Teaching is more than testing

Jerry - Eugene, Oregon
Entered on September 27, 2007

Teaching is an ancient vocation. All cultures in all times have found a need for maestros, sensei, lehreren, sapsik’wala, teachers. Teachers have not traditionally been sought out as mere sources of information and skills. They are sought out as guides into new worlds. The highest ambition of education has always been to pass on information along with reasons to value that information, skills along with the wisdom needed to use those skills well. I believe we as a nation are at risk of losing touch with these higher educational ambitions.

This was illustrated for me recently, by an email I received from an old friend. He recounted an effort to help his daughter with a history test on the French explorer La Salle. In 1681 LaSalle traveled the length of the Mississippi River in a canoe to see if it was a suitable route for French commerce. Taking up the topic with enthusiasm, my friend asked his daughter to consider the enormity of LaSalle’s enterprise. Their family had recently taken a five hour canoe trip on a local river and had been exhausted at the end. “What must it have been like,” he asked his daughter, “to row like we did for months, in bad weather, with no EZ Marts to stop at along the way, and when a skinned knee could cause infection and death?” This led to a discussion about risk taking, what LaSalle’s visit must have meant to the indigenous population, and—since LaSalle’s attempts to settle the region were a failure—what “failure” really means.

What a wonderful conversation. After this discussion, however, his daughter remarked that she needed to “get back” to studying. None of these things, it turns out, were likely to be on her exam. Her teachers are required to “teach to the state test” that emphasizes names, places, and dates. “But they leave out the other stuff,” my friend complained, ”the stuff that makes LaSalle worth studying in the first place.”

As someone who spends a great deal of time in schools, I hear this kind of story with increasing frequency. There is a growing concern in our country that we are emphasizing testing at the expense of really teaching. The current emphasis on testing is often presented as a necessary part of a scientific approach to education. Good scientists, however, do not conflate what they can measure with what actually exists. All measurement instruments, from telescopes to history tests, are selective filters. They register some things and do not register others. The high stakes tests currently being imposed on classrooms across the country measure only the most basic learning outcomes. High level thinking skills are not being tracked, because they are more difficult to measure.

The result, ironically, is that we are drifting towards lowered educational ambitions. Under the banner of improvement, teachers are being coerced into teaching only basic skills and facts that can be measured on standardized tests. The result, as my friend observed about his daughter’s history class, is education bereft of inspiration.

I believe we can do better than this. Every generation has a responsibility to pass on the best that is in us. This includes teaching basic information and skills. But it also includes teaching a deep understanding of educational subjects, as well as habits of inquiry and imagination, an appreciation of what is beautiful, respect for the moral worth of other human beings, humility that avoids shame, ambition that avoids greed, critical thought that avoids cynicism.

We have so much more to give future generations than the information that shows up on these standardized tests. I believe we need to recommit to these higher educational ambitions. The alternative is to leave the best of ourselves, our history, and our culture behind.