I was fortunate enough to come across The School as a Community of Engaged Learners, by Penelope Eckert, Shelley Goldman, and Etienne Wenger of Stanford’s Institute for Research and Learning. Unfortunately, the IRL closed in 2000, but this document remains as timely as ever. It does so because it understands learning as a practice that takes place within a social context, and imagines learning as so much more than the simple acquisition of knowledge that can be simply tested. These authors understand that the damaging premise of testing as the leverage for change has co-opted the school reform movement and left students and teachers alienated and laboring under a false identity determined by “achievement.”
School is necessarily a place of coming to understand who we are because our identity is developed through connection to others. It’s crucial to understand that the quality of these connections is the basis for all learning because our identity is the foundation for what we learn. Identity comes as a result of who and what we belong to. We learn from those in a community that we see ourselves a part of. (Frank Smith calls these connections of belonging “learners clubs.”) We have the opportunity to work with this necessary function of identity development so that it becomes a positive force connected to learning as belonging for the benefit of all, or to leave it as an aside so that students are left alone to develop alienated, truncated identities (thus truncating their learning) structured from a competition that is based upon superficial data, making some “winners,” and many more “losers.”
From the document:
“In fact, learning becomes problematic in school to the extent that the school focuses on learning as an endeavor in itself, rather than as a means to building social relations and engaging in meaningful activity. No amount of change in schools will produce significant results unless the nature of school as a social entity is taken seriously. No amount of clever delivery of subject matter will capture the imaginations and energies of students who feel that their opportunities for social development lie elsewhere…
Currently, the only legitimate opportunity for developing identities around learning in the classroom is along a linear scale of ‘better’ or ‘worse’ student, based on the standardized performance of standardized tasks. This guarantees that the major social dynamics motivating learning will be a competition among peers and the eagerness to please one’s elders. Kids, like their elders, seek participation in communities that afford complex forms of membership and creative identities. In our traditional schools, the greatest opportunity for creative social activity is in resistance or ‘subversive behavior: disruption, cheating, tardiness, apathy, violence, drugs, self destruction.” (Emphasis added)
High stakes testing and standardization completely ignore the social function necessary for learning. “Data,” “accountability,” and “rigor,” all ignore the understanding that our identity is not formed separately from our communities of belonging. Such language represents automatized, conscripted versions of community, and therefore learning, and as such are completely powerless to “produce significant results.” The corporatist approach to education reform is faulty at its core precisely because it imagines learning all too simplistically as the individualized, privatized acquisition of bits of knowledge. It’s an impoverished, alienating view of schooling because it is an impoverished, alienated way of imagining what it means to be human.
Please read the whole document here.