Schooling for Life: Reclaiming the Essence of Learning
reviewed by Laura Reza-Hernandez - 2004
Title: Schooling for Life: Reclaiming the Essence of Learning
Author(s): Jacqueline Grennon Brooks
Publisher: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA
ISBN: 08712065877, Pages: 153, Year: 2002
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In recent years, reform movements have focused on closing the achievement gap, a gap defined by standardized test scores. Although, there is solid evidence of a definite gap between certain groups of students, the conversation often does not move beyond the issue of test scores and into a deeper understanding of learning. Jacqueline Grennon Brooks’s book, Schooling for Life: Reclaiming the Essence of Learning, is a call for readers to reflect upon and critically examine our current educational culture of testing as a measure of learning and to discuss the quality of education. Her mission as an educator is to “make school a place in which my students do not simply ‘put in time’ but one where they invest time and effort in solving problems that they see as relevant (p. ix).” Her book builds on this notion by deconstructing the standards movement, evaluating teaching practices, analyzing the culture of schooling, and examining learning as a process through which one constructs meaning.
Her passion for authentic concept development and learning has produced an important piece of work from which anyone in the educational field could benefit. It provides an important reflection on how we define schooling. This book is a resource for teachers, administrators, policy makers, and anyone who crosses the path of a child’s education.
Brooks first makes an argument for the difference between state-mandated standards and learning standards as part of real educational practice. She points out that standards ought to be only guideposts for professional creativity and practice. She argues that the standards movement has instead become a set of hurdles through which professionals must jump as they negotiate a rigid sequence dictating levels of performance through testing. Brooks writes that the “Testing of learning is interfering with learning itself (p. 13).”
She builds a case that the extreme focus on standards breaks knowledge into bits and pieces of information while ignoring the complexity of teaching and learning. Her contention is that teachers should be free to develop their internal standards and meet them with conviction. However, Brooks ignores the less desirable side of schooling prior to the standards movement. Brooks fails to address past practices of not setting high standards for all children. In particular, she does not address past failures to maintain high standards for minority children and the role of the standards movement in preventing such patterns from persisting.
Brooks explores the role of the educator and notes that when educators are merely implementers of pre-established curriculum, without making any of their own judgments, then they are not educators. She argues that teachers are those who can foster reflection and demand rigor to lead students to a life governed by evolving internal standards. Brooks maintains that teachers should understand the overarching content and process of student learning and be able to separate the big ideas from the details. She recommends that teachers begin lessons by inviting students to tackle purposefully ambiguous problems. This approach allows teachers to observe students’ varied analyses and approaches and so understand their learning. This suggests that teachers need to be prepared to understand pedagogy as well as content.
Brooks offers clear opinions about current schooling practices. She observes that schools are dominated by one-way activity; that schools are passive and passionless; that schools create “winners and losers”; and operate as places where students show up and follow directions. In the face of research on learning that suggests alternative practices, Brooks suggests that the reliance on standardized testing as the only means for defining successful learning has contributed to practices that frustrate real learning. She notes that standardized tests are packaged in a multiple choice format where students do not expand on their understanding of concepts and so such tests demand one-way activities. Test scores also help to create a culture of winners and losers through the ranking of schools and students.
In each chapter, Brooks shares stories of various classrooms and schools. She gives illustrations from lessons that contribute to deep understanding of concepts. For example, she writes about a high school science class that explores why we always see the same side of the moon.
Brooks builds on her earlier co-authored book, In Search for Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms. She advocates a constructivist education, although her approach in writing this current book is not to use the term until the end of the book. In Chapter 10, she labels the essence of learning as a constructivist education.
Through this book, Brooks successfully frames the discussion of the current state of education and testing. In the end, Brooks shares her vision of schools as places where students create and not simply comply; where they find out and not just follow; and where students are already living a life, not just preparing to live a life.
Brooks, J. & Brooks, M. (2001). In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms. Prentice Hall: New York.