Narrowing the Choices

I spend a minimum of an hour a day grading papers. Some days it adds up to as many as three hours. In a normal week, it works out to about ten hours of marking up papers, sifting through sentences and paragraphs, evaluating the evidence of learning.

One of the side effects of all this activity is the inability to let my mind off the leash. I tend to approach every part of my life with the left brain, viewing everything I read through critical eyes, including my own words. If a person needed a cure for writing and reading too much, having an English teacher grade everything would put an end to even the most fervent love of words.

Alas, I do not need to be cured. I need to write more, read more. But it’s pretty hard to sit down and read for enjoyment or work on my unfinished novel when I’ve been bleeding red ink all day.

Nor do my students need to be cured. At an age when their minds ought to be soaking up information, they have learned to hate reading because it always comes with a not-so-secret agenda. “Read the following passages and answer the questions by filling in the circle corresponding to the correct answer. Be sure to darken each circle completely, using only a number 2 pencil. If you change an answer, be sure to erase completely. Do not make any other marks on your answer sheet.”

If the only point to reading is to prove that you read something by bubbling in answers, or writing short answers and extended responses, or occasionally making a book report, why would they want to read? Reading isn’t fun, it’s a test.

Modern education revolves around testing and grades. This is sad. The world has expanded so much in the last century, and technology allows us to instantly access information, if we wish. But instead of a learning renaissance, we have entered an intellectual dark age. The more information there is to be learned, or at least understood, the less enthusiasm there is among students for knowing anything at all. “Will this be on the test?” is always their first question.

It’s scary. At a time when more jobs require more education, many bright students want only the minimum. For them, school is a list of items to be checked off to get to the next level. Pass the test, pass the course, advance a grade, graduate. Whatever they have learned at that point seems less important than the fact that completed they necessary tasks. The grade, the rank, the diploma have become the goal.

Teachers didn’t always give tests and grade their students. Originally education wasn’t about ranking; it was about knowing. A thousand years ago, if a person wanted knowledge, he would find a teacher and pay him for instruction. (I say ‘he’ and ‘him’ because for the most part women weren’t part of this commerce.) If a student didn’t learn, he would at the very least have wasted his money. And why would a teacher want to tarnish his reputation by turning out students who had failed to learn anything? Well-taught students were a teacher’s best advertisement. Better to send the lazy and ignorant away than to be thought a poor teacher.

Once education became compulsory, and free, students had the option to attend school without learning anything. Education has become a hand-out, like the free breakfasts that end up in our trash cans every morning. Things are worth what we pay for them.

I don’t see the test mania ending any time soon. Those who are not educators find numbers and ranking a convenient way to prove that our children are learning and hold educators accountable if they don’t.

If they would examine the evidence, though, they might realize what teachers since Socrates have understood. Testing does not improve learning; it becomes part of the equation and changes what we are trying to measure. When a student’s mind has been trained from early childhood to think that everything can be reduced to a multiple-choice format with occasional short answers thrown in (which are then graded with a 2-point rubric), they will learn to see the world critically, but never creatively.

But I have learned a few things in my years in the classroom. I know that there are times when it is more important simply to do something, than to do it right. Outcome is not always more important than process. Education should be about opening possibilities, not narrowing down the choices.

But I am required to test, and grade, and be critical. That is what teachers do. There is more than irony in this; it is a paradox: while grading and ranking my students, I am supposed to pull everyone up to the top half of the scale. All children must be above average.

My students, afraid of being wrong, often cannot begin the task. Their page remains blank, their curiosity untapped. And I’m not sure whether I have the skill, or the courage, to undo the damage.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Michael G.
    Jan 22, 2011 @ 12:09:37

    I completely agree and it is so frustrating to teach to a test rather than teaching in an authentic way so my students can learn, be stimulated and question.


  2. theteachingwhore
    Jan 22, 2011 @ 14:55:35

    Powerful and honest post–thanks so much for expressing these ideas, which I–and I’m sure many others–feel. After 23 years of teaching, I continue to do my best and increasingly see how it is not enough when I’m operating in a broken system. And honestly…I’m too old and tired to start the revolution. (though I’d join it!)


  3. Russ
    Jan 22, 2011 @ 15:14:34

    I’m not a teacher, but I’ve been thinking more about my academic experience recently.

    One thing that I distinctly remember about my college years is that I completely lost the desire to read on my own. I had been a voracious reader while growing up, particularly during the summers, but I noticed at some point during my freshman year of college that I wasn’t reading on my own at all. I just didn’t want to, because the required reading/workload sort of took away my inspiration. Once I noticed this, I made an effort to read a couple of extracurricular books that year, which was nice, but for the most part I found little joy in reading during college.

    I also lost sight of the concept of college as a personal developmental experience. For me, it became about survival and graduation, rather than growth and learning.

    I’m not absolving myself of any blame for that, and I don’t know that this is necessarily a universal feeling that most, or all, students/college students experience. However, I do feel that I have learned more, and developed better reading habits and thinking skills, as an adult (via life experiences and freedom to read and learn on my own) than I did in college.

    Thanks for your post. 🙂


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