Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ignorant Students? - commentary

Salon.com recently ran an article once again reporting on how ignorant our high schoolers are, in this case, when it comes to the humanities. They were reporting the results of tests given by some organization or another. The kids were asked questions such as the following: When did Columbus sail for America, the time frames of the American Revolution, the Civil War, WWI, what the Biblical Job was noted for, what famous American document did Abraham Lincoln write, the historical setting of the Tale of Two Cities, and so on. They were all questions today’s teen-agers could look up on their smart phones faster than their parents memorized them for similar tests and then promptly forgot them.

I knew the answer to all but two or three of the fifty multiple choice questions. But the question I really reflected on wasn’t on the test: when did I come to know the answer to these questions? How would I have done had I been given the test at age seventeen?

My guess is I learned the answers as a result of adult interests and reading. Why do we continue to test kids over such forgettable details? Watch the television show “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader” and see just how forgettable such facts are. In a recent episode, a successful orange grower, about 50-years-old, dropped out on his sixth question, which asked for the infinitive of the verb went. He had only gotten that far because the fifth graders had answered three questions for him. The program, in its second year, has yet to give away the million dollars. I’ve only seen one contestant get to the million dollar question, a female doctoral candidate in one of the hard sciences. The million dollar question, which she missed, asked for the name of the first person to fly faster that the speed of sound. Had she known the answer (Chuck Yeager), this would have been the only time in her life that knowing that fact would have been worth anything.

If we really want to know something important about a student’s intellect, don’t ask what important document Abraham Lincoln wrote. Give them a copy of the “Emancipation Proclamation” and ask them to write an essay explaining why it is important. Tell them that the Biblical Job was noted for patience and ask them to write a couple of paragraphs on why patience is a virtue. (First, it might help to let them read the book.)

This quizzing on facts comes about because it lends itself to the multiple choice question which is an efficient way of testing. However, the multiple choice question has led to students with intellects a mile wide and an inch deep. Modern standardize tests now incorporate some essay work, but it is very expensive to do, so multiple choice still predominates.

Do we want students who are good at memorizing facts for a test, only to forget them, or do we want students who, when given facts, can think and reason about them, students who understand process and problem solving?

Philosopher John Dewey (1859 – 1952) introduced the latter into American education in what was known as “progressive education.” Though I don’t care much for Dewey’s philosophy and his impact on modern education, he was right about this. Even as a high schooler, I knew that knowing where to find information was more important than knowing information. This has become even more true in an age when knowledge is increasing logarithmically and the ability to rapidly access facts is likewise increasing.

I recently substituted for a class of eleventh and twelfth graders. The teacher had left a copy of the Disney animated movie Ratatouille. It is the story of a rat who lives in the French countryside. He hates garbage and craves cuisine. He desires to be a chef and goes off to Paris. He connects with Linguini, a garbage boy in a restaurant. The two form a team so the rat can realize his dream. I got in on the second half of the movie, but quickly realized this was more than just a kids’ movie. It was indeed a serious message flick.

After the movie, I assigned the students to write an essay about the message of the movie. The complaints started as students think a substitute is suppose to let them have a “free” day. Aside from that, the big objection was that this was just a kids’ movie about a rat. They claimed there was no message there. They could have handled a multiple choice quiz about the producer, setting, main character, or title, but asking them for some understanding of the movie was too much.

Are you ignorant if you can run a graduate level biology experiment but don’t know the American Civil War was in the mid 1800’s or that Chuck Yaeger flew faster than the speed of sound? We each have different sets of facts we will need to know, but we all need to be able to reason, to solve problems and to understand our world. Unfortunately, our most expedient method of testing students does not always lend itself to testing a student’s ability to reason, so many of them become experts at trivia. And, all too often they are judged on the same ability or their lack thereof.

Don’t despair for this generation because they don’t know the setting of Tale of Two Cities. They are not ignorant if they don’t know what we know. Despair for them only if they don’t know what they need to know to operate in the world in which they must live.

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