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Student Well-Being Opinion

Superbugs and Ailing Schools

By Thomas E. Ricks — July 06, 2009 6 min read
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Embarrassing performance on international assessments, mortifying dropout rates, and proliferating remedial college courses are but a few of the indicators telling us that U.S. education needs drastic improvement. Many have described this need in terms of a paradigm shift.

Perhaps another recent paradigm shift, one that is revolutionizing the critically important field of bacteriology, can offer educators some timely advice.

Bacteriologists, long dominated by a laboratory model of culturing bacteria in nutrient-saturated mediums, saw their research subjects as primitive (1) eating and (2) reproducing machines. This paradigm limited their understanding of the rise of deadly new bacterial strains resistant to the most powerful antibiotics. These so-called superbugs were believed to arise through inherited immunity. Antibiotics were culling the colony, researchers assumed, leaving intact the most robust cells to reproduce into drug-proof strains. Medical research has therefore focused on developing more and more-powerful antibiotics to battle this increasing resistance.

Now, researchers have looked deeper and are scrambling to make up for lost time. Recent research has revealed that superbug strains emerge not so much from inherited genetic immunity, but through active collaboration and strategic “problem-solving” at the colony level. In other words, bacteria are literally outwitting our most powerful drugs. Armed with a new paradigm addressing colony relationships, researchers can see how hostile environments trigger individual bacteria to drop their meek facades and join forces. They become tenacious allies with a knack for self-organization and collective intelligence—billions strong.

The colony forms a complex system of intertwined, interrelated, mutually reinforcing members exhibiting emergent behavior not possessed by individual cells. Using various chemicals (simple molecules, polymers, peptides) and more-complex molecules (proteins, bits of genetic material, plasmids, and viruses), bacteria engage in a colonywide cacophony of cellular chatter known as a genomic web. By exchanging genetic material and splicing it into existing DNA, they develop genetic solutions that are rapidly broadcast across the colony.

In experiments in which specially bred, nonimmune bacteria were exposed to low-level antibiotics, the entire colony developed genetic immunity in as little as 48 hours. Researchers are now trying to develop drugs that disrupt bacterial communication—as opposed to just developing stronger antibiotics—in an effort to beat the superbugs.

Contemporary education suffers from a restrictive paradigm similar to the one that plagued bacteriology for so long: Somehow, people think that education is primarily about helping the student learn content knowledge. How like the old bacterial paradigm this is. The student is viewed as (1) “consuming” and (2) “reproducing” curricular knowledge. Current trends, such as differentiation, tracking, scaffolding, personal portfolio assessments, high-stakes testing, and state-mandated benchmarks all emphasize that education is about individual internalization and reproduction of knowledge.

This paradigm has shaped what happens in schools for decades; emphasis on the individual trumps group learning, classrooms are tolerated as a necessary inconvenience, and many educators want class sizes reduced, a one-teacher/one-pupil ratio being the utopian ideal. Similarly, a knowledge-dominated curriculum encourages incremental development; signs of struggle signal that the teaching-learning process is stalling. Because learning is seen to be completely internal to the individual—and, let’s face it, students are not transparent—assessment requires content reproduction to verify content consumption. Assessment becomes an awkward appendage to instruction, interrupting the flow of learning, rather than being an integrated supporting feature.

Debates under this same paradigmatic umbrella offer little more than support for the same cause. It’s like bacteriologists debating what type of nutrient-saturated medium they should grow their cultures on. It really doesn’t matter, because nutrient-saturated bacteria are unlike bacteria in the wild that must band together to succeed. Likewise, when education is viewed as helping individual students memorize and regurgitate content in struggle-free environments, there should be little wonder that “school” becomes a strange half-world largely unconnected to real life.

The new educational paradigm accommodates relationships, meaning that content acts as a catalyst for, rather than the core of, curricula. What lies at the core of education is not what students encounter, but how they encounter it, how they experience, interpret, engage, relate to, and respond to classroom circumstances. Rather than having students be consumers and reproducers of knowledge, in this new paradigm content would be used as a point of departure to allow students to be generators and sharers of the curriculum.

Students would succeed not because of natural talent or inherited intelligence, but because they have become fuller participants in communities of practice that struggle jointly to generate solutions to problems. Students could be allowed to band together in larger collectives, forming their own group (genomic-like) mental webs. The class could form a complex system of intertwined, interrelated, mutually reinforcing members (teacher included), exhibiting intellectual capabilities that supersede any one individual’s.

Assessment could occur naturally under this model, because collaborative work would expose students’ understandings to the scrutiny of the community. How students made sense of ideas could be evaluated by the teacher, the students, even peers, through the normal process of collaborative consideration, inquiry, questioning, analysis, experimenting, justification, synthesis, and understanding.

There is no need, in this new paradigm, for assessment that is separate from instruction, because the creative genesis of ideas, questions, possibilities, counterexamples, connections, insights, and solutions that are disseminated through sharing provide clear opportunity for all to see, consider, and value the actions of others in collaborative educational processes. Teachers do not teach content, nor do they teach students. They engender environments that allow gradual awareness, reflective habits of mind, and collaborative reasoning.

Such teachers are out there now. I know, because I have seen them—I search for and document (in weeks-long, multiperiod video case-studies) public school teachers who are learning to engage their classes in such a way. They may be few and far between, but their numbers are growing. These are teachers willing to challenge the traditional consumption/reproduction paradigm.

I often find such teachers clustered in the same (or in nearby) schools (perhaps proximity permits sharing and risk-taking). They are willing to experiment, willing to put their students’ education ahead of any prevailing cultural currents. These teachers capitalize on already inherent, but normally dormant, classroom potentials. They realize that superficial contact with content is no education, and that reproduction of curricula is of no benefit beyond the classroom. For them, success is a generative, collaborative experience.

The good news is that the infrastructure to support this new educational paradigm is already in place. We have students in classrooms, and classrooms nestled in schools. Bacteria have much to teach us about utilizing collective energy. When the conditions bacteria experience are changed, these consuming and reproducing individual cells are allowed to rapidly transform themselves into “intelligent,” collaborating colonies that generate evolutionary solutions. Perhaps likewise, the tweaking of conditions in the classroom would allow individual learners—already in proximity—to develop into reasoning, generative collectives.

Bacteria are certainly doing a good job at this. Maybe we can follow their example.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as Superbugs and Ailing Schools


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