When my husband Tom was a little boy he went to a conservative prep school in New York City. His parents had moved him there from Dalton, a much more progressive school, when he was seven, because they felt he wasn’t learning to read quickly enough. What a bad match the new school was for him. Here was a little boy who had thought the miniature model village under his Christmas tree would look pretty if it was illuminated, so he lit it with a match—the fiery Christmas tree had to be thrown out the window. He resisted every rule, and had a fierce determination to do things his way. His new school required their students to wear blue blazers, and behave like gentlemen. They thought young children should be able to apply themselves to the tasks adults demanded. His teachers insisted upon close adherence to their rules. Originality and quirkiness were low on their list, but high on young Tom’s. One of his reports from school, which we still have in an old mildewed file says, “If Tommy wants to succeed at ---- School he’d better get a hold of himself.” I always had this image of my husband, aged eight, with hi slightly square gloomy face, glossy dark bangs, and solid vaguely reluctant little frame, reaching up with one arm behind his head, grabbing the back of his own collar and lifting up—getting hold of himself. The idea that children must get a hold, and measure up, has insidiously taken over our educational system. Those phrases rest on a metaphor, which as philosopher Max Black argued, powerfully frames a set of experiences or ideas with far reaching implications. The prevailing metaphor in education is that everything should go “up”.
Now, there is nothing wrong with the metaphors of “lift”, or “height”, or “rising up”. Children get taller, and many of the intellectual skills they acquire do lift them up into new spheres of experience and thought. Development is, to a great extent, a process of becoming free of one’s context (the older child can think about things without acting on them, learn about people and places he or she has never seen, and solve abstract problems). But in our educational system, the concept of “up” has distorted things in ways that are bad for children, and misguided.
One example of this is the idea that we must “Raise Standards”. Raising Standards suggests that everything we learn in school should be measured in a linear fashion. It leads us to feel that children (and their teachers) must perform at ever higher levels. And in fact that is played out in schools all over the country. Test scores must keep getting better than they were before. Perhaps instead of higher, we need deeper standards. Instead of getting more and more answers correctly, or being able to provide greater and greater amounts of information, we should help children become capable of deeper analysis, closer reading of texts, writing that contains more layers of meaning and/or a more elegant argument, and more flexible ways of approaching a problem.
Another destructive phrase is "Race to the Top," which is a terrible way to describe the process by which children learn information, become good citizens, develop their ability to think, and acquire the goals and habits of their society. Among other things, racing is not necessarily the best way to acquire important abilities and dispositions. But in addition, a race to the top implies that someone must be left behind. Where there is a top, there is a bottom, and where there is a race, there is a loser.
We know from Max Black, Philip Wheelright, and more recently, from George Lakoff that the language we use has a powerful concrete impact on the way in which problems are framed, and shapes the solutions people come up with. Lakoff has shown that to be true in politics, but it is just as true in schools.