Learning and Testing

Amy has a snippet of a longer article about education:

Suppose you are a student in a high school or college course and a magic fairy offers you the following choice: (1) You will learn the material in the course well, but will get a low grade (a D). Or (2) you will not learn the material at all, but will get a high grade (an A). Which would you choose? Be honest.

Let’s get real, here. If you have a class full of kids who are “learning the material in the course well” but averaging Ds on their tests, it would be a sign that THE TEACHER SUCKS AT WRITING TESTS. Aka, whatever is being used as a grading metric is WRONG. It’s producing a false signal that the students are not learning, when in fact they are. And let me tell you, putting students into that kind of situation breaks them. I happen to know, because my sister-in-law recently suffered through a class exactly like that in nursing school. Among the many tales from that class was this: a test question in which the teacher modified the answer so that the “correct” one contradicted the textbook. My father has a story about a college professor whose Shakespearean lit class routinely failed his quizzes, and how the professor came to him in confusion, saying, “I know from your class participation that you really do know the material, but your Ds on the quizzes are the highest grade in the class!” (I don’t think Clueless Professor ever really got that it was his quiz questions that were the problem.)

In any situation in which you are learning something that the rest of society needs you to learn well (and not, say, studying model airplanes or freshwater aquaria on your own time as a hobby), there is going to be some kind of test in which you will prove how much or how well you have learned. This was true of the apprentice carpenter five hundred years ago as it is true of students today. So don’t spout some bullshit about “learning the material well and getting Ds” because in the case where that does happen – and I will admit that it does indeed happen – it is a sign that “the system is broken” in that whoever is designing the tests is failing to design them to return the proper signal – “the students have learned the material.”

There are issues with our education system. There are a lot of places where improvement is needed. There are even a lot of issues with testing, grade inflation, etc. But a class in which you got Ds despite learning the material? That’s just as screwed up a scenario as the one I encountered as a math tutor last year. The students were learning algebra, and the course had been touted to parents as one that would teach their children to truly understand the math concepts involved rather than simply have them memorize what to do when confronted with a particular type of problem. Lo and behold, the first test came around, and the students all got Ds or worse on it, because they didn’t understand the concepts. (I saw the test personally, so I can attest that someone with a mastery of the concepts involved would have been able to pass the test. It was a good test. I’ve seen some bad ones, too, but that one was clear.) Rather than repeating the material so that the students would gain understanding, the teacher simply scratched the results of that test and gave them a different test, with the typical, simplified kind of question in which a student who had memorized a certain series of steps to take when confronted with a familiar type of problem would be able to pass it. Lo and behold, the children then passed the test.

Did they understand the beauty of the mathematics behind what they were doing? Nope. Not at all. Could they have done well when confronted with a math test like the SAT, which requires a level of abstract, logical thinking that must be taught to students? Most likely not. Not all students can operate on that level of thinking at the same time in their development – with the best will in the world, some kids Just Can’t Get It for a long time. There’s a place for rote memorization – and I’m not ashamed to admit that in calculus, I relied on rote memorization until finally one day the lightbulb went on and I understood what was happening, and why it worked. (I think I was in Calc II when that happened. “Fake it til you make it” does work sometimes. That experience also showed me that most formulas are shorthand for math experts and probably shouldn’t be taught to math students at the introduction to any concept.)

The education that I received included homeschooling as well as typical classroom work; and I had a lot of parental involvement even when I was in a traditional school setting. I learned on pain of three-hour lectures from my father to always try to figure out what I was doing wrong on my math work by carefully studying the textbook before I asked him to help me. Yes, they really were three hours long. But they were three hours long because he was teaching me why it worked the way it did; try doing that in a classroom setting! (Not that he didn’t also require me to have my times tables memorized and be able to pass a speed drill with zero mistakes. It took a lot of practice but that kind of thing is absolutely necessary as well.)

So what about the democratic system that Peter Gray links to? Sounds interesting. Kind of like “unschooling” in fact – Sudbury Valley is unschooling on an institutional level, and even without reading more about them, I think it could work, because of the social interaction and variety of resources available to the children. I also wonder how expensive Sudbury Valley is. It certainly sounds like a much better daycare/child control option than public schools.


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