What should we measure?

My four-year-old is learning how to write. There is some concern at his preschool that this is not happening fast enough. My first reaction to this concern was one of dismay. Then I realized the complexity of the situation. For one, there is not much modeling happening at home. His mother and I are both highly educated, his sister is high-achieving and academically advanced, and we all spend a lot of time reading and writing, but these activities are performed on glowing electronic rectangles, not with pencils and paper. I wonder if we should be skipping the handwriting and teaching my son how to type (he’s already quite adept at touch screens, on multiple OS’ even- is that important? or measurable?).

I don’t want this to come across as hyperbolic tech evangelism (“books will become obsolete; therefore, ipads for all toddlers!”), nor do I want it to be neo-luddite dismissal (“no glowing rectangles allowed in my home; because they rot your brain!”). And this is certainly not an indictment of my son’s preschool (they’re great). But I wonder if there are different ways to approach measurement and development?

Right now it seems like the unwritten rules of educational institutions are designed to be self-reinforcing:

  • There are right ways to do things and right ways to know things
  • The use of technology shall be strictly monitored and controlled to prevent disruptive or distracted behavior
  • What worked for previous generations works for current generations
  • The memorization of words and symbols shall be the primary objective of most learning activities
  • The categorization of individuals into year-based grades is too entrenched to reconsider
  • The categorization of learning into disciplinary subjects is too entrenched to reconsider
  • Uniformity is equitable
  • Everyone functions in a scheduled, structured environment
  • Introversion is a disorder

I don’t have a fully-developed alternative model, but off the top of my head there are some additional assumptions that could be applied to the incumbent conventions of educational institutions, much like creative commons licenses are layered on top of traditional copyright to reimagine the concepts of ownership. Here’s what a sort of creative commons bolt-on set of rules for education might look like:

  • Behavior and learning should not be conflated
  • Students should have opportunities to demonstrate and to teach each other things they are good at
  • Our bodies and moods have lots to communicate; our environments should be accommodating by providing some freedom and flexibility (e.g., be alone or quiet if we feel like it; not eat if we’re not hungry, etc.)
  • Positive encouragement is good but should not be confused with rewarding apathy or inactivity (which is bad)
  • Creativity should be encouraged
  • Things have a tendency to resolve themselves naturally
  • Anything can be interesting
  • Passion and love are contagious

I know my son will learn how to write. And he will be great at it, if he wants to be.

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