By Jonathan R. Herman
The astonishing reach of the CRCT cheating scandal may be opening lots of eyes, but many of us in the academia have already been noticing a fundamental, and unhealthy, change in how many people understand the purpose of education and what is meant by “learning.”
A case in point. Last semester, I taught a seminar on the infamous Scopes “monkey trial,” which addressed the question of whether public school curricula should follow the consensus of the community or the expertise of instructors. I asked my students to think about who should determine what is taught in the classroom and how exactly that determination should be made.
As the conversation developed, one young woman seemed especially impatient, punctuating her irregular eye-rolls with exasperated sighs. “Why don’t teachers just teach what is going to be on the test?” she finally asked.
The implication couldn’t have been clearer. There is a finite, identifiable body of data that students are supposed to learn. It is the task of the instructor simply to transmit that information.
A generation or two ago, the very worst thing one could say about a teacher was that he or she went blandly “by the book,” assaulted students with facts and figures, and demanded that they “regurgitate” names and dates on tests. It was widely understood that learning should nurture critical thinking, creativity, imagination, analysis and synthesis.
But now, many students want “just the facts,” and they are often baffled by teachers who seem too lazy or recalcitrant to hand them over, who instead haze them with Socratic method, linger on interminable class discussions, and force them to do research apart from consulting Wikipedia. “Less thinking,” they seem to be telling us, “more regurgitation.”
So how did this happen? Why is the expression “teaching to the test” even a part of everyday vernacular?
I would suggest that a big part of this is the sometimes sincere, but more often cynical, desire to hold schools and teachers accountable for what they are accomplishing in the classroom, which has produced a clumsy demand for concrete, mathematically interpretable “data.” Thus, the new educational lexicon involves “rubrics,” “measurable learning outcomes,” “quantifiable standards of performance,” “numerical targets,” and so on.
Suddenly, these calculations have become the basis for funding and accrediting and hiring and firing, which turns the whole intellectual process inside out. Curricula are designed to satisfy the numbers, students are conditioned to tick off their rubrics mechanically when they fulfill assignments, and schools are mandated to engage in ongoing “assessment,” i.e., to construct methods for reducing students’ learning to measurable data points and determining what quantitative thresholds are sufficient to indicate success.
How could a student be immersed in this environment and not conclude that learning is anything other than a process of jumping through a protracted set of strategically placed hoops?
Such a view is perpetuated when schools are pressed to participate in the charade, to foster a “climate of assessment.”
Like the time I wrote an “assessment report” of our program’s goals and results. Shortly thereafter, I was asked to meet with assessment coordinators from other departments so we could discuss how to improve our methods of assessment and write better assessment reports. You heard me; we were assessing our processes of assessment.
At the end of the meeting, I was asked to fill out a questionnaire, asking me for recommendations that would improve this type of workshop. They wanted me to assess their assessment of my assessment.
Don’t get me wrong. It is absolutely crucial that we put considerable effort into curricular design and that we hold our teachers and schools accountable. But the simple reality is that the very best of what we accomplish cannot be boiled down to these “learning outcomes,” and I want my own children to gain more from their education than an ability to satisfy rubrics.
I recently received a surprise email from a long-lost former student, who is now a public school teacher. “Classes I took with you,” he wrote, “were so instrumental in rewiring the way I saw the world around me.”
He added: “I love what I do, and, part of what I do, is try to re-create that same learning environment I experienced in your class. To throw it all into question, to push my students to wrestle with the content and come up with their conclusions, and to take seriously every question that every student asks and to answer it sincerely.”
I’d like to see someone try to quantify that.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog