Thursday, February 11, 2010

Christopher Reeve and SATs

In Carol Dweck's book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she demonstrates the dramtic difference between a growth and fixed minset. One sees life as always changing and developing while the other see things like intellect as a fixed quantity that you either have or don't have. The following is a moving excerpt from her book:
Sometimes people with the growth mindset stretch themselves so far that they do the impossible. In 1995, Christopher Reeve, the actor, was thrown from a horse. His neck was broken, his spinal cord was severed from his brain, and he was completely paralyzed below the neck. Medical science said, So sorry. Come to terms with it.

Reeve, however, started a demanding exercise program that involved moving all parts of his paralyzed body witht the help of electrical stimulations. Why couldn't he learn to move again? Why couldn't his brain once again give commands that his body would obey? Doctors warned that he was in denial and was setting himself up for disappointment they had seen this before and it was a bad sign for his adjustment. But, really, what else was Reeve doing with his time? Was there a better project?

Five years later, Reeve started to regain movement. First it happened in his hands, then his arms, then legs, and then torso. he was far from cured, but brain scans showed that his brain was once more sending signals to his body that his body was responding to. Not only did Reeve stretch his abilities, he changed the entire way science thinks about the nervous system and its potential for recovery. In doing so, he opened a whole new vista for research and a whole new avenue of hope for people with spinal cord injuries.

My favorite part of this exerpt is where Dweck asks what else, other than attempting rehabilitation, would be more worthy of Reeve's time? Granted, the whole idea of retraining your nervous system to properly communicate with your own body after such a horrific accident is a little far-fetched, but seriously, what else should Reeve's have spent his time doing?

It was worth a shot, wasn't it? What makes it so isn't that he succeeded. Sure it makes for one hell of a story because he did find some success, but even had he not regained movement, the time and effort he placed into rehabilitating himself is nothing short of admirable.

In school, I fear that adults claim to be the all-knowing predicters of the future. As if we can guage how successful our students will be based on the information we observe and measure while they are in grade school.

Don't you see how foolish this is. I mean, if Christopher Reeve's doctors thought they could see his future - one dominated by incapacity, and they were wrong - what does that say about our predictions.

Research has already shown that our almighty tests like the SAT have proven to be horrible at predicting the future. Alfie Kohn writes in his article Two Cheers for an End to the SAT:
SAT's don't predict the future. A considerable amount of research, including but not limited to a summary of more than 600 studies published by the College Board in 1984, has found that only about 12 to 16 percent of the variance in freshman grades could be explained by SAT scores, suggesting that they are not particularly useful even with respect to that limited variable -- and virtually worthless at predicting how students will fare after their freshman year (and whether they will graduate).
We can talk assessment and accountability until we are blue in the face, but until we can come to grips with how utterly meaningless grades and tests really are, our school systems will continue to view a large population of students as drop-outs-in-waiting.

Literally, Christoper Reeve couldn't stand up for himself, but figuratively he stood taller than the doctors who thought they knew better.

It's time teachers and parents stood up for children and the education they deserve.


  1. What a powerful post, Joe. I appreciate the way you combined stories + research + today's application all rolled into one thought-provoking post.
    Thanks, Ruth


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