by Michael Dymmoch
Chance favors the prepared mind.* Louis Pasteur
A recent news story reported that the Washington D.C. school system is not just teaching to the tests, but taking the idea to an extreme. They’re making up tests of what they think students ought to know and teaching to those tests. Not surprisingly, test scores are up.
I’m really glad I’m not a student in that system. I went to an old-fashioned grammar school that taught reading, grammar, math, geography, history, and civics—among other things. As a result, I’m a great reader, a pretty good writer, better than average at grammar, fair at practical math, and a regular voter. I never knew tests were supposed to be an ordeal, so I always took them as a chance to see how much I’d learned. For me, they were fun. And I did well enough in school, and on the tests, to get a scholarship to college. I don’t recall ever being told that any particular thing I was being taught was important because it would be on a test. Presumably everything taught in my school had some value, so students were expected to try to remember all of it.
Over the years, most of my teachers were excellent, especially in high school and college. I think this may have been because they loved teaching or at least loved what they were teaching. (I learned more physics from a novice plant physiology instructor who desperately wanted to share his love of plants than I did from two different physics teachers.) And I was an indifferent student. I didn’t learn how to study until after I’d dropped out of grad school. What I did learn early on is that learning is valuable in itself—not because it enables one to pass tests or get into a great school.
Which is why I spent the money (over and above my tax contributions) to send my son to a Montessori school through fifth grade, though when I enrolled him, I knew nothing of the Montessori philosophy—that children come programmed to learn and all they need to succeed at it is an environment that encourages them to do so. Most Montessori schools provide a learning environment, as do most wealthy suburban and city magnet schools. But they take only the best students‡, so the teachers assume most of the kids will do well. And—surprise!—they do. A teacher who believes in students' ability to learn is part of a great learning experience.
Judging by news reports, my teacher-friends’ horror stories, and my own—admittedly limited—experience, most schools today are not preparing students to do much more than show up for work, follow orders whether they make sense or not, and pass tests. And I may be just getting old and cranky, but I believe the practice of giving students money to get good grades is just wrong. It discourages students from learning for its own sake. Which limits what people will learn. Which limits what they can learn. And that limits their ability to adapt to situations they can’t begin to foresee without a broad knowledge base, including history and geography.
It seems to me we’re preparing students to pass tests, but we’re not preparing them to learn or think. We’re not preparing them to live in our complex world.
What do you think?
*Actually Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.
‡ Some elite schools refuse to take troublesome students or make it clear they’d be better off in night school—but that’s a story for another blog.