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Teaching Opinion

Can Changing the Discourse Change the School?

By Paul Barnwell — January 15, 2008 3 min read
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How often do you hear, read, or speak the words data, core content, depth of knowledge, grades, standards, comparisons, future, rigor, or test scores? If you are employed in a public school, your answer is probably somewhere between “often” and “a staggering amount.” Our current discourse is, regrettably, dominated by language relating to academic achievement. Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for utilizing standards, test scores, and similar methods as a piece of measuring teaching and learning. But we are caught in an era when scholastic success is defined far too narrowly.

Perhaps you relate comfortably to the aforementioned terms. But take a moment to recall your initial motives for becoming a teacher. Do the terms inspiring students, relationships, passion for learning, individual growth, and happiness come to mind? In your current workplace environment, do you feel able to use language that reflects those initial impulses that fed your drive to work in the classroom? Do you ever ponder how hard it has become to begin a conversation with your colleagues or administrators that employs language other than the discourse of academic achievement?

When I tell my co-workers that I loathe the constant data collection and analysis we engage in, because it depersonalizes education and pulls our focus away from such crucial challenges as inspiring kids, creating authentic assignments, and building relationships, most of my arguments fall on deaf ears. This is partly because I’m often using a vastly different form of discourse.

A discourse based on human development might spur grassroots initiatives that would challenge the seemingly endless flow of top-down mandates for schools.

“Discourse” is institutional language that influences and reflects values and practices in organizations. It can dictate what goes on, and make it very difficult for those who oppose the dominant themes to have their voices heard. Right now, there is no debate: Academic-achievement discourse—the rigor, data, and test-score talk—rules the day. Yet there are plenty of reasons to resist this language rut. If we step back and examine the values and practices we are supposed to be propagating within our standards-based framework, we can see them clearly.

One alternative comes from Thomas Armstrong’s The Best Schools: How Human Development Research Should Inform Educational Practice, in which the outlines of a “human-development discourse” are sketched.

In this type of discourse, people focus on methods of measuring individual student improvement instead of collecting numerical data to compare schools, districts, and states. They emphasize the process of learning, rather than than the end product. Their school dialogue relies on such “human” measures of assessment as authentic student projects, discussion, and anecdotal evidence.

Unfortunately, however, quantitative data seem to be all that matter right now in most schools. And yet, a discourse based on human development might spur grassroots initiatives that would challenge the seemingly endless flow of top-down mandates for schools. It certainly would put greater value on fostering the development of students who enjoy learning and desire to become responsible citizens. At present, our bottom line is more about high test scores and money than it is about these more valuable human traits.

If you believe, as I do, that a passion for learning is the No. 1 thing you can instill in your students, resist the deluge of academic-achievement discourse and embrace the broader and more humane aspects of human-development discourse.

Talk to co-workers about exciting things you are doing in your classroom to inspire children, even if that isn’t a strategy that will positively affect test scores. Discuss with your principal ways in which your school can celebrate the process of learning, rather than care solely for the end product of testing indexes.

Recognizing and thoughtfully challenging the current dominant discourse in our field is one way we can positively affect our school cultures, moving the classroom closer to being a place where scores on state tests under the No Child Left Behind Act are seen as useful indicators of student achievement, but not the defining measure of what we value in schools.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Can Changing the Discourse Change The School?

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