While at a campus I serve recently, I had a conversation that is being repeated a lot in education right now. We discussed the importance of giving our kids the opportunity to participate in a rich array of learning experiences. We talked about the importance of students using technology. The teacher with whom I spoke got an “amen” when she bemoaned the lack of art in the daily lives of students. We spoke of how powerful, engaging, and meaningful these things were, and how they made students want to attend school. We also talked about research that proves the value of such experiences in producing well-rounded, thinking kids who also, by the way, ace those ever-present tests. We talked about how everyone already knows all of these things.

Yet, walk into the average classroom, (particularly the older students get), and what do you find? Very often, you find good teachers and good kids undertaking routine, meaningless tasks. You see worksheets, lectures, and drills. Writing is by formula, as are math and science. History is reduced to memorizing dates or parrotting theme statements. Art and music are…well…down the hall in the kindergarten class (Although some are beginning to advocate eliminating that “fluffy” nonsense.). You see high-quality educators engaging in low-quality tasks with a dogged, single-minded purpose: to get students to pass the tests.

The value of these assessments won’t be debated here. That they are our present and near future reality is beyond debate. We can love them or hate them, but they are in every classroom, staring at us from the middle of the front row. How we respond to them, however, is not set in granite, and this is where we are too often falling short. We attend workshops, read books, and listen to keynote speakers with charming anecdotes and impressive statistics, and we believe. We believe that, when we make learning about solving big problems, working with teams of other learners, creating and sharing beautiful products with a global audience, our kids will succeed on those tests. They will succeed because they have already done tougher things on a routine basis. They will succeed because the research says they will.

Our beliefs, however, falter under the weight of today’s high-stakes system. The pressure to see our kids perform well on formulaic, standardized assessments leads us to implement formulaic, standardized instruction. When the goal is for all students to achieve the same things at the same time, we sacrifice the engaging and individualized learning opportunities in favor of whole-group, single-minded tactics.

There are 2 alternatives:

  1. Continue down the current path, achieving the desired test scores for most, but sacrificing individual needs and real motivation to learn.
  2. Change our tactics, having faith that the research is sound, and believing that kids learn best when engaged in meaningful, powerful tasks, and the tests will take care of themselves.
I believe the ability and desire to take the second path is in the heart of the vast majority of educators. We want to see our kids accomplish great things, develop their unique abilities, and become equipped with knowledge and skills that far exceed those of the tests. To achieve this requires us to rally together and attack our work as a unified team. It requires us to seek out opportunities to learn and grow in our profession, to master the art of teaching. And it requires us to take risks. Of course, the research says the risks are not real, only perceived, so we first have to really believe.

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