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We're Asking All the Wrong Questions

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The problems with education in America are many and complex. Perhaps the most insidious and unrecognized among them can be summed up in one elementary observation: The quality of the answers one gets is dependent on the quality of the questions one asks. In education policy and practice, we are almost always asking the wrong questions.

Take, as one example, a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times by Annie Murphy Paul titled, "The Trouble With Homework." In this article Ms. Paul describes the cognitive principles that increase the efficacy of homework. Among them, as many educators know, are ideas like spreading the rehearsal of skills or information (spaced repetition) over a period of time, rather than concentrated sessions, and the value of "retrieval practice," a method of reinforcing and strengthening recall.

Ms. Paul salts and peppers her piece with a familiar barrage of statistics related to student performance on standardized tests and offers, of course, another iteration of how we are falling behind (fill in the blank with Singapore, Finland or others, depending on your geographic or cultural preferences).

To save space, I'll stipulate that Ms. Paul is right about the brain science, although I must add that it's really nothing new. Where I believe she errs is in asking the wrong question, which she ironically does by suggesting that others are asking the wrong question. She writes,

"Do American students have too much homework or too little? Neither, I'd say. We ought to be asking a different question altogether. What should matter to parents and educators is this: How effectively do children's after-school assignments advance learning?"

The unexamined question, which is the only one of real importance, is "what is learning?" Accepting Ms. Paul's thesis or accepting the policies and practices imposed on most schools and children in America requires agreeing to a definition of learning that is most disagreeable (at least to me): This definition might be stated, "Learning is the process of remembering information and skills that have been presented in order to reiterate them as accurately as possible." If you accept this definition of learning, don't waste your time reading the rest of this piece, as your time will be better spent reading Ms. Paul's column and learning (or memorizing!) as much as possible about acquisition and retention of information. If you really want to remember it, read the piece every three days for the next few months!

I don't mean to create a false dilemma. Certainly the acquisition and retention of information and skills has some value in education and, in a limited respect, Ms. Paul probably offers some useful advice. However, there are more powerful and important dimensions to learning that are either neglected or disabled by current practices in most schools.

Even among the "reformers" and bureaucrats who chase accountability and metrics, lip service is given to creativity, critical thinking skills, innovation, imagination, etc. While they claim to care about these things, there is neither time nor adequate resources to cultivate these qualities. In the frenetic pursuit of school improvement, which is only measured by testing students on the acquisition and retention cited by Ms. Paul and others, the truly valuable aspects of learning have been systematically eliminated from schools.

At a deeper level of neurobiology, evidence hints that the process of efficiently learning and remembering information, precisely as presented by the teacher or textbook, may actually decrease creativity, critical thinking skills and the crucial ability to extend learning to the novel problems and situations students will inevitably encounter. That argument would require a longer and much more dense exposition than space allows.

If we pursue current practices with increasingly ruthless efficiency, we may create a generation of successful Jeopardy contestants, but there are few things less interesting than a person filled with information and bereft of ideas and imagination.

Jeopardy can only examine one's ability to recall what came before. Our educational system should be preparing children to imagine and inspire what comes next.