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John Thompson: The Head vs the Heart: Which Should Rule in Our Schools?

Guest post by John Thompson.

Bellwhether's Andrew Rotherham, in "The Head - Heart Issue," nailed the essence of data-driven "reform." As the consultant explains, education has always been a battleground between "the Head" and "the Heart." When I attended public school, teachers were free to choose which side of the "head/heart clash" they were on.

The contemporary "reform" movement is based on the principle, however, that educators cannot be granted the autonomy of deciding whether they commit to building trusting relationships with students or whether "In Data We Trust." The immense body of social science that describes the emotional dynamics of schooling that was to be flushed down the toilet. Test-driven "reformers" demanded that we teach primarily to the narrow part of "the Head" that processes Big Data.

Cognitive science now confirms why such a narrow focus does not even serve "the Head" as well as the "reform" theorists think it should. NPR recently reported on an update of the famous experiment where people were looking so intently for one thing that they did not see a gorilla walk across their field of vision. It turns out that 83% of radiologists did the same. They were focusing on signs of cancer so these smart people missed the gorilla.

Unless one is concentrating solely on numerical outcomes, even "reformers" should see the gorilla in plain sight. Education is a people business. We humans need both "the Head" and "the Heart."
But, Rotherham writes that his consulting company exists to serve "the Head." He concludes:

The bottom line is that our judgment and analysis (and the exceptional skills of our strategy and talent teams) is why people hire us - and that's an important distinction, we're not just blogging or opining or taking pot shots, we're hired and paid to try to get it as right as we can and have a responsibility to do so. To borrow from David Coleman, in the spaces we operate in nobody really cares what you feel or what you want.

Accountability hawks have had great political success. They get to repeatedly spout tough-minded words like "accountability" and "outcomes," while balancing them with tender-hearted phrases such as "students first." But, Rotherham seems to embody the same low expectations for educational results that the entire "reform" movement has for itself. If Rotherham et. al really held their Heads accountable, they would see:

Rotherham concludes:

While not a Bellwether project, the entire Whiteboard "Education Insiders" survey is predicated on expert analysis about what is likely to happen not what people want to see happen. It doesn't work otherwise. And survey research is perhaps the best example of all this - you can be disappointed with the results a survey or poll show, I often am, but you'd better be able to read and analyze them in a clear-eyed manner if it's your job to do so.

What do you think? Is it simply a situation where "reformers" focus so completely on "the Head" that they can't see the gorilla in plain sight? Or, if the real purpose of "reform" was improving student outcomes, why has it been so hard for the evidence of their failure to sink into their collective "Head?" Does the refusal of accountability hawks to face facts explain why so many educators fear that the "Heart" of education "reform" is privatization?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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