(Cross posted on the Powerful Learning Practice blog as a part of an ongoing conversation with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach.)
(Note: Iâ€™m grumpy and tired after being sick for a week so I apologize for the somewhat random thoughts that follow. Hope you can make sense of it.)
I’ve been thinking about your post from the other day. This weekend, I ran across this 10th Grade Mathematics state assessment from Massachusetts. Forty-two questions that supposedly would identify whether or not a 15-year-old in Boston was â€œreadyâ€ for the world. I figured, what the heck, and I took the test.
Sad to say, based on the result, I should probably be heading back to middle school with Tucker (my 6th grade son) to get a refresher in Mr. Meadâ€™s class.
But here is the thing: not only did I get the majority of the questions wrong, the vast majority of the questions asked me to do things I have never had to do in real life. Iâ€™ve never had to figure out the lateral surface area of a cone, nor been asked to give the mode of a series of numbers, nor had to figure out a square root. At least not that I can remember. If I ever did know how to do any of that stuff, and I probably did since I passed the test at some point long ago, itâ€™s now long gone from my memory banks. Somehow, Iâ€™ve survived.
Yong Zhao recently linked to an article from a few years ago that indicates that kids in Wisconsin are spending somewhere around 3 million hours taking standardized tests, and that doesnâ€™t include â€œtime spent distributing and collecting materials, taking practice tests, giving instructions, and addressing other logistics of testing.â€ And I wonder, how much of that time is being spent on stuff that kids are going to forget? And then I wonder how much kids could really learn if they spent that time immersed in the stuff that they want to learn rather than what we want them to?
Iâ€™m not saying that we shouldnâ€™t make sure every child can read and write and do basic math and have a fundamental understanding of history and science and the rest. We should provide every child with the skills and literacies he or she needs to understand the world and continue to learn. And I know that if we are to help kids find their own passions for learning that we need to expose them to many different things, especially when they are young.
But I have to ask, does every child have to pass the same test by the end of 10th grade? Really? Does every child have to read Voltaire and Turgenev and Amy Tan as the Common Core suggests? Our friend Karl Fisch admirably asked this same type of question last fall:
And therein lies the dilemma – is it possible to provide in a systemic way a customized educational experience for all students that both allows and encourages them to pursue their passions, but also exposes them to the wide range of human endeavors that they may have little or no knowledge about and therefore wouldn’t be able to even know if they were passionate about in the first place?
They key word there is obviously â€œsystemicâ€ because we do want every child to have the foundation to continue to learn about whatever he or she wants or needs to learn. But, like Karl, Iâ€™m not at all sure thatâ€™s even possible. For one thing, there is a real disconnect between what “learning” is and the all-purpose goal of â€œhigher student achievement;â€ I would argue the two are almost totally unrelated in todayâ€™s heightened political rhetoric around schools. And for another, real learning for the most part requires real contexts, not the contrived experiences that schools in general can offer.
To that end, the Common Core doesnâ€™t help. The real impetus for the Common Core has nothing to do with learning in the contexts that we talk about it. Nothing to do with exploration, experience, reflection, creation, sharing, collaboration, or changing the world. Instead, it has everything to do with creating a new â€œEasy Buttonâ€ for education, one that will let us compare our kids even more. In a world where we can personalize and individualize in ways like never before, weâ€™ll give students an even more â€œcommonâ€ educational experience. That saddens me.
The crux of all of this is that itâ€™s just too hard to do it any other way. Itâ€™s too hard to let kids make decisions around their own learning (even though theyâ€™re doing it all the time at home) because we wonâ€™t be able to track it easily. Itâ€™s too hard to let them read books that fuel their passions because we canâ€™t read all those books to see if they are “appropriate” or â€œeffectiveâ€ or whatever else. And we canâ€™t let kids go really deeply into the things theyâ€™re interested in because goodness knows we have too much stuff to cover in the curriculum that they need to pass the test to make that work.
And while Iâ€™m sure that there will be some great, inquiry-based, choice-based curriculum that will be developed around the Common Core that will make even me happy, I fear that in general, we just donâ€™t want to work that hard. Weâ€™ll go running to those textbook publishers and â€œapproved providersâ€ (who are no doubt salivating at the prospect) who will help us get our students to meet the standards but, in the end, do nothing to expand the opportunities for kids to learn things in ways they will never, ever forget.
I agree. I took the GRE a few weeks ago and did pretty poorly on the math section. The was a lot of things on it that I have not used in the 15 years since I graduated high school, and stopped taking algebra. This includes the time that I have spent working in industry, and teaching college courses. What I have had to use are my problem solving abilities, which I fear is not being taught anymore.
I have many students who want to just be shown how to complete a process, and either can not, or will not try out different methods to figure out the answer, or know how to look up a solution. I spent almost an hour with a student last week who wants to retake a course for a third (he’s currently taking it for the second semester and passing) time I suggested that he use the software on his own and that he could ask questions as they came up. After an hour explaining that it wasn’t my goal to teach him everything that he will ever need to know, but to show him the fundamentals and how to come up with possible solutions, so that he could solve problems on his own.
I have also have read more in the last several years that in all of my time in high school and college.
David Marcovitz says
Here’s an inspiring story of educational reform from Susan Engel:
Will Richardson says
Nice essay…thanks for the link.
Two things. One, you haven’t had to do that math since 10th grade, but someone has. If a kid wants to pursue a career that needs that kind of math as a foundation, it’s better that they learn it in 10th grade than try to catch up in college or grad school. Just saying that that might be better reasoning. Your argument that “I haven’t had to use this stuff” just gives students an out and makes it so they won’t be exposed to some things. I’m not for testing by any means–just giving you the counter argument.
Two. My son, 10th grade btw, said the other day that he believed we (the parents) believed in understanding over “education”–quite a statement to parents who both work in the education field. But I liked the term understanding vs. learning or even education. Because it’s true, we want our kids and our students to gain an understanding not just to memorize facts and spit them out on a test.
Putting those two together a bit and thinking, after just skimming Karl’s post, we might say that we all need an understanding of math even if we can look up the formulas for things when necessary. How would one know what to look up in some cases if you didn’t even know that you can calculate the area under a curve? Math is not just a series of formulas, but a way of viewing the world just as different areas of science are and different books make us see things differently and on and on.
I think what happens with tests is that that is lost. Kids no longer see that math or grammar or reading or science is about understanding their world. We need teachers to get that across despite the testing and the core curriculum and whatever else may appear as barriers.
Will Richardson says
Thanks for those thoughts. I don’t disagree that we need a basic understanding of math. It is a way of viewing the world. Problem is, as you suggest, the tests, and in turn the curriculum in many cases, just treat it like a set of formulas.
My larger point is that we have kids spend a lot of time on stuff that they may not end up using at the expense of giving them time to go deep into topics they have a passion for. I think we need to be willing to let go of much of what the tests “cover” in order to help kids stay engaged and passionate about learning.
I agree with your larger point, for sure. And I think you’re right, that tests have become the “easy button” . There often is no “why” and I think understanding is what we lose. I think we need to figure out how to measure and still allow for the freedom to get to understanding.
Mike Warner says
Once again you have expressed the thoughts in my brain better than I could have. I have long felt uncomfortable with much of the reform I see, this helps me articulate why. I see math education as training for future mathematicians, not citizens. In my own district financial education is being added to the social studies curriculum because math does not have time to teach it. Finding the area of a cone is more important than compound interest.
Julie Guns says
I see some common points between comments. Many core issues are being ignored.
Algot Runeman says
Common Core is descriptive, but simultaneously misleading. If we are to get children excited about learning, they cannot be routinely mired in repetition of the “core” so that the standardized tests will reveal school progress, year on year. The two goals are not compatible.