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KINGSTON—With more than 40 years of teaching and educational research experience, University of Rhode Island Professor George Willis has worked towards challenging accepted methods in today’s schools. He has been rewarded for his diligence by the American Education Research Association (AERA), which has recognized him as a 2012 recipient of the ‘Division B Lifetime Achievement Award.’
“It is very gratifying to find out that you really have had some positive influence on people you respect and doing some of the basic work that needs to be done in the field,” said Willis. “Talking to them and doing the things professors are supposed to be doing, in terms of advancing knowledge, is a pay-off.”
Willis has witnessed a stark transformation occur during his career as the educational system, along with its proponents, has prioritized standardized testing and accountability among both students and teachers. However, he has seen national initiatives, particularly No Child Left Behind, which base success upon test scores and teacher evaluation, fail to bring students to learn and develop legitimate means for learning.
“Starting in 1970, the group of scholars I have worked in have challenged the status quo, which suggested that curriculum development should be done in a very formulaic way and there was a procedure to be followed by everyone,” said Willis. “Problems really have arisen in a very nasty way over the last decade or so, in my opinion.”
“No Child Left Behind has been a big disaster,” he added. “There are kids coming out who have gone to secondary school and complied with the tests they’ve taken. They think they have done well on the test, but some of them don’t know how to study and don’t have the right attitude to do it in the right way. That has been the trend since the 90s to today.”
Willis believes that students need to be educated in a more organic, thought-provoking manner, and stresses that, although the scientific method in education is a route for students to be successful, it is not the only one.
“The work I have done is to increase the diversity in research methods and approaches to education, to open up a whole new garage to ideas,” said Willis. “During this 10 year period, standardized tests have gotten a free ride in our society, and there hasn’t been discussion about whether or not they do what we want them to do in a precise way.”
“The critiques of the limitations and problems of standardized testing aren’t there, which is amazing,” he added. “Basically, the groups of scholars I have been working with are not denigrating the scientific method, but we are saying that other methodologies, particularly those consistent with the Humanities, need to have their place, and they do not in this country.”
Willis stated that teachers also need to be allowed more input into how their students are taught.
“I think one of the key things we need to do in the future if we want to be serious about improving education is to gradually professionalize the teachers,” said Willis. “They have to be in position in which they can provide some real input into decisions about what the curriculum is and right now, the trend is away from their participation and curriculum making.”
“One prominent educator pointed out a week ago that in all of those countries we think are behind in education with testing, those are countries that have professionalized teachers, much more so than we have,” he added. “There has been a kind of demonization of teachers in the last number of years, so it is easy to say, but doing it is hard.”
Willis is the author of two books, Qualitative Evaluation: Concepts and Cases in Curriculum Criticism in 1978 and Curriculum: Alternative Approaches, Ongoing Issues, with Colin March in 1995. In these studies, he has detailed three focal points which educators need to balance when working within the pedagogical sphere: the nature of subject matter, the individual, and the environment. Willis knows that convincing doubters is a difficult challenge, but has placed the largest priority on seeing students at every level succeed.
“Today everybody wants to improve education, but very few are willing to do the hard intellectual work required in the first place,” said Willis. “Constantly upping stress levels for students and teachers to improve test scores is a sure loser.”