Last month there was real educational news coming out of, amazingly, the White House—a sadly rare source for any news or commentary about teaching and learning.
The call coming from the administration was to cut back significantly on what has become an almost exclusive use of testing—testing of the standardized, multiple-choice kind—for the purpose of determining student achievement and evaluating teachers and schools.
Those of us educators in the private school sector have always known the entrapment that this preponderance of testing can mean for a school’s faculty. The public school classroom, our friends in that arena have been telling us for years, is too often a dry exercise, devoid of creativity and spontaneity, and a grind for teachers and students alike. Multiple choice focuses on a very narrow kind of skill, a skill that has no relationship with real investigation, research, and cogency of expression.
Assessments have to be enormously broader in scope and purpose than what has been mandated in the public school classroom: assessments can be about giving students a chance to research and investigate; a chance to show how to tackle a question and pursue an answer; a chance to explain to the class how you went about solving the problem. Here’s just one better idea—it’s called constructivist answers. Constructivist answers are the kind of answers that build from an initial step or even guess at the answer, and this kind of process involves shorter, but more numerous steps to get to the answer, like the series of proofs one may be asked to cite when solving a geometry problem.
The resentment teachers express about frequent testing is really about this: teachers are not able to shift gears in a classroom and dive into a subtopic that has caught the students’ attention and interest. Instead, when a spark of inspiration occurs, the test prep classroom teacher must halt the motivation at once in order to revert back to the drill. Nothing could be more agonizing.
The private school classroom teacher has been able to hone her/his practice of investigative, authentic learning, for a very long time now. Real teaching is about tapping into a student’s motivation, supporting the flow of curiosity, and capturing the joy of learning that can only come from autonomy and independence and the free spirit of inquiry.