Unlearning a “One-Size-Fits-All” Educational Model

In Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, Cathy Davidson asks us to rethink our students’ abilities. She writes, “Where [neuroscientists] perceive the shortcomings of the individual, I sense opportunity for collaboration. If we see selectively but we don’t all select the same things to see, that also means we don’t all miss the same things” (2). There are many important threads within this book, but in terms of dis/ability, I think there are three themes worth exploring deeper: cultural values, pedagogical practices, and assessment.

First, we must unlearn our cultural values. The current 21st-century narrative blames technology for our inability to pay attention and for the “dumbing down” of students (10). Because of this narrative, Davidson argues that we are “more likely to label [students] with a disability when they can’t be categorized by our present system, but how we think about disability is actually a window onto how attention blindness keeps us tethered to a system that isn’t working” (10). This is where unlearning comes in.

Unlearning is a theme throughout the book, “required when the world or your circumstances in that world have changed so completely that your old habits now hold you back” (19). For me, unlearning is also required when our cultural narrative devalues certain abilities. This is why Davidson’s notion of “collaboration by difference” is so important. She writes, “Collaboration by difference respects and rewards different forms and levels of expertise, perspective, culture, age, ability, and insight, treating difference not as a deficit but as a point of distinction” (100). Instead of devaluing students who lack particular abilities, collaboration by difference places students with different abilities together in settings where they work together on a project that requires all of their particular abilities. In order to enact this kind of participatory collaboration, though, we have to unlearn our pedagogical practices.

Davidson seeks to answer the question, “What if instead of telling [students] what they should know, we asked them?” (62). In the case of Duke’s iPod experiment, we see students in control of learning. Davidson describes the experiment as an investment in teaching: “one that didn’t require the student to always face forward, learn from on high, memorize what was already a given, or accept knowledge as something predetermined and passively absorbed” (69). For students, this meant new opportunities to learn information in ways that best benefitted them, providing them with technology that they could use to enhance and support their own learning—a nice reminder of the benefits of UDL and the multiple options it provides.

Davidson argues that a “one-size-fits-all model of standards” that is unbending to students’ particular needs is partially to blame for student failures (77). Perhaps this is why Manhattan’s Quest 2 Learn (Q2L) is so successful. Using gaming principles that engage students in games that require strategy, problem solving, and teamwork allows students to benefit from each other’s strengths. The same could be said for the success of the Voyager Academy. Here, each child is responsible for learning, for self-controlling and self-monitoring her learning processes. My favorite example of this participatory learning is the “disruptive” boy:

He’s been doing well today, but I learn he’s smart and energetic enough to turn the class upside down with his antics. He’s been learning, lately, how to tell for himself when he’s in a disruptive mood, and he has a deal going with Mr. Germain. If he feels like he cannot control himself, he’s allowed to just walk away and go work by himself at the computer. He doesn’t have to ask permission. All he needs to do is take himself out of the situation where he’ll be disruptive. It’s a public pact: Everyone knows it. 135

For me, this example provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on our values: What are the goals of teaching? Of learning? How do we set up our own classrooms to support and benefit all of our students? Davidson argues that all students can succeed in the 21st-century classroom as long as the curriculum moves away from standardization, focusing instead on the collaborative, intellectual work that occurs outside the classroom.

This brings me to the last point: assessment. It is clear within this book (and in her real-life endeavors) that Davidson is no supporter of standardized testing, and in “How We Measure,” she offers alternatives. First, she argues for a stop to end-of-grade exams, opting instead for tests that challenge the “complex, connected, and interactive skills” of the 21st century (125). Second, she argues that we need to imagine assessment in ways that will measure “practical, real-world skills” such as communicating with others, making sound judgments, and determining credibility (127-8). Instead of “dumbing down” students at the end of the year, Davidson suggests adding a “boss-level challenge” that would allow students to participate in decentered, challenging, and collaborative learning (131). All of these alternatives emphasize the importance of testing students not for how much they can memorize or regurgitate on a piece of paper. Instead, these alternatives push students to engage with the material, providing learning opportunities for students who are failed by standardized tests.

What I like best about Davidson’s approach to testing is her willingness to challenge what constitutes “failure.” She asks, “By what logic would failing a test in a language other than the one spoken in your home constitute a failure for you as well as for your teachers, your classmates, and your entire school?” (94), a question similar to our previous readings and discussions of assessment. If we have different tests, students with different abilities have more opportunities to perform in ways that more accurately measured their knowledge. By unlearning our 20th-century values of ability, pedagogy, and assessment, we provide all of our students with more genuine and fair opportunities to learn and demonstrate that learning in 21st-century contexts.

Incidentally, if y’all haven’t heard of the “badges” for lifelong learning that Davidson mentions, here’s a video that explains them. Badges are the brainchild of HASTAC, a cross-disciplinary organization that explores the collaborative uses of technology. When they announced the badges competition last Fall, people freaked out—not as much as it sounds like they did for Davidson’s “How to Crowdsource Grading” but there were definitely some people with some important and interesting things to say about these alternative grading measures, including Davidson.

Davidson, Cathy N. Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. New York, NY: Viking, 2011.