There is a point to this post, and it has to do with standardized testing, technology, and the kind of learning that’s possible today. Bear with me…
Last night, as my family walked into the Durham Bulls stadium, I was asked — largely because of the Red Sox shirt I was wearing, I suspect — to participate in a “diaper derby” race. Once I agreed to join the fun, I signed a release and was instructed to come down to the field in the middle of the second inning, so I could race another father (one who was wearing a Tampa Bay Rays shirt, to contrast with my Red Sox shirt).
I’d seen this game before — the two of us would be racing to roll a baby stroller with a doll in it down to a waiting diaper. Once we got to the diaper, we were to put the diaper on the doll, and rush the stroller back to the starting point.
First dad back (with a properly diapered baby) wins.
We went down there in the middle of the second inning, and by the middle of the third inning they were ready for us. We were introduced on the field and got the “ready, set, go” instructions.
I lost — badly. In retrospect, I had a poor strategy, and did not think to take the baby OUT of the stroller. It would have been much easier to put the baby on the ground and change it there, as my competitor did.
By the time I finally got the diaper on my doll, I saw out of the corner of my eye that the other dad had already crossed the finish line. I rushed my stroller back as quickly as I could, and shook his hand.
The whole thing was a lot of fun, and my son got to go down to the field to watch his dad 🙂
Of course, one of my former students was in the stands, and he sent me this email:
Now for most people, that would be the end of the event. But as someone who can’t stop thinking about education in the 21st century, it occurred to me that our unthinking approach to standardized testing is similar to the unthinking way we two dads approached the “diaper derby” game without questioning its utility.
People told us to run the race, and we ran it. Some people win and some people lose. But if we step back and think for a moment, what good does it do you in the real world to change a diaper quickly, tossing an infant around by its limbs? Wouldn’t it be better to change the diaper thoughtfully and interact with the baby? Shouldn’t we treat the baby as an individual rather than simply race to get the baby from point A to point B?
In the “diaper derby” contest at the Bulls Stadium, there were NO stakes. I was not going to win or lose anything depending on how I performed. But there were nearly 3,000 people watching (according to the box score, the attendance was 2941 people). And as a result, I was a little nervous.
Imagine the pressure students today feel when they have to take a series of impersonal tests designed by someone else where the results DO matter. And their parents are watching the grades that come back online. Imagine how they might feel if they make a mental error equivalent to my leaving the baby in the stroller.
Can you imagine test prep centers popping up, teaching people how to change babies quickly? That may be a funny image, but I wonder how different it is from the test-prep industry that has grown up to help students pass the high-stakes tests we administer on a regular basis. Here’s a sample question I found by doing a quick search for sample SAT question.
What an artificial question! One answer that occurs to me is this: if I wanted to say that it’s an involved process to catch Alaskan snow crabs, and as a result, they cost a lot of money, I’d just say that. I think we could benefit as a society by speaking and writing in clear and concise English.
If for some reason, I wanted to use fancier words — such as “arduous” and “exorbitant” — I could look those words up using my iPhone (or equivalent device).
Here’s a crazy idea: many students today have iPhones (as you probably noticed above, my student sent that email from his iPhone), so why don’t we allow students to use those phones in testing situations? Could it be that a great deal of the stuff we ask of students on school assessments is the equivalent of asking for the attendance at the Bulls game?
The answer is: “I don’t care, but if I wanted to look it up, I could do so easily.” We live in a world of connected information. The point is to take the information and do something creative and meaningful with the information.
This SAT-type question does not test higher order thinking. It does, I suppose, test whether students know certain words — but there have to be better ways to test that information than this sort of question:
A more thoughtful question is whether we SHOULD be catching crabs in Alaska, and whether that’s a wise or sustainable practice. Let’s do some quick research:
There’s no “right” answer to the question of whether we should be fishing for crabs — and that’s what makes it an interesting question. Sadly, we’re stuck asking the questions we’ve been asking since 1914, when multiple choice tests were first introduced.
As Cathy Davidson, author of a great new book called Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn puts it in a recent blog post, multiple choice tests
… were invented for the industrial age, and for a model of efficiency exemplified by the Model T. We cannot keep educating kids for the efficiencies of 1914 (when the multiple choice test was invented). We must, if we are responsible, educate them for the world they already inhabit in their play and will soon inhabit in their work. The tests we require do not begin to comprehend the lives our kids lead.
We need to quit the diaper derbies and start treating our students like the capable young men and women they are. We need to challenge our students to do real work they care about. That’s the kind of work students will do at the school I will be opening in August 2013 here in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina (a region with one of the highest concentration of PhDs in the country).