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Janie B. Cheaney: A new vision for students

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WORLD Radio - Janie B. Cheaney: A new vision for students

The education establishment recommends social and emotional learning over cognitive skills


Marilyn Nieves/E+ via Getty Images

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Wednesday, February 21st. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Myrna Brown.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Up next: WORLD commentator Janie B. Cheaney says progressive educators’ new vision for testing students isn’t all that new.

JANIE B. CHEANEY: Watch out America—there’s a new vision for education on the horizon. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in alliance with the Educational Testing Service, are out to “fundamentally change” the way we assess student achievement in schools.

These are heavy-hitters in the education establishment. The Carnegie Foundation originated the credit hour, a measure of the classroom time spent in a particular study. The Educational Testing System, or ETS, administers standardized tests such as the SAT. Credit hours and testing provide the framework for modern education—but both organizations say it’s time for a change.

The problem, they say, is too much emphasis on “cognitive skills” like reading and writing, math, and scientific knowledge. Their “New Vision for Skills-Based Assessment,” is available online as a .pdf, and it proposes to do away with credit hours and cognitive testing in order to focus on the ABC of Affective, Behavioral, and Cognitive skills. Here’s how they put it: “The new assessment system will assess not only cognitive skills that extend beyond disciplinary literacies ([for example], creativity, critical thinking), but also a wide variety of affective” skills like compassion and empathy “and behavioral skills” like collaboration and communication, “along with skills that span multiple psychological dimensions ([for example], perseverance, self-management).”

This New Vision isn’t exactly new. Progressives have been experimenting with “affective” education for decades, from whole language reading instruction in the 1930s to character training in the 1980s to Social-Emotional learning today. To designate the Skills for the Future that every child will need, New Vision consolidates other educational systems and proposals from as far afield as India and Saudi Arabia. Those skills would describe any successful adult at any time, not just the future. We’re talking about self-awareness, self-management, relationship savvy, creativity, persistence, flexibility, compassion, risk-taking, critical thinking—even “responding with wonderment and awe.”

The skills aren’t new, but what the Carnegie Foundation and ETS are proposing are new ways to measure them. Assessment would follow five principles: reflecting individual social and cultural backgrounds, prioritizing equity and fairness, applying assessment to instruction, using technology responsibly, and tailoring education to the individual. New Vision seems confident that AI, sensing technologies, and mechanisms yet unknown will be able to evaluate each student’s needs and achievements with pinpoint accuracy. Microchips in the brain may be just around the corner.

In spite of the brazen confidence displayed by New Vision, nobody knows how to turn out successful adults by a top-down system. Underneath the language about compassion and creativity is a pit of ignorance that cutting-edge technology won’t fill. The Bible understands the seat of learning as the heart—and the heart, as Jeremiah 17:9 describes it, is perverse and beyond understanding.

Formal education has always been about cognitive skills and measurable knowledge: times tables, ABCs, the area of a square, the structure of a sentence. School does a reasonably good job of that, because it can. Whole child education takes place elsewhere: in the home, on the playground, at church. When school assumes responsibility for a child’s heart as well as his brain, neither will flourish.

I’m Janie B. Cheaney.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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