Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Still Testy

(Further thoughts on testing.)

Norman Augustine argues (see previous post) that testing has a role to play in "motivating and guiding students and teachers." He seems to be assuming that the existence of the test somehow supplies motivation where it might otherwise be lacking. I don't buy it. In 43 years of teaching, I've had my fair share of students who had issues with motivation. I don't recall that any of them magically became more motivated upon hearing the magic words "This is important because it's going to be on the test."

Students are not generally any less motivated than any other subgroup of the human species. If anything, the opposite is true. Most students have not yet arrived at the levels of discouragement, cynicism, and negativity that characterize a large proportion of the the adult population.  (Don't believe that adults are like that? Pick up a paper. Any paper. Try look.)

Students, unlike many adults, still have the capacity to care, often passionately, and are often ferociously interested in what they care about. In my experience, when students lack motivation it's because they cannot see any clear connection between those things they do care about and the things that they are told they must learn in school. That's the problem with the Common Core Standards, and other such laundry lists. As soon as you tell a student "This is what you must learn," you've done two things. First of all, you've lied to them outright. There is not a single thing I can think of that would qualify as a deficit so dire as to make a happy adult life unsupportable. Perhaps, once upon a time, a stronger argument could be made that you needed to learn something in school, because you'd never learn it anywhere else. But in today's world, even if I can't read, or can't add, or can't solve a quadratic equation, or can't recite the causes of the civil war, I can get ready access to anything I might need to know about those things on the internet in a form that I can understand. Furthermore, I now can leverage whatever I do know and can do much more easily than ever before into a business or a career, provided I have the inclination and the determination to do so.

Which is where the second thing comes in. As soon as you tell a student "This is what you must learn," you've sent a very strong message that decisions about what is important and what is worth knowing come from outside, and that the student's own sense of what might be worth learning or doing is irrelevant. By supplying the answers about what is important, you are actively undercutting the likelihood that the student will ask his/her own questions about what is important. The irony is that this approach doesn't work for anybody. The students who hear it and believe it learn that all they really need to do is just follow somebody else's directions and they'll be good to go. Which is simply untrue (For a forceful argument about why it is not true, and examples of how the untruth of it plays out in mathematics, see Paul Lockhart's A Mathematician's Lament.) And the students who hear it and don't believe it are forced to spend a ton of time doing work in which they have no interest, learning material that they in fact do not NEED to know, in preparation for batteries of tests that people like Norman Augustine have decided will "motivate" them. Then when they fail to perform well on the tests, as so many of them will, the Norman Augustines of the world will call for longer school days and a longer school year and and higher standards and more rigorous tests. Doing more of the same thing you were doing before and expecting a different result: that's an operational definition of insanity.

So what's the solution? Should we just throw up our hands and let people do whatever they want? No, not exactly. But I would argue (and have argued, as far as seven years ago), that a good place to start is by asking the students themselves what they care about, what they think they can already do well, and what they want to learn. And once we find out what that is, we can try to help them do THAT, and help them put the work they choose to do in front of others—their peers, their families, their communities—who are in a position to give them feedback that will actually matter to them. It's not clean. It's not easy. And it's not cheap. But it works.

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