Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Can You Blame Them?

by Kristine Weishaar

We often hear the phrase "teach to the test," but the phrase that needs our attention is "learn for the test."  Teachers are forced to teach to the test as a means of professional survival.  Likewise, students are forced to learn for the test for their own academic survival.  Public school teachers and students (and many administrators) are simply doing what they can to survive.  Not thrive.  Survive. 

Today's teaching professionals have been backed into a corner.  Stripped of resources, attacked by the media, blamed for social inequities, educators are forced to teach to the test.  If their students perform poorly on the mandated tests, the teacher's reputation and career are immediately jeopardized.  The teacher does what she must to survive; she teaches to the test.  Can you blame her?

Our current students and recent graduates have been trained in a culture of short-term learning to simply perform on a test.   They learn skills and content in isolation in order to score well on an exam.  They are not able to see how rudimentary skills and basic content can lead to higher level thinking and a deeper knowledge base because our system does not provide opportunity.  Students do not value their education because, quite frankly, the culture does nothing to encourage them. Today's students are simply trying to survive the system.  Can you blame them?

Teachers are trying to survive.  Students are trying to survive.  Do you remember a time when young people did more than survive?  When they wanted to learn?  I'm sure you do.  Think of a moment when you watched a young person "do" for the sake of doing and not for a test.  Here's an example: You give a three-year-old building blocks and ask him to build a tower, and he does.  Once we see that he has mastered the task, we don't take away the blocks and move on.  We let him build taller towers and bridges and fortresses and anything else he can imagine.  We are amazed at his ingenuity and discovery of balance and physics.  We allow him to explore and learn.  We also don't require all children to create the same tower at the same pace with the same materials  (or significantly fewer materials) because we know that would be unreasonable.  Besides, do we want only one type of tower in our culture?  Sometimes the child's towers fall.  But we don't blame him.  We know block towers will fall, and we give the child the time he needs to rebuild. 

Why then, do we ask school-age students in public schools to learn something, write (or bubble) it on a test, and then put it away forever?  Why then do we punish students and their teachers for doing what it takes to survive in this culture?  Why? Because we have put too much emphasis on the test.  In our current system, designed by politicians and profiteers, there is very little time for true teaching and learning.  Those in the trenches are merely trying to survive.  Not thrive.  Survive. Can you blame them?

Let's turn back the clock before it's too late.  Let's create a system where children have time to "do" for the sake of doing.  Learn for the sake of learning.  Build for the sake of building. Let's create a culture in which teachers are trusted to teach their students.   Teachers  are regarded as experts.  Teachers have authority in their classrooms.

We need to change the culture and the system. Teaching to the test doesn't work.  Learning for the test doesn't work. Given opportunity, teachers and students will learn to thrive again.  Will you still blame them then?

Kristine Weishaar

Oct. 14, 2013

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