It's back to school time in America. As you read this article, millions of kids are inhaling the scent of recently bleached floors, doodling on their first spiral-bound pages and smiling -- or snarling -- at petrified, seasoned or cynical teachers. They may already be preparing for their first tests of the year. You remember those days. If you concentrate hard enough you might even hear Mrs. Decker say with her commanding September tone:
"Take out a sheet of paper. Number it one through 10. Books under your desk."
Ahhh, there it is. Now you remember. Think about all those tests you took. Remember Pip and Miss Havisham? How about the state bird of North Dakota? You can't recall them? But they were so important. They were, literally, on the test. You know, the test that your parents got you to study for by trapping you in a corner and threatening eternal summer school. Yes, that's the one.
As we nudge, herd and prod our kids toward the limestone facades or semi-permanent trailers and across the academic threshold for another school year, perhaps it is worth taking the time to consider how we evaluate our students.
First, some disclosure: I am a huge believer in education. It is in my bones and blood. Both of my parents were schoolteachers, and I went through more years of schooling than I would wish on anyone or care to disclose. I believe that educating our kids is the answer to many of the problems that the world faces today. It is the solution, not the problem. Most schoolteachers are dedicated, hard-working professionals who are committed to their students, so they are also part of the solution. The problem is the way we, as a society, think about and especially assess our kids' competence.
Using tests to assess our kids' memory of rote facts may have been important in the pre-industrial or possibly even the industrial era, but not now. Thanks to the Internet and, especially to Google, information is abundant and cheap (much like corn used to be). Facts and knowledge are easy to come by for anyone with access to a computer. As a result of this bounty, fact-based knowledge is just not that critical. What matters is not what we know but what we do with the available information. How we manage, combine and make use of knowledge is what makes the difference. Using test after test to assess students' memory for who was buried in Grant's Tomb doesn't help them and, in many cases, it scars.
As a clinical psychologist, I have seen dozens of patients who were harmed by the academic system; people who think that they are not "smart" because they did not test well in school. Many of these people have been tremendously successful in other areas of their lives but have felt inferior or fraudulent because they were not particularly good at rote memorization. Other patients I have seen got top marks but became addicted to the next good grade. The traditional focus on testing taught them that you need to get an "A" or something is very wrong. This focus on grades as products rather than on learning as a process leaves people feeling vulnerable when they hit a bend in the road.
The fact is that we forget most of the facts that we cram into our heads to prepare for tests. Instead, what many of us get from school is the false message that some of us are smart and some of us are dumb, that remembering a few pieces of well-placed information is significant when the reality is that it's not.
The real skills that we need to teach our kids are how to use knowledge in new, innovative ways and to adapt to new circumstances. Teaching our kids to think creatively and instilling in them the confidence to listen to the voice inside of them that is pushing them forward in their lives is how we can best prepare them for an unpredictable future in an ever-changing global landscape.
Creativity and confidence are the secret to success. They always have been, and they always will be. Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg and Mark Zuckerberg aren't gazillionaires because they're smart. There are plenty of destitute smarties out there. What separates these people from the rest is that they used their imaginations and had the courage to see their vision through while the rest of the world caught up to them.
We need to focus on teaching our kids process instead of product. Many times the correct answer is less important than how the student thinks about the problem. Yes, it is easier to measure if the student got the problem right or wrong, but is it more useful to the student? There are plenty of bright, creative thinkers out there who, right this very minute, are being taught that they are wrong because they can't do the problem the way they are supposed to. This shuts down kids' thinking about themselves and their problems expansively and creatively.
Lets teach our kids that what matters is not good grades or test scores but what they can see with their mind's eye. That is what is truly important for them and for the generations to come. If you are a teacher or administrator, consider ways to focus your assessment on your students' process, style and creativity instead of just their memory. If you are a parent or a grandparent, get involved by encouraging change through your local PTA. If you are a student, keep on learning, creating and most of all trusting that voice inside of you. It's smarter than you know.
If we stop preparing our kids for a bygone era by prepping them for the next test on state capitals and instead promote their creative thinking skills and self-confidence, then we will have prepared them for the most important test of all: the test of life.