Not so much, thank you!

old-time classroomI’m out of town this week for several speaking engagements in New England. As usual, I have a rental car, a brand new Toyota with all sorts of bells and whistles that didn’t exist when I bought my last car 13 years ago. As I sat in the parking lot of rental place, pairing my phone with the car’s Bluetooth, hooking up my iPod to the USB port, and getting familiar with all the controls and touch-screen options, I started thinking about how my Drivers’ Ed class may have prepared me for things like maneuvering the vehicle, obeying traffic signs, and watching out for other drivers, but how this car, like so many I’ve rented, presented new learning opportunities and required skills that, for obvious reasons, my basic training never could have predicted I’d need to know.

Now, imagine learning to drive a hundred years ago, and the skills we would have needed— and not needed— with the equipment, road system, and societal context that existed back then. I mention this comparison for a reason, a link received in a recent email about a test from 1912, posted in an article about the “dumbing down of America.” I will admit that the questions, purportedly from a test for 8th graders, were hard ones, and that I would have to think long and hard to determine the answer to a question asking, “At $1.62 1/2 a cord, what will be the cost of a pile of wood 24 ft. long, 4 ft. wide, and 6 ft. 3 in. high?”

But here’s the thing: Despite the fun of unraveling a mental challenge (and one that, perhaps I might have been able to answer more easily 40 or 50 years ago when we were closer to a time where we may have used this kind of skill), I don’t actually need to know how to answer this question. And if and when I do, the answer is just a click away.*

There are a number of things people do not consider when waving this test around as an example of the failure of our schools or dumbing down of our country:

1) Looking at this test through the lens of something like Bloom’s taxonomy, which lists levels of learning starting at the most basic (recall) and advances through more challenging levels (comprehension, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, etc.), I saw few questions that demanded much more than simple recall of memorized facts and information. There would be very little evidence of higher-level intellectual functioning or the ability to actually USE or create something with this information, for example, even by passing this test with flying colors. This is not exactly useless information, but all of these facts are easily discoverable with today’s technology and simply being able to parrot back the info necessary to successfully answer these questions does not suggest great intellect, much less an effective education or acquisition of useable skills, whether in 1912 or in 2013.

2) Until 1968, approximately half of the kids who entered first grade in the U.S. left school by the end of 8th grade, mostly to work on family farms or businesses. I suspect in states with a large rural poor population (the alleged source of this 1912 test), even fewer kids started school or stayed that long. So we’re talking about a different student population back then than what we are seeing today. Legislation that came out around the time I started teaching mandated that schools were to provide education for all kids, so suddenly kids who likely would not have been in school in 1970, much less 1912, were suddenly filling classrooms and staying longer.

3) By the late 1960s, if not long before, many educators were starting to question the role of the school: fill kids’ heads with facts or teach them how to think critically and solve problems, for example. Some of the experiments that followed were goofy in retrospect, maybe even dismal failures when taken to extremes (often, perhaps as a knee-jerk response to earlier rigidity) because of insufficient structure, or in the hands of people who lacked skills beyond giving information and testing retention, as this example would recommend. I think we’ve been trying to find our way ever since, often fighting against people who would settle for successfully passing a test like this one as evidence of an “education.”

4) The world of 2013 is breathtakingly different from the world 100 years ago. Employers are looking for different skills, and the economy depends on a work force that can do more than regurgitate facts. Technological advances and globalization demand individuals who can take information (whether from memory or from easily-accessed resources) and actually DO something with it.

Old factory, assembly line

This is not a recent shift. By the late 1970s, the mills were beginning to shut down in Pittsburgh (where I went to school and was teaching at the time) and the steel town had started its journey toward becoming a white-collar economic and medical center. By the time I moved in 1980, nearly all of the fairly mindless assembly-line jobs (like the ones my roommate and I did between spring and fall semesters) were, for all intents and purposes, gone from the area.

During my last years teaching in Pittsburgh, I worked on a curriculum committee that was interviewing business leaders who, even then, were asking schools to prepare future employees with initiative and problem-solving skills, asking us to send them kids who could think, create, collaborate, and innovate— kids with “vision and attitude.” Nobody wanted to hire people who knew a few random facts or who would sit around waiting to be told what to do.

5) The sheer quantity of information and new developments over the past 100 years has emerged at exponential rates. (I heard a great quote about how a week’s worth of New York Times contained more information in 2008 than most people would encounter during their entire lives in the 18th century. Check out Karl Fisch’s video for more information and examples.)

People’s attention spans have been reduced to sound bites. (Are you still reading this?) Emphasis on product over process has allowed people to settle for quick-fixes for everything. Many of us are still fighting to teach kids “how to think” instead of “what to think,” with others clamoring for some romantic version of the good old days, refusing to let go of an ideal of back-to-basics routines decades after uniformity and standardization outlived their economic usefulness. (How many factories and assembly lines still exist in this country?)

So while this may be the latest attempt to “expose” the failure of today’s schools (loved the comment attributing this failure to feminism), it’s simply one more example of something taken out of context, handy for fueling hysteria and blame. Period. In fact, if anything, I believe it’s our attachment to the kind of things we needed to prepare kids for work in an industrial economy when our schools were first established (and yes, I am talking about standardization, which was important as all get-out on now-gone assembly lines) that has been dragging education down the most in recent years.

And oh yes, I used to know how to diagram sentences and how many bushels were in a peck. Useful? Perhaps at the time. And as a travel and geography freak, I do wish people knew where places like Montenegro and Buenos Aires (or for that matter, New Mexico) are. But that information is readily available and this country needs people with a different kind of ”smartness” than the kind that allows them to answer those questions or pass this test.

So while I have no objection to teaching this kind of information, I’d like to see us focus on teaching kids how to find and learn the info they need when they need it— and give them reasons and assignments where they WILL need it. (I have a friend who has taken several free online courses to teach herself programming and trigonometry, which she needed to build a game or an app, stuff she didn’t need until then, but had access to when the need arose.) And I’d like to see some kind of assessment that actually looks at how kids might USE these facts, perhaps to create new products and services, because businesses (and this planet in general) need people who can do more than simply recall random and obscure bits of information.

*Just in case you were wondering, according to Yahoo answers : “A cord of wood is 4 feet high, 4 feet wide, and 8 feet long, stacked tightly. That is 128 cubic feet. A typical full size pickup, bed level, will hold about 1/2 a cord. Be cautious about what you buy, because it is easy to stack a cord so that it contains as much as ten percent less when restacked.” I believe that basic math will answer the question and if anyone cares to run the calculation, feel free to let me know what you come up with. I’m curious, but need to shift gears to work on my presentations for tomorrow’s programs.

Here are a couple related links I discovered while working in Connecticut this past week that are well worth checking out. These relate to current trends in teacher evaluations and are appropriate to add here. If you know of any others, please let me know.

Speech by Superintendent Thomas Scarice, “Leading Voice in Education”
What Makes a Good Teacher, Video Interviews with Kids in Madison, CT
A “Value-Added” Travesty for an Award-Winning Teacher

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