago you’d seen a lot more.
What’s been interesting I think in education in our country over the last, oh gosh 50, 60 years, is that there has been a real attempt to move away from just committing things to memory and then spitting them back out. Lots and lots and lots of educational theory, as well as practice, people in actual classrooms doing things involve more of the kind of thing you’re talking about. The finding information, coming to conclusions, arguing for a point of view, collaborating, all of that sort of thing is more present in our educational system than it was a long time ago. But you’re raising a wonderful point and that is the future direction I think is much more that way. I got to say a lot, a lot of work that’s being done with teacher training and teacher development and trying to do that better is geared towards exactly the thing you’re talking about, that is not just committing things to memory but being able to use what you know in various kinds of creative and problem solving ways.
I do want to say one thing in favor of memorization though, and that is that it seems to me that being creative and being a problem solver is not antithetical to committing some things to memory. It seems to me that the best kind of education involves both of those. That is there’s certain things we do have to commit to memory, whether it’s a multiplication table or the period table that you mentioned, or the bones in the hand if you’re taking an anatomy course.
So there’s places for memorization, but what you’re suggesting is when memorization trumps all else then we’re really in trouble and we just have a routine and kind of robotic educational system versus one that helps create the kind of people you’re talking about who are creative, thoughtful, problem solvers who may well use them memorized information but using I tin the service of something else.
SPP: Got you. That’s an excellent look on that I never really looked at it that way. I guess the next question that I would have is, because of the standardized tests that kids are taking now whether it be SATs, SOLs all these Standards of Losing, do you think that there’s too much emphasis on these standardized tests or have they been striking a better balance?
Dr. Rose: Geez, I’m really glad you brought that up because it was sitting in the back of my mind as I was talking to you about this question of creative problem solving versus memorization. What worries me about some of the direction of school reform in the last decade or two is that there’s more and more emphasis being placed on a small number of standardized tests primary of mathematics and reading. Now look those are core skills obviously, I mean of course it’s important for students to learn how to read and to be able to demonstrate that, and to learn arithmetic and mathematics and be able to demonstrate that of course.
But what has happened, particularly with No Child Left Behind Act and unfortunately it’s being carried over in the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top, is that there’s so much emphasis being placed on this narrow set of standardized tests that we have pretty good research evidence that suggests that at least in some schools and in some classrooms the pressure is so great that teachers then teach towards the taking of those tests, and teach students what they need to know in the way they need to know it, to do well on those tests.
So what ends up happening, and again we’ve got good evidence of this, is that even material like history or social science or even science for God’s sake, gets trend back. Some subjects like arts, music, that sort of thing just get completely removed because there’s no time for it. So there’s a lot of good things that are going on with school reform efforts. I mean a lot of attention being paid to schools, that’s a good thing, there’s a focus on kids who are not doing well, who schools don’t serve well that’s a really good thing.
So I’m not trying to say that that the school reform movement of the last couple of decades, are some kind of evil, but I am saying that there’s aspects to them, powerful aspects to them, that worry me and a lot of people like me worry us about exactly the kind of thing you’re talking about, that is a kind of shift of school toward preparation for a narrow set of tests and a narrow set of skills that are tested on those tests, which take us away from this fuller definition of what it means to educated that you and I have been talking about.
SPP: One of the things that got me interested on this subject was I watched an amazing Ted Talks video by a man named Ken Robinson.
Dr. Rose: Oh sure.
SPP: Okay. I figured you’d be aware of it. He talks about how school kills creativity. The reason or a lot of his reasoning was school what we think about in terms of forma education was a construct of the industrial revolution. It was teaching people to be able to function in an industrialized world. Obviously we’re well passed the working in factories and all that type of economy. Do you think we are still conducting kind of a 20th Century method of education?
Dr. Rose: I know that Ted piece that you’re talking about. As you know it’s been really widely circulated and he is a remarkably engaging speaker. Then the graphics that they have to go with those presentations are amazing. As you suggest he raises some really kind of visionary points. But what also happens in presentations like this, I mean it’s almost part of the genre in a way, is that he deals in broad sweeping kinds of statements.
His characterization of school right now is in some ways accurate but absolutely not fully. There are so many classrooms that in fact move very far away from that kind of description that he gives us of what schooling is like. There’s classrooms where the sorts of things we’ve been talking about really do go on, engagement, creativity, working through sources yourself, thinking things through with others, independent thinking, all of that.
Now to the broader question of the way school is structured that’s an interesting question. Mass education was developed as you know through the early, and especially into the mid and late 19th Century, and the structure of schooling was as it moved into the 20th Century and it got really huge with compulsory education and more and more young people entering school. There was a kind of philosophy of education and a philosophy of school administration that was very much influenced by industrial thinking.
So when we look at the way large schools like a lot of high schools are structured, the grade levels, the classrooms, the hierarchical structure of administration, all that sort of thing it does resemble an old time business model. So I think where somebody like Ken Robinson who’s valuable is to get us to begin to think of how we might reconfigure that general structure period.
There are places that are trying to do that, places that don’t fit to those rigid time schedules, and don’t stick to that rigid kind of grade level thing, and don’t stick to the separation of disciplines like okay its 9:45 now we go to geography. Oops, its 10:35 now we go to math, but rather they think of ways to integrate all of these subjects. I do think that that’s an important direction for the future.
So just to summarize, that is rethink that fundamental structure of schooling, the rigid time slots for classes, the rigid separation of subject area, of disciplines, the limited amount of time that teachers have to work with, if any that teachers have to work with each other and think things through and try and create a kind of integrated curriculum. The way we even define achievement as opposed to grades and the kinds of tests we were talking about a minute ago, how about something that’s much more project oriented. Can someone with certain kinds of assistance create something that’s really impressive, that involves the integration of mathematics and science and geography and whatnot? So all of that.
And then of course integrating electronic technology into all of this in a powerful way, integrating the computer and the internet and whatnot in an integral way into the curriculum, all of those things I think are science for the future and people are doing that. I mean not a lot but people are beginning to do that. So Ken Robinson’s vision I think is emerging already in certain places and in certain conditions.
SPP: So as you were just saying that was going to be a question I had for you, you kind of touched on it, was I’m sure you have offered in your writings and in your presentations and everything your solution to the rigidity and structure. So its things like projects and kind of integration and things like that. Anything else that you have found or you believe would be a great step forward in terms of how we educate children?
Dr. Rose: Well I think I want to say two things that maybe one of them you would expect and maybe the other one you want. So let’s start with the one to expect. In addition to the things I said about people rethinking the narrow. It’s what the historians David Tieck and Larry Cuban called the Grammar of Schooling, which I think is a perfect phrase this kind of structure of the way schools looks, the classrooms, the rigid separation of subject area, material, t he rigid day, all of that stuff.
In addition to rethinking the way school is structured I want to say something as a kind of cautionary tale about the use of a computer and electronic technology. As we rethink school, as we being to move towards these more holistic and organic and integrated ways of thinking about educating people, obviously computer and the internet and electronic technology is going to be central to this. What we have to remember though is that even that absolutely astounding technology is not in and of itself a magic bullet. That it has to be carefully integrated into the whole notion of schooling, integrated into the curriculum. Otherwise what we see happening all the time is schools spend a ton of money or a philanthropy spends money and give schools computers or school installed computers, the classrooms are all wired, all that sort of technological stuff is taken care of. But nothing exciting is being doing on them because they’re kind of separated from the whole enterprise of education.
So one thing I want to add is just that as we do naturally move toward the increased use of computer technology we really want it to be done in a thoughtful in an integrated way. The second thing I want to say, maybe this is a surprise, is that as we move forward I don’t want us to forget certain kinds of traditional and old fashion things. A while back I had this remarkable project that I loved so much I traveled around the United States whenever I could get time away for a week or two. I traveled to public school classrooms K through 12, half of them in urban areas half in rural, virtually all of them working with students who were not super privileged.
So I didn’t stack the deck by going to school districts or areas of cities where you imagine schooling to be terrific. I purposely went to places where there weren’t a lot of resources. But I what I did was I looked for and I found good classrooms. This is across the country north, south, east, west, rural, urban, this was a book called “Possible Lives”, and I cataloged characteristics of good teaching. You can imagine that what was going on in those classrooms was quite different. I mean if it was in Arizona near the Navaho or Hoppy Reservation it would be different than if it was in the central city in Chicago, and that would be different from rural Montana which was different from the Mississippi Delta.
So there’s all kinds of differences right, but what I was looking for as well were certain kinds of commonalities in what teachers did and how they did it. And what I came up with is a list that’s really not rocket science but it’s striking in its power. Let me quickly give you a few of the characteristics. The classroom these people created in their very different ways they were safe and respectful places. That is people treated each other civilly but they were safe and respectful also in that people felt free to challenge, teachers pushed students but in an atmosphere where students didn’t feel like they were being demeaned.
These classrooms were places where students were given various kinds of authority for their own knowledge. That is they had to be responsible for doing the work, for looking things up, for rewriting something, for coming back at a problem another way. But even though that went on these classrooms were also places where teachers figured out ways to give students a lot of support, a lot of assistance as they kept striving to do a little bit better and a little bit better and a little bit better. These classrooms were places where, as I just mentioned, there were high expectations, there were also places where you just could see teachers being so resourceful.
They had just a lot of material, a lot of ideas, and a lot of experience in their back pocket and they were able to use it in ways to respond to what students were doing or when students were making mistakes. These are the characteristics of good and healthy classrooms, whether they were going on in 1930 or 2030 where you have a knowledgeable and resourceful teacher where you’ve got a space that’s created where it’s safe and respectful. Where you have high expectations but also mean provided to meet those expectations, that kind of support where students have a chance to be authorities in the things that they’re learning. I don’t want us to lose those as we move ever forward into new ways of thinking about classrooms and new ways of using technology.
SPP: If you remove the teacher’s assistants I could compare that to my college experience where we were given the responsibility of making sure that we read and gained the knowledge ourselves, and we also had the decision whether we wanted to come to class or not, take the responsibility of that. So do you see that the college atmosphere is having an influence over how we’re teaching our younger kids now?
Dr. Rose: That’s a really interesting question historically because there’s always been a kind of downward pressure, if you want to call it that, from the college into the high school. That is as the high school was emerging as an institution in the 19th Century it’s curriculum looked virtually like a college curriculum except less intense I guess let’s advanced rather that’s the word I want. So there’s always been this kind of pressure or tension between the college and the high school, with the college kind of putting this downward pressure on the high school.
Now whether or not it’s a good thing that schooling in these colleges is like I’m not sure, I just don’t know I honestly don’t have an answer to that question. I think in the ways we were just talking about, that kind of independence and encouragement to do good work and be engaged in it, that you’re describing in your college experience. I think when we do see that in K through 12 it’s a powerful thing, but we got to remember these are young people. And particularly as you move down out of the high school and through middle and elementary school, and they’re going to need just a lot different level of support and emotional encouragement than you and I would have needed when we were in college.
So I take your point that really the point you’re making I think is that when you look at good education, regardless of the grade level or where it’s at, there are certain characteristics that are shared. But again depending on the level of development you’re going to need to provide maybe different kinds of support for students to be able to reach those goals and match those expectations. But you brought up a really interesting thing to talk about.
SPP: Dr. Rose I did want to talk about I mean we have been talking about the subject, but your book “Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us”, is again the first thing that caught my eye when we were looking you up. I really wanted to talk with you about it and it’s an incredible book. I wanted to ask you kind of what was your inspiration to do this. What was the reason behind it? What was the message you’re trying to get out to everyone?
Dr. Rose: There’s a lot of different topics covered in the book from ranging from elementary school education to college to the purpose of education to the kinds of issues we’ve talked about with testing and all of that. I mean there’s a range of things discussed in the book. I’d have to say that the overriding motive is to just get us to think about the initial question you raised, which is what is the purpose of education, and particularly what’s the purpose of education in a democracy in a free society?
The reason I wanted to think about that is because over the last, oh geez, 20, 25 years pretty much the only reason we’ve heard for sending kids to school or for going to college is the economic reasons, the economic motive. That is we need to prepare the next generation for the 21st Century economy and we need to maintain our economic position in the world, and the only way to do that is through the improved education of all of our young people. Okay I completely agree. Economic advancement has for a very long time been part of what has driven mass education in the United States. Absolutely.
I come from a working class background so I can tell you that school made a huge difference in my life in terms of my own economic mobility. So I am not trying to be snoody at all about the economic reasons for going to school. But you know there’s other reasons, especially in a free society that we send kids to school, and they’re the kind of things we’ve been talking about throughout this conversation.
We send kids to school to learn how to learn. We send kids to school to learn how to think things through with other people. We send kids to school for their own intellectual development. We send kids to school to find out new things, maybe even develop passions, and discover areas of study they didn’t know about before. We send kids to school for civic reasons, again the Jeffersonian ideal to be able to be fully functioning citizens in a democracy. But we haven’t heard any of that for at least a generation really from our policy makers and legislators. I kind of just wanted to just get that full range of reasons to go to school, to go to college. I wanted to get that full range of reasons back into the public conversation because I think they’re important. You’ve been bringing them up in various ways throughout this conversation.
SPP: My follow-on question to that is does it really matter that we’re behind so many other countries in terms of education, such as China, Japan, all these different countries that lead us in math and science? I mean when I look at it I can understand why the US is behind where our language doesn’t really help our kids in terms of numbers the way that we do, like a numbering system compared to China and Japan. Do you think it matters that we fall behind these countries?
Dr. Rose: Boy that is a big and important question. Gosh there’s so many things to say about it. So first of all let me say, I don’t want to be naïve about this and I don’t want to be dismissive. I mean of course it matters if we’re doing a good job or a not so good job in educating our kids, absolutely huge. One of the ways that people try to measure this is through these international comparisons that you’re talking about. But I guess what I want to point out is first a few things.
One is these comparisons can be misleading and when you talk to people who are testing experts they’ll tell you, that first of all sometimes we’re comparing apples and oranges. I mean our society is a very different society from Finland or South Korea who always end up way at the top. I mean our society is much larger, it’s much less homogenous, there’s a wider income gap in our society than in theirs. I mean there’s lots of factors that make the societies pretty different.
Second of all there’s technical issues that people bring up about testing itself. That is that the kinds of tests and testing across such different systems with such different cultural and linguistic background. So the first thing to say is that there are both technical as well as logistical kinds of reasons to not see those tests as the end all and be all Number 1. Number 2 I want to repeat I don’t want to be dismissive of them I just want us to be cautious in reading them.
The third thing to say is, and this touches on the question you asked, I worry about the way we read those results. You asked a real important question, I mean does it matter? Well in some senses it matters a lot, but what I think also matters is what lessons we learn from looking at those results. So if for example we say, oh my gosh Finland is way ahead of us and Singapore is and South Korea is. After we admit that we have pretty good kinds of societies then maybe we should get and look very closely at what it is that they do. I mean what is it that happens in their school system that we might learn from? Well their school goes longer. That’s interesting let’s look at that.
Their teachers have much more status than they do in our country and they have a richer kind of professional development. Well gee let’s look at that. Maybe instead of spending tens of gazillions of dollars in all of these elaborate testing schemes that we have what if we spent that money on a richer more robust teacher development I mean that’s connected and tied to national science foundation and the National Council of Teachers of English and these places that could create long through the internet long and rich kinds of professional development for teachers.
So if we look at the scores that way, that is can we learn something from what these places do with the way they think about school and teaching, there’s something we can learn from that then I say the test have a legitimate purpose. But what scares me is when people just start treating it like its March Madness. They say “Oh my God look at the rankings we’re Number 8 or something”, and they just look at that and they don’t analyze it further and think about it and then we panic. That’s not the right way to look at those results. We want to be more thoughtful about it and kind of be more curious and open as to what we can learn.
SPP: Yeah I think the way I phrased the question might not have been so fair asking if it matters, because obviously as you mentioned of course it matters. I guess it’s more towards what you were bringing up is it fair to measure us to these other countries when there is so many different things going on. I appreciate that answer it was great.
Dr. Rose: Again South Korea, Finland and the United States are pretty profoundly different places. Now that doesn’t mean to say everything we do is right and what they do is wrong I’m not even trying to lay any value judgment I’m just saying that objectively speaking they’re very different places. I mean in Singapore, for example, you’ve got a central ministry of education. This country would never stand for a kind of central ministry of education coming out of Washington that dictated what everybody did in terms of their curriculum.
So you’re right we have pretty profound cultural differences. You know what, there’s one other thing that I just saw in a report, and I haven’t had a chance to read it further, but let me throw it out there. The reason that we hear all the time that we should be worried about these international rankings is because, again the economic that this is a sign that we’re falling further and further behind in our competitiveness. What’s interesting is that when you look at some of those lists you see there’s some countries that actually have pretty robust economies are further down than we are; Germany for example. So that was curious to me because that would suggest that there’s not just a one-to-one correlation between where you fall in these tests and the inequality of your economy. So again it just gets back to the point you’re making that we have to be really careful about just seeing these single digit rankings as con6taining more information than they do. There’s a lot that we don’t know, there’s a lot they don’t tell us. I think it’s bad when we overact to those results.
SPP: Well Dr. Rose I know we’ve taken up a lot of time here, probably more than we said we were going to, but it’s been so interesting and something that we’re really glad to get on the show. I mentioned your book “Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us” I wanted to ask you if there’s anywhere else you’d like to lead our listeners to, a Web site you might have or a cause, or anything you want to make known to anyone you can?
Dr. Rose: Well you can certainly direct leaders to my Web site that would be terrific. I would appreciate. Well gosh thank guys. SPP: Yeah thank you so much.
Dr. Rose: Thanks for the good questions.
Dr. Rose: Thanks again guys.
SPP: Thanks so much Dr. Rose, have a good day.
Dr. Rose: Take care. Bye.