The True Truth

Who is the keeper of the true truth? I do not know the answer to this question, but I can begin to ponder a response based on my experiences. As an educator at the school level for over 17 years, I often think about this question as concerns to the needs of my students. Although there is some debate as to what those needs actually are. In my opinion, the true truth depends on context, and context involves both a macro and micro perspective.

I began my career as a math teacher at a south Bronx elementary school in one of the poorest zip codes in the country. The school housed 1500 students, 95% were designated to receive free or reduced lunch, and many students were recent immigrants from south America and Africa. There were a few metrics we used to measure our success as a school. Among these metrics included state standardized test scores, attendance, and disciplinary referrals. School leadership was unstable as I had 4 different principals within a five-year period. Because the test scores were consistently low, a few years after I moved on to become a high school dean of students, the school was closed down and reopened in a restructured capacity. Eight years after the restructuring test scores remain below average. This school was evaluated from a macro perspective while the micro needs continued to be ignored.

As a kid growing up, I was fortunate to be raised primarily in an economically middle class community. I say fortunate because up until the age of seven I lived in the housing projects and remember distinctly some of the maladaptive behaviors that occurred among both my peers and the adults in the community. I was also very cognizant of how some of my friends in the 6th grade, from the projects, but more importantly, without proper parental supervision, engaged in drug use and drug dealing, and had sex at ages much younger than I could ever understand. I was incredibly lucky to have an amazing mother and two loving older sisters that gave me love, stability, confidence, and education. I am also aware of the state law that allowed my mother to live in a middle-class community below market value, and pay rent based on how much money she earned. A macro policy gave my mother the opportunity to live in a safe, upwardly mobile community, while my micro needs were met at home.

Because of the home I grew up in, learning in school was never a challenge for me. I did not experience many Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) as studies now show impact brain development and health outcomes. Unlike many other kids, including those from my first school, my development was in alignment with Maslow’s hierarchy of need and Glasser’s theory of psychological development. I had food, clothing, shelter, a loving home, and a diverse community of values and social resources. I got the chance to engage in formal, non formal, and informal learning through structured and unstructured play, organized and street sports, visual arts, and music. All of these experiences helped me to develop my skills of citizenship, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, communication, and the character education that Michael Fullan highlights in The New Meaning of Educational Change.
I even had voice and choice in my upper middle class school district, taking an animation class and developing my creativity and entrepreneurial skills as Yong Zhoa discusses in World Class Learners.

It was later in life as a professional educator and now as an aspiring academic, that I learned of the theories of self-determination (Deci and Ryan), Multiple Intelligences (Howard Gardner), Emotional Intelligence (Daniel Goleman), self-actualization (Daniel Bloom), Critical Race Theory (Hany Lopez), and many others. All continue to inform my practice and beliefs regarding the purpose of education, and the definition of the true truth.

Before proceeding, I have to mention my role as a father of three and my “training” as a guidance counselor. My children have probably informed my understanding of the world more than anything else. First, they are all different and have different desires and needs. Second, they are not like me. Whereas I expected my son to be born athletic and aggressive, like dad, his taste more align to the art and creativity world.

My guidance training allowed me to study psychological theories that introduced me to Glasser and Freud among others, and have provided an understanding of how internal colonialism, bias, habitus, and excessive trauma impact our individual and collective lives. The true truth in American education must train teachers in these areas, to leverage the brilliant diversity of our children.

America’s diversity, and globalization provides an opportunity to create dynamic communities and learning spaces the world has never seen. However, our ugly history of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and segregation, have kept us from being open to learning from and with those who are different from us. As opposed to viewing these diverse experiences as enriching, we have often seen them as a roadblock and threat. This threat is not just based on race or gender or class, but a threat of divergent ideas.

This ideology is exacerbated by a school system built on a survival of the fittest mindset and the principles of ranking and sorting children based solely on their linguistic and logical intelligence. The true truth for me must involve nurturing the holistic learning experiences of children and communities.

Some would argue that western culture is dominated by the neocortex part of the brain, while we continue to neglect the limbic system. As a result, many kids and communities suffer. The limbic system, encompasses an emotional “language” that is universal. Everyone smiles, cries, and laughs. Everyone interacts and explores. We all, regardless of culture, try to understand the world around us whatever the context. This has been reaffirmed for me not just through research, but by observing my own and other very young children. From the infant stage, without being told or formally trained, children navigate aesthetically as natural scientists, artists, and explorers. Therefore, if we aligned education and learning to the natural behaviors of children, we will develop communities of well-being and actualization, which in my opinion, is the true truth we should be living for.

The keeper of the true truth is the community; both the individuals within it and the community collectively. The concept of community as learning organism, championed by Margaret Wheatly among others, is one that makes sense to me; as does the African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child.” Market theory does not work in this context because market theory is driven by social Darwinism and rugged individualism, which cannot work without equality. Because of colonialism and institutional discrimination, we do not currently have social and economic equality. Further, working toward the gluttonous accumulation of inanimate objects like capital, and control over individuals and their posterity is inhumane, which is why society continues to reject it as is evidenced by our economic inequality, poverty, and the rise of the populist movement.

The keeper of the true truth for me encompasses all things, which is why community change must involve all people, and our pedagogy, as Paulo Freire believed, must begin with the needs of the people. Maslow’s theory of well-being, along with Bloom’s theory of actualization, tied to Sternberg’s theory of creativity, and Deci and Ryan’s theory of self-determination and efficacy, create habits of mind and behaviors that lead to a world of fulfilment for all.

The controversies in education are not controversies at all. They are two sides of the same coin; and all need to be implemented depending on the context. For example, high-stakes standardized testing does not need to occur every year, but there is a time and place for it. Traditional disciplines must coincide with 21st century skills as one is the continuation or evolution of the other. Education controversies are also necessary as they represent both sides of a conversation that needs to be explored for us all to create a new reality. These topics represent pathways to innovation; and human history suggest, that innovation is innately human.

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4 thoughts on “The True Truth

  1. Jamaal–This is a brilliant post, which is not at all surprising given the depth of your understanding of the educational process. The only thing I would push back on is the idea that there is EVER a place for “high stakes” standardized testing. Standardized tests were originally designed to separate those who “deserved” more education from the “working class.” They are still being used for the same reason. They do NOT measure learning. They are totally skewed toward verbal, mathematical intelligence. A standardized test requires a hypothetical mean–an “average” student against which all others can be compared. But given the diversity in development, as well as the “jagged profiles” of individuals of which Todd Rose speaks in his book The End of Average, we know that there is no such thing as an average student. Standardized tests are totally invalid and meaningless. Why do we EVER need to compare children to one another?

    The only “standard” that belongs in education is one applied to schools, not to children or teachers. And that standard is that every child is growing intellectually, emotionally, socially, creatively, and in all the other domains of being human. As you state, Yong Zhao and many others insist that we need to focus on diversity–on the abilities and talents so badly needed in this crazy world. Shifting the focus from group think to the development of the unique potential of every child won’t be easy given the current obsession with all children of a given age being able to “know and be able to do” the same things. Ridiculous. But we can NOT allow the current mandated educational malpractice and child abuse to continue!
    View story at Medium.com

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    1. Thank you for your comment Judy. I wonder if there is a holistic “standard” that schools could be “measured” by. I also think standards generally have their place. Without standards in auto engineering would our cars be so sophisticated and safe? Would we even have cars? I think if we align curriculum to student passions and interest and students self select into a discipline, there are standards for reaching “excellence” within that discipline. Whether playing the violin, building a car, or engaging in dialogue.

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  2. YOU really educated me here, especially with a careful differentiation between neocortex and limbic systems . “Some would argue that western culture is dominated by the neocortex part of the brain…” I’ve always thought of this serious lack of emotional expression as patriarchy pushing out matriarchy.

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