Education: Specific Knowledge versus Philosophical Ideals

There is a great deal of controversy regarding “No Child Left Behind.” The largest part of the legislation is using standardized tests to measure whether specific was learned. Critics primary objection is that teachers are now teaching to the standardized tests used to measure results as opposed to encouraging more abstract thinking. The critics are equally right and equally wrong. Why is this?

If you look at the objectives required for each grade level in public school, you will find lot’s of philosophically based mission statements. An example of this is: This document outlines the goals by grade level for the state of Washington for reading skills. This document is typical of what most states use. Looking at page 13, for 6th grade we see:

Understand and apply content/academic vocabulary critical to the meaning of text.
– Identify and define content area vocabulary critical to the meaning of the text and use that knowledge to interpret the text.
– Identify words that have different meanings in different content areas and determine the correct meaning from the context (e.g., property in science or social studies).
– Select, from multiple choices, the meaning of words or phrases identified in the text.
– Use new vocabulary in oral and written communication.

These documents describe abstract goals that students should achieve. Nowhere are particular goals stated. Over time professional educators have replaced specific goals with abstract goals. At one time there would have been specific lists of vocabulary for each grade. The problem with the current goals is that they are difficult to test for.

What we really need is a combination of both the abstract goals and specific goals. This will give us testability and allow us to have a system that encourages thinking. What has made the US successful economically has been our ability to think “out of the box,” to be able to invent, to create new ideas. Having an educational system built on philosophy helps create people who can create new ideas. Unfortunately having abstract goals does not allow us to educate to specific goals. Not knowing a standard set of words, not understanding the multiplication tables does not help us cope with daily tasks. Other countries emphasize rote learning, not abstract thinking. We need to have a balance of both.

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