This I Believe
I attended private school in the late eighties. It was a good school, full of some of the finest teachers I’ve ever had, but in spite of the high quality of the education I received, the school’s mandate always went against my grain: Make sure kids score high on standardized tests so they can get into a good college.
I was a thinker. I didn’t make the best grades. I had a hard time fitting my brain inside the box that many of the teachers required of me. When I did so, I felt damaged, cheapened. And so many of my fellow students, some very smart, seemed content to limit themselves, to keep themselves from acquiring any depth.
Now I am an educator, a music teacher, working on the other side of the fence. Today, test scores have become the measuring stick of success and nothing else is even considered in the equation. Teachers are required to surrender all of their ideas about what is important in a subject for the sake of drilling their students in certain lists of items that will be on a test.
Standardized tests do not allow either experimentation or discussion. The instructions are non-negotiable. If a student or a school fails, the consequences are dire, so no one wants to teach or learn anything but the information on the test.
I know it’s difficult to assess a student’s success, and the same is true with a school. But when is a school really failing its students? How can we say that the appearance of success is enough? What are we teaching our children?
I saw a documentary on World War II, and I learned that the reason America beat Germany in the invasion of Normandy was that, in the chaos that ensued after the storming of the beaches, each American soldier was able to improvise, to think in an emergency, while the Germans were hampered by their absolute requirement to always follow the orders of someone higher up. Can there be a better example of the value of teaching independent thought?
Contrast this with 9-11. A great emergency occurred in our country, and what did we do? We froze. After years of being taught to follow instructions, instead of thinking about a situation and discussing it, we all shut down and followed the voice of authority. The best of our politicians, the sharpest of our media, were overwhelmed by fear. We did not think our way through the fear the way our grandparents did. Instead, we followed the instructions of those who assured us that they had the answers, just the way our teachers taught us to do.
I believe that the only way to repair this broken society is to encourage our children to think. Evaluating them than with tests full of prefabricated “truths” has done nothing to make them ethical, intelligent people. We must guide our children to create relationships with one another in the classroom and use these communities to solve problems, from social dilemmas like bullying to academic challenges like algebra.
It’s not easy to teach this kind of thing. More difficult now that our generation is fully indoctrinated in the “right answer” syndrome. First we’ll have to start talking to each other, disagreeing, having conversations with one another instead of attacking from the safety of our bunkers. We can begin to change the world which seems to have gone so wrong if we just think.
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