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Laura Flores Shaw Headshot

Opt Out of More Than Just Standardized Tests

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On National Opt Out Day, let's opt out of more than just standardized tests. Let's opt out of all formal tests in the elementary years. Tests, in the vast majority of conventional primary schools, inadvertently turn the classroom into a memorization and recall machine. The result is students who are focused on how to do school well -- not on learning and developing their minds.

This was certainly the case for me. I don't remember much of the content of school, but I remember knowing how to do school well. Years of weekly testing taught me how to predict test questions and memorize answers to those questions. This is a useful skill, but it made school about memorization and recall rather than deep learning. In fact, there was no time for deep learning.

When I went to college, it was pretty clear that many of the other students felt the same way about school. I met very few students in college who were actually interested in problem solving or critically synthesizing information. It seemed only older students (like myself!) who had been away from the memorization and recall machine for some years were interested in truly learning. Most students just wanted know what would be on the exam so they could memorize those answers and get their "A."

It doesn't have to be this way. Recently, I asked my seven- and nine-year-old children, who attend a Montessori school with no tests or homework, what school was about. "School is about fun!" they exclaimed.

I know. You're probably thinking, "Any kid who attends one of those free-for-all Montessori schools is going to think school is fun. But I want my kids to learn."

My kids are learning. In fact, how can they not? All brains come into the world wanting to learn. My kids just happen to still think that learning is fun. Why? Because they don't have the stress and anxiety that comes with test taking (or homework, for that matter), which is the heart of the memorization and recall machine.

In Montessori elementary programs (ages 6-12), "testing" means to test yourself to see if you really do know those math facts or recent words you've added to your personal spelling dictionary. But the teachers don't actually need formal tests to know if the children have mastered material because the teachers are always assessing. Small group lessons, one-on-one interactions, observations of the children -- all of these, coupled with the fact that a student will be with the same teacher for three to six years (depending on the Montessori school) means that the teacher knows your child well. She knows what he learns easily and what he struggles with, both academically and socially/emotionally. This learning is truly personalized.

And because Montessori students are not assessed through testing, the children have time to engage in what Dr. Mihály Csikszentmikály calls "flow" states -- states of deep concentration -- rather than being directed to a different subject every 40 minutes and tested every week. Thus, as my children work throughout their day, engaging in hands-on activities, which are far more interesting to the brain than passive instruction, a little bit of dopamine is released in their brains. And that dopamine makes learning feel like fun. It also helps them retain what they learn.

Visit a Montessori school, and you'll see the children happily working -- all day. Work, in this environment, is not a bad four-letter word. This is why so many Montessori parents report that their children assign themselves "homework," like practicing science experiments in the kitchen, or giving themselves the goal of reading four books a week. Learning for them is still fun because they think school is about fun.

We have to remember that the conventional schools that dominate our educational landscape are based upon a factory efficiency model, not human development. This memorization and recall machine wasn't even designed by teachers. Instead, administrators, yielding to the demands of industrial reformers over 100 years ago, designed it. And those "reformers" weren't interested in nurturing young brains. They were interested in efficiently creating factory workers.

But school doesn't have to be this way just because it has been for over 100 years.

Every child should think school is about fun. For that to happen we need more than reform -- we need education to transform. But real transformation isn't going to happen from the top down, as too many profit from the machine as it's been built. This transformation will only happen from the bottom-up.

Parents of the Opt Out Movement: You can do even more! Demand a stop to all tests that drive the memorization and recall machine. Let's help our young children learn more than how to do school well.