April 4, 2020
The End of Business as Usual
We live in a new epoch. The time for doing a thing, simply because we’ve always done it, or because everyone else is doing it, is now over. This is the punctum saliens intersecting every aspect of society: economics, religion, science, politics, psychology, and, yes, education.
When human activity operates against scientific principle, the universe will tolerate it for only so long. When an economic system places productivity in the service of money, rather than the other way around, it can only last until the productive capacity has been sucked dry. When a nation’s healthcare system is fundamentally based on cost analysis, then the price of protecting human life becomes too dear, resulting in a shortage of hospital beds, an engineering and fast-tracking of devices and drugs to please shareholders, and a failure to sustain a functioning society during a pandemic. When an education system bases the entirety of learning on quantitative analysis through an ever-increasing stream of standardized tests, the reasoning capacity of a population begins to break down.
Business as usual is over. The system has buckled under a microscopic organism, not because the organism is so sinister and so powerful, but because the flawed foundations of the system have reached their breaking point. The proverbial straw has added an iota of weight that is just too much to bear.
Just a few weeks before school was prematurely closed for the year, math and English teachers in my school were being asked to administer even more district-created multiple-choice tests. Some of these tests could take up to three days for students to finish, and were in addition to other required growth assessments, unit tests, and academic progress indicators (all of these being euphemisms for standardized tests). All in all, about two months of the school year would have been spent on taking tests to produce data that could be submitted to the state.
The rationale for increased testing went something like, “The only way to make sure students are mastering standards is to measure their performance as often as possible in order to provide remediation and then check for mastery again by testing.” While assessments are obviously essential to analyze student performance, a few basic facts tend to spoil the “more tests” rationale:
- students do not learn while testing
- the more time is spent on testing, the less time there is for remediation
- students do not (and should not) see the goal of learning to be a test
- students lose intrinsic motivation during gaps in instruction (i.e., during extended and repeated periods of testing)
- the majority of teachers feel rushed in their pacing of content, which inhibits deep and rich learning experiences
- as a result of teachers rushing through content, students also feel rushed and experience a shallow grasp of material
- teachers, as professionals, are demeaned and belittled when their expert sphere of student assessment and analysis is increasingly encroached upon by mandates from above
- test questions are too often semantic tricks than genuine assessments of mastery
As far as the 2019-20 school year goes, this is no longer an issue.
The school year’s sudden and early end has posed a major problem for the data-obsessed education system. “How will we know what the students learned? How will we know what they didn’t learn? How can we fill out spreadsheets and submit reports? How can we show growth?” These questions are so concerning to the state and district that they are considering administering the end-of-year state tests to students at the beginning of next school year (in addition to the end-of-year state tests they will have to take at the end of next school year).
It is, for them, business as usual: “How can we get those tests in? How can we get the data?”
Of what benefit would this be to students? They will have missed three months of school due to a plague, compounded by a lapse in learning during summer break. Will taking more standardized tests in the beginning of the new school year help this situation?
The point here is not whether or not the plan to test at the beginning of the school year is implemented. The point is that they have even considered it, making it abundantly clear that data reporting has taken precedence over the development of students’ minds. The need to force student growth into a pre-test/post-test mold is somehow more important than the need to help students fill their learning gaps.
Yet, as we all pause our lives to varying degrees and are tossed headlong into reflection, the leaders in education are also being forced to reflect. Will this be, business as usual? Will students still be treated like machines, to be programmed, quantified, and reprogrammed? Or will the hard, basic questions of education be contemplated: What is learning and what is it for? How do students learn? How can genuine understanding of content be assessed? How can we create a culture of learning that is on par with the foremost countries in education? How can a love of learning be cultivated?
Times like this are fertile for new growth, systemic change, for shifting focus to what really matters. It is an historic point from which to leap toward what we’ve known is right all along. It could also be a time for despair, a yearning for safety and control, a mad grasp at business as usual. The choice is ours.
March 9, 2020
Ah, da Vinci! He has taken on an apprentice—no, a whole cadre of apprentices—to share his lifetime’s work: a beautiful network of discoveries and technique that can only be handed down by recreating, in the mind of his learners, those same experiences which occurred during the moments of discovery within his own mind. Da Vinci, the weathered master, whose notebooks barely begin to reveal the depth and breadth of his grasp on the universe, prepares his initiates for the mysterium cosmographicum. How—if we deal simply with the art of painting—can he relay to his students the way the eye takes every point of light and inverts it into a whole, and flips it again, to create visual perception? How can he teach the nature and extent of perspective, the gradations of sharpness and color as objects grow distant, the effects of different light on objects and their shadows, the inherent geometric progressions in the growth of living things, the animistic liveliness of inert things, the foundational structures of the human body, the arcs of motion and their conveyance in the placement of figures, and their pose, in a composition? How, by heaven’s name, can he pass down the mastery of foreshortening—a technique that flies in the face of realism to create that which is more real?
Carefully. Methodically. Intuitively. He must know his apprentices better than they know themselves. He must build up their knowledge, like he built his own, but with more precision and efficiency (for now he can see the whole plan at once). He guides them through years of practice, lands them into intentional mistakes, grows them like the lotus in the mud. His pupils begin to catch glimpses of a hidden world as they strive toward the practices he requires of them. Though no one will be a da Vinci, da Vinci knows they are growing into themselves, all the better for what he has bequeathed to them.
Then, suddenly, a patron of the arts comes along. “Leonardo,” he says, “we need results. We need more paintings—paintings like the ones you’ve done for us. We have a guaranteed technique, developed by successful artists in the north. It is called paint-by-number. It produces exactly the same results you have given us, but quicker, and with more consistency. Moreover, it is reliable, predictable, and easy to teach. It is, Mr. Da Vinci, the epitome of financial stability and success for an artist. We will now require you to use this technique with your students.”
“But,” begins da Vinci, but he doesn’t finish. There is no use.
And what is the use of you, dear teacher, who are reading this, trying to argue against methods that get results--methods that are proven, reliable, and consistent?
Education with a Purpose
ducation should be a natural and joyful part of life, yet considered with careful deliberation. For on it depends one's personal future and the entire course of society.