Sound familiar? Usually, such sentiments are around food and health – “you are what you eat.” However, when applied to education, the sentiment takes on an entirely different, yet equally important meaning. In fact, it supersedes all other like sentiments as it begs the question of what we learn as a guiding principle of everything else we choose to do.

If we learn the importance of good nutrition and exercise, we end up living healthier. If we learn the negative impact of nicotine consumption, we end up less likely succumbing to respiratory diseases. If we learn tolerance of others’ views, the world is a quieter, safer place. If we learn that crime carries stiff punishments, we likely will avoid them. If we learn the importance of life-long learning, we tend to gain knowledge and skills that offer a better life style. If we learn ……., well you get the picture. The list is endless.

To state the obvious – learning is the pivotal endgame. If learning goes well, good things tend to happen. If it does not, then life is less pleasant. Therefore, it is extremely important that, as a society, we provide optimum opportunities for learning – something we have not been very successful doing, and for a long time.

By the way, when I speak of learning, I’m not speaking of school or at least school as we believe it to be. I am reflecting on a process where the focus is on providing opportunities for students of all ages to demonstrate mastery of content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. A process where content is student specific and tailored to an individual’s unique learning interests and styles. Some call this personalized learning; others refer to it as competency-based learning. Regardless of what it is called, it is not an option in most of today’s school settings, and that is a shame.

The over emphasis on standardized testing has created a vacuum wherein innovation, ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and creativity are not welcome partners in the educational processes. Better we should evaluate mastery of skills and knowledge through real life, performance-based assessments than on either print or digital standardized tests. Assessments where students have to respond to unpredictable scenarios and use complex problem solving skills to demonstrate what they learned in math, science, or other content area classes. Life, after all, is not a standardized test. My sense is that a more innovative approach, one that Tyler Thigpen refers to as relationship-centered education, would greatly enhance the overall relevance of today’s educational processes in many students’ eyes.

[This is one of several commentaries that will be appearing on CHIE’s blog this year around improving the way education is provided.]
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