This Has Been A Test

Bob Houghtaling on testing.

There was a time when child development was considered an essential component of our nation’s educational system. Once Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, Maria Montessori and later David Elkind and Howard Gardner were factored into how kids were taught. Today we look to Arne Duncan, Steve Jobs and the folks who oversee standardized testing for our educational cues. These changes have prompted an over reliance on testing, as well as a proliferation of technology. Because of these modifications we are beginning to see the erosion of interpersonal/coping skills in our children.

Before going further it is imperative that I point out that there is a place for testing and technology. Testing used as a diagnostic measure has much merit. In addition, utilizing tests as a way to guide us towards future directions is essential. However, when standardized tests are used as the sole or primary indicators determining the success or failure of teachers and schools this is heavy handed. It is also unfair and not fully reflective of subject mastery. Again, standardized tests have a place, but weighing them equally with four years of academic rigor minimizes the efforts of teachers. The day-to day-hard work of students is minimized as well.

As for technology, it goes without saying that being adroit with computers is something that most folk need to be these days. However, an over reliance on technology can lead to a reduction in the amount of time young people communicate with each other face to face, as well as, their working together in teams.

Brainstorming, problem solving, character development and working cooperatively will all play secondary roles. Embracing technology is vital as our schools advance into the century. It brings a world of ideas to each student in an instant. However, a balance must be struck where young learners can work and socialize with each other in person. Aristotle once said that man is a Social Animal. Rather than moving away from the social dynamics of education we should be reinforcing them. Getting along, working together and accepting diverse ideas are important facets of learning.

Name me a parent, teacher or student who would advocate for an educational system that produces a group of learners who can’t work together. Name me a school district that openly advocates alienating its students from others. Balance, Balance, Balance. When do we find the time to promote those skills that enhance the ability of kids to navigate through their social dynamics/concerns? When do we recognize the fact that young people are much more than receptacles to be filled with information?

Keeping with the technology motif for a moment, Walter Isaacson’s book detailing the life of Steve Jobs contains an interesting statement from the man behind Apple and Pixar. “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat,” he said. “That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say Wow and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”

Jobs would continue discussing how he created the Pixar building which encouraged collaboration. “If a building doesn’t encourage that, you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity,’ he said. “So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”  Computers might be a great tool – but creativity was served best face-to-face.

So why are we going against Developmental Psychology and even Steve Jobs? Maybe it’s because tests produce raw data that can be interpreted as success (or failure). Maybe it’s because technology has that ‘advancement into the future’ smell to it. It’s exciting and ever changing. Smart Boards, iPads, laptops and so on are great – but nothing can replace the student/teacher connection. The way we’re going education is heading towards a Dilbert episode with kids being taught in cubicles. Now that’s a future worth ‘Racing to the Top’ of.

There was once a time when children were viewed as mini-adults (see Industrial Revolution). During this time they often worked long hours in factories or else were asked to crawl down chimneys to clean them out. While we certainly haven’t placed our kids in those situations, we have created dynamics where the phases of child development are ignored and kids are ‘hurried’ to get ahead. In that way we have begun to reduce education to a ‘test factory’ model. Don’t believe me? Check out what happens to schools that don’t test well. In fact, check out what is beginning to happen to kids who don’t test well. “Please sir, I want some more.” Something like this could ‘scare the dickens’ out of someone.

To reiterate, it is obvious that we haven’t created Industrial Revolution type conditions for kids, but, minimizing growth and development does have consequences. An increasing number of young people are being treated for stress disorders, anxiety and depression.

Not all of this can be blamed on how we teach children. Other societal issues need to be looked at as well. (parenting, pace of life, cultural norms, over prescription of meds, etc.) But, when we over–adultize a child’s world that’s not always good. Adults who protect, guide and serve as role models are necessary. Discipline (as opposed to punishment) is another valuable offering adults can make. This helps to teach kids how to use their skills. Problems arise when adults get in the way of development. When ‘free play’ is truncated and fun is put on the back burner things like ‘multiple intelligences’ are but a whimsical notion.

Within all of this is still room for fun (recess), working in teams, lively discussions and some hands on learning other than the computer. Prescriptive learning may offer some basics, but over prescription gets in the way of exploration.

Some will argue that in order to keep up with the rest of the world we have to promote testing and technology. Many will say that we must prepare our kids for their careers and therefore they must be good test takers and users of technology. For sure, keeping up with the world and getting jobs are important, but what of social skills, critical thinking and the ability to articulate points of view face-to-face with others? Don’t these items lead to success as well. Testing and technology have their places – but they should not be the sacred cows of education. We’d be better served if they were viewed as tools to augment education than as the goals of education.

There are those who have benefited from these changes. School Districts that can keep up with technology costs and test well are considered successes. Districts that test poorly and cannot pay for ‘educational advancements’ wind up being cited or threatened with State Oversite/Intervention. Such is progress–the rich get richer and the poor get taken over. Check out the 2012 RI’s Kids Count Facebook if you need further evidence as to how finances impact education. On the bright side, it looks as though RI is creating the greatest set of ‘receivers’ since Jerry Rice and Randy Moss. All of this is another article for another point in time.

We’ve put people on the moon, cured many illnesses, created technologies that allow for instant communications around the world and yet we still are plagued by things that keep us apart. Emotionally we are not much different from the ancients. Perhaps the real reforms we are looking for should come in the arena(s) of who we are and how we relate with others. Advances in science and technology have taken us from caves to the stars. Continued advancements in how we relate will make the journey more meaningful. Remember, the folks at ENRON were once ‘the smartest guys in the room’. Being smart and using your smarts to benefit the world are two different things. Till next time.

Bob Houghtaling

Lisa Sussman July 06, 2012 at 02:04 PM
Well said, Bob.
Jean Ann Guliano July 06, 2012 at 04:43 PM
Bob, as you stated, technology IS a reality in today’s world. No matter what career path our students decide to pursue, technology will be a significant part of it. You can certainly debate whether or not this trend is good or bad, but we shouldn’t pit personal interaction and critical thinking against technology as if we need to choose one over the other. As you said, it’s a balance. Recognize that all are important and work to integrate them accordingly. On the issue of high stakes testing, I am 100% in agreement. The notion that one single test will determine whether or not a student graduates or a teacher keeps their job, is perhaps the most illogical and harmful requirement ever implemented by the educational powers-that-be. Once parents realize the emotional toll this puts on students and communities realize the significant cost of implementation for their districts, I am certain this requirement will be seriously reconsidered and, hopefully, overturned. Thank you, Bob, as always, for looking out for our kids.
jim halsband July 07, 2012 at 01:29 AM
All good points, good arguments for technology, no escaping advances in new tech, the inescapable problem comes from overuse of tech's that is inherent with mandatory testing, children learning by rote to pass a test denies the child of developing critical thinking and interpersonal skills that comes with having to figure things out. Recent studies has proven that a result of mandatory testing since the beginning of No Child Left Behind over the last 20 years is the remarkable and most disturbing finding that those students have a 19% reduction in creative thinking, which is the leading indicator in a decline in our nation's problem solving, in my opinion, this is disastrous, when 1 in 5 young Americans cannot figure stuff out, this testing program has failed epically and should be aborted. Immediately!
jim halsband July 07, 2012 at 02:21 AM
On the darker side of all this, which does not affect EG, which enjoys a graduation rate of 98-99%, but in communities like Central Falls, which is in the area of 75%, so the new ALEC written law that raised the drop-out age to 18, "cuz kids need to be in school", has become known as the School to Prison Pipeline. ALEC is a privately funded lobby group corrections industry who have cashed in on the higher dropout rate due to poorer students who do not test well, and lower aggregate class scores which jeopardize teachers jobs and school funding. They wrote the law to capture and detain these truants who would be better served in vocational systems but are now herded off to the new multi-million dollar(taxpayer dollars) juvenile detention center at Sockonossett. When you ask yourself why was such a costly facility necessary in a declining population, the answer is simple, increased revenue for privatized corrections corporations. Once these truant children are incarcerated in 'juvie', at a still formative age, a very high percentage become institutionalized in the penal system and the only graduation in their unfortunate lives is graduating to prison. I know, this sounds all conspiracy theory and all, but the prison industrial complex has grown exponentially since prison became private and for profit, and crimogenics has creeped into the vernacular, it is the trapping of kids into the prison industrial complex, google it! Some food for thought, sorry it's not a fudge brownie!


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