Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Educator Dan Rosen Weighs in On the SAT's vs. 21st-Century Learning

Welcome Guest Blogger, Rabbi Daniel Rosen, English teacher at The Frisch School. Rabbi Rosen weighs in on SAT's, 21st-century learning and RealSchool's T-shirt campaign.

Geste Post

Before you say anything, geste is a word. I looked it up. Yes, it is archaic, but these days, who isn't?

Education is a tricky thing. I just taught you something and it probably didn't hurt, mostly because you didn't know that you were being taught and you needed the information I presented in order to appreciate fully the title of this blog post. Usually, education is painful. Learning about math and science and junk-like facts that haven't happened in 200 years seems like a waste of time. And having a teacher in the classroom telling the students that so much of this stuff is somehow relevant and useful, when we all know it isn't, doesn't help.

So why do we do it? Why do we memorize the Bill of Rights, or learn how to speak Lithuanian? I say what I am about to say only half facetiously: We don't need to learn stuff if we have the external brain that is the internet to present us with this knowledge at a moment's notice. Facts become a waste of brain cells. Now, I have railed, recently, against this idea of handing over the keys to our intellect to the virtual world. I don't like the idea that people have changed and now need to have data presented differently. But the fact is, it used to be necessary to know how to use a slide rule, but since technology has outmoded that skill, we rarely teach their use any more. So if we are talking about an evolution in education, one which allows the number crunching and data aggregation to be the task of the CPU on some server farm, and one which makes it OK, even desirable for a student to have his "head in the cloud" (HA!), then what is the role of the human brain?

The answer is "collaborative problem solving." Students don't need to memorize facts but to learn how, and more importantly, when, to access the facts and use them. Giving students real-world challenges and situations which ask them to APPLY information might prepare them more accurately for the real world. But why aren't we doing this? Why are things like project-based learning still sputtering at the starting gate? The answer is a basic three-word phrase:

ess aiye tee

The SAT and other standardized tests do not ask students to think and apply. They do not challenge students to use information. True, they don't ask for pure spit-back of knowledge (well, some other tests do) but they don't ask for the synthesis of any new ideas, only for recall and simple inferences. By the way,  since I'm an English teacher, I'm talking about the Verbal sections. Apparently, there is math on the test, but I can't rail against something I don't understand.

And, to make matters worse, the world acts (for a brief window of time from March of 11th grade to November of your sophomore year of college) that the SAT grades matter. That you can be compared to others based on your scores and that anyone from the outside can quantify your skills and potential based on how well you bubbled in some circles. 

The backlash is here, though.

We are selling shirts in the school where I work which read "I Am More Than a Test Score." I'd like to think that a few shirt sales should resolve the entire issue of the underlying structure of our educational system, but I have my doubts.

First, to colleges, I am more than just a test score. I am a test score and an application fee. Sometimes a photo.

Second, I may be exactly a test score, but it depends on the test. Like a blood test? Yep, that's me all right.

And third, I'm significantly less than a test score. I did really well on the SAT's and consider that to have been my academic peak. I haven't approached that ever since. I WISH I could be my test score.

And fourth, consider the small child whose parents, due to an unfortunate misunderstanding, named him "Test Score." There are over 100 results for the last name "Score" in the US. Some kid will be judged as a Test Score because he wants to be. Who am I do say I am better than he is.

So, in sum, what I want you to take from this entry is "current state of education, bad, technologically aided shift de-emphasizing fact gathering and accentuating coordinated application and problem solving skills, good, T-Shirts, potentially offensive but useful at creating cool tan lines.