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Sunday, February 12, 2012

The real damage done by testing in the schools: a conversation with Milo

I had a long conversation with Milo, my six year old grandson, the other day. Milo is very smart. (Yes, I know. What grandfather wouldn’t say that? But trust me, he is.) 
I asked him what he had done that was fun recently and he told me about a game he had been playing with a friend, which was good to hear about since Milo went through a long obsession with chess that I am happy to hear is waning.
I then asked him about school. I asked him if he liked taking the tests (which are everywhere these days - even in first grade) and I also asked him if he had learned anything interesting lately. I know that he doesn’t find school that interesting from previous conversations with him and from my daughter’s (the “me” below) postings about him. Here is the most recent one:
Milo: I wish they would teach real science in science class.
Me: What's real science?
Milo: Like chemistry, biology, dissection.
Me: What kind of science do they teach instead?
Milo: Paperwork.

Milo said he liked taking tests. He liked working out the problems and, of course, does well on them.  
Now, I have been railing about these awful standardized tests for the last 25 years, long before NCLB made everyone aware of how awful testing really is. But, Milo made me realize that what I hate about testing is not the tests themselves. Milo made me realize that I liked taking the test as well when I was a child. I always liked contests and I liked winning. I am so against testing that I forgot that for a smart kid, they can be fun.
While teachers and principals correctly argue that testing is ruining our schools, the reasons that they cite, all of which are correct in my opinion, often do not include the main reason that I am so opposed to testing.
I became vehemently anti-testing when I began to question the validity of the curriculum being taught in the schools. As I began to invent different kinds of experiences for kids on the computer in the 80’s and 90’s. I came  to realize that my software would never be used. The reason was clear enough. I was building software that did not relate to the existing curriculum. “Broadcast News” was meant to teach how to analyze current events through pretending to be a newscaster. “Crisis in Krasnovia” was intended to teach how political decision making works. "Road Trip" was intended to allow kids to explore the country. My team built many programs like this and they were never used because they didn’t fit into the existing curriculum. Many factors make the curriculum intransigent: the colleges that insist on certain courses for their applicants, parents who think whatever was taught to them must be taught to their children, politicians who can’t think about education in any sensible way as well as many other factors. But the number one issue is the tests. If all that matters are test scores then you can’t really spend much time on any curriculum that doesn’t get tested. In other words the tests make it impossible to change the curriculum from the one Charles Eliot specified in 1892.
This is why NCLB and Common Core are so insidious. They allow no modification of the ancient idea of what constitutes an education.
This leads me to the second part of my conversation with Milo. I asked him if he had learned anything interesting in school lately and he told he me that he had been learning  about how the rhinoceros is an endangered species. He said they were being killed for their horns and that that was very sad. I asked him if he would be upset if he found out that wasps were an endangered species and he said wasps sting people and they are bad so it would be okay if they all died. I asked if he knew what wasps ate and if he understood that if there would be a lot more of whatever nasty stuff they dine on if there were no wasps. Of course his teacher had not mentioned any idea like that so this was lost on him. I asked if he was upset that people killed chickens and he said no because you can eat chickens. I said that you could eat rhinoceros as well and this was, of course, news to him.
My point is that the school, even when it teaches something that might not be on the test, still doesn’t teach kids to think hard about what they are talking about. It teaches truth. So while rhinoceros extinction may not be in the Common Core, memorization of officially approved facts certainly is. School ought not be about the teaching of officially approved truth.
And that, then, is why standardized testing is so awful. They don't test creative thinking or reasoning from evidence or how to have an argument.  They teach the truth. And the truth somehow always manages to include the quadratic formula but manages to exclude areas where the truth isn’t so clear.


Newman said...

Talking about truth, I'm for teaching truth, but not at the expense of thought.

What you're highlighting is the imbalance between facts and thinking. Schools teach facts/truth sometime in spite of thinking and thought.

I wonder what Dave Cormier and his rhizomatic learning would say about this? He equates truth to facts -and is against them (being a focal point of schooling) -

And, didn't you tell the story of 'What to learn' vs 'How to learn' in one of your books? A key point that AI type learning folks quickly figure out, I think. Also, reminds me of Alan Kay's TED talk about crappy science instruction in schools.

Isn't it wonderful what a tuned-in grandpa (you) and a 6 year old (Milo) can accomplish - thanks for sharing a Sunday morning with me.

Verónica Perrone said...

No doubt Milo is intelligente, despite the educational system.
Some time ago I've been thinking the same thing that you posted about testings and meaning of education. Most time, us, the teachers, end working for the testing and accreditation.Your intro:"I Gave Up Being part of the Education system so I Could begin to change it." has given me some relief. Maybe I have to let it go, stop fighting and Be the change I want to see in the world (Mahatma Gandhi)

Gracias y hasta la vista