Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thinking vs. testing

Like most people, I love it when I find kindred spirits -- you know, those people with whom you agree. Finding this article came at a good time for me. I am down about some of my college students, so it's especially nice to find a person -- a Harvard person, no less -- who voiced many of my opinions about what schools need to be teaching and doing.

In Seven skills students desperately need, author Meris Stansbury talks about a keynote address delivered by Harvard's Tony Wagner in which he says that while schools may be successfully teaching to the test, kids are leaving schools without the survival skills that they need for the real world. Bravo! My sentiments, exactly! Wagner relates how he has visited schools where students just wait for the teacher or a star student to give them the answers -- even if a Bunsen burner is smoking!

In my student evaluations, it is not uncommon for someone to write something along these lines ... "When we ask you a question, you should just answer it. Don't ask us a question." And a few weeks ago, when I passed out an exam to my students, I told them not to get caught up in whether to say yes, no, or maybe in response to an essay question, because I would be grading them on the "why" behind the yes, no, or maybe. Several students groaned in agony. Ever since I started teaching college more than two years ago, I have noticed that students do not like to think. "Just tell us the answer!" is written all over their faces. I am constantly telling them that to succeed in college and in life, they have to think! They can't just memorize all the right answers, because usually there is not a single right answer.

One of the reasons that schools fail is because they are trying to get students to memorize a bunch of stuff that they will forget as soon as they take the test. The emphasis is on "knowing" the right answer, rather than critically thinking to figure out what one answer might be. Whether I am at home or in a classroom, I rarely give a straightforward answer to a child's or student's query, because no one should look at me as the expert on everything. Students should realize that they can figure out the answer on their own. One of the my favorite things as an unschooling mom was to hear my young children talk about how they taught themselves to do something.

When people ask me if I think that the state should have oversite of homeschooled students, I quickly respond no. Why? Because no doubt that would include testing, and then homeschooling parents would start making the same mistake that public school teachers are forced to make -- teaching to the test. Educators know that teaching to the test ultimately fails students, because it doesn't teach them to think. But it is legislators, not educators, who make the laws. They want quantitative proof that students know something. And I suppose they get proof that students know something -- but standardized tests do not prove that students can think.

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