One way to create real understanding of something is to shine a new light on it in the hope that something new will be revealed. Due to the way the human brain works this is actually harder to do than it sounds.
Our brains seem wired to pay attention to smallest amount of material possible in the construction of meaning. It isn’t that they are lazy, but rather, we seem to have limited amounts of memory and processing power and natural selection seems to have made us very efficient in this regard. We take what we need to generate meaning and then we’re on to the next thing.
That’s why metaphor works. I can read “my love is like a red, red rose” and imagine the vibrant color and the rich fragrance and my associations are positive, and yet that ignores the fact that roses have thorns such that gloves have to be worn when you pick them. Or in the case of the Christian image that Jesus’ followers are like sheep, our brains go to the caring part of the image in which the shepherd will spend considerable time going after and caring for a wandering lamb. This, in turn, ignores the fact that shepherding is an economic function and that many of those lambs will soon be turned into roasts and chops.
The field of education is particularly susceptible to this phenomenon. As just one example, standards, assessments, and accountability, on their own, are all powerful terms that most reasonable people would want to be a part of the educational package. But most people—and this includes most of those in a position to address the policy issues in education—stop there and leave the rest of whatever that means to others.
What if what we call educational standards aren’t actually standards? How do standardized tests actually work? What are they actually designed to tell us? Are they the best tool for determining the quality of a school? Is the premise that rising test scores are always an indicator of good things actually true? Is the accountability system actually designed to produce excellence?
We owe it to ourselves to ask and thoroughly explore such questions.
At present, the educational conversation seems to stop at the pronouncement that standards, standardized tests, and accountability are all necessary parts of the system. We will never know the veracity of that statement until we force our brains to a level of understanding well beyond the level of utterance.