Stairway to heaven (aka learning is NOT linear)

In a recent Education Week editorial, Patrick Mattimore, an AP psychology teacher in San Francisco, argued for national standards and a single set of national tests for use under a reauthorized NCLB. Among several pieces of faulty logic in his argument is this statement: ‘Learning proceeds hierarchically. Learning at the highest levels depends on students having attained prerequisite knowledge and skills at lower levels.’

Intuitive as this statement may appear, it is in practice not true. In fact, students are quite capable of thinking and learning at what we would consider the “highest levels” (think: Bloom’s or other taxonomies), while having significant gaps in what is traditionally considered “lower level” skills. Even more common, students with a solid grasp of lower level facts and skills often falter when faced with higher level cognitive demands or situations.

For example: As a secondary English teacher I have taught many students who came from the elementary level with great word attack skills (phonics, phonemic awareness, not to mention flawless articulation) yet struggled with even the most basic comprehension of text.

On the other hand, I’ve had many more students who could not pronounce many of the grade level words they saw on a page or spell them if asked, but could share profound interpretation and application of the concepts behind those words during class discussions.

As a teacher of writing, I have watched many students at both secondary and collegiate level seemingly lose control of basic writing skills as they explore new genres or topics. Later, as they grow more comfortable with their ideas and the stylistic issues, the basic writing issues disappear.

These observations are supported in the research on learning. Which is why I so dislike grade levels and the crippling (to students) notion that each child can or should learn exactly the same pre-packaged blocks of knowledge at pre-set age levels.

No, real learning and real teaching is more of a spiral; sometimes appearing to swirl downwards before it soars upward. That’s why our methods of measurement have to be more sophisticated and varied. Having flexible, multiple measures is not the same as having no measures or standards at all. As education professionals, we should be able to understand and explain the differences.