A Draft Response to Greenberg’s “Counting What Can’t Be Counted”
I am a sometime coop member at Coop Catalyst, lurking and generally avoiding being run over by some of the smartest most empathic folks blogging in education today. Zoe Weil’s re-posting of Arnold Greenberg’s “Counting What Can’t Be Counted” was the occasion for a quick response. I use Diigo for annotating and then edit in Word so this might be a bit rough, but I am not seeking a finished product but rather a done one. Time makes haphazards of us all. Thanks to Zoe for the re-post.
Greenberg asserts that there is little difference between NCLB and RTTT. Can’t help but agree especially from the classroom ground level. It is all carrots and sticks. Il n’y a pas de difference. We have truly bad folk at the policy level and Greenberg sniffs that out without naming names, but he most decidedly kicks ass in this post.
He quotes Einstein who said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Great quote, and a succinct summing up of purpose. Which is? Greenberg is a countervailing force against the positivist quants running amock in education today. The problem is that he seems just as interested in ‘measuring‘ as any educational statistician.
Our current approach to education hasn’t changed in over two hundred years? Echoing John Taylor Gatto’s refrain in his Underground History of American Education, Greenberg needs to at least offer us a few examples of how things have not changed. They are there both large and small and might have included the industrial control model that blocks websites and social networking tools in K-12 schools or the omnipresence of bells a la Frederick Taylor.
Greenberg briefly mentions self-educated individuals. What qualities and characteristics enabled autodidacts to learn the essential skills without formal schooling, but also to be creative, determined people who lived significant, productive lives? Self-educated people are Karl Popper’s falsifiables, counterfactuals to the industrial model of education started by Horace Mann and the Prussians. I would certainly like to see more here because the mere presence of these self-taughts is some evidence against the status quo.
Greenberg is upset with the current fetish for quantification that has and is being tied to both carrots and sticks. I think that in our current crisis we need to be watching for those who would exploit that for a new system that denies the need for public schooling in the first place and raises the divisive flag of the gated community: I’ve got mine, the devil take the hindmost.
Can we learn to count what can’t be counted?
Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know. It is chosen and foreordained and he only holds the key to its secret.” Emerson implies that only our heart of hearts can answer that question. This telling quote explains the necessity of allowing students to actually hold the key to their own learning. I think that what Emerson is alluding to is what some call informal learning. However you look at it, it is highly idiosyncratic and slippery and impossible to count because it is by its very nature, subjective and whole. And you most certainly not count it with a Carnegie Unit, an opinion I agree with totally. The Carnegie Unit as the original ‘atom’ of education. If we can name it, we can measure it, so sayeth the left brain in its struggle for certainty in an unmeasurable and complex world.
His reliance on Tom Friedman’s, The World is Flat and Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” are a damned frail read to lean upon. Kind of touching how he relies on both of these low-rent scholars, the former a shill for those who believe that the status quo which created the educational system can fix it and the latter a politician who painted with such a broad brush that he laid the groundwork for climate change deniers.
Greenberg lays forth the challenge here: this is a very different world, one where the internet (the virtual) and unsustainable pressures on the environment are rendering it unrecognizable. Is that it? This false dichotomy is not unlike the one he starts with–choose between counting and not counting. Let the emphasis fall on ‘false’ and let us get beyond both forks of that phony dilemma.
His solution? we must consider the research on how the brain works and stop pushing against that river. I agree especially considering the revolutions we are seeing in cognitive research reflected in the incredible scholarly work of philosophers like Iain McGilchrist in his magnum opus, The Master and His Emissary.
His second solution amounts to adopting a project and problem based learning. Do schools follow solution two? Nor hardly even. Curriculum, high stakes testing, core content, tests almighty, adult-structured extra-curricular activity (please, just look at what adults call fun and play), and peer controlled activity are all contrary to his playful approach. He does point out that the original meaning of the word school is leisure. Anyone who goes to schools or works in them will be struck by that irony.
His sidewise slap at Wall Street is one of the most interesting observations in a piece that is full of neat nooks and crannies, “Bailing out our banks and Wall Street without really changing how they do business and expecting different results is a form of Einstein’s insanity.”Incredible how analogous our problems in education are with Wall Street. They both draw from the same pot of insanity. New core standards and testings amount to nothing new. At heart the whole business no longer works yet we carry on as if.
His third solution is to stop doing what we are doing. Taking a page from Seymour Sarason (and Einstein, too) he asserts that hierarchies cannot reform because they are only capable of re-presenting that which is already there. Re-arranging the carrots and sticks in ever more Byzantine leads us deep into Escher houses that lead to nowhere while appearing to go somewhere.
So what are the alternatives? A damned paradigm shift–ughh how I despise this phrase. What we need is a narrative that fits better. That can be as appalling in its disruption. Like its innocuous kissing cousin, ‘innovation’, most change agents have no idea of the intended much less the unintended consequences that will result.
He pushes for a problem-based or project-based learning system. In other words, he wants an open-ended approach to open-ended questions that is very like Socrates’ and his peripatetic walks through the groves of Academe. In other words, we need to take our cues from the word inside ‘question’-quest. Schools should show us the important questions and the way to quest after answers. He assumes that learning is as natural as breathing–is it? In this constructivist approach, effective learning is created when students use what they know to solve problems that are personally interesting. These solutions are both idiosyncratic and collaborative and don’t amount to just pushing atoms of data and facts around in different configurations. Greenberg implies that they probably need to be big problems, not dinky little ones hardly worth the trouble of pinning down and eating.
In an effort to make his recommendations more palatable he substitutes the three R’s for the four Cs: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication.Teacher role and student role must change under this new regime and this implies different behaviors and expectations. Consenting partner in learning, collegial friendship sound great after a certain age, but I wonder about how these translate down the age chain.
Greenberg does get down to it with some concrete, essential questions upon which a problem-based curriculum can be founded.
- The New Standards in the Problem-Based Curriculum?
- Can the learner ask worthy and appropriate questions?
- Can the learner communicate clearly and collaboratively both orally and in writing?
- Can the learner direct his own learning independently and sustainably?
- Can the reader manage workflow in and out of his or her life wisely, efficiently, effectively, and joufully?
Gotta love that last one’s inherent appeal to the right hemisphere.
He finally returns to that original inspiring question: is it possible to “count” what can’t be counted? Much like qualitative researchers have discovered, this is a ‘yes, but…’ answer. Greenberg echoes sociological ‘triangulation’ research where you ‘count’ different ways from different places. One of those places is inside the student. Another place is outside the student–the tests. Another would be from peers. This does not exhaust the many places to count. None are valorized, all have value.
He does push for a problem-based curriculum theorized by Mark Van Ryzin- a research-based answer? How very NCLB! Psychologist Mary Clark suggests that autonomy, bonding, and meaning as a way into a new schooling. Autonomy is the discovery of one’s inner landscape that will allow some ways to flourish and others to languish. Bonding is social values, outside of the self and partly under our control. Meaning is our personal and controlled (think Stoics here) sense of purpose that also situates one within that community.
Greenberg goes on, “Comparing the growth in these areas as students transition from a traditional to a problem-based approach with the results of standardized tests of academic achievement would provide significant information that could encourage more schools to adopt a problem based approach and radically change how schools look and operate.” Disappointing here: he has already said that these are apples and oranges, oil and water, sand and silk. How are we to compare them? Research by the quants? No, he has already dismissed that. The proof is in the lives of the students. That is long term and beyond the hope and scope of our mostly limited research zeitgeist.
This article is well worth the read. It is a touchstone. Or at least it was for me. Quality has proved an illusory concept since the Heraclitus and Plato ‘had at it’ long ago. Or perhaps the battle has been going on for as long as our minds have had two hemispheres.
Teachers are looking for ways to move past this dilemma. See the transcript here for a recent #edchat that dances with the very question of Project Based Learning and its place in the sometimes minefield, sometimes Eden we call K-12.
“Arnold Greenberg is Co-founder and Director of Liberty School–A Democratic Learning Community in Blue Hill, Maine, beginning its tenth year. He also founded the Miquon Upper School in 1970, now called Crefeld School, in Philadelphia and the Deep Run School of Homesteading and Community in York, Pennslyvania. He wrote a book on education, called “Adventures on Arnold’s Island.”