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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Days of Future Passed or Failed?

While the U.S. Department of Education increasingly sets its sites on the mastering of test-based knowledge as a measure of individual student success, teacher quality and international competitiveness, testing-obsessed countries like China have begun to see some value in trying to promote creativity, once a hallmark of an American education.

I think a fair amount about the role of invention in history.  I think about how new ideas and new technology have powered us forward.  I think about how distant cultures must have developed similar solutions to similar problems, independent of one another.  I think about how other solutions passed along trade networks or traveled with migrant populations.  How great it must have been to bring a totally new and helpful idea to a new part of the world, second best only to being the actual inventor of the idea!  You'd be a veritable Johnny Appleseed of progress.  You might even become a rock star of the Stone Age!  Almost everything we have and everything we take for granted today grows out of someone's solution to a problem in history.  Of course, some solutions lead to more problems, and the need for yet more solutions.  Let me not mention the common-core and its testing here...

I do believe there are just as many new solutions that need to be found, if we would only concentrate our energies in their direction.  Instead, we are distracted.  We waste time, effort, and money on frivolous things that may do little more than solve the problem of boredom or keeping up with the Jones.  You don't see many advertisements on TV for finding solutions to the problems that plague the world, do you?  There was a time in the early Seventies when things seemed different.  You could walk into any record store and purchase advertisements for seeking solutions.

If we really set our sites on using education to solve these problems, how different our educational landscape might look!  The high-stakes tests and rigorous prep that they engender would have to go.  Instead of painting 70% of kids as failures, we could paint them as solution seekers.  If kids are only interested in their labors, they will work to succeed.  They will not do the same in the name of a test that has been designed to take them down.  There is little interesting, at least in my opinion, about prepping for dear life with a metaphoric gun to the head.  I don't care what anyone says, focusing on test prep does not promote creativity.  It is a sorry distraction.

If we want to promote creativity, I would think we would need more classes in which students complete projects of choice that address real-world concerns.  I would think knowledge of current events (even those which are too recent to be put on a test) would be imperative.  I would think the great majority of multiple-choice questions would be banished from the realm.  Kids would be asked open-ended questions.  Opinions (which cannot be easily graded) would need to figure in heavily.  I would think the arts, painting, drawing and music would need to be stressed.  A creative classroom would demand a creative teacher. 

The classroom which thrives in the realm of creativity would look nothing like my classroom any given day in May or June when I am asked to Regents prep kids for dear life, for my life, for that of my administrators, for the school and, coincidentally, for the students, too.  It's sad because this is just the time of year when learning should culminate in something potentially meaningful to society.  If the creativity of students and teachers was fully unleashed, there could be some truly great projects.  Teaching kids to connect the Gupta with the number zero and Bismarck with Blood and Iron on the Regents somehow falls far short of that.   

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