Context matters. Without context, facts are points on a graph without any lines. But the context needs to be relevant. When studying for the GRE math section, I came across a question that so illustrated my issues with standardized tests that I actually remembered most of it. It was a math question, one of the dreaded word problems. I hated them in elementary school, and I still hate them. I hate them because most of the time they’re too stupid to matter. This particular one was about people sitting in an HR group, and some other mundane information. The outcome of the question was to determine the proportion of women to men and older to younger. All I could do was say, “Who CARES about the ratio of women to men? Do they do their work well? Are they beneficial to the company? Can they work together? I had real world issues wrapped up in this standardized test scenario and I frankly did not CARE about the answer! Give me a reason to care about the answer and I’m more inclined to work toward it—and I doubt I am alone.
Actually, now that I think about it, I am not alone. I have a daughter who is all math and science. Philosophy, symbolism, rhetoric—all the things that make me giddy—are, in her mind, a waste of time. And without context, for her they are a waste of time. She is the product of a school system that works into her natural strengths: math and science are more important than literature, history, and art. But philosophies do matter in life. A well read doctor can connect to his or her patients in a relational way, and research does seem to indicate that the human element is a critical factor in healing. A scientist without a carefully thought out world view may well end up in a Frankenstein scenario—and that what makes that particular piece of literature so current and relevant. When Shelley wrote the book, the technology of creating human life was unthinkable. Now it is almost possible. It is philosophy that feeds ethical decisions: just because we can, should we? If mathematical possibility and scientific probability are the sole measures for technological advancement, what ultimately happens to our humanity?
Innovation requires out-of-the-box vision. We respect and revere men like Steve Jobs for their vision and for their ability to see the potential in ideas. Yet we don’t teach our teenagers to think for themselves. Teachers in the humanities need to encourage students to find their OWN insights into literature along with learning what other scholars think. History should be a captivating story of society and cultures, how it rises and falls, evolves, changes, succeeds, and fails. We learned early on that “in fourteen hundred and ninety two Columbus sailed the ocean blue” but why? What motivated him? How is he like Neil Armstrong or Walt Disney or Bill Gates? The connections are what make history come to life. But the connections don’t matter on a standardized test so we don’t ask. But, why NOT? Teachers are supposed to train learners, aren’t they? Doesn’t it follow that a kid who finds relevant connections to history and literature and economics is going to do just fine on the standardized tests?
I’m a big fan of asking questions. First of all, I don’t have all of the answers. And if you’re honest, you don’t either. Secondly, as compelling as I think I am, no one wants to listen to me tell facts about this or that. Facts matter, yes, but only as a foundation for discourse. The interesting stuff starts to happen when students make connections between facts and themselves. Students recognize this, too, even though they may not know it yet. When I teach F451, most students intuitively like Clarisse and dislike Mildred. Why is that? Mildred represents everything we seem to value: she has material goods, friends who make her feel good about herself, and a place in a society that is a perfect fit for her. She may not be in the A-list group, but she isn’t the bottom of the heap, either. Clarisse, on the other hand, is a loner, ostracized by her peer group, ridiculed in school, unconventional in her interests, habits, and appearance. Clarisse is, in her society, weird. Mildred is normal. It never fails, though. Every reader sees Clarisse as the more appealing character. Clarisse thinks deeply. Clarisse questions authority. Clarisse wonders and reads and talks. Students want to do the same, but too often we tell them the answer we want to hear and expect them to parrot it back to us. This is counter-productive. Is Clarisse a symbol? Perhaps, but more importantly to this generation, Clarisse gives teenagers permission to be unorthodox enough to find wisdom. Our job as teachers should be to show students the joy of imagination and wonder and discovery.
This is a work in progress…mostly a rant, but eventually something more.
I am a teacher. I can’t help it. It’s how I am wired. I don’t need a classroom; in fact I am probably better outside the traditional classroom because I hate busywork, irrelevant information, and standardized tests.
I teach because I love to learn and I want everyone around me to get excited about learning with me. In this country’s value system however, I am unorthodox. I don’t believe in standardized tests. I think they are the single greatest waste of time, resources, and energy ever created by government to ensure that no one thinks critically. Every question in education can be sufficiently posed and answered on a bubble form sent through a machine that marks the answers as either right or wrong. And they call that education.
NO! (I’d add a few choice words for emphasis, but you can add them in your heads on my behalf.) It is the most ridiculous thing in the world to limit answers to A, B, C, D, or E (with E being “all of the above”). Yes, there are right and wrong answers in education. 2+2 does in fact equal four and nothing else. The air we breathe is indeed a particular combination of oxygen, nitrogen, and a touch of argon. There are facts that are right or wrong, but knowing facts is not education. Recitation is boring. And yes, there are things that must be memorized in order for understanding to evolve, but our current education system has focused so much on right answers that we neglect to teach WHY the answers matter and HOW the answers affect us.
The unorthodox teacher, no matter what his or her classroom, is one who challenges students to understand why and how along with teaching the who, what, and where. And a standardized test can’t measure that.
…to Graduate school. A little nervous, a lot excited, and ready to get a M.Ed.–to start with.