Saturday, November 1, 2014

Journeys and Destinations

Yesterday was, of course, Halloween Party day in my wife's classroom. My wife teaches first grade, which is one more reason that I suspect she is some sort of earthbound goddess, except that there couldn't possible be enough earthbound gods and goddesses to account for all the elementary teachers out there.

As with most days, her job yesterday seemed to involve lots of Reassurance. Her students made a ghost out of paper plates and crepe paper strips, and where six year olds with scissors go, disappointment follows. And so, reassurance. Your ghost's mouth didn't turn out the way it was supposed to? It'll be okay. The strips somehow ended up different lengths? It'll be okay. You glued your ghost's arms where his hair is supposed to be? It'll be okay. And that's before she even gets to the Big Stuff-- a little guy was dropped at school without his costume for the big Costume Parade. His mom promised she'd drop it off at the school later. And he waited. And she didn't.

We're extra careful with newborns because their skulls aren't fully formed. Eventually those plates will become hardened and tough and fully protective, but for a while their little brains are just hanging out there, unprotected, vulnerable, and easily hurt.

Well, the same things is metaphorically true of young hearts, but the time frame is much longer. Eventually their protective covering will get hard and tough, but for the time being, their hearts are just hanging out there, unprotected, vulnerable, and easily hurt.

Some of her students arrive already equipped with a powerful fear of Being Wrong, and so she has to reassure them (because when six year olds have soooo much to learn, they do make mistakes). Because when you're afraid to make mistakes, you're afraid to try. It's a long journey, and if you have to stop and fret over every single step, the journey is awfully difficult.

So, reassurance. It's okay to make a mistake. It's okay to be wrong. We just keep trying. We haven't figured it out yet. We don't have it yet. We'll get it. It'll be okay. We're still growing.

It seems natural to explain that a wrong answer or a mistake or a scissor cut that doesn't go according to plan-- none of these things are the end of the world or an unbearable disaster. We'll pull ourselves together. We'll try again. We'll learn from this setback. Doesn't that sound like the message we'd want any six year old child to absorb?

It'll be okay. Let's pick ourselves up, dry our tears, try this again until we figure it out and make it work.

But it is, of course, the exact opposite of what is hard-wired into the test-and-punish regimen that reformsters are installing in schools. The gods and goddesses like my wife are picking kids up, setting them on their feet, drying their tears, telling them that they are alright and they can keep moving forward on their journey, but the reformsters are in these children's faces snarling, "Here's a test. You get one try. Get it right or you're a big fat failure." By the time they're eight, some states want to punish those kids with (proven ineffective) consequences for one set of wrong answers on a single standardized reading test.

It's not just educationally unsound. It's mean, hard-hearted unkindness meant to break children down instead of building them up.

It's not that I want to value the journey to the exclusion of the destination. Those of us who teach writing wrestle with this balance-- it's good to work on your process, your technique, your journey; but ultimately you have to produce a piece of writing and be judged on that result. I don't post rough drafts on this blog.

But when we're talking about fostering the growth of little humans, I believe we must value the journey over the destination, because that's life. Life is mostly journey, and what we think of as destinations are little rest stops along the way. Those stops, those achievement, those checkpoints are great and important and lord knows we don't want to drive around aimlessly and never arrive anywhere, but life is mostly the journey. Where we get is important; I'm not so sure that it's more important than how we get there.

So we have a duty to teach young humans about how to journey through life with strength and confidence and skill. We need to teach them how to grapple their way to solutions, how to attack and attack and attack again whatever problem faces them. And you know-- I don't even think that many reformsters disagree with what I'm saying. But you do not measure any of this with a single one-and-done one-right-answer-for-everyone standardized test. A snapshot test is all destination and no journey.

Despite test boosters claim to the contrary, there is nothing in life-- nothing-- that resembles the standardized test model. Your boss does not walk into your office and say, "Okay-- here's a problem I want you to solve. You have ten minutes. Your solution will determine whether I promote you or fire you." Someone does not walk up to you and say, "Hi, stranger. You have ten minutes to decide whether we should remain strangers or get married."  All right-- I take it back-- there are some things like a standardized test. We call them disasters, or tragedies. A dam breaks .A car crashes. A gunman walks into your school. Is that what standardized tests are supposed to prepare students for?

This is just one more way in which standardized tests utterly fail to measure any of the things we say we care about. Attaching high stakes to them only make them worse. When everything is riding on one set of answers to questions that you only get to wrestle with once, there is no absorbing data from the results and attacking again. There is no learning to grow from that moment. There's nothing but a declaration of winners and losers, and nothing that even the most powerful goddess can tell the losers that blunts the standardized stab at their open hearts.

The standardized test and punish system is not just anti-education. It's anti-human. Our children deserve better.


  1. I agree with your sentiments entirely. The increasingly violent gravitational forces in our US educational system are pulling our children face down. One would think it would be self-evident: that static, rigid answers can never replace the joy of wonder-ful exploration. My fave passage: "Those stops, those achievements, those checkpoints are great and important and lord knows we don't want to drive around aimlessly and never arrive anywhere, but life is mostly the journey."

  2. Once again you nailed it. Profound truth. Keep preaching it !

  3. My daughter and I once toured a Montessori school. Their whole philosophy seems to be to make the kids feel "big", as you say in your "Grit" post. That and letting the students discover things for themselves and develop at their own pace. It seems to me that's the way schools should be, especially elementary school.

  4. Another *wonderful* post. How ridiculous for K-12 schools, of all places, to be forced to demonize error. If kids never make mistakes, they're not learning – most importantly, they're not learning how to cope when things don't come out right. And, as you've said here and elsewhere, standardized tests don't even tell us anything anyway.
    Reformsters do not seem to grasp that tests are not examinations. An exam is a performance, a kind of audition, intended to see if a candidate can *join* a certain group (lawyer, actor, dancer, plumber, academic, whatever). I'm a big fan of exams, actually. But they don't serve students or teachers so much as they serve the professional integrity of whatever walk of life to which they offer an entrance visa.
    Bubble tests, on the other hand, can sometimes have some rough and ready value for teachers. A carefully-crafted test can sometimes help a teacher guess what's going on inside a student's mind. However, reformsters, please note this enormous, throbbing, multi-colored caveat: it is actually IMPOSSIBLE to know what is going on in another person's mind. If this concept remains difficult to grasp, try reviewing the entire history of empirical philosophy, and the works of Shakespeare.
    Anyway, the test no longer serves to see whether a student is ready for an examination: the test has *become* the examination. Students are being trained in performance styles that bear no resemblance at all, ever, in any way, to anything they will ever need to muster ever again.