a riff on education

booknotesI was discussing an article about education with a former coworker this morning over IM, when he posited the following gem:

“No Child Left Behind also means No Child Gets Ahead.”

I was struck dumb by the brilliance of that comment.

As many of you know, I teach history at the college level, at both a 2-year community college & a traditional, public 4-year university. Because of how adjunct (part-time) professors are prioritized, I only ever teach 100-level courses. This means that the vast majority of my students are freshmen – and at the 4-year institution, that means they’re generally in their 1st or 2nd semester of college.

I’ve been teaching since 2001 and have noticed a precipitous drop-off in the skills these students bring to my classes.

I want to clarify a something real quick before I continue. I’m not talking about intelligence.  In all my years of teaching, I have yet to meet a student who is just flat-out stupid.  Not understanding history, chemistry or calculus doesn’t mean you’re stupid – it means you don’t understand that thing, whatever it is. The reason we seek education is to improve our understanding of the world.

OK, now that we’ve cleared that up, I’ll continue.

To succeed in a history class, you need some pretty specialized skills, such as:

1.  The ability to take notes.  This is not just writing down every word the professor says, but paraphrasing the lecture’s main points effectively in a way that you will understand later when you read over your notes.

2.  The ability to concentrate on one thing, and a brain-intensive thing at that, for an extended period of time.  There’s more distractions in the world than Facebook, spring blossoms and the cute classmate sitting next to you.

3.  The ability to take an exam.  I’ll get into this a bit more down below.

4.  The ability to think creatively, abstractly and analytically.  This skill is perhaps the one that most students – at least in my history classes – lack, and it’s the lack of this skill that hurts them the most when final grades roll around because it affects every other aspect of the class.

Let’s get into the correlation between NCLB (or NCGA as I may refer to it from now on) and exams.

As most educators & parents know, the metrics that drive the NCLB program stem from all-encompassing examinations given to students every year. Because of the vast scope of both these exams and this program, there’s no way you could possibly have humans grade every exam – which means grading the exams relies on computers. With very few exceptions, computers lack the ability to reason – to understand – complex abstract & analytical thought. Computers are great, though, at determining if the answer to question #16 on this piece of paper matches the answer that it has listed as the correct answer to question #16.

Every year for 12 years, students take a multi-day multiple choice exam.  Multiple choice exams do have their place in academia, and that place is in a class where the material is largely fact based. To a large extent, that means science & math.  If I was a science teacher, I’d be all over multiple choice exams.  “Mitosis is:  A) When cells die unexpectedly; B) When cells grow little arms called flagella; C) When cells split; D) None of the above.”  (the answer? anybody? I don’t know, I just made all that up)

“But Wes!” I hear you cry. “History is about facts, too! Surely you could make a multiple choice exam for your history classes!”

Yes, I agree, that to a certain extent history is about facts.  George Washington was born in 1732. The Battle of Agincourt took place in 1415.  The first man to walk on the moon was Neil Armstrong.  Genghis Khan died in 1227. These data points are very easy to quantify and put on a multiple choice exam.

What is not so easy to put on a multiple choice exam is why the British winning the Battle of Agincourt was important or how they won the fight or what the repercussions were for the overall war effort on both sides in the Hundred Years War. That really requires, at the very least, a short essay to explain.

Why would you need to explain that?  How about drawing parallels between long, destructive wars and understanding what 21st century Americans can learn from them? You can’t put that on a multiple choice exam.

Since students coming to college now have this long history of multiple choice exams behind them, they’ve geared their entire educational experience towards succeeding on those types of exams, and that destroys their other critical abilities.  It changes what they think is important, so it affects what they write down in their notes – and later, what they study for the exams. It (and many items of technology) changes their attention span, because everything taught for the standardized tests is done so in bite-sized chunks to make the digestion of facts easier. It obviously destroys their ability to take an essay exam. Finally, since creative, analytical thinking isn’t important for a student to regurgitate facts and succeed on a standardized test, it’s simply not being taught at the levels or with the intensity of days gone by.

(I swear, this is not a “get off my lawn” moment.)

My students react with fear when I tell them their exams will be all essays. I think at some visceral level they know they’re not prepared for it. That in & of itself is one of the reasons I teach my history classes the way I do – not a collection of facts displayed with a PowerPoint production, but as a series of stories. I still throw in the facts, but I surround them with analysis, which (hopefully) makes them easier to remember when it’s critical they do so.

I would rather a student be able to tell me the story of why Henry II & Thomas Becket’s friendship died than the names of the knights who brutally murdered Archbishop Becket in his own cathedral. The names aren’t important and can easily be looked up. What’s important is that the struggle between church & state isn’t unique to us in 2013 – it’s been going on for centuries and frankly, is something we can all stand to learn lessons from.

You can’t do that with a multiple choice exam. Ever. Period.  Forcing kids into this pattern is effectively compressing the skill levels – it is raising up the bottom tiers, but at the same time it is also lowering the top tiers.  All of our kids are being forced into the middle with the hope that the middle will rise as a result of NCLB.  It won’t. Ever. That’s not how things work. The middle will remain the middle because that’s how nature works. There will always be high- and low-performing students and many of the kids on the extremes will succeed or fail in spite of their educations.

Maybe this is a great time to point out that Bill Gates & Steve Jobs both dropped out of college & went on to create two of the most successful technology companies in the history of business. Perhaps the richest man of all time (if that’s how you measure success) was Andrew Carnegie, who not only never went to college, but never went to high school, as he entered the workforce at age 13.

Albert Einstein, though – now, he went to college. What can be learned from that? Well, if you want to succeed in business, maybe you don’t need college, but if you want to succeed in physics, you better pick out a school with access to a supercollider.

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