It is a tragedy the message many students receive in our schools today louder than all others is, “We have zero tolerance for mistakes or failure.” The creative process is all about being willing to take risks, fail, and learn from those mistakes as we try again. I am not saying we should celebrate failure, but in the spirit of the “failure bow” we should recognize the vital role failure plays in the learning process. It is ridiculous to intentionally promote learning cultures where people who fail believe they will be metaphorically killed. Such an environment of fear is conducive only to the lowest levels of cognitive processing: What scientists and social psychologists call the “fight or flight” response. Is it any wonder we have so little focus on critical thinking and higher-order thinking in our classrooms dominated by stick-wielding adults myopically focused on high-stakes testing?

The following parody seems sadly appropriate in this context:

Despair Inc. on Mistakes

We need national policies as well as local cultures which reject fear and invite learners to take appropriate, reasoned risks together as they engage in learning activities they care about– and are frequently even FUN! Radical I know, but don’t you want to have fun when you learn? It is not always possible, but it is certainly possible to have more fun and directly experience LESS FEAR than many of our students and teachers do today in our classrooms.

The Aspen Institute’s Commission on NCLB released its report yesterday recommending reauthorization of NCLB. The full report (available as a free PDF file) includes 75 recommendations. I have not read them all yet, but I disagree with the opening paragraph of the report’s “Call to Action” which begins on page 159:

Over the past five years, NCLB has changed the educational landscape in our nation by demanding improved achievement, enhancing our understanding of teacher quality, strengthening classroom practice and increasing options for students. These changes, we believe, have benefited students, families, schools and our nation. We also know, however, that NCLB has not made enough impact on student achievement. We must improve the law to drive progress further and faster. We know that we must do more to ensure that all students achieve at high levels and that every school succeeds.

NCLB, high stakes accountability, the standards movement and an overall educational culture driven more by fear than by vision and opportunity has become business as usual for U.S. students, educators and parents. This 231 page report (funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Spencer Foundation) ends with the following statement strategically positioned over a close-up image of the American flag:

It’s time to take a bold step forward and commit to significantly improving NCLB. We must insist on high achievement for all students. Our nation’s children deserve it.

It’s not time to improve NCLB. It’s time to repeal it and start reinventing the U.S. public education system based on the realities of the 21st century and the information economy, rather than the 19th century and the industrial revolution.

We need school 2.0, not a reauthorization of a failed program. More recess, fewer tests, structured activities, and homework please! It’s time to Reject Rigor: Embrace Differentiation, Flexibility, and High Expectations. High stakes testing is the enemy, not the solution to the challenges which beset us in education and society as a broader whole.

How many more wealthy families will abandon public education and opt for home-schooling or private schooling before our leaders get the message? Are the children and grandchildren of the authors of this report going to U.S. public schools now? Are they enjoying the fear, the worksheets, the countless “benchmark” tests, and the general lack of ENGAGEMENT, fun, and authentic learning which tends to predominate in many classrooms? I doubt it.

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