Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Bubble Answers for an Essay World

I have had the same conversation multiple times in the last week. I have had it with elementary teachers, secondary teachers, someone who works with young teachers, someone who works with college students. The crux of the conversation is something like this:

I do not know what to do with these [persons]. They do not want to understand. They do not want to discuss or explore. They just want to know what they're supposed to say or do so they can give the right answer and be rewarded.

We talk a great deal, especially during Testing Season, about the short-term damage done by the Cult of Standardized Testing. The tears, the fears, the frustration, the damaged psyches, the wasted time, the sheer stupid uselessness of the test results.

But we also need to pay attention to the more insidious, more far-reaching long-term damage being done by the Cult of Testing. It is changing a generation's very concept of what education is, of what it means to be an intelligent person, of how a learned person engages the world.

Standardized testing creates its own model of the world. In Testing Land, all answers to all questions already exist, and a Learned Person is proficient at hunting them down and bringing them back. In Testing Land, everything is already known. In Testing Land, a good student is one who can say what the Testmakers want her to say.

In elementary school, students learn How To Take Tests, which includes learning How To Do What The Testmakers Want. Children have to be taught to stop exploring, stop following their curiosity, stop running off whatever direction their lively minds take them. Stop chasing butterflies; sit down at your desk and do this practice sheet. Stop telling stories in that rambling circuitous narrative manner of a child, and start making your paragraphs exactly-four-sentence-long paragraph.

By high school, students have learned the purpose of education-- to teach you how to pass The Test. And you do that by looking at the choices you're given and picking the Right One. You look at the constructed response question and you follow the Right Formula for turning it into the response that you are supposed to write. Cheating becomes more prevalent because it's not cheating-- the task is to Get The Right Answer and turn it in, not to understand or comprehend or grapple with your brain-muscles. Just turn in the right answers.

Do not think. Do not engage. Your own thoughts and opinions will only slow you down. Go find the right answer.

When these students arrive at college, they meet a new expectation. Do some research. Write a paper. And in the process, construct a new piece of information. Create and present some knowledge that has never been presented before. The college student gapes. The professor might as well say, "Glorp a fleegle in blurgdorple." The college student asks a thousand variations on the same basic question-- "What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to say?"

Some college programs are happy to provide that kind of lockstep guidance, and education programs, because they are preparing teachers for this Brave New Bubble World, are among the worst.

Folks, there are teachers out there in classrooms who have never created a single original teaching unit in their careers. They have taught from the book. They have used the packet of materials. When they need a worksheet or study guide, they go get one from the internet (students appreciate this a great deal because it makes it so easy to Get The Right Answer).

We are producing a generation of Bubblers, people whose understanding of understanding is bizarrely stunted. Yes, I know these sorts of students have always been with us, and I know old farts like me have always complained [insert Socratic quote about Kid These Days here]. But this is different.

We deliver nods to synthesis, curiosity, inquiry, exploration, the full range of Bloom-- but not really. We talk about higher order critical thinking skills-- but as only as techniques for divining what One Answer must be Bubbled. By presenting higher order thinking as just a way to solve the bubbling problem, we are systematically shutting down curiosity, inquiry, exploration, synthesis, construction, intellectual independence-- and it is working! At every level, we are seeing more and more people who are falling into lockstep, and not because they have been beaten into it, but because they think that's how it's supposed to be.

Life is not a bubble test. It's rich and complex and only reveals its full intricacy when observed from a million different vantage points. We are losing that, and as a culture we are poorer for it. I know that the education debates are often given to hyperbole, but I truly believe that when we fight the Cult of Testing, we aren't just fighting for quality of education, but for the very spirit and soul of what it means to be human, to understand and be in the world.


  1. Teachers don't want to protect bad teachers but our unions protect every teacher - good or bad. I work in a large urban/suburban district and the only teachers that ever get fired are those caught having sex with minors. Powerful administrators are capable of having bad teachers transferred to other schools within the district (how nice), but that's it.

  2. Wells Ford, your union has astonishing power; few unions can do more than guarantee due process for teachers. I guess one could bemoan the strength of your local, but I'd celebrate it, myself, knowing that there are many states that are busting teachers' unions right now. You are very lucky indeed.

  3. I can not believe I am just now finding this piece. You have wonderfully explained the core problem to our test, test, test culture in schools. Thank you! -Corey Holland, Cache High School Principal Cache, Oklahoma