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The Dark Side of Acing the Tests

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Some years ago I had an email exchange with Jerome Bruner, one of the best-known and influential psychologists of the 20th century. I have forgotten what I asked him, but I'll never forget his response (which was unrelated to my question).

Noting that I was the head of a school, he took the opportunity to unleash a dignified diatribe, summarizing what he believed to be the greatest flaws in educational practice. He did not comment on the insidious effects of race and class on education, although I'm quite sure he had a separate diatribe available on that subject. He wrote about the supposedly "best" schools, public and private, where students appear to be highly successful.

Bruner's primary concern was that children are being pressed to do too much too soon. The negative effects of early academic work are several fold, he stated. Young children are too often asked to do things for which they are developmentally unready. This leads to frustration, stress and a potential aversion to learning. More debilitating, the early introduction of so-called academic work has a conditioning effect, perhaps unintended, but very powerful. Gradually, children in what we now call "high stakes" learning situations, whether at school or home, are conditioned to see learning as, and only as, the process of delivering the "correct" response to the powerful adult in whose presence they find themselves.

Children like to please parents and teachers. If extrinsic and intrinsic rewards are conditioned on giving "right" answers, children will indeed work hard to figure out what the adult will accept as the "right" answer. The process is self-perpetuating as the rewards are compounded over time. When strongly conditioned to see learning this way, qualities like imagination, skepticism, eccentricity, originality, invention and creativity will be extinguished. These are unreliable mechanisms for discerning "right" answers.

Bruner observed, as have I and countless others, that the end game of this iteration of education is seen in many of the incurious, grade-grubbing, high-achieving students spawned over the past few decades. They have been conditioned to examine readings with the primary, perhaps sole, intention of discerning what will be on the test. They accept and embrace the textbook's algorithms and all their tidy steps as the "right" and only way to approach a mathematical or scientific puzzle. They take in mounds of information, never questioning, but skillfully filtering out the key words, dates, facts and characters that someone else deems important, so they may give the "right" answers on the next examination. They prep well for their SATs, study efficiently for AP exams and please their adult teachers and parents very, very much.

They believe they have all the answers and have never been invited to or dared to ask a question. They really don't know much at all. And they are, tragically and too frequently, desperately unhappy. Stanford's Denise Pope has written eloquently about this phenomenon as "doing school" well, a malady that leads many young women into a neurotic quest for perfection, accompanied by eating disorders and depression. They have learned to please everyone but themselves.

If this is true among privileged kids, imagine the corrosive power it must be having on the less-advantaged children in public education, where early pressure and constant testing are now the norm. There is no time for questions. There is only time to pour in the information and demand that "right" answers are elicited on bland, standardized tests.

I've visited some of the schools that are held up as exemplars of educational reform. In contrast with some of the more militaristic charter schools I've written critically about, the students in the schools I visited were not sad or humiliated. They were, as Bruner observed, eager to please, dressed well, attentive. The teachers were young and eager to please too. The pedagogy was well-rehearsed. Precise lesson plans, a set of contrived gestures and phrases, aimed at getting quick, compliant responses. Rapid-fire call and response. Get the right answer! Get the right answer!

Some of these children will get lots of right answers and will thereby come to believe the promise of attending a prestigious college that hangs on their school's walls. But none among them will be educated, at least not in school. They will forget most of the questions they were asked and they will forget most of the answers too. But they will fervently believe they were educated because, after all, they gave the answers the adults expected. Then, sadly, that shallow veneer will be painfully peeled away layer after layer as they encounter the demands of real scholarship and real work.

It is tragic and ironic that in the name of educational reform the qualities we most desperately need in our citizens and leaders are being extinguished in a generation of children.