Friday, April 25, 2014

The Schizophrenia of Education

Social Studies - When I reflect on the changes I've made in my classes and the 20% Time Projects we are doing team-wide (with my teaching partner, Melissa Hellwig), I am more convinced than ever that we are doing right by our kids. But when I look outside of our classes and our school, I see a different story. We hear about data and testing all of the time and how it will improve children's education. I have no doubt that some intelligent application of data can improve kids' performance in school, but on what exactly are we asking them to perform better? Most of the time, the answer is "standardized tests". In my view, this is a dead-end road. Education has become a schizophrenic experience.

Teachers and kids know that people learn things by doing those things. The Learning Culture is one in which people immerse themselves in a project and learn as a function or byproduct of completing the project. We all know that we don't really know something until we can DO that something or, better yet, teach that something to someone else. The best learning experiences are ones in which we create something. That is true learning.

Testing, on the other hand, is often focused on isolated skills that are unrelated to anything except the test. There are some tests that are well-constructed and are given in order to identify a weakness. However, typical standardized tests are primarily reading tests lumped together with frivolous details that, in the long run, kids don't really need to know. 

Thus we have the Learning Culture and the Testing Culture. I find the Testing Culture damaging to kids and education in general because it is so limiting. I have seen extreme cases of targeted testing in order to "teach" a piece of minutia so that a kid performs better on...the test. This is a cyclical environment that has no basis in the real world. The data may show, for example, that Johnny did not understand prepositions. So what do we do? We give Johnny more work on prepositions. The reason we do this is because we want Johnny to perform better on the test in the area of prepositions. But my questions is...why? Why must Johnny improve his understanding of prepositions? How is that applicable to his life? 

All of the time that we spend helping Johnny better understand prepositions could be time better put to use having Johnny really learn something. Real learning occurs when kids, through their own drive and desire, try to answer the big questions they have. If we use these questions to stimulate real learning among our students, then we will have done good work. They will read, they will create, they will problem-solve, they will search for information, they will analyze and they will knock our socks off with the quality of their work. Along the way, they may even run across a preposition or two. 

The Testing Culture, that of identifying deficiencies and constructing practice activities for students, is an awesome waste of time. The secret is that no one really cares if Johnny knows what a preposition is and if the standardized test didn't exist, no one would even know. It is not important. We should not focus on the little things and portray them as bigger than they are. Most adults get by just fine without being able to pick out prepositions from newspaper articles. 

If we really want to create a Learning Culture, we have to aim higher. No longer should we spend hours trying to move kids from "terrible" to "average" at something. We have to nurture kids' natural talents and push them to develop those talents. Instead of wasting time trying to get Johnny to learn prepositions (something he will forget days afterward anyway), we should work with Johnny to develop his natural talent for computer coding. We accept that adults have strengths and weaknesses but we don't allow for that in children. If a child has a weakness, we spend hours trying to make it less weak. Why is the expectation different for kids than it is for adults? It is because adults don't take standardized tests (except in certain circumstances). 

If the testing apparatus were to crumble to the ground tomorrow, would schools be any less effective? No. In fact, if there were no testing, we would no longer have to pay homage to the Testing Culture and could work exclusively in the Learning Culture. That alone would be a huge benefit to our kids' education and the productivity of our citizenry.

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