‘Tis the season.’ Classes are over for this semester, final exams are concluding, and college professors are drowning in piles of term papers to grade.
Yesterday, I was talking to some of my colleagues about the disappointing performance of my students this semester. Although they’ve been reasonably diligent, this cohort has been stubbornly “stuck” at a superficial level. They can regurgitate material from the text or lectures, but they seem unable to get beneath the surface; for that matter, I’m not sure they know there is anything beneath the surface. They seem unaware of complexity or nuance. They skate along the surface, seemingly unaware of the big questions, or the deeper implications of the material–they just focus on finding out what I want on the tests and then giving it to me.
My experience has been shared by others, and not just in SPEA, where I teach. One of my colleagues has an intriguing–if disquieting–theory about the root of the problem: she thinks it is a result of the educational emphasis on high-stakes testing.
It’s now been several years since the education reform movement began its love-affair with constant testing. Students who have grown up in the resulting environment, students whose educational experience has consisted of sitting in a classroom where the instructor is “teaching to the test” are just now entering college. They come to us expecting to be evaluated in much the same way–that is to say, on the basis of their ability to absorb and recite back an assigned body of material.
And that isn’t education. It shouldn’t be what college is all about. College should be a time for probing, for questioning, for discovering–for considering the pros and cons and complexities of issues. Skill acquisition is part of that, but by no means the most important part. Skills can quickly become obsolete; the ability to think critically and analytically will never be outdated.
I don’t know whether my colleague’s theory that we are seeing the end result of teaching to the test is correct. Maybe next semester’s students will display intellectual curiosity, ask the hard questions and disprove the generalization. But I think she may be on to something, and if she is, then the critics of the current methods of “teacher accountability” will have been proven right.
I’m no defender of the status quo in K-12 education. I was once a high-school English teacher, and I am a firm believer in the importance of evaluation. But (as I try to explain to those uninterested students), how we do something is frequently more important than whether we do it. Unintended consequences are the bane of the policy process.
Maybe we should re-introduce elementary and high school students to art and music, test them a little less often and challenge them to think a little bit more.