Earlier this week I was talking to a group of college students and, not uncharacteristically, expounded on my unconventional views about education. “Learning should build on students’ passions, emphasize 21st century skills such as critical thinking and creativity, and maximize hands-on projects and minimize lecturing and rote memorization,” I argued. “Our current education system is a product of the 20th century industrial economy and is becoming rapidly obsolete.”
One of the college students responded, “how is that education method you propose supposed to be measured and bench marked?” It was the right question at the wrong time.
In any challenge we undertake we should first figure out the best strategy for addressing the challenge and then figure out how to measure success. Very often we do the exact opposite. We are confronted with a challenge and gravitate to the solution that’s easiest to measure. We become like the man who thinks he lost his car keys on the dark side of the street but spends all of his time looking for them on the side where’s there’s light. We avoid solving hard problems because the outcomes are not as immediate or obvious. We do the measurable rather than the effective.
Education is especially prone to doing the things that are easiest to test and benchmark. Rote memorization, for example, is easier to assess than creativity and critical thinking, even though the latter are more important. So schools give tests that assess the ability to memorize. History class largely still values instant recall of King Charles II over a deep conceptual understanding of the emancipation.
College admissions only exacerbate the test driven mania at the high school level. Colleges need an efficient way to select kids, and have come to rely on SAT test and grades. With college-obsessed parents on their case, high schools then structure learning to prepare kids to do well by those measures, and pay short shrift to harder to measure higher order thinking skills.
Kids who don’t test well pay a terrible price for the measurement bias. When the goal is to get the kid’s scores up rather than increase her passion for learning, we end up educating her in the wrong way. We rush to bring her to grade level and forget that the first priority should be to instill love of learning and discovery. We treat her like a number.
The testing craze does a huge disservice to the late bloomer, who may not be on the 18 or 22 year plan. Just look around at the boys in a typical 9th grade classroom. Some look like they are old enough to order an alcoholic beverage at a restaurant and others look like they still watch Spongebob. Kids are on different schedules both in their physical and intellectual development. Measuring a child compared to others in his same age bracket undervalues the slow developer, who is branded as less intelligent or an underachiever because he didn’t measure up when he was 15.
If we develop a better education strategy based on how kids actually learn and allow for diverse learning styles, we’ll figure out over time what and how to measure. We can attempt to measure how certain teaching techniques work for certain kids. We can try to assess critical thinking capacity and creativity. We can even use some of the current standardized test methodologies, knowing that they simply give us potentially useful information about where kids are rather than a basis of comparing performance with the Chinese or evaluating the performance of schools and teachers.
Until we put the strategy ahead of the measurement, we’ll be doing--and measuring--the wrong things.