Back to School Special

With the back to school season in full swing, there’s been lots of things like this popping up lately.  It’s not a generational article per se, but if you have kids and you care about what’s happening to them in school, I suggest that you go read it.  This is not an outlandish view.  In fact, everyone I know in education feels similar to this author.  I’m sure there’s someone somewhere that doesn’t feel this way, but if so they haven’t spoken up at any of the dozen or so educational conferences I’ve been to in the past decade.  And it’s not some pinko academia thing either: the professor I had in the educational assessment course I took in graduate school not only lambasted No Child Left Behind, but reminded us that Ted Kennedy’s name was on that bill, too: he was a somewhat rare conservative acamedic but still knew it was a bad idea.  And if you think standardized tests are a good thing for K12 students, ask yourself when was the last time you answered a multiple choice question as part of your job.  If you don’t remember what a multiple choice question is, it’s where you are given four choices and you have to color in the one that you think is the best answer.  And to further muddy those waters, in a time of desperation I once worked for a month at a test grading factory where they send all of those free response questions that are supposed to check for higher order thinking skills.  The tests are graded by temp agency workers.  The same people who unload boxes into warehouses and check Odwalla bottles for ecoli before shipping them off to the store.  The only difference is you don’t have to take a shower at the end of the day and they pass out free hard candy to make sure that you stay awake.  So yes, I toe the party line of free thinkers who think standardized testing is a bad idea.  It’s the one area in academia in which it’s actually possible to herd cats (which, if you think about it, makes you wonder who writes these tests anyways…)

Until I read this article.  It didn’t so much change my mind as cause me to realize just how much windmill tilting this whole anti-standardized testing movement actually is.  Although it’s so plainly evident that it is a generational issue, I didn’t realize how much until I read this article.  And when I did I realized the extent of the futility in trying to do away with standardized testing.

Before I get into that, though, perhaps I should tell you why I think it’s a bad idea.  Somewhere in the midst of my doctoral studies, I realized there were two fundamentally opposed perspectives on education.  It seemed so obvious when I realized it that perhaps it’s something I should have figured out a long time ago, like maybe in 7th grade.  Education can do one of two things: prepare a highly skilled and efficient work force, or cultivate minds capable of thinking outside of the proverbial box.  It can’t do both at the same time, or at least do so well.  You can’t make cogs of the machine the same way you make people that think up better machines.  Perhaps this is traditionally why there have been two pathways after high school: trade school or college.  Perhaps this is why standardized testing in Europe is used to put students on one or the other of these pathways before they even get to high school.  But the results of standardized testing is that students inevitably become more and more like an efficient work force than they do like imaginative souls who can change the status quo.

I have to admit that when I first realized this, it was a bit of a shock.  It seemed to me that most of my education up to that point had been guiding me in the direction of an efficient work force.  Which might seem surprising because I had a master’s degree, but it was an engineering degree, so that might explain some of it.  It’s also a bit counter to what’s typical of my generation, but I suppose I can blame my stable upbringing for that.  I wanted to provide my students with opportunities to think and be imaginative in ways that I never had been able to.  It turns out that for them that is going to be a much more difficult task than it was for me.  They might never realize that what sounds to them like an impossible question was meant as the opportunity of a lifetime: to actually have the freedom to decide what to do with their own minds.

When thinking about this generationally, of course it’s the baby boomers who were the ones who had that freedom.  Because they get everything.  And some say it’s what they chose to do with their free thoughts on college campuses that led policymakers in the direction of regulating education to an extent that incoming freshman today think more like trade school students of 40 years ago than university students of 40 years ago.  What bits of free thinking our generation picked up in school wasn’t because it was a policy as much as it was because nobody was paying attention.  We learned that if the lunchroom lady never came to check on us, we didn’t have to write one hundred sentences afterall, or that if we were the first ones done with our homework we got to play Oregon Trail on the one Apple IIe we were so privileged to have in the corner of the room.    But there was no scaffolded guidance into how to think or be creative.  If we leaned in that direction, perhaps eventually we would figure it out on our own.  Which might be why it took me until I was 35 to understand.

I suppose the good news is that people are paying more attention to kids these days.  Or is it?  As I started out this article saying, it feels like all of this attention is the wrong kind of attention.  The kind of attention that actually makes things worse.  We aren’t raising children, we’re programming robots.  They can communicate rapidly and check boxes like a mofo, but don’t know how to call us out on our bullshit or even provide a thoughtful reason for why they like their favorite song.  It feels so wrong.  It feels like a violation of their humanity and that I am complicit with it unless I do whatever I can to give them that impossible assignment of thinking for themselves. 

But the dynamics of generational shift state otherwise.  They state that cat herding has not gone well, and the past two generations of cats have sliced their way through that box so many times, it’s hard to even recognize it as a box anymore.  Maybe it’s just time for another box.  As much as I’d like to think that some great idea will get us through the current crisis, it’s never been a great idea that has gotten us through this kind of crisis.  It’s pretty much always been Captain America that did it.  It’s always been something like storming the beach at Normandy.  and maybe Zuccotti Park is this generation’s Normandy.  And maybe it doesn’t matter if they can’t write a topic sentence, as long as they’ve got lantern jaws and stand beside each other in the face of an impossible storm those of us who are older and wiser believe there’s no possible way of surviving.  And maybe it’s impossible, and perhaps even detrimental for me to teach them how to think like scientists.  But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying.

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